Archive for ricky gervais

Sound and Television

Posted in American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, Behind-The-Scenes, TV Acting, TV channels, TV History, TV News, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , on January 12, 2016 by Tom Steward

David Bowie was – among other divinities – a consummate self-promoter and it’s for this reason alone I feel justified in exploiting a niche in the market of Bowie obituaries; his appearances on television. Looking back at what Bowie has done on and for TV, it’s all too clear that his genius – like Elvis before and Madonna after him – was in breaking down barriers of genre and generation. His TV – see one thrive:

 

Top of the Pops (1972)

Though in retrospect Bowie only ever flirted with LGBT imagery and shed his public bisexuality as quickly as he did all his other personas – including the one at the root of his sexual ambiguity, Ziggy Stardust – his performance of ‘Starman’ on British chart countdown Top of the Pops in 1972 was a watershed in the visibility of gender and sexual fluidity in the mainstream culture of Britain. Bowie’s androgynous dress and appearance was one thing, his suggestive embrace of guitarist and collaborator Mick Ronson entirely another. Viewers may have been reading between the lines, since Bowie had recently come out as gay (or possibly bisexual) in rock magazine Melody Maker. That this risqué – and risky – display had such an impact is due as much to the three-channel limit of TV viewing in the UK in the early seventies which meant it was seen by most of the country’s television audience as it is to the content of the performance. But that doesn’t diminish the power it had on those who were awakened and liberated by Bowie’s gesture, including future British pop legends Boy George and Ian McCulloch, nor does it make this surreptitious statement of social change less significant.

 

David Bowie and Bing Crosby (1977)

Despite being constantly innovative and revolutionary in his music, Bowie was never one to shun tradition, as evidenced by his affection and appreciation for the cabaret singers and crooners who were the pop sensations of their eras. Bowie seemed to have a particular fondness for American pop music, and became a fully-fledged part of it in the seventies and eighties when – inexplicably – he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the  most legitimate funk and soul artists in the USA. If you take all that into consideration, the awkward chemistry and textbook-illustration culture clash of David Bowie singing with Bing Crosby on his Christmas show in 1977 disappears into thin air. If the lacklustre banter about the irrelevance of a  generation gap in musical tastes doesn’t convince you of their parity – and it won’t – then the complimentary idiosyncrasies in their duet medley of ‘Little Drummer Boy’ and ‘Peace on Earth’ makes a compelling case for their historically inextricable legacies as pop stars.

 

The Snowman (1982)

As a recent orchestral performance of the British animated feature based on Raymond Briggs’ beloved children’s book I witnessed reminded me, the live-action introduction featuring David Bowie as an adult version of the main character remembering his childhood experiences is more often omitted from showings than it is included. It’s not really surprising as the appearance of a clean-cut, bleach-blond Bowie is the only aspect of this timeless film that dates it as a product of the early eighties. But this appearance unlocks a history of extraneous and bizarre movie cameos that is as much part of Bowie’s place in pop culture as his music. The Snowman is aired every Christmas Eve on British TV station Channel 4 and I suspect that in future years the melancholy of this beautiful film about loss and transience will have as much to do with Bowie as it does the Boy.

 

Extras (2006)

Speaking of extraneous and bizarre cameos…Though celebrity appearances like Bowie’s would eventually spell the end of Ricky Gervais’s credibility as comic actor and writer, his industry-set sitcom Extras created a self-contained world in which celebrity sightings were eminently plausible. The irony of Bowie’s appearance in the second episode of the sitcom’s final season is that a music star of his ilk is the last celebrity sitcom actor Andy Milman is likely to run into. It’s not much of a leap to suggest that this might be a sly reference to Bowie turning up in projects he didn’t need to be in. It’s one of the few occasions that Gervais had the humility to credit someone else with his success. Gervais’s self-effacing ode ‘Little Fat Man’ is styled so perfectly for Bowie, it acknowledges the extent to which Gervais’s physical and vocal mannerisms which have won him international adoration – especially as David Brent – are informed by the late performer.

 

 

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Mad Men, Crazy People And Invented Lies

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV advertising, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 9, 2015 by Tom Steward

When I’m put in mind of advertising – which this week’s return of Mad Men for the final time has done – I think about two great gags in two terrible movies. The first is the direly offensive mental illness comedy Crazy People in which an advertising executive played by Dudley Moore is sent to an institution after writing honest campaigns for clients’ products. These include ‘Buy Volvos. They’re boxy but they’re good’, ‘Jaguar: For men who’d like hand jobs from women they hardly know’ and ‘United: Most of our passengers get there alive’. The second is Ricky Gervais’ tedious The Invention of Lying about a parallel reality where everyone tells the truth. So the TV spots for Coke have spokespeople saying ‘it’s basically brown sugar water’ and bus ads for Pepsi read ‘When there’s no Coke’. The use of real brands suggests this is as much a creative solution to product placement as a satire of it (and The Invention of Lying has plenty of unchallenged advertising throughout). On one level the joke is simple irony; ads tend to be dishonest so inverting this is subversively funny. But on another, the gag rests on the fact that these are legitimate alternatives to deceptive advertising. The twist in Crazy People is that the public prefer this style of advertising, and Dudley Moore is quickly hauled back from the institution. Depicting the products self-critically doesn’t make them off-putting in any way or at all harm the brands, and real advertising executives know this.

...except Dudley Moore

…except Dudley Moore

The delivery chain Domino’s Pizza based an entire campaign around apologizing for the poor quality of their product, even including negative comments from social media in their ads. Dated electronics store Radio Shack launched a series of ads called ‘The ‘80s want their store back’ in which various celebrities from the spandex decade, such as ALF, Hulk Hogan and Cliff from Cheers tear the antiquated shop floor apart. Where these campaigns differ from the ones in Crazy People and The Invention of Lying is that the former insist things are going to change, while the drawbacks of the products advertised in the latter are inherent, tolerable and even desirable. The notion that ad executives can pull off this complex interplay of tone and address is at the heart of Mad Men’s somewhat utopian vision of the advertising industry. Yes, only a handful of creatives who work at an agency containing the names ‘Sterling Cooper’ seem to get it, but from the beginning Matthew Weiner always insisted that the art of advertising was to turn disadvantage into a unique selling point. In the pilot, Don Draper tells the Lucky Strike owners that federal rulings on the dangers of smoking put them on a level playing field with their competitors since no-one can brand their cigarettes as safe anymore.

In honour of Mad Men and its comic forbearers, here are a few of my own campaign slogans telling the truth about a brand in a way that makes you admire their forthrightness:

Peroni: Disgusting with anything but pizza.

Taco Bell: We do to Mexican food what Robocop did to Officer Murphy.

Wells Fargo: With ATM charges like this, you know your money’s safe.

McDonald’s: There’s too many reasons to hate us, so save yourself the trouble.

Cox: The alternative is just as bad.

Little Caesar’s: Working around the craft of pizza-making since 1959.

Amazon: We’re going to send you a package anyway, so you might as well order it.

Disneyland: Once upon a time…when infant mortality was higher.

Carl’s Jr.: Women lose rights in every bite.

Uncle Ben’s: For when convenience beats out white guilt.

Nescafe: What’s the use of ethics if you’re not awake to have them?

Amtrak: Inconvenient and expensive but what else would we do with the tracks?

Stella Artois: For the continental wife-beater in you [this is only marginally more honest than the brand’s real slogan ‘Reassuringly expensive’]

Chik Filet: You have homophobes in your family whose chicken you eat!

Google: The thing you type because it’s the thing you type.

San Pellegrino: Brine never tasted so good.

Apple: You buy it, you break it.

Starbuck’s: Hatred for us distracts you from worse inequalities.

PayPal: We won’t tell you how we make money if you don’t.

Bud Light: It works better as a light than a beer.

Esurance: We stopped John Krasinski from making more shitty movies…you’re welcome!

Yahoo: You have an email with us to get an extra Twitter account.

Twitter: Keeping Yahoo in business since 2008

Good (Late) Morning America!

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2011 by Tom Steward

Waking up is hard to do. I always thought this was because of my sedentary lifestyle but apparently it’s because the TV in my country was never worth getting up for. Whereas in the UK, I’d be swilling cereal with bothered-looking hospital patients and those in the auction trade, here in the USA I’m champagne breakfasting with living legends and soap stars with heads so big they eclipse the painted moon backdrops they are so frequently mounted against. TV crumbles into the ashes of interest about 9am in the UK once the breakfast magazine and sitcom cycles are over but in the US (California time) this is when it starts to come alive. The stalwart of late morning TV is ABC’s Live! With Regis and Kelly, a talk and magazine show hosted by Bob Hope impersonator and male version of Blanche from The Golden Girls Regis Filbin and his co-presenter cum carer Kelly Ripa. A fairly mundane roll call of deathly dull competitions and perfunctory celebrity interviews are made immensely likeable by Regis’ endearing ineptitude and Kelly’s brusque-but-funny ushering that makes you want to purr ‘oh, she’s so good with him’. The top and tail of the show where the banter between the two hosts is allowed to flow freely is genuinely hilarious and frequently smart and witty, especially when Regis is irked by Kelly’s sarcasm and his latent insult comic lets rip. What’s more the show does skits and spoofs incredibly well, much more so that the cringingly appalling attempts at tomfoolery by other breakfast programmes like the Today show. This is mostly thanks to the arresting comic talents of the pair. Regis has that air of a hobbyist about him that distinguishes so many of the great TV presenters (Richard Whiteley and Terry Wogan would be the British TV equivalents) and is a walking argument against slickness and competence in TV hosting.

I have to admit I’m rather fond of The View, a flagship all-female fronted talk and magazine show that comes on after Regis and Kelly, which sports some pretty big cheeses in the world of news and entertainment like veteran comedienne Whoopi Goldberg and heavily medicated queen interviewess Barbara Walters. The format was plagiarized by ITV’s Loose Women and occasionally it’s just as banal and clichéd in its attitudes towards gender and reductive, applause-driven mwah-mwahs about politics. But The View is tons classier than its British mutant and sometimes it’s pretty challenging. In October of last year, Whoopi and co-host Joy Behar walked off in protest to Fox News’ Bill O’ Reilly’s badger-baiting bollock-mongering claim that ‘the Muslims got us on 9/11’ and the show is consistent in offering viewers a balance of liberal and conservative opinion, from the punchably swan-necked WASP Republican Elizabeth Hasselbeck to Behar’s fart-smell-faced social liberal skepticism. The interviews often take the form of grueling interrogations to the point that guests often bring gifts with them to try and pacify their inquisitors. Ricky Gervais had a remarkably tough time the other day with the interviewers scrutinizing every word of his Golden Globe jokes, a much rougher ride than he could ever expect from chortle-faced Graham Norton or celebrity chum Jonathan Ross.

The next couple of hours are dominated by soaps. Whereas British soaps tend to attempt social realism and end up peddling melodrama, American soaps seem much more in control of their ludicrous and overblown plots and characters, almost to the point of complete self-awareness. Nothing is too much, be it ghost, alien, dream or coincidencis-in-extremis. And they seem happy, nay even proud, to recycle the same old stories. In the episode of The Bold and the Beautiful I saw, a man was heard to say ‘You’re not the first women to come in here in a trench coat trying to steal me away’. I, for one, believe him. Thought of as drearily sentimental, what struck me was how completely nasty and Machievellian these soaps are; an impure celebration of conniving and conspiracy. What really stands out is how the soaps are (all identically) shot. Extreme close-ups on faces are the base line which, depending on your level of cynicism, could either signify budget-cutting in background set design or an almost schizophrenic immersion in the emotions of the characters being watched. It’s probably a combination of both and like all good TV is equal parts thrift and intimacy. The morning to lunchtime schedule on US TV is almost pathologically entertaining, and doesn’t make me feel bad for not appraising my attic space.

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