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Today's Audio Link

Excerpts from a 2008 conversation between Stephen Sondheim and Frank Rich…

Waiver-ly Wonders

When actors do plays, their union is an honorable and wonderful organization called Actors Equity that prevents a lot of mistreatment and non-payment. It also allows non-payment in small, unlikely-to-be-profitable situations. There is talk of changing that and I think it would be a very bad idea.

I would write a post explaining why but my buddy Ken Levine already has and I can't improve on what he said. You're probably already reading Ken's fine blog but if you aren't, read that post and then read everything else he's written.

Go Read About Red!

My pal Kliph Nesteroff takes us behind the scenes on The Red Buttons Show, which ran on TV from October of 1952 until there wasn't a single comedy writer in the business willing to work with Red Buttons.

One of the many writers who came and went before Mr. Buttons' show went was Arnie Rosen. I worked with Arnie and didn't get along with him any better than he got along with Red. When I knew him, Arnie had massive kidney problems and three times a week, he had to do four-hour stints getting dialysis treatments. Once when he was about to leave the office for one, I overheard someone say to him, "It must be horrible having to do that." He replied, "It's still more fun than working for Red Buttons."

Today's Video Link

The other day, I linked to the opening number from one of the Gypsy of the Year award shows put on by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. That one brought back a number of members of the original cast of West Side Story and so many of you loved it that I've got another one for you. This is from the 2011 Gypsy of the Year show which featured members of the original cast of Grease — Barry Bostwick, Carole Demas, Adrienne Barbeau, Alan Paul, Walter Bobbie, Don Billett, James Canning, Daniel Douglas, Katie Hanley, Tom Harris, Ilene Kristen, Joy Rinaldi and Mews Small. Enjoy…

Late Night Notes

James Corden is fast becoming like Jimmy Fallon: I like the guy a lot but I'm not really that interested in watching his show. Stand-up clearly doesn't come naturally to him and it feels like he's only doing a monologue because someone told him, "You're hosting a talk show. You have to do a monologue." He seems so much more at ease when he can talk to the audience outside of that form.

He's a good interviewer but those segments depend on landing guests who have something to say and — since they're interrogated in tandem — some sort of rapport between them. Last night, the rapport between Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart was because they were both there plugging their new movie. One of the good things about Tom Hanks' appearance Monday night was that he wasn't there to promote anything. It's probably too much to expect that to happen very often.

Tuesday night, Corden did a film piece where he went around with a pizza delivery guy and tried to get the customers to play games and invite them in. It was pure Leno…and those bits weren't all that wonderful when Jay did them. Then there was a "game" with guests Chris Pine and Patricia Arquette. I guess we have Fallon and maybe Ellen DeGeneres to thank for the idea that a talk show must have games for the guests to play. The one for Pine and Arquette may not have been rehearsed but it didn't seem to have any spontaneity in it. Last night, Ferrell and Hart played one that I don't think went as well as the producers had hoped.

I am not writing The Late Late Show with James Corden off. It's way too soon to do that and I'm sure it's going to get better and find an identity of its own. It's just going to take a while.

In other news, David Letterman did an embarrassing softball interview with Bill O'Reilly the other night. O'Reilly is really good at controlling any discussion he's in, whether as host or guest, and he pretty much dictated how far they were going to go discussing the recent accusations against him, and what Letterman had to accept as a response to his questions.

Dave does not look happy to me and the times I've watched recently — admittedly, not every night — feel like he's just going through the motions. One hopes that a parade of Big Name Guests making their final appearances, if there is to be such a thing, will energize his final weeks. Odd that we haven't heard any announcement about that, including the rumored Leno appearance, or of what Dave will do next. I somehow don't see him doing a Carsonesque self-exile…but then I don't see him doing anything else.

I have to say I'm becoming increasingly less enchanted with The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, especially the panel discussion segments. I don't know who most of these people are and they aren't around long enough for me to find out…or for them to say much of anything. This show too is playing a lot of games that don't seem to be working well for them. I still like Larry and the opening portions where he just sits and delivers material are sharp. After that, it feels like they still haven't decided what the show is about.

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I've finally gotten around to watching full episodes of @Midnight with Chris Hardwick. I used to only see the first two minutes or so of each episode because they were on the end of my Tivoed recordings of Colbert. I liked what I saw but it somehow never dawned on me to set the TiVo to snare more than just the two minutes.

Well, I've started watching entire episodes and I like it a lot. Hardwick is a bright, likeable host who obviously has a big future in teevee. His guests do naught but play games but the games are good ones. Three comedians, occasionally including one we've heard of, are challenged to come up with funny answers to questions and situations. I don't know how far in advance the comics get the challenges or how much help the show gives them with answers but pretty much everyone seems to have decent ones when they need them. It feels pre-scripted but it also feels funny and Hardwick keeps things moving at a brisk, you-can't-get-bored clip.

The last few years, almost every TV network has asked suppliers to come up with programming that interfaces with social media…ways to get the Facebook and YouTube crowds to watch conventional television. Hundreds of shows have been pitched with that in mind and a few have made it to the air. @Midnight is the only one I've seen that seems to have figured out how to do it. It's really a well-conceived, well-produced series and I don't know why it took me so long to take a Season Pass for it.

Remembering Gene

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The fine announcer Randy West sent me a piece he wrote. I rarely use other folks' writing on this blog but I'm going to make an exception in this case. Randy attended the funeral of Gene Gene the Dancing Machine, the gent I wrote about in this post. Here's what Randy has to say…

This weekend family, friends and church congregants said farewell to Gene "Dancing Machine" Patton Sr. His legacy goes far beyond The Gong Show. Gene holds a place of history as the very first African-American member of IATSE Local 33!

Gene was a constant source of joy and light at NBC Burbank for everyone who worked there during his lifetime career with the peacock, which the family says goes back to The Andy Williams Show. Gene and Floyd Jackson, the shoeshine man of 50 years, are the unforgettable mascots of NBC.

Gene was raised by this mother and grandmother who were both cooks at UC Berkeley. Gene was 22 when he moved to L.A., and he also worked in civil service, primarily as a janitor. Nighttimes, while cleaning Muir High School in Pasadena, he would eavesdrop on a night class in theatrical stagecraft. The teacher of the class recalls that with his growing curiosity for the field, Gene actually put down the broom, took a seat in the class and, over the weeks, began to raise his hand and participate! He eventually registered for that and other courses.

When the all white, father-son lock on the stagehands union in L.A. came under fire, Local 33 called that school's teacher and asked if he knew of any qualified African-Americans with the skills and temperment to break the color barrier. Gene was the obvious choice, During his long reign at NBC he did every stagehand job, and worked virtually every show that originated from the Burbank facility. I would often see Gene; he was there every day, on one one show or another. He was universally liked for his sparkling personality and endearing manner. A real ray of joy and sunshine.

Gene was proud to have had worked the Carson and the Leno Tonight Show, pretty much throughout its decades in L.A. But it was a day backstage at The Gong Show seconds after Chuck Barris asked him, "Big man, can you dance?" that audiences first met Gene. And he danced into TV fans' hearts. Although he started to be recognized by audience members, Gene remained supremely humble. His large brood of kids, grandkids and great-grandkids learned that what you do is not who you are.

There are many entertaining anecdotes about Gene's life and career, but his generous personality is his greatest success, and the smiles he engendered are his greatest legacy. Ironically for the "dancing machine," in his final years, both of his legs needed to be amputated; his medical condition ultimately left him blind. Gene was two weeks short of his 83rd birthday.

We lost one of the wonderful traditions and bigger-than-life personalities that have made the TV business such a hoot!

My Latest Tweet

  • Liberty University students were fined $10 for missing Ted Cruz's speech. Sounds like a bargain to me.

Today's Video Link

Lewis Black sounds off about the N.C.A.A. and March Madness. Around my house, March Madness is all about tomato soup…

Another Silly Attack on Jay Leno

Someone named Anna Silman who works for Salon just wrote a rather hysterical piece attacking Jay Leno for his appearance on James Corden's opening show. It starts by saying, "On last night's Late Late Show with James Corden, Leno was still making the same tired old jokes." A journalist who knew a little something about how TV is done might have viewed that as Leno helping out a new show by doing the material that Corden's writers wrote for him.

She also complains about Leno doing something similar on Jimmy Fallon's show. Again, this was a scripted piece, written by Fallon's writers and producers, who were probably thrilled that Jay was willing to do it.

This woman is the Deputy Entertainment Director at Salon…a title which sounds like she's in charge of keeping Barney Fife amused. Could someone explain to her that in a scripted comedy piece shot in many locations with many actors, there's a script? That the actors don't supply their own lines?

She could also use some lessons on TV history. When she says, of the Conan/Jay mess that Jay "demanded to be reinstated as host [of the Tonight Show] in 2010, ousting his short-lived successor Conan O'Brien in a power move," she shows she's never read Bill Carter's book that documented how all that happened. As far as I can tell, Carter is the only person who ever did any investigative reporting on that episode and his version of events stands unchallenged by anyone who was actually there. And faulting Leno for his longtime (and now, apparently patched-up) feud with Letterman is not only ancient history but it's blaming the wrong guy as the aggressor.

You know, I have no problem with people who don't think Leno is funny. I thought Joan Rivers, whom Ms. Silman apparently adores, stopped being funny around the time The Ed Sullivan Show went off. But I do recognize that she continued to pack showrooms and be loved and adored by most of the population. Silman could stand to learn that's true of Leno, and that it's not time for someone like that to get off the stage just because you and maybe a few of your friends don't like them.

Today on Stu's Show!

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Today on Stu's Show, Stu Shostak has a return visit from Paul Petersen. Paul was a Mouseketeer and a regular on The Donna Reed Show and he actually worked an awful lot as a full-grown actor, though when people first know you as a child star, they tend to forget you did other things. When not acting, Paul became an important advocate for the protection of children in the entertainment industry…and actually, anywhere. He's outspoken on this and other related topics and when he's on with Stu, they tend to argue a lot so the Internet will probably erupt today with the sound of them going at it. But it will be interesting and sincere and provocative, I'm sure.

Stu's Show can be heard live (almost) every Wednesday at the Stu's Show website and you can listen for free there. Webcasts start at 4 PM Pacific Time, 7 PM Eastern and other times in other climes. They run a minimum of two hours and sometimes go way, way longer. Whenever a show ends, it's available soon after for downloading from the Archives on that site. Downloads are a measly 99 cents each and you can get four shows for the price of three. There are some real good ones in the archives there, including many which do not have any trace of me on them. Check 'em out.

Dr. George, R.I.P.

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If you lived in Los Angeles in the seventies or eighties, you're probably saddened to hear, as I was, of the death of Dr. George Fischbeck, the longtime weatherman on KABC TV Channel 7. Dr. George, as everyone called him, was a former science teacher of 23 years who somehow became a TV weatherman in Albuquerque, New Mexico and then got discovered and relocated to Los Angeles in 1972. His style — energetic, stammering, often off-topic — was quite unlike the others on Eyewitness News. If he had any sort of script, he never read it. The anchorpersons would throw to him and he would lecture in a rapid, rambling manner about various things — often but not always weather-related — for however much time he was allotted. Usually but not always, he managed to include something about how hot or cold it would be tomorrow and whether or not it would rain.

By accident or intention, the local newscasts had their weatherfolks staggered. I could watch and enjoy Dr. George for his few minutes, then turn over to Kevin O'Connell on Channel 4 to find out what the weather would be like tomorrow. As someone oddly interested in this profession, I studied 'em all for a time. My conclusion was that Dr. George knew as much as any of them about the forecast but didn't even try to present it in an organized series of bullet points…which is not to say there wasn't much to learn from him. He sometimes delivered good, useful science lessons. He also did a lot to promote science in L.A. classrooms.

I met the man on several occasions. He was delightful and witty and funny and I always wished KABC would just give him an hour every Sunday to explain science on, say, a junior high school level. He never stopped being a teacher and in the odd venues he found on television, he was a darned good one. The "Dr." was an honorary degree but he sure deserved it. His passing at the age of 92 was announced this morning.

Working in Harmony

Manhattan Transfer

Manhattan Transfer

Arguably, the best jazz fusion (and sometimes a cappella) vocal group out there is Manhattan Transfer. I think I became a fan of them around 1974 or so and since then, they've maintained their high standard, even through a few personnel replacements. Most recently, group founder Tim Hauser died last year and was replaced by Trist Curless. Hauser is missed but they're still a great group.

And if you were going to argue that some vocal group is better, you'd probably argue for Take Six, which is a (mostly) a cappella and (mostly) Gospel group. They're really good, too.

Happily, these two groups are not in competition. In fact, they will soon by touring in tandem. They're calling it The Summit — Manhattan Transfer and Take Six sharing a stage, singing some songs apart and some together — and last night, Carolyn and I got a preview. Described as a "work in progress," they did two nights at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood. Boy, was it a great evening. I don't know how to say it other than that together and apart, the groups were superb — artists working at the top of their game. There was a joy of performing emanating from the stage and an opposite and equal joy bouncing back to them from the audience. I can't recall the last time I was in a room with that much happiness.

There was also a surprise guest star — a surprise to those on stage. Before the show started while we were all dining, Carolyn spotted Dick Van Dyke and his lovely wife Arlene in the house and I went by the say howdy. Dick has his own a cappella group, the Vantastix, and he and one of its members, Eric Bradley, came by to study how others do it.

Later, someone — it wasn't me — told the musical groups that Dick Van Dyke was in the house and they introduced him from the stage. The audience erupted in applause and Dick took a bow as the two groups on stage launched into a hastily-improvised, a cappella chorus of the theme from The Dick Van Dyke Show. It was a thrilling moment in an evening that already had a surplus. But it may have been my favorite.

Manhattan Transfer and Take Six will soon be touring with The Summit. I believe the kick off is May 15 in Bridgeport, CT followed by May 16 in Glenside, PA. If they come this way, I'm getting tickets. If they come near you, take the hint. Both groups are also touring individually and you could do worse than see either.

Today's Video Link

This is how James Corden closed his first show. I liked it. I might have liked it a little more if he hadn't spent so much of the show saying basically the same thing but I liked it…

Late Night Loot

In this article, CBS CEO Les Moonves says than his two new late night shows — Colbert's and Corden's — cost less to produce that the shows being replaced. I'm sure Colbert's will cost less than Letterman's just because the star will be making less moola, as well as other reasons. But I don't see how The Late Late Show with James Corden can be costing less than The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson unless Corden's working for scale.

Corden has a band. He has a larger writing staff and it has a few writers and producers who have to be getting paid real well. That opening film piece last night must have cost more than they ever let CraigyFerg spend on any one segment and more like that are promised. Ferguson's biggest expense was two guys in a horse suit. (I have an odd feeling we're going to see "Secretariat" wander onto Corden's stage one of these days looking sadly for his former owner.)

Oh, wait. Corden has one other thing Ferguson didn't: Product placement. Okay, maybe that's it.

First Look

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Okay, I thought the first episode of The Late, Late Show with James Corden was fine. Not a lot of new talk show ground was broken but the host is personable and unafraid of real conversation. I don't know that they'll always be able to have folks on the couch who are as good at talking as Tom Hanks and Mila Kunis but if they can keep the level high — and the remaining two shows this week do look promising — I think they just might have something.

What didn't I like? The first main title looked fine. The second one not only seemed unnecessary but it looked like a reprise of Craig Ferguson's, complete with visits to some of the same local landmarks. Peeking into the guests' dressing rooms in the opening seemed awkward and I'll bet they dump that before long. The set seemed big and cluttered and it felt like the audience was a mile from him. (This was one of the things I think hurt Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show.) The Bud Lite bar on the set seemed like nothing more than shameless product placement but perhaps they have things planned that will make it seem less gratuitous.

The studio audience seemed way too overstimulated, like the warm-up comic had threatened them with immediate eviction if they didn't laugh at every joke and leap to their feet for every conceivable standing ovation. That's the way it is on most talk shows these days but it seemed to be working against a lot of what Corden was selling, which was excessive humility. I get that he is honored and overwhelmed by this opportunity but I think he made that point a few too many times.

So what did I like? Pretty much everything else though with minor reservations. The opening bit with various celebs teaching him his job was clever and so was the sketch with Corden and Hanks acting out moments from most of the latter's films…but both went on too long. The opening monologue was okay. The conversation was pretty good. I liked what little we saw and heard from Reggie Watts…though when Corden was standing next to him, it did look like a split-screen with images from two separate shows. Corden's closing song, which I presume was written by David Javerbaum, was a real nice way to end a good first outing.

It's unfair to dump on a first episode and almost as unfair to declare a great success…but I already like Corden more than anyone else in late night who shares his first name. And if the show slowly improves as most talk shows do their first year or three, it oughta become real good. I assume he's got time. Unless the ratings are an utter disaster (highly unlikely), CBS will keep him on until the measure of his success is how much of Colbert's audience he holds. For several months, he's going to follow prime-time reruns before that happens which won't help him…but they won't blame him if the numbers are bad during that period.

I would have liked to have seen them go with a host who didn't seem quite as committed to doing a conventional talk show with a few tweaks. Still, if they had to have one of them, I think they made a good choice. I have a feeling I'll be keeping my TiVo Season Pass.