Tag Archives: Roots

The Seinfeld Pop Culture Literacy Quiz

Two weeks I did a post that was in part about pop culture references on 30 Rock. I certainly enjoy their frequent nods to all-things-geeky, but my heart belongs to Seinfeld. While 30 Rock creator Tina Fey tends to be meta in her approach, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David just love using their favorite films and TV shows as punchlines, especially references to old comedians, which makes perfect sense when you think, well, the show is about a stand-up comic.

While re-watching several seasons’ worth of Seinfeld recently, I was struck by how high-end their lowbrow was. Some of their references seemed beyond the reach of the average primetime TV viewer of the mid-90s (a point typically driven home by the use of a laugh track to “sweeten” those jokes that failed to get a large response from the studio audience). Ozzie Nelson’s fashion sense, the lyrics to the theme song of The Patty Duke Show, and Kris Kringle speaking Dutch in Miracle on 34th St were all referenced without explanation. Either you got it or you didn’t.

This 3-and-a-half minute quiz has 7 clips from Seinfeld, each punctuated by a joke that banks on your knowledge of popular culture of the last 80 years. When you’re done, click “Keep reading” at the bottom of the page to see the answers. (Hey, at the very least you get to see a few minutes of great gags from Jerry and the Gang!)

Continue reading


Filed under Humor, TV

Alex Haley: Master of All Media, Pt. 3

Over the last couple of posts I’ve elaborated on Roots the book and Roots the miniseries, both worthwhile on their own merits but, let’s face it, each is a real time-suck. So, for our hectic times, I recommend–and offer to you–the 1977 double LP, Alex Haley Tells the Story of His Search for Roots.

During the last few years Haley worked on his book, he supplemented his income with speaking engagements, mostly at colleges, where he did exactly what the LPs title describes: told his story. After the book and miniseries broke big (the miniseries was watched by an estimated 130 million viewers total), Warner Bros. decided to cash in with a recording of one of Haley’s recent engagements at the University of Pennsylvania.

I forget how I heard about this LP. There isn’t a lot of info out there about it, and it’s not on CD. For all intents and purposes, it never existed (when compared to the book’s constant reprinting and the multiple VHS and DVD releases of the miniseries). I found a copy on eBay—sealed!–for only $13, and a friend with a turntable transferred it to CD for me.

And after all the time I’d spent with his story in other mediums, I found this to be the most accessible, entertaining and inspirational.

It’s two hours of Haley telling you his life story. The most logical contemporary equivalent would be a lengthy NPR interview: insightful, intelligent, with humor. The fact that he had probably written the lecture—yet said it so many times—gives his delivery a strange feel, somewhere between a reading and recitation, but I got used to that pretty quickly. The advantage is that is that it’s tight; it’s a dense two hours.

Haley in the Coast Guard

Instead of the fictitious prose of book or the mainstream embellishments in the miniseries, we have Haley literally preserving the oral tradition that is the basis of his book. (Clearly the irony is not lost on him.) Beginning with his childhood in Henning, Tennessee, where he sat on his grandmother’s porch and overheard his elders tell their stories, he tells his own. This includes:

            • his time in the Coast Guard where he learned to write (he would ghostwrite love letters for his shipmates)

            • being Playboy magazine’s first interviewer

            • his experiences co-writing Malcolm X’s autobiography

            • the 12-year-long journey to write Roots

Here are two excerpts. The first describes the difficulties of interviewing Miles Davis. In the second he describes the precise moment he got bit by the genealogy bug. If you like what you hear, you’ll love the LP.

Miles Cooks (1:08)

Discovering Genealogy (9:45)

But wait, there’s more!

The double LP is a classic of its kind: a gatefold cover with an 8-page booklet, full of pictures, deeds, ship manifests, etc. Seeing a photo of the real Chicken George, after all these decades of intimacy with his story, was such a pleasant shock. I’m sure if Roots came out now, there would also be the requisite companion coffee table book, replete with details of Haley’s research. This booklet is a sample of what that could be. (It’s hard to imagine the original book did not include a section for these pictures.)

a sample of the artwork in the LP's booklet

So, between the middle of 1976 and the middle of 1977, Alex Haley’s work covered print, film and audio—hence the title of my posts—only this LP has been out of circulation for over 30 years.

Until today.

If you have any interest in hearing this lost LP, click the link below. I think this recording is too damn compelling to disappear. And, hey, isn’t preserving this stuff what Haley’s point was all about?

Click this link to get the LP. It’ll take you to the Rapidshare site. Click “Free User.” Wait through the countdown and you’ll get a download button. Click that and it will download a 165mb ZIP file. This includes the LP (as mp3s) and the booklet (as a PDF and as individual jpgs). (Be forewarned: I’ve never compiled so many hi-res stills into a single PDF; you’ll have to do a lot of re-sizing to get all the detail, read the captions, etc. Sorry!)

NOTE: I feel obligated to point out that controversy surrounded Alex Haley after Roots was published, with many experts doubting the book’s veracity. Likewise, there was a claim of plagiarism, which resulted in a trial and financial settlement on Haley’s part. To be clear: I don’t want to defend Haley on any of this; I’m most interested in discussing his work’s impact on my life and on popular culture.


Filed under Books, Plucked from Obscurity

Alex Haley: Master of All Media, Pt. 2

Chicken George for real (left) and as seen on TV (right)

Yesterday I gave you an earful about Alex Haley’s Roots, published in August, 1976. True, it was an instant bestseller, but that was chump change compared to the mania that happened the next January. When the Roots miniseries aired, it was crazy. It was Kunta this and Kizzy that, and no one could get enough of Chicken George.

In 2004, shortly after reading Haley’s book, I watched all of Roots for the first time since 1977. How has it aged? Well, it’s a TV movie that’s for sure: very overlit; too much headroom in most shots; and too much music. But those are facile issues.

The good news is that what had impact on me as a child still affected me (which I think is no small feat): Kunta Kinte getting whipped; Kizzy being taken from her parents; Chicken George jumping a fence; and a few others. (The slave auction scene is a highlight, and you can see it here.) But most of all, both in 1977 and in 2004, it was the cast that struck me.

Let’s put aside LeVar Burton, Ben Vereen and Leslie Uggams, who collectively carry the whole production. No, I’m talking about the rest of the cast, which seems to be virtually somebody from every TV show ever. 60s and 70s television perennials such as Ed “Lou Grant” Asner, John “Gordy” Amos, Sandy “Glass Eye” Duncan become major players in the drama. For me, it’s incredibly distracting. My attention was interrupted by:

        •Did I just hear John Walton say the N-word?

        •Oh shit! Talk show host Gary Collins just chopped off Kunta Kinte’s foot!

        •Sweet Jesus, look at Mike Brady’s sideburns. Carol’s not going to like those.

Naturally, this cast wouldn’t confuse a contemporary audience, but as far as the middle America of 1977 was concerned, this was a masterstroke. The bottom line is that viewers felt at ease because of these familiar faces. Producer David Wolper has always said the secret of the show was making it as accessible as possible to the viewing public, both black and white.

And that’s the difference between the book and the film: instant accessibility. In lieu of Haley’s sophisticated literary devices (such as the lack of English dialog for a few hundred pages), the miniseries goes to the other extreme: the viewer gets a sense of all sides, all emotions. Humanizing the white characters, beginning nine minutes into the first episode, certainly gives them more of an equal footing and makes the whole narrative more palatable to a large audience.

I said yesterday that in the book when a character leaves the narrative, they’re gone forever, mirroring the African-American experience of frequent and permanent separation from family members. The miniseries doesn’t have as many characters nor does it adhere to Haley’s device. For example, on TV, Kizzy does get closure with her father: later in her life she returns to the plantation; learns how her father died; crosses out the name “Toby” on his tombstone; and etches in “Kunta Kinte” with a rock. The average TV viewer wants—needs—closure, so the TV Kizzy gets it.

(It makes me wonder: what if HBO made Roots today? With their tendency to have smart scripts with sizeable budgets and to use mostly unknown actors, a new visual interpretation of the book might be incredibly powerful—and closer to the source material.)

So, the miniseries is more digestible than the book, and takes only a fraction of the time to watch. But let’s just say that still you don’t have 9-and-a-half hours to spare, especially to re-watch something that has O.J. Simpson running around dressed like this, yet you still want to get a sense of Alex Haley’s opus. Well, tune in tomorrow, and I’ll have an answer to your problems! (Because I’m sure you’re losing sleep over budgeting your Roots time.)

And if anyone has their own memories of watching Roots back in the blizzardy winter of ’77, let us know!

NOTE: I feel obligated to point out that controversy surrounded Alex Haley after Roots was published, with many experts doubting the book’s veracity. Likewise, there was a claim of plagiarism, which resulted in a trial and financial settlement on Haley’s part. To be clear: I don’t want to defend Haley on any of this; I’m most interested in discussing his work’s impact on my life and on popular culture.


Filed under Books, Film

Alex Haley: Master of All Media, Pt. 1

Last summer I had the good fortune to work on the PBS miniseries Faces of America, with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., which itself was an offshoot of the very popular African American Lives series. All of these trace the family trees of several celebrities, and working this closely on with genealogy reminded me of my intense Alex Haley jag of the late 90s. Over this and subsequent posts, I’ll fill you in on why I think he is such a noteworthy writer. (Trust me on this one; I’m building up to something pretty cool.)

Ever finish a book and think, “Damn, I wish everyone could read this book”? Well, that’s the rush I had the entire time I read Alex Haley’s Roots. Like so many people who lived through the 70s, I’m well aware of the story, the characters and the significance of the book—but exclusively because of the landmark TV miniseries. And even though millions at the time also read the book, I wasn’t one of them. (Hey, gimme a break–I was only 8!)

Then in the late 90s, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as told to Alex Haley), When I finished, my immediate thought was, “Damn, I wish everyone could read this book.” My very next thought was, “OK. Time to read Roots.”

Epic in scope and length (the current edition is 900 pages), it’s an awesome read. Haley’s acknowledged it’s primarily a work of fiction, and I’d like to zero in on a few literary aspects that were particularly resonant for me, devices that render it unique from the television experience.

1. When Kunta doesn’t understand, we don’t understand. Like the miniseries, the book begins with Kunta Kinte in Africa, where he is captured and brought to America. This covers the first couple hundred pages of the book, and until Kunta understands English, there is NO English dialog. (In fact, this extends to his inability to understand fellow prisoners on the slave ship who come from different villages, and therefore speak a different language). This may be a literary device, but it’s certainly not a gimmick. It definitely keeps the focus on Kunta Kinte’s experience.

2. When a character leaves the narrative, that’s it. No more. Kaput. This is another of Haley’s frustrating-yet-historically-accurate devices. When you think it through, if Kunta’s daughter Kizzy was separated from her parents and she never saw them again, then none of her descendants would know what became of them either, right? So, when Kizzy is ruthlessly sold from her parents, we never learn what became of Kunta. The author ignores the fact that we’ve spent hundreds of pages with Kunta—his entire life—and ends that character’s storyline in a few paragraphs. Since there was no closure for Kizzy, Haley decides there will be no closure for us. This is a painful recurring incident in the history of African-Americans in this country, and when it happens in Haley’s book, we as readers feel an intense drop of it. (It’s worth noting, too, that when Kizzy is sold off, there’s only a chapter break; there is none of that “End of Part 1: Kunta Kinte/a few white pages/beginning of Part 2: Kizzy” malarkey. It’s so underplayed that it took me a few chapters to realize, “Hey, I’m never gonna know what happened to Kunta…Damn!”)

Alex Haley, 1921

3. He brilliantly shifts from speculative biography to autobiography. Towards the end of the book, Haley himself enters the narrative, and instead of writing about himself in the third person, he switches to the first person…in one sentence. I’ll neither diminish its impact nor spoil anything by including that sentence here, but trust me: if you read 800+ pages in the omniscient voice and the writer painstakingly brings you to a place where he shifts that voice in a single line, it splits your mind wide open. (This is the face I made when I read it.) I’m grateful the book didn’t pander and do something more conventional (i.e. end the third-person narrative and write a first-person epilogue).

So maybe this book’s already on your One-of-These-Days list but finding the time for 900 pages is a tall order in our current media-swamped world. Well, in future posts, I’ll suggest a couple of ways you can absorb Alex Haley’s culture-altering tale in a less time-consuming manor. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, if you’ve read the book, let me know what you thought of it. Honestly, I’ve never had a conversation about that book with someone who’s read it.

NOTE: I feel obligated to point out that controversy surrounded Alex Haley after Roots was published, with many experts doubting the book’s veracity. Likewise, there was a claim of plagiarism, which resulted in a trial and financial settlement on Haley’s part. To be clear: I don’t want to defend Haley on any of this; I’m most interested in discussing his work’s impact on my life and on popular culture.


Filed under Books