Friday, August 1, 2008

Even more too much television

Updates Below

It has been a matter of pride with me for years that I scorn "reality tv". Never watched it, never will. No survivals, no machine-made musical "talents", no auctioned brides. I'm a purist and only watch scripted stories.

Except, well, it finally occurred to me that for the third year in a row, I was eagerly looking forward to a season of Last Comic Standing. Which is, um, a reality tv show. I love standup comedy and was hooked the first time I watched the open auditions, held across the country in a number of cities, with long lines of would-be comics waiting for two minutes to convince a pair of judges that they were good enough to compete that evening against other comedians for a chance to end up (that first year) stuck with a dozen other comics in the Queen Mary, busily attempting to eliminate the competition. Part of the entertainment of the open auditions are the complete and utter weirdos that wander up on the stage convinced that their bizarre behavior is "standup". Mercifully, the judges cut them short in a few seconds and most leave the stage in the same confusion they entered. The comics that compete that evening and ultimately move on to the national competition are invariably people who have been working clubs for years and have learned how to write and present their own material.

There are always very talented people left behind at the local level and many of them are comics I find vastly superior to the judges' choices. And it seems that this year's finalists are weaker than last years, which were weaker than the previous year. Some of the finalists are truly bad, and it's difficult to understand how they managed to progress as far as they did. At this point, four of the original dozen have been eliminated, and they were all pretty damn bad.

A few of the remaining comics are very good indeed, and my personal favorite is the single woman to get this far. Iliza Shlesinger is very smart, very funny and leaves nothing behind when she goes onstage. I love how she brings a physical element to her comedy; in a strange fashion she reminds me of Dick Van Dyke's standup, with his cartoonish exaggeration of movement. Shlesinger is also gorgeous, and I think that this has been a factor in the show, as some of the less-secure males have "challenged" her as if she threatened them more than any of the men. There have been two challenges to date, with two comics sent home at the conclusion of each. Schlesinger won both of them. In the first, the audience gave her 68% of the votes. The second time she got 62%.

In the most recent challenge, she whipped on two of the weakest comics, one from England and the other from India. I was very pleased to see them go, because I didn't think either was funny and because they had both commented rudely about my favorite. B'bye! Iliza kicked your ass!

The only other finalist I think is really good is Louis Ramey. Good and varied material and a great delivery.

Update 1, July 24

Last night's episode began with an hour-long "challenge" at the Playboy Mansion, in which the remaining comedians had to compose a bedtime story for the "Girls Next Door", which is apparently a "reality" show involving three of Hef's "girlfriends". Hmmm. A reality show visiting another reality show . . . I'm getting in deep. This segment was fortunately on the TiVo, so I could zip through it to get caught up. Some of the stories were not terrible, although I was disappointed that Iliza passed up the perfect chance to do her "T-rex being hit by a rock" impression. (cue video!)

The usual scenario for the show would have called for a vote among the remaining players to determine who would go into a three-way elimination; this is the segment that Iliza had won twice. The guys had been strategizing the best way to handle Iliza now that she'd become (as one put it) a giant. Fortunately for me and my frustration, the format had been changed (maybe just because of her) and all seven had three minutes on stage and the voting took place as it does in the finals, with the viewers using phones and the Internet to choose their favorites. I got to vote for Iliza ten times! She did entirely new material and it was difficult to tell how it went over. It felt like new material that needed some polishing but she did seem to connect well with the women in the live audience. Louis Ramey's material was great. In fact, I would have chosen his performance over everyone else's, based just on last night. His stuff is cohesive, polished and funny. Most of the other comedians wandered around, jumping from joke to joke without much connection. C'mon, guys, it's only three minutes!

Now I have to wait a whole week to find out the results.

Update 2, August 1

It's looking somewhat chaotic at LCS, and according to this well-informed blogger, the entire show is a scam (which surprises me not at all).

NBC's Last Comic Standing claims on its own website to be a "search for the funniest comedian on the planet". It's not. The auditions are staged, the celebrity judges aren't judges, the footage is doctored to make a favored bad act look good, and talented working comedians are passed over for "characters" with no act and a big personality.
I've been wondering how the show coordinates the "live" performances over a period of many weeks, while maintaining the fiction that the "contestants" are still living in one house in LA. Or is it Vegas? All while maintaining careers that keep them living and working far away from either place. I'm not at all surprised that the "voting" being done by people at home is completely irrelevant to who wins. Didn't stop me from voting 10 times for Iliza, but still . . .

Last night, the eight comedians all performed their "last" acts, regardless of whether they'd (at least in theory) been voted off the show last week. Only after each act was finished did the hosts announce the voting results, and of course, it was scheduled so that the final two acts had one "finalist" spot remaining, and the result wasn't announced until both were done. Or, actually, after another commercial. Predictably, Iliza finished in the top five. Next week, NBC will spend two hours leading up to the announcement of which of the five "won."

This site has some really good critiques of the show and the comics, going back through the weeks (in the July archives). For the most part, I'm in agreement with them, although I like Louis Ramey's act more than they do; maybe it's because an "80s style" doesn't bother me. The earlier entries are really good on the subject of the acts already eliminated, mostly along the lines of "what the hell were they doing here in the first place?" And the critiques come from real stand-up comics, so they're well informed. I was especially fond of this one, in regard to pretty boy Jeff Dye, who I find enormously irritating:

Next, Jeff Dye. Wow, there is so little in this set, it's like watching a teen girl's boyfriend do a set for her friends at a sleepover. If he played the cute card any harder he would have to legally be considered a cast member of High School Musical. It's kind of gaggy to watch, and he did racist-lite jokes, but he's in the finals, and man, maybe it's all teen girls voting out there? Their fingers are small enough to text really fast, so watch out, this could be the biggest upset since Dat Phan.
And this earlier critique:

Jeff Dye. Jeff reminds me of Gary Gulman without all the annoying humor to get in the way. He's tall and fresh-faced, animated, and wears day-glo. But it's pretty much Britney Spears bubble-gum comedy. He did two extended jokes, one about "The Sound of Music" (really? he's half as old as that movie), and then something oddly mean-spirited about the homeless. But, clearly on to the finals. Clearly. It's the kind of vote that drives "real comics" crazy-- What? That guy? This is insane!-- but he's doing what the genre of TV wants from him, and I see him surfing on down the pipe, not a ripple in sight.
But my favorite comment of all was in regard to the then-upcoming visit to the Playboy Mansion:

Next week's comedy challenge just might be sad and poignant-- the show travels to the Playboy mansion where, it appears from the tease, the comics will be asked to entertain what may be three of the dumbest and most humorless people on the planet-- Hef's girlfriends. Anyone who has ever seen The Girls Next Door will sympathize. The worst part? You don't want to make Kendra laugh. That laugh just goes right through you. It's like a rusty chef's knife going right through your solar plexus.
Ah, and thank god for YouTube. Here's the evidence.

It's so annoying, in fact, that there are YouTube videos of young women demonstrating their "Kendra laugh." None of them, sad to say, is in her league.

Update 3, August 9

Iliza won! I can't really say that I'm surprised, but I was certainly relieved that another stupid act didn't win this year. The final "episode" was truly appalling and supremely not funny, but her short bit was well done and the award almost made up for some seriously awful comedy. I have a feeling this is going to fall off the TiVo season pass list for next year; it just wasn't as much fun watching it. Kudos to Iliza and I can only hope that some day she'll do a show here in Portland so I can see her live.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Drinking in the UK, Part Four (the road to Islay)

Actually, not much drinking in this entry because this was a travel day, driving from Glasgow to Kennacraig for the ferry to Islay. The island is pretty much the most southerly and westerly of the Hebrides, home to eight distilleries, and graced with an amazing and rich history. When I first began planning the Greatest Vacation Ever, months before my trip, I had toyed with the notion of traveling awhile in Germany or Belgium, settled on a trip to Ireland, and finally decided on Scotland. Thinking of Scotland, one (well, me) naturally considers visiting a distillery or two and the opportunity to visit one location that had some of the most distinctive whisky in the world, all concentrated in a smallish island, became the focal point for the trip. After making the decision to travel to Islay, Glasgow followed, because it was the most logical jumping off point for the trip.

I should probably have called this "Driving in the UK, Part One", because this was my introduction to the craziness that is driving among Brits. The nice people at the rental agency, out at Glasgow Airport, offered me a relatively inexpensive upgrade to a Mercedes, which was not only a lovely little car, but had the decided advantage of an automatic transmission. A stick shift is my norm, but with everything else topsy-turvy on the road, I appreciated not having to learn how to shift with the wrong hand.

The early part of the journey was custom-made for a beginner in the UK, starting as it did with what was effectively freeway driving, from the airport into the city. Nothing particularly odd or difficult, other than the decidedly odd experience of being on the wrong side of the road. Traffic wasn't too bad and I could noodle along in the slow (far left!!) lane, while I got the hang of it. I did have to drive through the center (oops, "centre") of town, but only on major roads. Traffic lights were reasonably normal, other than a sort of countdown thing done from a red light--and I love the fact that the Walk sign stops traffic in all directions at an intersection. Markings on the street were different but not unintelligible and, in general, wayfinding signage in the UK proved to be excellent. There was nearly always good notice about which direction I would be taking and I learned to really appreciate roundabouts. I had great opportunity to figure roundabouts and signage out, because immediately outside Glasgow traffic bogged down in a long construction zone. Ordinarily, I would have been chafing at the delay but for a learner, it was a great help.

Outside the construction zone, things changed dramatically. For all the traffic cameras on the highways (marked in advance, to allow drivers a chance to slow down), Brits drive way too fast. Bad enough they're on the wrong side of the road, but everyone seems to be in an incredible hurry, even though it's a wee little island where nothing is very far from anything else. And somewhere along the line, some lunatic British engineer decided that country roads needed curbs (sorry, "kerbs") rather than shoulders. My dad had warned me about this and I had silently snickered at the notion that it would be a problem, but zipping along at 60, with crazy Brit bastards screaming around curves at me from the wrong side, I skidded along more than a few completely unnecessary concrete incursions and was soon fearing a blowout. Thank goodness for German craftsmanship and sturdy tires (sorry, "tyres").

All of this is complicated, of course, by the fact that once you're off the motorway (which is most of the time), there are no straight lines in British roads, especially driving over to and down the Scottish coast. Nothing but twisty, winding roads once I'd gotten past Loch Lomond (remarkably unpicturesque big flat lake surrounded by flat ground--nothing at all like I'd imagined Scotland). After that, the geography changed considerably as I drove through the mountains and over to Loch Fyne. And that's another thing about the Scots. You would think that a country so rich in language could come up with two different words for two completely different bodies of water, effectively a lake and a fjord. Some lochs are salt water and others are fresh but they're just "lochs".

This is a map of my route, up the A82 and then down to Kennacraig on the A83. Kennacraig is too small to show up here, but it's the point along the coast near the lower left, where the dotted blue lines head out into the water--that's the route of the ferry to Islay. Lots of photos of the lochs here. The geology of Loch Fyne and even much of Islay reminded me of nothing more than Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands, except there aren't a lot of castles around Puget Sound.

The weather was spectacular, with brilliant sunshine sparkling on the Loch, and lovely little towns--so very very not American-looking--scattered along the route.

Waiting at the ferry terminal at Kennacraig was also remarkably familiar to me, after years of similar waits for the ferry to visit my sister and her family on Lopez Island. There were a lot fewer people waiting for the Isle of Arran than the long lines at the Anacortes ferry terminal and the ferry was very different than the "super ferries" used by Washington State. Oh, and I had a reservation. Much better than the stress of worrying about getting well up in the line or having to wait for the next sailing. Which, in this case, would have been the next day.

That's the Isle of Arran in the top photo. It looks much more like a ship than a ferry, and has to deal with much rougher seas much of the year than those on Puget Sound. As the ship pulled in to the dock, the bow pivoted up out of the way and the loading ramp dropped down. It was a lovely ship, very spruce, with a nice bar (ah, so there was a bit of drinking: one of the Islay Ales on tap). I settled in for the two-hour trip and we finally arrived well after sunset.

Dark. Very very dark. Once I'd followed the rush of locals driving off the ferry into Port Ellen, I find myself virtually alone on the narrow road. Outside of the few towns along the way, there were no lights. No street lights at all and under a thick overcast. All of that wayfinding signage I'd appreciated on the "mainland" was gone and there I was, alone in the pitch dark. For what must have been the first time in my life, I had prepared myself thoroughly before coming to a new place, pouring over maps of the island and devouring Andrew Jefford's superb book, Peat Smoke and Spirit, which is a thorough study of the island's geography, history and, of course, whiskies. I had my route from Port Ellen, through Bowmore and up and around Loch Indall, through Port Charlotte and down to my b&b at Octofad Farm burned into my brain. Fortunately enough, there aren't a lot of roads on Islay so even a tourist completely in the dark would have a difficult time getting lost. There just aren't a lot of options. On the other hand, I hadn't expected the road, once south of Port Charlotte, to turn into a one lane path. With lay-bys, just in case there was traffic coming the other way (there wasn't, not this time) and very few signs. I stopped at one well-lit farm, thinking it might be Octofad and was chased off by a sheep dog. At last, there it was, a warm light in the window and a small car park out front. And a warm welcome from Cathy, my landlady for the next few days. I was finally here, finally on the mythic island of Islay. It wouldn't be until the sun came out the next morning that I discovered that the one lane road ran right along the rocks plunging into the loch. And sheep, lots and lots of sheep, most of whom found the road a handy route from forage to forage.

Random Photo of the Day

A tough day, apparently. It has been exhausting standing around and it's time for a nap. This is one of my friend Bob's chocolate Labs, although I don't remember if it's the male or the female. Both of them are, uh, "large". Big-boned, no doubt. Bob was celebrating his 60th birthday with a party at home and the dogs had to stay awake longer than during a normal day.