Archive for conan

Info a Treat

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV Criticism, Watching TV with tags , , , , on June 17, 2015 by Tom Steward

TBS’ late-night talk show Conan features a segment called ‘What am I Watching?’ in which titular host O’Brien flips through the cable channels with the aid of the info button on his remote. Pressing the button reveals skewed descriptions of each show encountered, such as ‘Entertainment Tonight: Two lifelike cyborgs are programmed to think everything Hollywood does is fantastic’ and ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives: Guy Fieri plays an out-of-work party clown who is addicted to lard’. There are two diametrically opposed laughs here. One is the absurd – yet entirely truthful – inversions of the straight-faced synopses that info buttons on cable remotes give us about TV shows. The other (which sadly nowadays may be as socio-economically discriminatory as those jokes in The Sopranos about Kierkegaard) is about people who have cable recognizing how close these summaries come to the real thing.

All you need to know...

All you need to know…

The descriptions contained on info buttons are not as openly critical as the fake ones on Conan but they do often make you wonder who the authors are and what their criteria is. Whatever possessed the person that wrote the digital synopsis for Jaws: The Revenge to question the scientific plausibility of the storyline when they wrote ‘Disregarding the behaviour typically exhibited by the rest of its species, a revenge-minded shark follows a woman from New England to the Bahamas’? What is to be gained from listing the events that take place in the 1920s surrealist avant-garde short Un Chien Andalou – including a woman’s eye being cut and ants spilling from a wound in someone’s hand – as if it were an episode of Columbo? And these are the ones that actually get the descriptions right.

The buttons struggle noticeably with anything resembling emotional complexity. They can’t seem to get around the fact that Jackie Peyton from Nurse Jackie isn’t a good person and doesn’t find redemption each week. TCM’s button writer needs an education in film noir – one incidentally that the network will provide in association with Ball University – if it thinks that anyone in The Glass Key is in any way moral or decent. As misleading as they can be, info buttons are impossible to do without. With shows on cable now mired in the mud of endless re-runs and encores (which are re-runs that run on from the first run, like a bad sequel), it’s essential to have something to distinguish individual episodes, and sometimes the description on the info button is the only way to be sure.

This new technology has created a completely different experience of watching television, one that we’re perhaps less willing to recognize because it doesn’t involve a computer screen. It’s just on our TV rather than our phones and devices but that in itself is significant. We have much less need for TV listings or paper guides, which means that journalistic commentaries on TV shows has been supplanted by anonymous synopses. While before, viewers would read a critics’ review to get a sense of whether they wanted to watch a programme or not, now they have to go off the plot, and be less informed about the success of the project than its aims. Maybe it’s clearer now why the description of Jaws: The Revenge was so unfavourable. Button writers don’t rate TV, but nor should they have blood on their hands.

Info buttons only skim the surface of how cable remotes alter our perception of television. Every time I try to erase an episode of Conan, the remote asks me ‘Are you sure you want to erase Conan?’ as if the host himself will be vanquished from history once I press ‘Ok’. Whenever I do, I genuinely believe that Conan O’Brien has disappeared into the ether. All right, that’s not true. But making me think twice about whether I want to keep a show or not has made me re-evaluate what in TV is worthy of a second or third viewing.

I’ve made lots of assumptions here about the people who write the descriptions on info buttons – as well as assuming that this is a dedicated profession and not an intern’s copy-and-paste job – so anyone who knows anything about how these show summaries get written, please get in touch with me and I’ll write another post about it, with whatever level of anonymity you wish. Poverty and convenience may one day render cable obsolete, so I want to learn what I can about this phase of TV history while I can. I also want to know who wrote that Jaws blurb!

Hidden Jenner

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2015 by Tom Steward

There was an unexpected role reversal in the world of TV news this past week. News satire – an institution that regularly attacks the bigotry and ignorance of network and cable news coverage – was itself accused of bigotry and ignorance in regards to transphobia, while a primetime network news special about transgender issues (albeit in the form of an interview with Bruce Jenner, hence why TV is interested in the first place) was widely praised for its sensitive handling of the topic. On Monday, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore – Comedy Central’s bland replacement for The Colbert Report – aired a segment ridiculing Jenner’s identification as a woman and chosen sexual orientation as abnormal, which were made to seem even more grotesque by comparing her to Pinnochio. This was responding to Friday evening’s 20/20 special on ABC, in which the former Olympian and Kardashian was interviewed by Diane Sawyer about being a man trapped in a woman’s body her entire life and her decision to transition to a woman, which she has been doing piecemeal for years.

Methinks Larry doth protest too much!

Methinks Larry doth protest too much!

At the heart of the controversy surrounding The Nightly Show was Wilmore’s apparent confusion about Jenner’s desire to become a woman yet having male genitalia and preferring women sexually. Now, if this seems to be representative of the billions of people around the globe who have spent their lives knowing they are a different gender than the one assigned to them and have, for reasons too numerous to mention, yet to make their (complete) transition, it’s because that’s exactly what it is. It’s hard to see where the confusion, or indeed the comedy, lies in pointing out these tragedies. If anything, this information helps us make sense of Jenner’s personal (mostly surgical) life choices in recent years, and there is, of course, the little known fact that what Bruce Jenner wants to be or do in her life is none of anyone’s fucking business. Even more appalling was Wilmore’s hetero-bullying tone, which seemed to suggest that this particular combination of gender and sexuality was above and beyond an average straight guy’s understanding of the world.

But 20/20 didn’t miss the opportunity to turn the tables on news satire either. Clips from Saturday Night Live and Conan making jokes at the expense of Jenner’s gender instability were featured in the programme. She was fair game when she was altering her appearance for reasons of vanity, but the punchlines were directed at gender. Conan O’Brien’s monologue jibe seemed to be urging Jenner to hurry up and pick a gender, as if that were somehow easy or necessary for us to recognise her as human. In defence of news satire – which I believe to be essential not only as a critical commentary on the news but also a superior alternative to it – these are atypical moments that in no way represent the genre’s treatment of such issues. It’s hard to imagine The Nightly Show’s tone of reporting on its forerunner The Daily Show which draws Arsenio-style primal screams at the mere mention of Elizabeth Warren. The Conan monologue gag seems unusually cruel, especially for a late-night talk show with a notably liberal following.

Hindsight is 20/20!

Hindsight is 20/20!

It is, however, possible to imagine Wilmore’s segment on The Colbert Report, with the thinly veiled prejudice cloaked in the self-negating irony of Colbert’s fake conservative newsman persona. But there’s no evidence here that we’re supposed to think of what Wilmore is saying as anything other than genuine (and if you ever suspected that Wilmore is capable of comedy that is less than obvious, remind yourself he is the creator of Black-ish!). If the problematic representation of transgender issues in news satire has been reported correctly, we should also note that the success of TV news coverage in dealing with the same issues has been greatly exaggerated. Perhaps the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the Bruce Jenner 20/20 special was motivated by relief that it wasn’t the most hideously offensive piece of journalism ever aired. But interviewer Diane Sawyer adopted the persona of a sceptical and disgusted parent, asking questions only the most hateful (and thus least important) person would. It’s insulting enough, even without the patronising implication that this is what the public would ask. We also have to take into account TV news’ much worse track record when it comes to reporting on the transgender community: Piers Morgan’s media war with Janet Mock, Katie Couric’s inappropriate intimacy interviewing Laverne Cox. Nobody’s getting it right but news satire is wrong less often than the news.

Memory Box

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV Criticism, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2014 by Tom Steward

It occurred to me recently that TV talks to us as if we’re all amnesiacs. Shows are incessantly reminding us of what happened minutes before, when we’re not being previewed we’re being recapped, and flashback has become the bane of television storytelling. Reality shows are the worst culprits, since their heavy-handed narration and editing permits them to insert extraneous references to past events at will. But dramas and comedies can be just as bad. Think about how many devices there are built into the fabric of fictional TV series to remind us about what just happened; ‘Previously On’ segments, duplicated action, flashbacks. Such repetition is almost certain to annoy viewers and make them feel patronised, so why does TV always think it’s addressing Guy Pearce?

Torture and racism, probably.

Torture and racism, probably.

When it comes to reality shows, it’s safe to speculate that there’s an element of killing time here. Visual call-backs are a good way of conserving footage through re-use and along with voiceover re-caps they can easily pad out a show to its allotted time. I often wonder how long reality shows would last if there were no repetitions or duplications. Chopped would probably end before it began! But there are also less cynical motives at play. It’s long been assumed by producers that people watch TV in fits and bursts and they don’t necessarily watch a programme from start to finish. It’s something we critics with our programme-based reviews still don’t really get. But it’s the impulse behind filling viewers in every few minutes.

Much as we would like to think for the sake of art that TV has fulfilled its potential as a serial medium, it’s still pretty much a halfway house between closed and ongoing storytelling. There must still be part-time and sporadic viewers out there or we’d have switched over to continuous storytelling a long time ago, given that it’s a feature common to all the great TV out there. We wouldn’t need to have these concessions to people who’ve missed a few episodes or were out of the room if we were all faithful and attentive viewers. As far as flashback is concerned, somewhere along the line it got mistaken for complex storytelling – even though the truth is the opposite – and the rest is history.

TV memory aids are where good television and quality television clash. It’s good practice to make TV that responds to the fragmented way a lot of us watch it. But all the shows we associate with quality television are about breaking away from that kind of audience spoon-feeding for something that challenges viewers, even their memories. And it goes to show that the type of television we’re always wanting more of and more like in television (The Wire, The Sopranos) is difficult to produce in most contexts. People are paying specifically for HBO so they’re going to watch everything and stick with a series for value alone. You couldn’t do a HBO show in a place with audiences that are constantly drifting in and out.

Of course, there are limits. It often feels like we’re being cheated of new content. Last week The Bachelorette ran a highlights package of its first three weeks in place of a new episode. It will do this again in a special prior to the finale, and then during the Judd Apatow-comedy length finale itself. Most reality show finales are season re-caps. There is a point beyond which you’re pandering to people who have missed some crucial moments and simply taking the piss out of the remaining audience. In this way, such shows are their own worst enemies, offering no reward to long-term viewing except seeing it all over again multiple times. You can’t count on TV viewers wanting nostalgia like an instant coffee powder.

Late-night talk show Conan has a regular bit called ‘Memba This?’ in which sidekick Andy Richter repeatedly asks the question in front of a slideshow of recent viral news images. As with many Conan skits, they’ve distilled how TV works in a matter of minutes. What TV pretends is a ‘trip down memory lane’ is actually a re-cap of things they haven’t had time to forget. Set up as a ‘new comedy bit’, regurgitation is posing as creativity. And when Conan keeps getting heinous news images, it reminds us that these memory aids are actually TV’s way of manipulating the past, not just repeating it. Damn, I’m twenty words short. It occurred to me recently that TV talks to us as if we’re all amnesiacs.

Live of O’Brien

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV channels, TV Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2013 by Tom Steward

Yesterday afternoon G and I went to Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank to be in the audience for the recording of Conan, the eponymous late night TBS talk show of Conan O’Brien. It’s an experience that goes far beyond the reaches of the hour that the recording takes place. Show time is 4.30pm yet the audience have to check in at the studio parking lot by 2.30pm at the latest and as early in the day as possible to get the best seats. Once checked in, you’re free to leave the parking lot as long as you return by 3.00pm. Not knowing this, and having checked in at the recommended time of 1.30-2pm, G and I had no time to do anything but aimlessly wander the vicinity of Warner Boulevard where the nearest attraction is Forest Lawn Cemetery, an area that is quite literally dead. Lest this start to sound like a yelp reviewer with a severe case of white people problems, I want to stress I completely understand keeping audience members half in the dark about check-in arrangements to ensure they arrive early and G found it entirely preferable to the Star Wars-premiere conditions of Conan’s New York show.

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When we returned from the land of the dead (actually we found a café with big salads so it was more Seinfeld than Six Feet Under), we were taken through a metal detector into a waiting area lined with black metal benches which had the atmosphere of a prison mixer. Actually the prison analogy remained apt as we were branded with a ‘WB’, which I believe stands for ‘Warner Bitches’, and processed through a street crossing deep with standing sewage water in a tribute to the epilogue of The Shawshank Redemption. The show even had a narc in the waiting area. One of the writers was strolling up and down the benches in search of people to turn the camera on in the ‘Craigslist Ads’ segment of the programme in which fake ads are juxtaposed with shots of the audience members who would likely post them. Lifers like me can tell the difference between a TV writer and TV viewer, although in layman’s terms this is also known as cleanliness. And he had a cup.

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At 3 the audience were lined up in groups and taken slowly in multiple stages through the Warner Brothers lots in scenes reminiscent of Day of The Triffids. While it was undoubtedly exciting to be where many of Hollywood’s finest movies (Angels with Dirty Faces, The Big Sleep) had been filmed, I have to say that all the Looney Tunes cartoons I’ve seen have been terribly misleading about what goes on here. Not once did I see Daffy Duck’s head being erased by an irate Chuck Jones! We arrived at a heavily air conditioned studio set, which TV expert G told me was for the lights and not as I suspected to prevent Conan’s skin from setting alight, and were seated with my urine-inflated bladder acting as an internal cushion. G and I were amazed at how small the set seemed and kept expecting a puppet version of the show to follow. The cameras magnify the set out of all proportion and it has an utterly different geography from the one we create in our heads when watching. G was especially thrown by how the guests’ walk from the stage curtain to the couch was literally a couple of steps.

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There followed multiple warm-up acts, starting with a fireman who demonstrated that the post-911 hero status of firefighters has significantly outlived that of cops (probably the lack of racial murders in the fire service). An MC discovered an audience full of drunks, meth manufacturers and slutty teens before Jimmy Vivino and The Basic Cable Band-who unlike most late-night house bands seldom feature in the programme-entertained with a lively, dad-at-wedding dancing funk and rock n roll double bill. There is an ‘Applause’ sign but it’s not the exploitative imposition that it is stereotyped as, its presence moving the show along and not forcing any reaction that isn’t already there. Not being a fan of bad sitcoms, teenage skaters and post-punk poachers the line-up didn’t do much for me. But the original segments were a TV bloggers’ dream. An irreverent ‘info’ button for programmes on a cable remote (Seinfeld: ‘You’ve seen this one’) and a clip from a new TV pilot starring alleged trumpet pumper La Bamba as a CIA assassin with limited knowledge of assembling weaponry.

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I realised that my knowledge of late-night talk shows tapings comes entirely from The Larry Sanders Show though having been there for real I can see why the prospect of a sitcom set there was so attractive. The musically-accompanied interludes between segments which are synced with ad breaks feature curious-looking interactions between guests, crew and talent not to mention the near-farcical stage invasions, all of which possesses intrinsic comic appeal. During the last of these interludes, G turns to me and asks ‘Is it nearly over?’ and I realise that as she’s always asleep by this point of the show and had never watched this far. After a bonus feature, a self-reflexive ‘end of the show song’ from the musically-gifted Conan, we were soon shuffled out into the lot, as I resisted the urge to crash through the parking barriers in homage to the final few minutes of Blazing Saddles.

 

 

 

 

That Was The Week That Was Ass

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2013 by Tom Steward

Apologies for the extended break from posting and thanks for continuing to read the site in my absence. I took the last couple of weeks off while G and I got married. However, there’s been no shortage of stories about TV in America since we went away so don’t expect a quiet first day of term. We resume with a post on the TV coverage of the maelstrom of tragic events that devastated the USA over the past seven days:

It’s been a shitty week in America. Last Monday bombs went off at the Boston marathon killing 3 people and injuring over 150 more. On Wednesday, the first round of gun control reform legislation tanked in the Senate. On Wednesday night, an explosion at a fertiliser plant in Texas killed 14, injured around 200 and destroyed 50 homes. By Friday, Boston was in a state of lockdown as armoured tank police vehicles searched the city streets for the outstanding bomber, Dzokhar Tsarnev, who had escaped custody following a battle the previous night with police that killed brother and collaborator Tamerlan.

Three dead as bombs explode at the Boston marathon last Monday.

How did TV cover the seven-day shitstorm? Well, while a number of entertainment shows such as Live with Kelly and Michael and Conan expressed compunctions about peddling amusement in the wake of the Boston bombings, news programmes seemed to have no obvious qualms about this. News reporters constantly reminded viewers how exciting the events unfolding in Boston were, as if the city had been collectively entered in a catch-the-terrorist role play game. ABC news anchor Diane Sawyer at one point thanked a reporter for her ‘thrilling’ coverage of the aftermath like she was Ben Affleck at an Argo press conference.

ABC World News: ‘Entertainment with a Hint of Fact’

On Tuesday, CNN pulled a CNN and falsely reported that an arrest had been made in connection with the bombings despite official denials. The cable news network had been under fire in recent weeks for its misreporting of the Steubenville rape case and now seems to have moved on from doubting moral and legal verdicts to blindly ignoring empirical fact. Later in the week, while covering the hunt for Dzokhar Tsarnev, CNN reporters seemed to suggest that the lockdown was voluntary, ignoring the tanks patrolling Boston neighbourhoods which gently hinted to residents that it was probably wasn’t a park day.

CNN pull a CNN!

To give them their due, CNN were once again the lone voice of reason when it came to the reporting of gun control following Wednesday’s senate debacle. I’m talking of course about Piers Morgan, who has repeatedly slammed President Obama’s inability to mobilise the gun control lobby and exposed the NRA’s hold over senate voting, and was entirely vindicated this week. To offer some cultural perspective, Piers Morgan is known in Britain for being a dick. Yet in the bizarro world of American TV news, his smug, unremitting self-righteousness somehow twists its way into being the perfect conduit of outrage.

Piers Morgan: smug, self-righteous and…right in this case.

Just when it seemed as if it could get no worse for the USA, it did, and the TV coverage followed the downhill gradient. After the Texas fertiliser plant exploded, news channels once again oohed and aahed over the spectacle and somehow managed to disproportionally report an already heinous disaster as an apocalyptic catastrophe. Fox’s ‘Breaking News’ coverage sat back and admired the epic visuals of nuclear mushroom cloud-like smoke and giant soaring fireballs in viewers’ photos and videos, offering aesthetic judgement and firework-display awe rather than the information necessary to understand the localised explosion that these images related to.

But nothing could take screen time away from Boston last week. On Thursday, the networks’ morning line-up was pulled for coverage of a memorial ceremony for the victims of the marathon bombings in which Obama gave a eulogy. It was the kind of heartrending, preacher-style oratory that made the president look powerful again instead of the lame duck frontman (think Bez with missile privileges) this week’s vote confirmed he was. I’m sure Obama’s speechwriters were grateful events took place in such a culturally and historically prominent city and not some backwater small-town where the annual highlight is a vegetable festival.

TV newspeople set up camp on the streets of Boston and no straight-to-air programme could go without some sort of mention of Monday’s bombings. Given that the bombings were more exceptional and containable and less devastating in terms of lives and infrastructure destroyed than the explosion in Texas, why did it get so much more air time? Well, American TV is a largely local animal and the marathon was attended by runners from all over America, making it relevant to a larger number of regional news programmes. Plus, more people on TV seem to come from Boston than West, Texas.

Explosion at Texas fertiliser plant last Wednesday.

But the main difference is in the news story that results. Texas was an instantaneous disaster that left nothing for follow-up coverage. It exposed systematic failures at a federal and local level. Boston was the explosion that kept on exploding, first the hunt for the bombers, then the capture, then the escape, then the re-capture. And law-and-order eventually triumphed. It couldn’t have played better if it were an episode of Dragnet and intrigue was maintained across the week like a soap opera. Interest in West, Texas dwindled faster than in Smash weand ended up looking like a programme cancelled mid-season.

 

 

Conan The Destroyed

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2013 by Tom Steward

 

After weeks of speculation, as much of it on-air as off, NBC finally announced this week that Jimmy Fallon would take over hosting duties on The Tonight Show from Jay Leno. The network press release clearly stated that Leno had presented The Tonight Show uninterrupted for 21 years. But when interviewed Leno said ‘this time it feels right’ as if he had been replaced before and somehow managed to take back the host seat. Of course, if you’re not party to the Stalinistic effort to re-write late-night television history, you’d know there was a spindly-legged ginger elephant in the room.

The George Lazenby of late-night talk shows.

In late 2009 Fallon’s predecessor on Late Night with… Conan O’Brien took over from Leno as host of The Tonight Show having been promised the position years earlier by NBC while The Jay Leno Show began airing in primetime. In early 2010, the network attempted to move O’Brien from the current timeslot of 11.35pm to after midnight so that Leno could return to the original The Tonight Show spot with his new talk show following low ratings for both programmes. O’Brien naturally refused and left the network, leaving Leno free to return to his old job for four more years.

So who presents The Tonight Show?

Fallon taking over The Tonight Show only a few years after Leno resumed hosting is the latest in a series of slaps in the face for O’Brien, who after an aborted late-night talk show on Fox ended up with a signature 11pm vehicle on basic cable network TBS in late 2010. Prone to making light of his unexpected obscurity-his house musicians on Conan are self-effacingly named ‘The Basic Cable Band’-the melancholy sometimes seeps through. While comically feigning ignorance during an interview with Kelsey Grammer following a discussion of not getting recognition for doing cable television, O’Brien starts seeming genuinely forlorn.

O’Brien may have been written out of the Tonight Show story but he remains legendary in the history of another great American TV institution, The Simpsons. As writer and producer for the series between 1991 and 1993, O’Brien scripted some of the most undisputedly superb episodes the show has seen in its 24 years on the air (and, let’s face it, will ever see). In particular, ‘Marge vs. the Monorail’ in which Springfield invests in an ill-advised public transport system was a satirical highpoint with probably the best-written celebrity cameo (a tediously anecdotal Leonard Nimoy) and unbeatable dialogue and song-writing.

Other canon-worthy Simpsons classics penned by O’Brien include ‘Homer Goes To College’ and ‘New Kid on the Block’ which pioneered a sophisticated, self-reflexive humour for the show without losing the emotional resonance synonymous with the series from the outset. In fact, Bart’s unrequited crush on teenage babysitter Laura (Sara Gilbert) is positively heart-breaking. He created several characters, such as Ruth Powers (Louise to Marge’s Thelma) and the college nerds, who would return in future episodes. He might even be able to sue the creators of The Big Bang Theory for plagiarism. Perhaps that’s why TBS wanted him at the network.

‘You’re a lot less funny in live-action’

Despite a criminal lack of exposure for a comedian of his calibre, TBS’ Conan is more excellent TV from O’Brien. His sketches remain thoroughly witty and laugh-out-loud funny, as recent spoof discussion segment ‘PopeTalk’, which evaluated the chances of various contenders for the papacy in the manner of a talk radio sports phone-in show, attested. Many recurring bits, such as ‘Celebrity Survey’ in which projected celebrity Q&A responses are collated, seem like they’ll be around for decades to come. After only a couple of years on the air, we’ve seen some memorable interviews, not least a weird-off with Harrison Ford.

Conan: You ever think with all your flying, what you would do if the plane starts to go down?/Ford: Shit and die.

I don’t want to disparage Fallon as much as I want to praise O’Brien. Fallon’s skits and impersonations are first class, as his performance of Neil Young singing the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme tune amply demonstrated. In The Roots, Fallon has at his disposal not only the coolest house band in late-night television but also one of the finest hip-hop/soul outfits of modern times. Fallon’s emphasis on music and sketch comedy undoubtedly gives the late-night talk show a new dimension. But while O’Brien is a skilled, engaging interviewer, Fallon seems more like a teenager who has won a competition.

Class act that he is, O’Brien broke his silence on Fallon’s appointment yesterday only to endorse him and wish him well. He’d have been within his rights to lambast Fallon for taking his job. And call Leno a massive dick…but then there’s never a bad time and place for that.

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