Archive for The Daily Show

The Cast Members

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Local TV, TV Acting, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , on April 7, 2016 by Tom Steward

It’s not often I ask you to do something – except look up words (or so G tells me). But at the end of this post, I’m going to ask you for money. It’s not going to me (not for a long time anyway) instead to a group of talented and ambitious individuals who want to shape the future of television sitcoms. But they need your help to do it!

The true test of a great sitcom idea is this. If you hear it and your first thought is ‘why haven’t they done that before?’, it’s a winner. If you ask that question and get the reply ‘it has’ it’s a loser. Aaron Roberts, Executive Producer of The Cast Members, needn’t worry because his sitcom about a rag tag group of movie theater employees is one of the most original yet obvious (in a good way) premises we’ve had in television comedy for years. In fact, Aaron is hoping to breathe fresh air into the comedy world:

‘Television is at its golden age with dramas, most people believe it is consistently better than the films that flood the box office week after week. But, television sitcoms? The last great ones to go off the air left what was NBC’s comedy block in shambles a few years ago. The bad outweigh good and most networks continue to rehash old premises with new faces or even worse – straight rebooting old IP’

The Cast Members is a grassroots project from independent production company Blue Vision Entertainment, who have already scripted 6 episodes and are ready to shoot an initial season with an insanely talented ensemble cast already assembled (ensembled?!) and an award-winning crew behind-the-scenes. The Cast Members is on Indiegogo to raise funds for a pilot from the 1600+ strong audience they’ve found on social media and actors and crew even got together to shoot some promo videos introducing the ensemble cast in separate scenes to really showcase all the talent attached to the project and obtain a picture of what audiences would expect to find in full length episodes.

What Aaron is doing is highly ambitious, but not unprecedented in television comedy:

‘This is the beginning of another Always Sunny or Broad City type of story; the small production that started on the web that will mark the precipice of some great comedy careers’

Nor is this a flash-in-the-pan. It’s a show that has been evolving in independent development for over 2 years and that – Aaron guarantees – will eventually air somewhere. As for content, Aaron is confident of the sitcom’s broad appeal:

‘With performers from all ethnicities and walks of life…the story has heart and speaks to anyone who has ever held a minimum wage, first employment that they sort of ‘had’ to work’

Aaron is, however, under no delusions as to what the main selling point of the sitcom is; the cast members…appropriately enough:

‘The best possible cast of the rise acting talent possible from California was assembled. Multiple NYT award nominees and recipients. Actors with credits list such as The Daily Show, Modern Family, Faking It, Tangerine and more are finally ready to break out from bit roles and showcase their true comedic chops. Two actors are currently starring in theater productions in New York and San Diego that are receiving rave reviews. Not to mention the couple working stand-up comedians portraying different characters on the show’

I’m glad Aaron said all that, so I didn’t have to. You see, I’m in the cast of this show, playing (movie) theater (concessions) veteran Peter Peterman, who thanks to Aaron’s keen sense of comedic resource exploitation developed an English accent and gained a wife between drafts. I’m even in one of the crowdfunding videos, which you can watch below. See if you can spot me. I do rather blend in:

So take a chance on this production. It’s got an interesting story to tell and 20 absolutely talented actors to do it. If you need more proof for your purchase, you can watch all ten superbly written and performed crowdfunding videos for free via the show’s Facebook page or on Indiegogo, where you can also send your donation. The amount doesn’t matter (but don’t hold back if you don’t have to!) just be sure to help us out and you can say you were a part of sitcom history before anyone else. And – if you need a closer – just remember how critical I’ve been of TV on this blog then re-read this post!

 

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Late Risers

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Culture, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 11, 2015 by Tom Steward

Over the summer, two of the most important seats in late-night television were vacated. Unlike last year, when NBC’s The Tonight Show promoted Late Night host Jimmy Fallon and CBS’ The Late Late Show traded like for like – to maintain the quota of British late-night hosts at exactly one – each of the replacements was not the heir apparent. Host of CBS’ Late Show David Letterman was succeeded by Stephen Colbert, who came in from Comedy Central, having been host of The Colbert Report and contributor to The Daily Show, and not long-time Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson, Letterman’s protégé who had, like his mentor, smashed the orthodoxy of the genre. At least Colbert was recognized as a great innovator and radical presence on TV – as well as a nifty enough entertainer – when he was awarded the Late Show crown. Utterly unlike newcomer Trevor Noah, who was bumped several pay grades when he went from Daily Show contributor to taking Jon Stewart’s job as host. In fact, Colbert was the more likely of the two to take over The Daily Show. Former contributor and frequent guest host John Oliver was a shoo-in to take over until HBO made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. After that, the choice was anyone’s guess. But Noah was no-one’s.

That's Colbert baby!

That’s Colbert baby!

Noah and Colbert have wildly different briefs. To emulate Letterman, Colbert is obliged to be as challenging and groundbreaking as possible while Noah is the steward of a culturally necessary ritual, and cannot dismantle its beloved format. As such, Noah might seem to have the harder job. But Colbert’s fluent presentation masks his deft deconstruction of late-night talk formula. He has replaced the monologue with political analyses. Guests tend to be public figures with cultural significance rather than celebrities hawking their wares. It’s a forum for news and current affairs and a showcase for high culture. Fallon’s breakthroughs by contrast have been primarily vaudevillian and even Ferguson’s reinvention of the genre as burlesque slapstick went in the opposite direction to Colbert. It’s not just the fluency with which these changes have been implemented, but also how assured, joyous and endearing Colbert is while doing it. This he may have learnt from Fallon’s head-start, but Colbert pursues it the name of something far more significant. The sad irony is that Colbert is exactly the personality The Daily Show needed to preserve its legacy, while Noah is not. Two weeks in to Noah’s reign and the added value of Jon Stewart’s easy-going charm has finally been calculated in full. A solid comic mind is simply not enough.

Stewart covered a multitude of sins with his asides and interludes of self-mocking, and without them we can see just how little content there is in the average Daily Show news item. Noah has exposed this, but I don’t level the blame at him. It takes a particularly kind of host – a Letterman or Carson, for example – to engage the audience without losing them when holes appear in the format. Noah has his long, pregnant smile, but to the live studio audience and the viewers at home, it reads as a stumble or a stall, even in the strongest segments like his brilliant mash-up of the Trump mythos with that of African dictatorship. Moments like this reassure us that the quality of mock-journalism has not dropped off, but in this case a pair of safe hands will not suffice. We need someone who can convince us they’ve revolutionized The Daily Show when nothing has changed, not a competent caretaker. Conversely, Colbert’s Late Show coup seemed bloodless, yet was a conceptual genocide. Fallon has proved it’s possible to succeed in late-night television by being a vessel for the greatness of others, and indeed Stewart leaned on Oliver and Colbert in exactly that way when they were Daily Show contributors, so Noah cannot be written off yet.

Oh no, they forgot to change the titles!

Oh no, they forgot to change the titles!

The Daily Show and Late Show are probably the two late-night talk formats that matter most culturally – with the possible exception of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk. The former is so because it is the closest America has to a reliable news source; the latter because Letterman made it a hotbed of comic artistry in the 90s. But because American TV is an inherently commercial animal, they require a certain kind of salesmanship to help audiences buy into them. Colbert’s hate-resistant persona is the perfect medium while Noah’s workmanlike anonymity may not be, at least not in the long-term. But can Colbert sustain these unimaginable highs?

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.

It’s Not What You Know, It’s HBO

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s one of the great cultural shames that people are denied access to works of art based on their income. For decades now, premium cable network HBO has been in the business of producing some of the finest television in the medium’s history and preventing large swathes of the American population from seeing them. Consumers (for that is what they are) need to be above a certain socio-economic line in order to pay HBO’s monthly subscription fee – historically between 6 and 15 dollars – along with the exorbitant cable company charges and, y’know, food and shelter, stuff like that. Of course, quality television in the US has always implicitly discriminated on socio-economic grounds by wielding cultural capital. Put very simply (and no doubt wrongly to some), cultural capital relates to the idea that what we judge as artistic or culturally worthy is determined by the social exposure that class, wealth and educational background permits, and so the elites have a collateral advantage when interpreting works of art and culture. When advertising executives in the 1980s discovered it was more profitable to target the high-spending TV viewer than the mass-audience, TV like Northern Exposure and Hill Street Blues went after educated professionals with a litany of fine art references and allusions. But whereas visiting libraries and museums would be enough to crack that code, there’s no getting around the bare economic fact that you either have the subscription money or you don’t, and if you don’t you have to actively steal culture.

The most educational show since 'Sesame Street'

The most educational show since ‘Sesame Street’

There’s no shame in that. As HBO’s own John Oliver commented, ‘A good way to know which side of the income equality gap you’re on is if you’re currently paying for HBO or stealing it’. But HBO was making great television long before fluid internet theft of television was the desirable option, and I know from experience that HBO (for obvious reasons) are more militant than most TV networks at shutting down piracy of their programmes. This is bad but it’s what HBO has been doing forever, and in the back of our minds we secretly know that the quality of the TV they produce is proportional to the number of Americans it excludes from watching. What concerns me more these days is that those without HBO are being left out of the cultural conversation. News-with-a-side-of-comedy series Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is informing and engaging Americans on political issues and debates that mainstream media and government have left too intangible for the average person to unravel, whether that’s taxes, government espionage, or the system of electing judges. As such, it’s more like Sesame Street than The Daily Show. Yes, you can find out what John Oliver discovered on your own (he did!) but he makes politics accessible without compromising their labyrinthine complexity, which is rather rarely telling you what you need to know without what to think. You can pirate Last Week Tonight and even legally watch key highlights piecemeal on YouTube, but this is only the beginning.

While the LAPD will tell you they’ve been looking into accusations of murder against Robert Durst for years, it’s hard to see how The Jinx, HBO’s documentary mini-series about the real estate heir and his alleged past crimes hasn’t at least catalysed his arrest in March while the series was still airing. The series had audio of Durst seeming to confess – somewhat sensationally reserved for the season finale – and provided evidence of a handwriting match that many think was the trigger for the LAPD to make an arrest. TV investigative reporting like CNN’s The Hunt with John Walsh has always had these aims of impacting on criminal justice – and often they do – but what’s special about The Jinx (despite its inherently lurid qualities of true crime entertainment) is that it’s a documentary about a subject that has yielded the capture of a suspected killer without that being the stated aim of the programme. Durst’s confession tape was stumbled upon during the rigorous process of compiling footage and wasn’t the result of a super-cloak of crime-fighting conservatism the show had shrouded itself in. This is because HBO has to appeal but it doesn’t have to pander. The network or basic cable equivalents of The Jinx and Last Week Tonight are significantly diluted by gestures to mainstream entertainment orthodoxy – sycophantic celebrity interviews, monster-of-the-week journalism – but the former spends a series on what would be an hour on any other channel and the latter expands a 5-minute news segment into a quarter-hour dissection.

The Residential Telection

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2012 by Tom Steward

I cannot tell a lie. As a flightless fledgling that has only ever developed use of his left wing part of me could not help but rejoice last week as Fox News atrophically awoke from its coma-deep political sleep and blearily wiped its coping-mechanism fantasy of a conservative America from its self-gauged sightless eye sockets. The humanitarian in me wept with relief as the network finally released its statistician hostages from their underground prison-all victims of a one-strike-you’re-out policy on including empirical evidence in reports-thanks to the efforts of negotiator Megyn Kelly, a woman who has made a career on telling comforting lies to people who have made bad life choices. As Kelly abandoned the obfuscation-forcefielded studio and walked the emergency-broadcast-network-after-zombie-apocalypse corridors to the quarantined chamber of facts, the façade fell away like actors in a fourth-wall sitcom coming out to meet their studio audience…only no-one was there except employees.

Whatever joy I felt was tainted by the knowledge that my smug sense of self-satisfaction would be shared by another news network which also puts partisan politics before reporting news and skews the facts towards a prevailing ideology: MSNBC. Sure enough, the following day signature anchor Rachel Maddow was on TV instructing viewers-who she clearly thinks of as eternally living in an episode of Thirtysomething-to get popcorn before her rundown of the election results. But results were not the focus of the item. They were simply cues in a spoken-word liberal version of the national anthem, a diatribe that one day will be set to the theme music of The West Wing (‘O-bama-wiiiiiiiins’) and released by Baz Luhrmann to be bought by thick people. Though evidently meant to anger Fox News, I can imagine Bill O’Reilly gazing on in awe similar to Goebbels admiring the propaganda power of Eisenstein’s films.

When asked to account for the relish with which she recounted Obama’s election victory by fake conservative Stephen Colbert-who for once didn’t have to try too hard to look pissed off with a liberal-Maddow replied that ‘this week the facts have a liberal bias’. Tongue-in-cheek, maybe, but no less a shameless piece of media spin and political fabrication for it. By Maddow’s rationale, there are weeks where Fox News coverage is entirely accurate, as long a conservative has been successful at something in the previous few days. Whether she knows it or not, Maddow is on to something. Fox News and MSNBC have a symbiotic relationship. One political extreme needs an equally uncompromising polar opposite to counter the damage. They turn viewers into party extremists when all they want is political options in their news consumption. The only high ground MSNBC has is to say childishly: ‘Fox News started it’.

You don’t need to be a conservative to attack this liberal…

Don’t get me wrong, I’m gravitationally inclined towards many of the politicised views espoused on MSNBC. I think Maddow recognises the minutiae and complexity of political systems and endows every hour of TV with the societal-unravelling sophistication of a season of The Wire. There is no comparison between her multi-faceted understanding of the world and Bill O’Reilly’s PowerPoint flow diagram of a political consciousness. I admire the Reverend Al Sharpton as an activist, politician and orator greatly and I’d take his wisdom over the washed-up, day-in-the-sun extremists that Fox News recruitment drive after their inevitable ignominious failures any day. I credit MSNBC for steadfastly avoiding the showbusiness ethos that Fox News presenters adhere to, even if it costs them ratings. What I object to is the idea that it’s the job of TV news to present political perspectives, legitimise partisan affiliations and comfort viewers about the righteousness of their choices.

Totally balanced coverage

I didn’t always feel this way. I once found tiresome the myth of objectivity that British TV news divisions such as the BBC wrap themselves in. I thought it better than reporters relinquish the façade of balance and own their opinions rather than pretending their reports were unbiased. The illusion of giving equal weight to both sides of an argument seemed to me entirely artificial, not only because in many cases there was no ‘other side’ and only one right thing to do but also because there was usually a clear affinity with one side or the other. I thought it more productive to admit bias and make it work for the report, especially in humanitarian crises such as famines or disasters where there was a global consensus. After prolonged exposure to American TV news, however, I now long for a token alternative viewpoint and the masquerade of even-handed commentary.

‘Where were you tonight Barack?’

I could not help but mourn for neutral window-dressing after witnessing MSNBC’s veteran newsman Chris Matthews, most recently seen reacting to Obama’s lethargic campaign debate performance like a disappointed father at a school football game, interview prolific investigative journalist Bob Woodward about his new book on the financial crisis. Woodward is known for his evidence-based investigations which privilege factual rigor over politicised interpretation. Yet Matthews tried to brow-beat his guest into admitting that Republicans were more to blame for stalemated response to the crisis than Democrats even though Woodward’s extensive research concluded that there were comparable errors on both sides, a systematic failure of government not of party. Relief comes in the form of news satires such as The Daily Show that, though entitled to bias, attack the inadequacies of both conservatives and liberals. And yet it is this show that holds a reputation for political bias and partisan machinery!

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