Wednesday, December 30, 2009

They're Creepy and They're Kooky

As some of my longtime readers probably remember, my sis and I were the recipients of a remarkable gift about a month or so ago -- two free tickets to see the Chicago preview run of the Broadway-bound The Addams Family. It was the cause of tremendous excitement on our part -- the chance to see any professional theatre is always exciting for me, but when you add two of my all-time favorite stars (Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth) to one of my favorite tv shows when I was a kid, excitement doesn't even scratch the surface.

As the show grew closer, I started to worry. What if the show sucked? My sis assured me that we would enjoy the show regardless, that Nathan and Bebe would make it all worthwhile and that there was sure to be something redeeming involved. And still I worried.

We took our seats at the gorgeous Oriental Theatre -- seriously, it is breathtaking. We'd been there before (it was the home of Wicked for several years), but we'd never been down on the main floor. We'd seen "stars" onstage before, but this time, we were actually going to be able to SEE them and not have to squint!

As the overture started, I could feel the goosebumps rising and the tears of joy and excitement growing near. There is just nothing like the rush of theatre, and it's even more of a rush when you know that what lies ahead is going to be a spectacle if not spectacular. When I'm sitting in the audience of a musical during the overture, I feel like a little kid again, ready to engage in the wonder of the stage. My favorite moment of a show is that moment when the overture is wrapping up and the curtain rises to reveal the world that you will be engaged in for the next couple hours. When the curtain rose Monday night revealing the Addams family graveyard -- and the Addams family themselves -- I gasped aloud (yeah, I am such a nerd!). There was this lovely, gloomy set (this enormous tree that the theatre teacher in me immediately wanted to jump on stage to investigate to see how it was made, this giant moon) and there was the cast. I admit, I wept with the sheer joy of just seeing Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth (who honestly looked just like they look onscreen -- he seemed a tiny bit taller than I imagined, she seemed even skinnier than I imagined, but that was about it).

For the first quarter of the first act, though, I'll admit I was concerned about the show. The opening number was kind of blah and anti-climactic to me, and I felt like there was a lack of any clear exposition. The show kind of assumes we know the characters intimately, and it would have been nice to have just a little more establishment of the characters, even if it's just to confirm what we already pretty much know or remember. The show also utilized some things initially that frequently drive me crazy in theatre. After the opening number, Uncle Fester stepped forward and began narrating. I generally HATE shows with narrators because it often feels like a way to cheat your way out of meaningful exposition and character development. Don't TELL me what's going on; SHOW me what's going on. The first couple scenes were quick little scenes, very vignette-like -- another peeve of mine in theatre. I like shows with an overarching story, and it initially seemed like this was going to be more kooky looks at little Addams episodes and that concerned me. Add to that the fact that the presence of Morticia and Gomez seemed a bit diminished at the beginning, and I was not a happy camper.

And then it all changed. About a quarter of the way into the act, Morticia and Gomez had a lovely little song together ("Passionate and True"), and Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth demonstrated a fun, easy chemistry together. They seemed comfortable together, and I really enjoyed that. Around this point, too, the plot began to emerge a little more clearly -- the now 18-year-old Wednesday Addams (a charming Krysta Rodriguez) has fallen in love with a normal young man named Lucas Beinecke (Wesley Taylor). The Beinecke parents, Mal (Terrence Mann) and Alice (Carolee Carmello), are in town from Ohio (of course) and are coming to dinner at the Addams home in spite of Wednesday's objections/concerns. We have a classic culture clash between the normal world of the Beineckes and the kooky world of the Addamses. Wednesday begs her parents to give her one night of normalcy so as not to scare the Beineckes off and ruin her chances with Lucas. Add to the conflict the fact that Morticia is not entirely sure she's ready to be old enough to have a daughter in love, the Gomez is not entirely sure he's ready for his daughter to date, and that Pugsley is not happy that his sister is no longer torturing him (literally) because of her newfound focus on Lucas and you have a plot that works pretty well most of the time. The number that introduces the Beinecke family ("One Normal Night") really kick starts the show -- and finally gives us the money shot of the Addams Family (complete with Morticia's wicker chair) as well as a glorious teaser of the theme song we all remember. You could almost feel the audience relaxing into the show at that point as we all jumped on board the train. The rest of the first act really fired along nicely as we moved towards the set closing "Full Disclosure" (one of my favorite numbers in the show) which found the Addams clan inviting the Beineckes to play their favorite game involving the revelation of deep secrets and which left both families in tatters as the curtain closed.

The second act started off with a nice showstopping number for Bebe Neuwirth ("Second Banana") as Morticia mourned the loss of her youth and was quickly followed by a lovely number for Nathan Lane ("Happy/Sad") as Gomez came to terms with his daughter being in love and letting his little girl go. The act got a bit draggy, though, with ten different numbers stuffed in, several of which often felt like they were taking us away from the big central conflict. Particularly problematic was the cute, visually fun number "The Moon and Me" where Fester woos his great love, the moon. (Literally, the dude is in love with the moon.) It is a funny little number, but it also kind of stops the show dead in its tracks in terms of moving the plot along, keeping us from getting to our resolution.

I felt, too, like the show often struggled under the weight of the three conflicts contained within the overarching conflict of the show -- a rift in the marriage of Gomez and Morticia, a rift in the marriage of Mal and Alice, and a rift in the romance of Wednesday and Lucas. Wednesday and Lucas get their resolution relatively early in act II with the fun song "Crazier Than You" and then the duo pretty much go MIA until the finale. Morticia and Gomez find their resolution in a breathtaking scene which begins with a swordfight and ends in a delicious tango between the two. The number, too, also serves to address another early complaint I had, which was the fact that the required Morticia costume really limited Bebe Neuwirth's dancing early in the show because her legs were constrained in the tight dress. With a flick of a sword, Gomez "frees" her legs and suddenly there was the Bebe Neuwirth I've long idolized with the legs and the kicks and the dancing. Hooray!! "The Swordfight/Tango" was one of the highlights of the show -- gloriously choregraphed and demonstrating the beautiful chemistry between Lane and Neuwirth. It is just so amazing to watch two pros do their stuff, and even more inspiring is seeing how easily they pull this off when they are, honestly, not young people. (Lane is 53 and Neuwirth is 51, but they work like kids in their 20's up there!)

The problem is that "The Swordfight/Tango" wraps up Gomez and Morticia's conflict (the fear that the passion was going out of their marriage fueled by Morticia's fear of growing older), but we were still left with Mal and Alice. These two "strangers" get their resolution after Gomez and Morticia -- and that just felt wrong. For the final 20 minutes or so of the show, Gomez and Morticia basically become onlookers as others find their happy ending. During the show's finale ("Move Toward the Darkness"), it is Wednesday and Lucas who occupy center stage with Gomez and Morticia off to the side with the rest of the family. During that number, Wednesday, Lucas, Mal, and Alice all get "big" moments but there is none for Gomez and Morticia. The show is called The Addams Family and for most people, that really means Gomez and Morticia and I kind of felt cheated watching these strangers get the glory moments while the characters I came to see are off to the side.

Overall, I did enjoy the show. It is incredibly funny, beautifully designed, well acted and sung by a cast deep with Tony wins and nominations. Before heading to Broadway, though, it does need some work -- trimming some songs, tightening the script, and finding that focus on the Family. I read yesterday in the NY Times that Jerry Zaks had been brought on board to "doctor" the show a bit, which makes me think that the show I saw Monday night is going to be vastly different by time it gets to New York in the spring. For the sake of the show, I hope that it gets the tweaking it needs and is able to move to New York as successfully as Spamalot or The Producers (other Chicago preview shows that made it big). The potential is there; the cast is certainly game and capable. What I saw was a good show, but I think that it could be a great show.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Lady Douches

Yesterday, I posted a list of cinema's great douchebags, a list full of men. This prompted my friend Danielle to query as to whether there were any female douchebags worthy of mention. It's odd that you rarely hear this term used about a woman. I'd like to think that it's because women are incapable of douchebaggery, but the simple fact of the matter is that, most likely, rather than calling a woman a "douche," we simply just call her a "bitch" instead. I think, however, there is a big difference between a "douche" and a "bitch." To me, a douche is more innocuous than a bitch. They can be mean, yes, but bitches are evil. The list of douchey females I've complied below are selfish, mean women, but I would hesitate to call any of them evil. Many of them have likely been called bitches; I am rescuing them from that title and calling them douches instead. Mean, nasty, selfish douches.

Because most of the douchtresses who sprung to mind as I began compiling this list were douchey characters rather than douchey actors, I decided to go with identifying single characters. All of the women on this list are played by actors who have diverse careers and have not made a career out of playing these sorts of characters. How refreshing is that?

10. Heather Chandler, Heathers Okay, so maybe Heather Chandler is more of a bitch than a douche, but she ends up dead, so that buys her a little sympathy, right? Sure, she treats her friends like garbage -- mocking one for her bulimia, dragging another to a college frat party and then berating her for throwing up. Heather, though, has a lot of responsibility. As she reminds Veronica, she is the head of the most powerful clique at school (and she's only a junior). There's a lot of power and responsibility that comes with that. Had our Corn Nut munching friend not succumbed to a little Liquid Plumber tonic, perhaps she would have seen the error of her ways. Or maybe not.

9. Beth, Better Off Dead In the grand scheme of things, Beth is probably not THAT bad. Oh, who am I kidding? She's the ultimate in douche arm candy, making her a total douche herself. She dumps sweet, lovable Lane (John Cusack) so that she can pursue the douchey ski stud Roy (Aaron Dozier). After all, she reasons, Roy is a better skiier and has a better car. That's a good reason to dump a guy who adores you. What makes Beth even douchier is that she then stands by and watches as Roy mocks and torments Lane at every possible opportunity. Never once does she say, "Hey, Roy, that's enough. I chose you, man." And in true douchebag fashion, when Lane defeats Roy in the big ski-off at the end, she comes trotting back to Lane, expecting him to just take her back without argument, expecting him to dump his sweet new French honey just like she dumped him when a better prospect came along. Considering all the people who asked Lane's permission to date Beth, she won't be alone for long.

8. Katherine Parker, Working Girl Katherine pulls off a great douchebag trick -- she spends the first quarter of the movie seeming like a great person. When she hires Tess (Melanie Griffith), she becomes Tess's hero -- a strong, intelligent, confident woman. She seemingly nurtures Tess, giving her advice, coming across more as a big sister and mentor than a boss. And then Tess discovers the truth, that Katherine is stealing her idea to make millions and not giving Tess any credit -- and lying to Tess on top of that. When Katherine discovers Tess's own subterfuge, she fights back in true douche fashion, humiliating Tess in front of everyone -- including Harrison Ford. Ultimately, though, Tess wins the day and who knows what happens to Katherine. She probably becomes a senator or something.

7. Lina Lamont, Singin' in the Rain Lina is one of those douches that drives me crazy -- she THINKS she's all that but really . . . not so much. When no talking is involved, Lina is a competent actress. The problem is that voice -- and the fact that movies are about to add sound. Lina then forces innocent Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) into being her voice on film, thereby standing to ruin poor Kathy's shot at stardom on her own. Ultimately, Lina gets what's coming to her and is humiliated in front of a huge premiere night audience. We assume that Lina goes off and lands herself a trophy husband and lives in relative obscurity now that her career is shot and her onscreen partner has danced off into the sunset with Kathy.

6. Betty Rizzo, Grease This is a tough inclusion for me, and I'm sure it's tough for quite a few of you, too. Little girls growing up in the late 1970s and early 80s spent their days dancing to the Grease soundtrack and dreaming of being either virginial Sandy or wicked Rizzo. I was in the Rizzo camp. I was self-aware enough to know that I was no Sandy -- I don't know that anyone has ever referred to me as "perky" or "sweet." Plus, Sandy was clearly not a ginger! So I was happy and content to dance around my bedroom duplicating the choreography for "Look at Me; I'm Sandra Dee." In other words, I was happy pretending to be a douche. Let's face it; Rizzo is a douche. She's snarky and rude. Just look at how many sexual innuendoes pepper her conversations with her friends. She brings her boyfriend's arch-enemy to the big dance just to fuck with him. She mocks poor Sandy pretty openly AND behind her back. Of course, we know that Rizzo's douchebaggery really just hides a wounded soul as she faces the uncertainty of growing up, loving a guy who's clearly destined to be a loser (and who is a bit of a douche himself), and the possibility of a pregnancy. Rizzo probably grows up to be one of those nasty women you see walking around in Wal-Mart, so who can blame her for relishing in her glory while she still can?

5. Sue Sylvester, Glee In just a few short months on the screen, Sue has rocketed into the top five on this list. There is no denying, though, that Sue is a mega-douche. First of all, she's a cheerleading coach. Isn't that enough? No? How about the fact that she has made it her mission to destroy Glee Club -- sending in spies, trying to create rifts, leaking the Sectional set list to the competition? And why? Because it funnels some money from her cheerleading program? Is that really all? Could I ask anymore questions in this entry? The show has been smart to give Sue some depth (the revelation that Sue has a mentally retarded sister earlier this season is perhaps the show's most moving moment so far), and that depth is what keeps me from just shrugging Sue off as a bitch. Add to that her ludicrous political views (the woman is PRO-littering) and you have a great douche. Sue stomped off at the end of the show's first half of the season; you know she's going to come back with a wicked, douchey vengeance.

4. Angelica Pickles, Rugrats Yeah, there's a part of me that feels a little bit guilty labeling a three year old as a douchebag, but I feel better doing that than calling her a bitch. Angelica is a pretty nasty little girl -- relishing in tormenting Tommy and his pals whenever the opportunity arises. She has the world wrapped around her little finger, whether it's demanding toys from her parents or pudding in the middle of the night from her Uncle Stew. There's no doubt that Angelica probably grows up to be a total bitch, but for now, let's just call her a douche and leave it at that.

3. Phyllis Lindstrom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show Phyllis is a classic passive-aggressive douchebag. She claims to be Mary's friend but spends most of her time belittling her -- pointing out her lack of husband, questionable taste, and more whenever she can. And don't even get me started on her treatment of poor Rhoda. She was consistently rude to Rhoda, even giving Mary the apartment Rhoda had apparently been promised, forcing Rhoda to live in an attic while Mary had the dream apartment. Phyllis was a lousy landlord and a lousy friend but a great douche.

2. Regina George, Mean Girls I have to admit -- the choice between 1 and 2 on this list was a tough one for me. Regina George is a giant douche, so why isn't she number one? I mean, she mocks, torments, belittles, and destroys all who stand in her way. She's a lousy friend and a worse girlfriend. (Who dates a cutie like Aaron Samuels and cheats on him?) She is a manipulator -- setting up her "friends" in order to get revenge on Cady. So why is she number two? Well, it would seem that Regina recovers from her douchebaggery. At the end of the film, it seems as if Regina has stepped down and has found happiness with the field hockey girls -- even smiling rather shyly at Cady as she walks by her. See what happens when you get hit by a bus? It knocks the douche right out of you.

1. Darla, Dazed and Confused Darla is the Queen Douche on this list. Granted, we only see one day in Darla's life. Perhaps every other day in her life she is sweet and kind and loyal. I kind of doubt it. Darla spends the day tormenting incoming freshmen and drinking beer -- often at the same time. What seals the deal with Darla's spot on this list is one tiny moment towards the end of the film. Darla's friend Simone is tromping through the field on her cute wedgie heels, twists her ankle, and collapses. Darla's response is to fall to the ground in hysterical laughter. That's a really douchey move, Darla, and congratulations, it earned you the number one spot on this list. Long may you reign!

Great Douchebags of American Cinema

This morning, I woke up to a blanket of snow outside, killing my plans to go to the library and run a couple errands in favor of curling up with some pretty great Saturday afternoon programming on cable. Encore, in particular, is a real MVP today, running a weekend-long marathon of 80's movies. I also stumbled across a particular favorite of mine -- Nine to Five. As I was watching Dolly, Lily, and Jane rise above their chauvinist boss, a thought occurred to me: "Whatever happened to Dabney Coleman?" In the 80's and early 90's, that guy was a real go-to player, appearing in countless classics like Tootsie, War Games, The Man With One Red Shoe, and more. He made several attempts to parlay his cinematic success into small-screen success, but people never warmed to his patented brand of unabashed asshole at home the way they did at the movie theatres. His recent work has been mostly television work, though -- supporting roles on forgotten series or made-for-tv movies -- or small roles in not paricularly successful films like Domino. He has been cast in HBO's upcoming series Boardwalk Empire, so here's hoping Dabney is able to parlay that into some more high profile work.

Pondering the course of Dabney's career, though, got me thinking about other great character actors like him, actors who seemingly made their careers playing douchebags. They are the unsung heroes of the American cinema -- providing conflict, helping make our protagonists more likeable, and giving us a rooting interest in how the movie turns out. We want to see the douchebag fail -- and hopefully fail miserably. Many of them make a handful of memorable films with memorably douchey characters only to fade away to obscurity and made-for-Lifetime films. Others outgrow the douchebag and create new phases of their careers with more sympathetic characters. And still others play the douche for the course of their entire careers, each new character more douchey than the one before.

And so today, let's recognize these great douchebags for all they've given us (and film). Here's a list of my favorite Cinematic Douchebags, members of the Dabney Coleman Hall of Fame. Please feel free to share YOUR list in the comments.

10. Ted McGinley McGinley is better known as a series killer -- appearing on numerous classic television shows once they've jumped the shark and are in their waning years. Check out his resume -- Happy Days, Love Boat, Dynasty, Married With Children. While his arrival doesn't mean surefire, instant cancellation (many of those shows survived many seasons once McGinley showed up), it surely is seen as a sign that the show's glory years are gone, long gone. While that alone may make McGinley a seeming douchebag, what earns him this spot on the list is one of his earliest roles -- that of Stan Gable in Revenge of the Nerds. Talk about a douchebag!! The guy seems to get his kicks from bullying and tormenting a group of innocent freshmen. His frat house burns down; Stan kicks the "nerds" out of the dorms. When the nerds get their own house, Stan and his cro-magnon buddies attack it. Why? What did those nerds ever do to him? Nothing! Supreme douchebag!

9. Bill Murray WHAT? How could I include Bill Murray on this list of hissworthy douchebags? Well, here's the thing -- sometimes, douchebags are likable, and Bill Murray started his career playing just such a thing. Set aside your indignation for a second and really think about those early roles -- Tripper in Meatballs, Carl Spackler in Caddyshack, John in Stripes, Frank Cross in Scrooged, even Dr. Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters. All of those guys are douchebags, and yet we like them and root for them in spite of that. And yet if you knew any of them in real life, you would walk away from an encounter with them thinking, "What a douche!" Murray has given us an opportunity to see how these slacker douchebags grow up, maintaining the smarm AND the charm in films like Rushmore, The Royal Tennenbaums, and Lost in Translation. He even has had the honor of playing a great Shakespearean douche -- Polonius in Hamlet. (Yeah, I said it. Polonious is a douche -- using his daughter to suck up to the king. VERY douchey!) The other douchebags on this list aspire to be Bill Murray -- to keep douching it up for decades and to be adored for it at the same time.

8. Jason Hervey Hervey limited his douchebaggery to the small screen and really to one role, that of Kevin's big brother Wayne on The Wonder Years. Was there a more unlikable character on television in the late 80's and early 90's than Wayne? It seemed as if Wayne existed merely to bring tears to Kevin's big ol' doe eyes. That one role may not have been enough to land Hervey on this list if not for the fact that, as an adult, he's gone on to produce two incredibly douche-worthy shows -- Scott Baio is 45 and Single and Confessions of a Teen Idol. The first involved revealing to the world that Scott Baio is, in real life, a bit of a douchebag who suddenly realizes that maybe it's time to settle down and stop being a huge manwhore. The second involved a bunch of former teen idols making another attempt at stardom and coming to terms with their own real-life douchery. Other credits in Hervey's resume include a lot of WCW work (the spiritual home of many douchebags) as well as some show called I Want to Be a Hilton. Yeah, that's enough to earn you a spot on this list, pal.

7. Mark Metcalf A classic douche. Metcalf's career is full of small film and tv roles. Go check out his page on imdb and tell me you're not a little surprised to see how active he's been and how many great tv shows he's had guest spots on. But when most of us think of Mark Metcalf, we think of the role that made him famous, playing the psychotic douchebag Doug Neidermeyer in Animal House, a douchebag so horrific that his fate is to be killed by his own troops in Vietnam. Metcalf made another memorably douchey appearance in the video for Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It." Add to that his role as the Master in the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and you've got a guy who's managed to take douche to a supernatural level.

6. Thomas F. Wilson Wilson is another one-role douchebag. He's had a wide and varied career, largely television work, but he will forever be known as wannabe rapist Bif Tannen in Back to the Future. For much of the film, Wilson's Bif is your standard, run of the mill bully -- his go-to response to punch masks his complete lack of intelligence. And then comes the moment in the car where Bif attempts to rape Lorraine while his buddies beat the shit out of Marty. There is perhaps no moment more pleasurable in the history of film than when Marty returns to the "future" and we see that Bif has been reduced to the McFly family lacky. (Although why Lorraine McFly would want the man who once tried to rape her hanging around her family is beyond me).

5. William Atherton Has poor William Atherton EVER played a likable character? He is remembered (by me, at least) for two memorable, douchebag characters -- Dr. Jerry Hathaway in Real Genius and Richard Thornburg in Die Hard. He specialized in douches who were out for number one at all costs. Hathaway used his students to further his own career -- and to build a nefarious laser that would destroy all enemies. Thornburg compromised the safety of innocent children in order to score a great scoop. Both also get fantastic comeuppance -- whether it's Hathaway having his house filled (literally FILLED) with popcorn or Thornburg getting punched out by Bonnie Bedelia. Atherton has continued to build a respectable career full of small movies and guest appearances, but I guarantee you whenever he shows up on screen, I'm rooting for someone to punch his lights out.

4. Will Arnett Unlike many on this list, Arnett's brand of douchebaggery is still going strong. He is, perhaps, the face of modern Film Douches. Arnett was slogging away in small films and guest appearances until 2003 when he was cast as douchebag magician Gob Bluth on Arrested Development. Arnett parlayed his small screen douche success to the big screen in films such as Blades of Glory, Hot Rod, The Rocker, and Semi-Pro. One of his finest douchebags is another small screen role, his recurring role as the devious Devin Banks on 30 Rock. According to, Arnett has a slew of films on the horizon -- there will surely be a great douchebag in one of them.

3. >James Spader Spader was perhaps the poster child of 80's douchebags, primarily for his role as Steff in Pretty in Pink. Steff was smarmy, smug, elitist, and vile. He sets out to insert himself between Andi and Blaine for no real reason other than Andi was from the wrong side of the tracks -- and she had rejected him. Therein lies Steff's real motivation. He's not all about maintaining the classist lines that rule his school; he's all about making sure his buddy doesn't get to hit what he wanted to hit so badly. Steff wanted to slum it with Andi, and she turned him down, so she (and Blaine) must pay the price. Spader would go on to play equally douchey characters in Baby Boom, Mannequin, and Wall Street before morphing into more of an unsettling sleazeball later in his career. His Emmy-winning turn as Alan Shore on Boston Legal found Spader finding a way to merge his douchebag roots with a more socially aware perspective. There's no denying Alan Shore was a douche but he was a douche on a mission, with a cause, and for whom we could root time and time again without feeling too guilty.

2. William ("Billy") Zabka In all fairness, Zabka didn't really make a career playing douchebags; he made a career playing dicks. Just check out his 80's resume: The Karate Kid, Back to School, Just One of the Guys, European Vacation. Not a likeable, sympathetic character in the bunch. You actively rooted against Zabka, cheered when he was defeated, and sometimes thought his punishment just wasn't harsh enough. Zabka joined the cast of The Equalizer as the son of the Equalizer -- and that was pretty much the end of Zabka's career. Oh, don't get me wrong. Zabka has been active in the 20 years since then, appearing in 25 films between 2009 and 1991. His film credits in that time period include For Parents Only, Hyper Sonic, High Voltage, Shootfighter, Shootfighter II, The Man in the Silo, and Python 1 and 2. Have you heard of any of these? Yeah, me either. I suspect poor Billy painted himself into a corner that was pretty hard to get out of. His kind of bullying douchebag works well in teen films, but it doesn't work as well when adulthood sets in. That's when Billy's brand of douchebaggery goes from being a dick to being criminal, and no one wants to see that happen.

1. Jeremy Piven Another currently active douchebag, Piven is a triple threat -- holdng the distinction of being a douche on the silver screen, the small screen, and, reportedly, in real life as well. For the first part of his career, Piven's real distinction was being the somewhat douchey second banana in a lot of John Cusack movies (Grosse Point Blank, Serendipity, Say Anything). Then, he was Spence, Ellen's slacker, borderline douche cousin/roommate on Ellen. Piven really spread his wings at the turn of the century, becoming a pioneering frat pack douche in Old School and then becoming the king of the douchebags on HBO's Entourage. In true douchebag fashion, once Piven tasted that HBO success (and the three Emmy awards it brought with it), he decided to bite the hand that had once fed him, accusing "friend" John Cusack in 2007 of being jealous of his success. (Really? Let's be honest, whose career would you rather have? Piven's or Cusack's? Cusack may not have a shelf full of awards -- a real shame, if you ask me -- but at the end of the day, I'd rather have his filmography than Piven's. Add to that the fact that Cusack seems to be much more respected, and you have a real win there.) And we haven't even touched on Sushi Gate, which involved Piven taking his douchebaggery to Broadway to appear in David Mamet's douche-centric Speed-the-Plow and then dropping out midway through the run due to mercury poisoning brought about by eating too much sushi. Just the fact that the guy got sick eating "too much sushi" is so douchetastic I can't stand it, let alone the fact that he left a show high-and-dry like that. Mr. Piven, you are, indeed, King of the Douchebags. I bow to you, sir!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Twenty Years and Still in the Fourth Grade

As I was driving to work this morning, I was reminded that today is a landmark day in pop culture history. Twenty years ago tonight, the very first episode of The Simpsons aired.


Twenty years ago, I was a freshman in college. As Simpsons mania was sweeping the nation, I was being introduced to the world of Freud and Sir Thomas Aquinas and frat parties and cheap beer. I was making friendships that would last a lifetime. And I was falling in love with a quirky family of five from Springfield, State Unknown.

When the show first debuted, there was no local Fox affiliate nearby. I can remember friends coming back to school from winter break wanting to watch The Simpsons and being unable. I remember prowling UHF stations one evening and finally stumbling across a Fox affiliate from a couple hundreds of miles away and that was how I saw my first episode of The Simpsons.

It was "Crepes of Wrath" -- the episode where Bart is sent off to France as an exchange student. It was a revelation. I never knew something could be THAT funny, THAT irreverent. Before The Simpsons, there really wasn't a source for that kind of comedy on television, comedy that was smart, goofy, satirical, and heartwarming all rolled into one.

By the next fall, Fox had acquired a local affiliate and Thursday nights were spent huddled in dorm rooms watching The Simpsons. Those early seasons were filled with brilliance, each episode seeming to top the other. Lines would be quoted often around the table in the cafe. Studying was scheduled around episodes. For me, the show is inextricably linked with my college years even though I only spent a small fraction of the show's history in college. I think of the show and I am instantly back in a dorm room laughing my ass off with my closest friends.

And perhaps that's why I've stuck with the show for these twenty years even though it's been a great while since the show gave us an episode as brilliant as "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie," "Last Exit to Springfield," or "Marge vs. the Monorail" -- those season four gems that stand among the show's absolute greatest (to name just a few). The second decade of the show has been filled more with duds than gems, but even those duds have moments that remind me why my relationship with The Simpsons has outlasted relationships I've had with people. (The only other pop culture relationship to rival this one is my 30 year love of SNL.) There are still moments of biting satire, sharp wit, and lovely goofiness. The Simpsons Movie that came out several years ago surprised me with how the small screen charm of the show could make the leap to the big screen. (And the sight of Homer flipping off the people of Springfield as he went down the sinkhole is perhaps one of my all time favorite Simpsons moments ever!)

As other shows have come along to swim in The Simpsons' wake, the show sometimes seems creaky and old fashioned. As much of a troublemaker as Bart can be, there's a certain charm in knowing that there are things he would never sink to -- like killing a rival's parents and turning them into chili. (Yeah, I'm looking at you, Matt and Trey) Despite their dysfunction, the Simpson family does genuinely seem to love each other. (Yeah, I'm looking at you, Seth) There is a conscience among those characters that doesn't exist with, say, Peter Griffin or Eric Cartman. The show that once seemed so rebellious now is perhaps one of the most family friendly shows on television. And yet the show retains its liberal heart and its questioning spirit. Recent episodes have dealt with Wicca, helicopter parents, immigration, the drugging of our kids, and more. Matt Groening and his writers prefer to prick little pinholes in our society rather than the gaping knife wounds delivered by McFarlane, Stone, and Parker. There is a subtlety at play that lets us reach our own conclusions rather than being shoved into them. It's sad that this comes across now as old fashioned when, in reality, it just shows that Groening and co. appreciate the intelligence of their audience and trust them in a way that McFarlane, Stone, and Parker never will. And it's that trust and appreciation that still, to this day, makes me more excited about a new episode of The Simpsons than any of its "peers." And it's that trust and appreciation that have kept me around all these years. Tonight, I'm going to go home, curl up, and watch that very first episode ("Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire") and think of those friends with whom I used to share this show and celebrate those friends on the screen who've been a constant for over half of my life.

ADDENDUM: Today is also the birthday of a student in my Drama class. As I wished him a happy birthday, I told him he shared a birthday with The Simpsons ..... and that The Simpsons is older. Wow.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

No Complaints Please

The other day I was driving to work and happened to hear a story that made me smile. Apparently, the city government here in town had declared November 25 "No Complaining Day." The idea was that it would be nice to have a day to focus on the things about which we can be positive rather than just bitching and complaining.


One of my biggest pet peeves is with people who do nothing but spread negative energy and complain nonstop. Please understand that I am not a perfect Pollyanna. Yes, I complain, but at the same time, I also try to be as positive as I can as much as I can. I find it so wearying to deal with people who are negative, particularly when it's about silly stuff.

So what made me think of No Complaining Day today? Well, let me tell you a little story.

Perhaps you've seen in the news that the Midwest has had a pretty rough time of it weatherwise over the past couple days. Temps have plummeted, winds are going crazy, and snow blankets the ground. My town didn't get hit quite as hard as other places (I know it's crazy in Iowa right now), but it's still pretty nasty. We were dismissed early from school yesterday because the forecast said the nastiness was on its way. We left the building yesterday with this sort of unsaid understanding that today would most likely be a snow day.

I woke up this morning to my alarm, not a phone call. I shrugged and kind of slowly began getting ready for work, figuring the call would eventually come. It didn't. I looked out my window and thought, "You know, it really doesn't look that awful." My sister and I took off a little early since we were meeting and picking up a co-worker of mine. As we waited for my co-worker, my sister heard that the school where she works had cancelled classes, so we dropped her off at home before heading off for our school.

Once we got on the roads, I could see they were pretty nasty. It wasn't that the roads themselves were bad; it was that the wind was really bad and that made visibility really challenging. My car, a Chrsyler Sebring, isn't a great car for wind. It's a pretty light car and is easily battered around when it's windy out. We slowly but surely made our way the 20 or so miles to work, pulling into the parking lot a minute or two before we are contractually obligated to be in the building (20 minutes before students arrive).

As I got out of the car, I could see another teacher angrily stomping around the parking lot. He came over to tell us that school had been cancelled about 15 minutes earlier. He was livid, swearing and yelling and getting all worked up. Yes, he had had to drive from out of town and had to drive further than I had. I can understand his frustration and yet . . .

I guess my thought is why get all worked up about something you ultimately can't control? Was I a little annoyed that I had gotten up early, driven in nasty conditions, only to find out it was all for naught? Sure. I can't lie on that one. But that initial thought of, "Oh, man, that sucks" was immediately followed by, "But cool ... snow day. I can get a lot done!"

Once inside, there were more teachers stomping around angrily. When I got on facebook, it was loaded with people complaining about the late call (including one student who "singled me out" for pity as he had seen me pull into the parking lot at 7:44 and knew I was driving from a distance). Maybe it made them feel better. You know what made ME feel better? Coming home, having a rare second cup of coffee and another piece of toast while I watched Will & Grace. And I didn't complain about it for a second.

So, Gingerphiles, I offer you a challenge -- pick one day in the coming weeks (before the end of the year) and give yourself the treat of not complaining. If things get to you, face them with a smile and a shrug. See the opportunities that may exist in those annoyances rather than the hindrances. I have a sneaking suspicion that this one day of positivity just may be the thing to get the holiday spirit really pumping, and your blood pressure may thank you.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Spirit of Charity or The Spirit of Competition?

Over the past couple weeks, our school has sponsored several charitable "drives" in the spirit of the season. Before Christmas, there was a huge canned food drive for a local food pantry. This week, there was a drive to assemble care packages for the troops. Still to come is a drive to collect hats, gloves, and warm socks for a local charity. Many students have really gotten into these drives, and a tremendous amount of good has been done for those in need. Kids were seen walking down the halls with boxes filled with canned goods or items to add to a care package. It's a heartwarming thing to see kids so filled with the spirit of giving and helping.

The unfortunate thing is that it's not really the spirit of charity that is driving those kids. It is instead the spirit of competition that has caused kids to go out and drop significant sums of money on mac and cheese and Ramen noodles. Each drive we've sponsored has carried with it a "prize." The first hour class that brought in the most cans got a pre-Thanksgiving donut party. The fifth hour class that was the first to bring in a completed care package gets a pre-Christmas pizza party. The spirit of charity has seemingly been lost as students instead engage in a battle of one-upmanship. One class, in order to be the first to complete the care package challenge, even went so far as to deliver their care package to a teacher at her house the night before. This, of course, launched a huge spirit of protest amongst teachers whose classes were not the first (and I'll admit that I, whose class was technically the second one turned in since I "foolishly" waited to turn ours in the next morning, was among the disgruntled and the words "cheater" did cross my lips albeit jokingly). One teacher (not me) even went so far as to say, "Well, now what incentive do the kids have to do this?" Holiday spirit? The satisfaction of knowing that they've just brought a little happiness to someone who has put his/her life on the line on behalf of this country?

I'm not 100% sure what lesson the kids are learning from all of this, but my concern is that it's not a positive one. If charity does not come with a reward, will they do it? Would my fifth hour students have been scrambling around town to track down bottles of lotion and decks of playing cards if they hadn't been competing for some free pizza? Did donuts and donuts alone prompt students to bring in nearly 1000 canned goods? When they are adults, will these kids be willing to give to a charity (whether it's time, money, or goods) if there is no reward other than the positive feeling that comes with helping others? I don't know. When I explained to my fifth hour class why we had not won the care package challenge, I talked a lot to them about how proud I was of them for helping and what a wonderful thing they had done . . . but I also told them *I* would buy them the pizza I felt they'd been cheated out of. I fed the beast of competition again -- in the name of charity. I guess I'm just as guilty as they are for letting my competitive spirit loose.