Random Thoughts on “Hairspray Live”

Random thoughts on Hairspray Live:

  • I have never seen the show or the movies – only listened to the music — so it was cool to actually see a production
  • The interludes and commercials are annoying, but I imagine if they went without them, the complaint would be that the production wasn’t glitzy enough (or that stars wouldn’t do it because the money isn’t there with fewer ads)
  • I think they only cast Ariana Grande so they could put her in that outfit at the end. She was great, but that was just too on point
  • Ephraim Sykes is amazing. That’s how deep the Hamilton bench is. He was an ensemble member.
  • I kinda liked the period “commercials” for the sponsors.
  • There will always be some sort of in-authenticity from these productions. There’s just too much difference between TV and a live show. And they are doing a one-off of something that is usually done multiple times by a cast. But I personally will trade that for seeing the never-ending smile of Maddie Baillio, who won the role of Tracy in an open casting call she saw on Facebook. She was just absolutely giddy the entire show. That was pretty awesome to watch.

Book Review: The Boys Are Back

Growing up a sports-obsessed teen in the early 1980s, I have distinct memories of the Dunbar basketball team. I never saw them play in person, but I read dozens of stories about them (Baltimore had three daily papers back then, and I read each sports section cover to cover) and watched them on the news.

I knew about how the Poets could get the city’s best players to transfer in because of the schools dental studies program. I knew how Reggie Lewis had to swallow pride and be the sixth man. I knew how people had to see Muggsy Bogues in action to believe him.

1366114933That’s why I snapped up The Boys of Dunbar: A Story of Love, Hope, and Basketball by Alejandro Danois recently. The book takes readers through Dunbar’s 1981-82 season, the one that introduced them to basketball fans across the country. They had already cemented their iconic status in Baltimore with their battles with Calvert Hall (my high school’s rival, so I always took Dunbar’s side) before this season, but Bob Wade’s team hit the road to make even more people realize how good East Baltimore could play.

I sailed through the book. They have really engaging anecdotes from the key figures on the team, spelling out the challenges the players faced both off the court and as part of a super team coached by a disciplinarian like Wade. While the story is essentially an uplifting one, punches are not pulled as the players – now all successful adults – cop to the teenage hijinks that took place during the season.

I really enjoyed reading some of the inside baseball that I did not know. For instance, I had no idea that Lewis – who died in 1993 from a congenital heart problem that he likely knew about, but hid from people – transferred to Dunbar for the ’81-82 season after he was cut as a sophomore from the team at Patterson High School. Imagine a player confident enough to say, “I didn’t make that team so I am going to the best team in the city to show them!”

Bogues also dealt with issues from his previous school. An administrative error kept him from enrolling at Dunbar in 1980, leaving him at Southern High School with a lot of anger. His arrival at Dunbar the next year filled the gap Wade thinks kept the team from upsetting Calvert Hall the previous year. The book does a great job showing the family issues Bogues had to deal with and how the used the way people reacted to his 5-foot-3 frame as fuel to become a game changer.

We also learn about personal issues David Wingate carried on his shoulders during the season and how players from competing recreation centers around the city came together to prove that Dunbar could rise to the top.

If I have any quibble, it comes with the parts where Danois writes about the Dunbar-Calvert Hall rivalry. First off, he refers to them as Calvert on more than one occasion. That never happens. They are Calvert Hall. Calvert is a high school in southern Maryland. Secondly, while he gets the part about Calvert Hall ducking Dunbar correct, he doesn’t delve into the back story as to why that mattered in Baltimore.

Public school sports are run in Maryland are run by a state-affiliated agency – the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA). This is the group that runs state championship events.

However, up until 1994, Baltimore City schools did not belong to the MPSSAA. They were part of the Maryland Scholastic Association, a sports organization comprised of city schools and area Catholic and private schools. I grew up watching (and later competing in) MSA sports where kids from the city brushed shoulders with kids living in mansions. It was a pretty unique arrangement that provided an awesome experience.

The only exception was basketball. Back in the 1970s, the Catholic schools pulled out of the MSA basketball competition because of some controversial games, including one involving Dunbar and Mt. St. Joe (where all my brothers attended school). The Catholic League formed in 1972, taking away regular-season basketball matchups between schools like Dunbar and Calvert Hall.

So the way Calvert Hall coach Mark Amatucci ducked Dunbar had even more meaning when the people in Baltimore knew that those two schools had the chance to compete alongside each other in many other sports. This wasn’t just about a good Catholic school ducking a good public school. This was about the Catholic schools not wanting to play the city schools in basketball at all.

I think adding in that flavor and maybe exposing the rift between the (mostly black) city schools and (mostly white, except for some athletes) Catholic schools would have helped explain why not getting a chance to play Calvert Hall rankled the Dunbar folks so much. Otherwise, this is a great look at a pretty special time in Baltimore sports history.

No Turning Back

I have spent years with one philosophy – cable TV is not the devil. Some people I knew would brag about how few channels they had, and I would point out all that they had missed. I defended cable prices by saying that we got value for what we paid.

But over the past couple of years, I started to see things in a different light. First of all, my daughter, like a lot of teens, found her entertainment in places other than the cable box. Secondly, streams of shows on network sites or places like Hulu made the DVR almost obsolete for me. Lastly, some companies started to find new ways to offer cable channels.

That’s how we found ourselves downgrading our cable package to the lowest possible level – a level I used to mock – recently. We only get local channels and a few shopping networks. I had kind of wanted to go even further and ditch cable altogether, but my wife’s PBS habit and the knowledge that Comcast would jack up our Internet rate killed that idea.

So we now get our cable through Playstation Vue, which costs just half of the money we have saved by downgrading our cable (and getting rid of the DVR and the sports package). I can only think of one or two channels we don’t get that I wished we still had, but we will survive.

The experience has been great so far. I have had a couple of instances where the network cut out or the Roku box we use reset, but the disruptions have been minimal. I can use my PS Vue credentials to sign into a number of TV apps, including Watch ESPN so I get the full experience.

I do miss having a TV guide (we use the Roku, which doesn’t have that feature) or being able to channel surf easily, but those are small disruptions. I have had no problem watching sports via the Roku, which provides a solid stream.

We chose Vue because of the price and selection of channels. Sling TV just didn’t have enough and limited each subscription to one stream at a time, which just wasn’t going to cut it. But I am eager to see what other options come available. Being able to cancel one and start another without delay or penalty could be interesting in the next year or so.

I have already inspired at least one friend to do the same. Even if you love your cable service, check out Vue or Sling or keep an eye on the service Hulu plans to roll out next year. You might save some money without missing a beat in your viewing habits.

Closing the Loop

fnlI don’t know why I did it. Several years ago, I started to watch Friday Night Lights on Netflix. I wanted to understand the inside jokes I heard from family and pop culture. I wanted to feel the power of Coach Taylor. I wanted to see every football game come down to the final play.

So I watched episode after episode, usually during my lunch break at work. I needed a while, but I finally got through all five seasons.


For some reason, I stopped right before the final episode. The decision made sense in my mind at the time. I wanted to truly savor my final days in Dillon, Texas. That meant watching the episode at home instead of at work.

The problem is, I never made time to watch the episode at home. At some point, I started to rationalize that if I never watched the episode, the show had never ended. Then I got lazy and just didn’t feel like going back and watching it.

I finally bit the bullet last week. I really hate myself for taking so long. The silly nature of the final game’s ending was as cheesy as I had hoped. The drama around the proposal cracked me up. The philosophy of Tim Riggins could have come in handy a long time ago. I loved every second of it.

Now that I have finally gotten around to finishing a show which went off the air in 2011, maybe I can start planning a schedule to finish Mad Men. I think I only have three seasons left.

Part of the Club

I love The Breakfast Club. The movie came out during my junior year of high school. I was a wrestler (and can dissect the strengths and weaknesses of the portrayal of a high school wrestler ad infinitum). I could identify in different ways with the other characters. The theme song was the theme of my girlfriend’s prom that year (a girlfriend who dumped me a few months later). Like so many people, it spoke to me.

That’s why I could not wait to see a 30th anniversary screening in York, Pa., last night with a Q&A following the film with Molly Ringwald.

Yeah, that Molly Ringwald. In the same room as me. Talking about one of my favorite movies. This is how I felt pretty much all day leading up to the event.

We had not sprung for the VIP package which included a meet and greet with Ringwald. But that didn’t really matter to me. She would come on stage after the screening and tell stories about the film, most of which I probably already knew. But that didn’t matter to me. What mattered was that I had a chance to see how much something that mattered to me mattered to other people, including one of the central figures involved in that thing.

Make no mistake – this is no faded star cashing in on a past success. Ringwald seems like as much of a fan of the movie as anyone else. She has a pre-teen daughter so knows the way the film can impact those dealing with the same kinds of issues that The Breakfast Club faced. She came across as completely genuine in her admiration for the power the movie holds over people like me.

I thought the event could have been tightened up a little. The comedian who served as the host took a while to get to the audience questions, instead slowly peppering Ringwald with questions about her career and other life in general. Some of the answers were interesting, but people came to hear Molly Ringwald answer their questions. That part of the night did not disappoint.

This tour with The Breakfast Club ends this week. I feel good that I got a chance to see it. Maybe even enough to dance like I’m 16 again.


You Get a Trophy! You Get a Trophy! You Get a Trophy!

I tried to resist, but I had want to weigh in with an alternate view on the kerfuffle about participation trophies for young athletes, sparked by NFL player James Harrison taking these kinds of trophies away from his 8 and 6-year-old sons because they didn’t “earn” them.

So if you are predisposed to dislike the practice, don’t think of them as participation trophies.

Think of them as “I put up with Mom and Dad video taping my every move and screaming at me even though I am really trying as hard as I can” trophies.

Or “I play this sport year round because they tell me it will make me a better player even though I haven’t even lost all my baby teeth yet” awards.

Or “I’d rather be doing something else, but Dad signed me up for this even though I said I didn’t want to do it” awards.

In an era when so many parents – myself included – shower the latest technologies on our kids and work to provide them every advantage we can get, is a trophy really the one thing that will let them think that life might not be a struggle at times? Some parents outfit their kids for instructional leagues with the latest and greatest equipment and record every at bat, goal or foul shot, but a trophy causes disillusionment? A trophy that was conceived by adults?

This trend did not come from a referendum of 8-year-olds. Second graders did not rise up and demand athletic socialism. Adults came up with this idea. So the solution is for a millionaire to yank trophies away from his kids, tell them they don’t deserve them and shame anyone else who thinks that a piece of plastic isn’t that big of a deal?

Many kids can’t remember to do a chore you told them to do 90 seconds ago, so I don’t see how a participation trophy will send them on some lifelong philosophical journey that will have them questioning the meaning of life because they finished in last place in a tournament and still got an award when they were 7.

I might have a skewed perspective on this, however, because I officiate youth wrestling in the winter. But when I regularly see kids in tears before they even begin to compete, I don’t know if we should be worrying about a trophy at the end. We should be taking stock of the entire youth sports enterprise and how parents approach it.

Youth sports can bring about so many benefits. Losing gracefully and applying the lessons from a negative experience can really benefit youngsters. But that comes from calm conversation which teaches perspective, not parents arguing over who deserves a trophy.

Just make sure that before and after they get their grubby paws on that trophy that they have actually learned something else and that you and/or the coaches have helped them gain incremental improvement in the skills of the sport.

If your kid gets something you don’t think they really earned, don’t take it away. Sit down with them and talk with them about the experience. Find out what they liked and didn’t like. Put some context around the trophy. Let the kid enjoy it for one simple reason.

They’re a kid and sometimes it’s nice to get something shiny. If you don’t think they deserve it, take away the iPad, not the trophy.


A Fable Worth Re-Telling

Thirty years ago, R.E.M. released Fables of the Reconstruction. The album has taken almost mythic qualities among the band’s canon over time, mainly because no discussion can avoid the problems the band had during the recording process.

In short, they were stuck in England where the weather was horrible and producer Joe Boyd pushed them in ways that they had never been pushed before. While the band has often talked about the difficult time they had making the album, it may have been the most important point of their career. The songs on Fables are either classics or underappreciated gems. After the album and subsequent tour, the band took a different tack and recorded their next album in Indiana with Don Gehman.

That produced Life’s Rich Pageant, my pick for their best-ever work, and they never looked back.

But we’re here to talk about Fables, which starts with “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” a song which lets you know that it may not be an easy road ahead. That turns into “Maps and Legends,” which turns into the iconic “Drive 8,” making you understand that the guys that threw together Reckoning in just a few weeks had grown up into something special.

Fables has layers upon layers of greatness, the coyness of “Green Grown the Rushes” mixed with the haunting images from “Wendell Gee” and the bouncy goofiness of “Can’t Get There From Here.”

But the song that follows “Driver 8” on the first side of the record is the one that always stays with me. “Life and How to Live It” represents the greatness that R.E.M. started to achieve for many reasons.

  • The guitar line has the sound of something powerful, but is, in reality, pretty simple. I can even play a rudimentary version of it
  • The story behind the song is classic Michael Stipe – take a nugget of a weird story and turn it into something complex, yet catchy. He tells some of it on a live version of the song from 1987, but this Flickr page covers it pretty well.
  • The live version makes you realize the power of the band in concert. They have played it twice at shows I have attended. The first one, in Pittsburgh in 1989, escapes me. The second time came at the beginning of the encore at the Patriot Center in 2003 on their “Best Of” tour. It blew me away. Looking back at old clips, the song has always had this power. The first clip below is from 1985, the second from that 2003 tour (this time in Madrid). Sit back and enjoy.

Goodbye, Gulfhaven

I will lose a friend tonight. Actually a bunch of friends as Cougar Town broadcasts its last episode.

Cougar-Town-saying-hello-to-Traviss-new-gfriendGo ahead and make fun. I have heard all the jokes. The ones about the bad name. The ones about the quality of the show. The ones about pretty much anything that ignores the fact that the show lasted six seasons, an eternity in today’s television landscape.

I fell in love with the show manly because of my man crush on co-creator Bill Lawrence. He hooked me with Scrubs, so I was an easy mark when Cougar Town came along. I love the way they turned away from the original premise of an older woman dating younger guys to a show about friends who have a special bond.

I’m the kind of fan who makes sure to read the joke about the name of the show on the title card each week. I look at the episode title to see if it references a Tom Petty song I know. I was among the fools who called 1-800-PENNYCAN to talk to cast members (I chatted with Ian Gomez and Brian Van Holt).

Sure, it moved to TBS a few years ago when ABC cut bait, but that paved the way in a sense for other shows to debut on cable stations. The show has maintained a high profile on the cable network even if the total number of viewers pales in comparison to the numbers on ABC. Like it or not, they made more than 50 hours of the show. That’s pretty awesome for a show which caught so much flak for little more than its title.

At a certain point, Cougar Town ceased trying to meet the needs of a mass audience and turned into a way for the writers and actors to entertain themselves and the hardcore fans. Counting myself in that second group, I’m OK with that decision. Comedy is supposed to focus on fun. Lawrence, co-creator Kevin Biegel and the folks that followed them never lost sight of that.

That’s why the end makes me a little sad, in a different way than the end of Parks & Rec did. I can make Parks & Rec jokes, and all kinds of people will get them. March 31 jokes land. Treat Yo Self jokes kill. Apps and zerts never get old. But when I yell “Change approved,” fewer people get why that is funny. P&R meant more, but I can also share it with more people. This is kind of the end of the road for Cougar Town jokes.

I’m glad I went for the ride.

Bragging About Nothing

I have to admit, I used to do this. I still might do it on occasion, but I try to avoid this particular annoyance as much as possible these days. Partially because I realize it doesn’t matter, but mostly because I have realized how stupid it sounds.

People have to stop bragging about not doing things.

I’m not talking about the not doing things that I admire, like spending a whole day on your couch in sweats watching TV for no good reason. That is admirable and should be shared with the world. I’m talking about the kind of not doing things that annoying sports business writer Darren Rovell tweeted about over the weekend.

This one got me for a couple of reasons. First of all, I love March Madness and fill out brackets like they are going out of style. I have done this forever so the fact that not filling out a bracket is some sort of badge of honor just makes me roll my eyes. Second, it was from Rovell, who is a twit.

But this isn’t just about March Madness brackets. We see it with any cultural phenomenon. People like to brag that they don’t care about the Super Bowl or Super Bowl commercials or the Oscars (I have been guilty of that) or pretty much any sports or pop culture event that brings people together.

I like some of those things and don’t like others, but why should I or anyone else feel compelled to puff our chest out when we aren’t interested in something a lot of other people like? Twitter and Facebook, that’s why.

I love social networks like those, but that’s pretty much the whole reason for this. People who love these events talk about them a lot, and those who are not included feel like they need to join the conversation if only to say they don’t want to join the conversation. It’s the ultimate “look at me move.”

Which is why the ultimate “look at me” guy Darren Rovell was the one that kind of set me over the edge. As I said, I am sure I have done this, usually with the Oscars and Grammys. I think I have learned my lesson. If you want credit for not doing something, you’re probably the kind of guy people don’t want joining them while they enjoy their favorite things. So just shut up.

The Rest of The Brians

I was supposed to post these last week, but forgot. I wrote it and had it saved, but totally forgot to post because I was headed to Vegas. So here you do – the “minor” awards for The Brians which are actually more fun than the real thing.

The Dorian Gray Award: Felicity Jones for The Theory of Everything. It’s no surprise that this adaptation of Stephen Hawking comes from his wife’s book because Jones does not appear to age one bit as Jane Hawking even though ALS slowly eats away at her husband. The use of soft focus as time went on just cracked me up.

Best Supporting: I gave away awards in this category for actor and actress, but I also need to recognize the big, fake boobs they gave Jane Fonda in This Is Where I Leave You. Well done.

Best Cast: No one gave Monuments Men a second thought after it quickly disappeared from the theater, but I really enjoyed the movie because they hired Bill Murray to play a Bill Murray type and John Goodman to play a John Goodman type and Bob Balaban to play a Bob Balaban type and George Clooney to play a George Clooney type and so on and so forth. It was like the World War II version of Ocean’s Eleven – just a bunch of folks who like each other having fun making a movie. Nothing wrong with that.

Best Fight: A tie between all the fights in This Is Where I Leave You.

Worst Fight: The park fight scene in Anchorman 2. Sometimes, you just need to let a scene breath and stop adding things.

Biggest Surprise: Tyler Perry in Gone Girl. He really did a nice job and made Best Supporting Actor a very crowded field.

The “Is That It?” Award: I’m not saying I wanted to see Ben Affleck’s johnson, but for all the “there’s full frontal male nudity in Gone Girl” hype I heard, it was quite disappointing to realize that no one would have likely noticed it was there if it hadn’t been advertised beforehand. Again, not looking to see his junk, but if you’re gonna do it, go full-on Jason Segal in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

Best Song: As if there was any question.

Random Thoughts on “Hairspray Live”

Random thoughts on Hairspray Live: I have never seen the show or the movies – only listened to the music — so it was cool to actually see a production The interludes and commercials are annoying, but I imagine if they went without them, the complaint would be that the production wasn’t glitzy enough (or […]

A Fable Worth Re-Telling

Thirty years ago, R.E.M. released Fables of the Reconstruction. The album has taken almost mythic qualities among the band’s canon over time, mainly because no discussion can avoid the problems the band had during the recording process. In short, they were stuck in England where the weather was horrible and producer Joe Boyd pushed them in […]

The 2015 Brians

Now that we have that silliness known as The Oscars out of the way, it’s time to focus on the real awards – The Brians. In case you don’t know, these are the awards recognizing the best in film for movies which I saw in the theater the previous year. This is a big year […]

Bragging About Nothing

I have to admit, I used to do this. I still might do it on occasion, but I try to avoid this particular annoyance as much as possible these days. Partially because I realize it doesn’t matter, but mostly because I have realized how stupid it sounds. People have to stop bragging about not doing […]