Thursday, December 24, 2009
Filled with holiday spirit, I’m re-running my Chanukah/Christmas post from 2009, one of my favorites. It’s my gift to my new readers who’ve never seen it and it’s my my gift to me, as I’m feeling pretty lazy at the moment. For everyone else, I apologize and hope your friends and family took care of you.
Let’s face it, Chanukah is a really lackluster Christmas substitute. For one thing, very few of us can even pronounce “Chanukah.” While both holidays start with the same two letters, their “Chr” sounds like “Cr” but our “Ch” sounds like a cat getting rid of a hairball. Nobody in my family knew exactly how far to go with their “Ch.” One aunt got so enthusiastic with her “chhhh” that she chhh-ocked a loogey right into the Kugel.
While Christians had scientific evidence that Jesus was born on December 25th, even though that date had been a pagan celebration centuries before his B-day, Chanukah was based on a totally made-up event: Judah Maccabee’s alleged candle miracle. In case you haven’t heard, this myth was invented hundreds of years after Mr. Maccabee was pushing up the daisies. Even my esteemed Rabbi, Manfred Swarsensky, more or less admitted to me that we picked our holiday out of a hat. I’m sure we Jews would have turned Yom Kippur into a high-flying jubilee if it was in December.
No, Purim is the real gift-giving holiday for Jews, but it comes near Easter, when there are less sales. From a kid’s point of view, Purim kicked Chanukah’s ass. For my goy readers, on Purim you get these noise-makers called gragers that you swing around during the Purim service, every time the rabbi says “Haman” (the Dick Cheney in the Purim backstory). Of course my good friend Mark Harris would pretend he heard wrong and swung his grager every time Rabbi S. said “Esther,” which was a lot. This became contagious, and before too long, we were all giggly, and the Temple was filled with grager-delic pandemonium. As punishment for our horseplay, Swarsensky made us all stay late in Bar Mitzvah class and miss “Batman.”
But as much as I love Purim, I know it wouldn’t have held up against Christmas any more than Chanukah because it has no tree. Many of my fellow Hebrews coped with tree-envy by getting what they called a “Chanukah Bush.” For me that was like a bad toupee… who did they think they were fooling? Just show me one bush that looks like that…it’s a tree. And if you want to do anything Chanukah-related with it, you should buy nine and use one to set the rest ablaze.
If we had had a Chanukah Bush at our house I know it would have been lame. We would’ve trimmed it with all these Jewish chatchkes, little Menorahs, and six-pointed stars. That’s like putting Billy Graham’s picture under the Mezuzah on the door. If you’re going to have a Christmas Tree, don’t pussy out: go to K-Mart, get some Angels, Rudolphs and Frosties, and be done with it. Snowflakes would be nice. Snowflakes are non-denominational.
But the thing that gives most Chanukah-boosters an inferiority complex is our pathetic holiday music. There are a lot of good Yid musicians, but I guess that they couldn’t get worked up enough about Chanukah, aside from Adam Sandler. The Christians had all the best songwriters, like Irving Berlin. They had Mel Torme singing “The Christmas Song,” we had Allen Sherman singing a parody of “I Have a Little Dreidel.”
But don’t get me started on Dreidels. Am I the only one who thinks this is the dumbest game ever invented? You spin a four-sided top that has the first letters of the Hebrew alphabet on it. And then? How do you win? How do you lose? The game was too damned existential for me. Why was I was spinning the Dreidel? To learn how to spin a top better? That’s not exactly Monopoly. And in any case I had Dreidel-spinning mastered by the time I was five. Come to think of it, I don’t remember seeing anybody over five engrossed in a scintillating game of Dreidel. Perhaps that’s why there are Chess tournaments, but no Dreidel tournaments.
So this year I was planning to celebrate Christmas the way Jews have done since ancient times—going to a Chinese restaurant. But my wife—the former Melissa Goldberg—is dragging me out for a hearty Christmas dinner with friends. Bah humbug, I say. I sure as hell hope that the occasion isn’t too jolly or merry or overloaded with a surfeit of good tidings. I don’t like to have Christmas shoved in my face.
But I am bringing my guitar and my Reader’s Digest book of Christmas carols. I sing Christmas carols all year round, not just because they are so beautiful, but also because so many of them are about people who can’t make it home for Christmas. I can relate to that. The only one I refuse to do is “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” I can’t get through that one without busting out bawling. The song is a wholesome Norman Rockwell portrait of a little kid who comes downstairs and is so sweet and naive that he doesn’t know what the f*ck is going on. I grew up in the Midwest and there was a time when I actually was like that kid, until I got to be nine and started getting neurotic. But little kids today will never have the opportunity to ever experience that kind of purity, the way I did. Instead of hiding down in the living room watching Mommy kissing Santa Claus, they’re up in their bedroom downloading porn.
But as you can tell, I love Christmas for it’s own sake and not just because Chanukah blows. Even when I was alone, thinking of suicide, drowning my troubles in Mogen David, “It’s A Wonderful Life” came on TV to brighten my perspective and make me understand what really matters.
Obviously, Frank Capra was not a Jew.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
In 2000, there was a highly-read Oscar website written by someone named Zeusifer, that charted Oscar nominees and potential winners. Zeusifer didn’t evaluate actors’ chances based on the quality of their performances, or prognosticate with the usual “Oscar voters traditionally go for…blahblahblah”—he rated people solely by the amount of press they were getting. A noteworthy media booking, like a magazine cover, The New York or LA Times, The Tonight Show, could move a contender higher on the chart. Zeusifer—who I assumed was a guy--didn’t explain his methodology and he didn’t make any claims that more press would definitely lead to a win. But obviously that was the idea.
Because the ratings were constantly moving, it was really addictive to read Zeusifer. I can testify to the fact that some very big stars with Oscar chances tracked the thing constantly.
As you might imagine, Zeusifer was a nightmare for publicists who had clients who read him. If it wasn’t all our fault already, here was this dude to shove it in our faces.
But who the hell was he? Was it someone big shot or little shot in the industry? Or was he just some nerdy high school student in his basement with a stack of magazines and the TV on all the time?
I liked the name a lot: a combination of Zeus and Lucifer, God and the Devil. Zeusifer was God because he had given himself the power to make people in high places pay attention to him. And our curiosity was intensified because no one ever saw him, like the Wizard of Oz, J.D. Salinger or Nikki Finke. But he was the Devil because he played into our basest instincts—our belief that the Oscar, our holiest sacrament of true cinematic genius, can be bought by hiring a good PR firm.
Zeusifer didn’t reject potential names like Zeusan or Zeusil just because they sound like decongestants. He purposefully picked the blend that rhymed with the Dark Angel’s moniker. For me, “Zeusifer” has the ring of evil laughter from the bowels of hell: “Hahahahahahahahahaha! I took your Almighty Soul when you placed that “For Your Consideration” ad for Michael Bay!”
But one day, when I wasn’t paying attention, Zeusifer quietly closed down the site and was gone, leaving his identity a mystery For me, it was like losing a good friend. Although in many ways he was a thorn in my side, I enjoyed reading him and I thought it was a big waste of talent. After inventing himself and making himself matter to big names, he just retreated into obscurity. Or maybe not. Maybe he’s now a blogger with a loyal following. Maybe he’s taking over a PR agency or even a studio.
Or maybe he’s just taking out the garbage.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Fame, it’s not your brain, it’s just a flame that burns your change to keep you insane.
--David Bowie, “Fame”
Recently, “Ally Sheedy” has been turning up as a “Suggestion” in my Facebook page. For those of you who aren’t on Facebook, this means that enough people I know are “friends” with “Ally,” and the computer has decided that she might be my buddy too. And as it happens, I do know Ally. I know her well enough to know she’s not on Facebook.
Ally and I started talking about Facebook some time ago when a previous Sheedy impersonator turned up on Facebook. This one had a lot of elaborate made-up details in her profile, including Ally’s favorite hangout in LA (as anyone with the slightest curiosity about knows, she lives in NY). Despite how preposterous this was, lots of seemingly well known people had befriended this “Ally.” Of course, some of the celebrities who were friends with the fake Ally might have been impostors too, but others were definitely people I knew. My official Facebook “Mutual Friend” list confirmed this.
This new “Ally” is more sophisticated. She doesn’t share any details. All this person had to do was put up a picture and wait for Ally’s friends to get in touch. I can imagine the notes. “How are you! It’s been ages. We should really get together!” or “I have loved you with all my heart since ‘The Breakfast Club. How could you let Molly Ringwald give you that horrible make-over?”
Facebook has a system for dealing with this type of thing. You tell them what the real profile is and they’ll take off the phony one. Apparently, if you don’t want to be on Facebook then you are out of luck. Now perhaps I’m wrong about this, and if you have any suggestions let me know. But if I am right, then Facebook is both enabling and protecting fraud.
Every time I go on Facebook and see “Ally” it makes me mad for some reason. I don’t know exactly why I care so much but I do. Once I friended a singer I know and sent him some personal messages. Was it really him? He didn’t respond. When I wrote about the Ally thing on Facebook, another friend commented that someone was tweeting in her name. It’s all very weird and makes me insecure about the whole thing, and takes a lot of the fun out of it. If I’m going to be friends with someone I don’t know, I want to feel confident that I don’t know them. They could be one of my closest friends masquerading as a stranger just to mess with my head.
Which leads me to the question: “Why do people do this?” Do they need to feel famous but don’t want to do the hard work of abusing their child on TV, gate-crashing a Presidential event, or sleeping with Tiger Woods? No, all they do is make a profile, put up a picture, and presto—they’re famous! To me, this is extremely unfair to all the reality stars who expose their personal lives, eat cow testicles, and jump off buildings in order to fulfill their destiny as celebrities. They have earned their right to be nobodies who become somebodies fair and square. But not these bozos. They want to be famous without getting out of their Snuggies. They are couch potato poseurs.
Do they worry that they might be friends with too many of the other Facebook pretenders? Would that take the fun out of it? Maybe they think that’s a good thing. Maybe they are all part of a fellowship like people in the game room of a mental institution. “Howdy, I’m Napoleon. Don’t play Boggle with LL Cool J over there… he’ll take your money!”
Of all the changes the internet has wrought I’m sure no one predicted that the price of fame would become so cheap. Enough to make Andy Warhol’s head spin. 15 minutes of fame? Are you joking? That’s enough time for a career to rise and fall with two minutes to spare. You’ll be negotiating your deal with “The View” after 15 minutes. I guess that after enough time goes by, everyone in the USA will be famous except for me, because I don’t want to be. But then I’d probably get famous anyway for being the last holdout.
The irony of all this is that I actually think that Ally should go on Facebook. I think she’d enjoy it. Perhaps she’s not too thrilled about the day the other Ally turns up as a Suggestion. It would definitely happen. After all, they have so many friends in common.
Friday, December 04, 2009
I must admit I’m stunned. This Comcast deal will have a huge impact on American culture, but so far the media has only provided us with useless details that shed no light, The New York Times being the most prominent offender. But today The Times ran a front-page story that clearly explained what the deal is about: fear of cutting the cord, or cable castration or whatever you want to call it. Of course, the article only regurgitated the industry’s talking points. and did not mention the gorilla in the room: piracy. Perhaps the studios think that because they have successfully shut down The Pirate Bay and scared Mininova to going legit, that piracy is a thing of the past. That’s like saying that if you bust a pot-smoker’s dealer they will never smoke pot again. No, it just means that that he or she will have to find another source. Piracy is here to stay because people like doing it and a lot of people don’t have money now
I wrote in my last post that Comcast might screw around with Hulu. Soon after, NewTeeVee ran a story quoting Comcast COO Steve Burke suggesting they had no major plans to change Hulu--that it was “complementary” with cable:
“Right now, NBC Universal is distributing a lot of their broadcast content on Hulu, and they have been quite careful not to put too much of their paid-for-cable content out for free over the Internet,” Burke said. “We think both those strategies are smart and appropriate… and we would see after the deal closing, lots of broadcast content going to Hulu and being available for free, and cable content that cable customers pay for, that cable companies and satellite companies and telcos pay for, being on TV Everywhere.”
But soon after, he called to refine the quote, leaving himself a bit more breathing room. And in today’s Time story leaves no doubt that things are indeed going to change. They quote Hulu’s Jason Kilar saying that all options are on the table.
Read my lips: Hulu is going to change. A lot.
This is going to backfire. People like Hulu exactly the way it is. If anything, they want more movies and TV.
This is war. This is a war against what consumers want. This is an attempt to forestall the new business model which will eventually come no matter how hard they try to stop it: which is that people will be willing to pay for things they want, as they do with HBO, rather than forcing people to pay for what they don’t want, as cable plans do. Premium plans on Hulu? I think a lot of people would be happy to pay for that if they could watch without ads. I sure would. I can pick up the phone right now and tell Time Warner I want Showtime and it’s there, and my bill goes up accordingly. Or I can cancel.
Why can’t I watch a few free episodes of “Glee” or “30 Rock” and decide if I want to subscribe to them? I go on my computer, select them and am billed.
The possibilities opened up by such a system are unbelievable, if you just take a moment to think about them. No one would have to program anything against “American Idol,” because all the shows that aren’t live can be watched at any time. More cult shows could stay on the air. Channels could decide to give up censorship and not let HBO take all the Emmys year after year. There could be revenue-sharing between the festivals and the filmmakers. And on and on.
The thing about this system is that it gives people a motivation to pay for culture.
It’s hard to imagine the opportunities of the future if all your energy is spent trying to keep it from happening. And that’s what wrong with the media’s stories. The journalists write them by interviewing the people who lack imagination. In fairness, Steve Jobs doesn’t give interviews.
I wonder why. I realize that secrecy is vital to the way Apple operates, but I’m not talking about giving away details on specific products. Jobs could talk about his vision of the future until he was blue in the face and no one in the industry would listen to him.
Wednesday, December 02, 2009
Now that their deal seems to be going through with NBC-Universal, Comcast is in a position to screw with Hulu. If they want to, they can remove or provide less access to “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock,” and other shows. They could change the setup so that you can’t see as many NBC shows or Universal movies for free. Or they could set it up so that it’s only available on Fancast.com or Comcast.com. Regardless of what they do, they are in a position to slow Hulu’s growth.
Or they could just leave it as it is. Maybe they just spent all these billions of dollars for fun.
If they mess with Hulu, it will instantly move the free-with-ads stuff underground where Comcast and GE won’t won’t get any money for them. This maneuver would give an advantage to the new programs from other networks who use free online video to market their news and strengthen their existing ones. Of course they will damage “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” too. I hadn’t watched “Saturday Night Live” for years until the videos started turning up on YouTube and eventually on Hulu. In Ross Perot’s words, you would hear that big sucking sound.
A weakened Hulu would be a big gift to Sony, as their Crackle site is terrific, and hopefully, will remain free. Hulu is the brand to beat now, but the public is fickle. If Hulu expanded its content into HBO, CNN, ESPN, no one would ever be able to touch them. They could easily lead us to a new media age where people would happily pay a monthly fee for the content they want without ads. An HBO model for everything. Guess what? You want people to pay to see your show? Make something that’s good. Don’t expect to have companies like Comcast make people pay you for your shows whether they want to watch them or not.
Of course in a world like that, many people would cut their cable cords. But I doubt there would be a mass exodus for a long time. Most won’t want the hassle of fine-tuning what they want to see, and connecting the computer to their TV, so they’ll keep paying for cable for the convenience. This is the way it always goes. Some folks keep using VHS tapes and audio cassettes long after the new thing is introduced.
But eventually the day will come when the cable cord is only for internet connections. It’s just a question of how much Comcast is willing to devastate their stock price and commit fiduciary hari-kari in a dubious attempt to forestall the inevitable.
The New York Times reports today that everybody in Hollywood thinks that Jeff Zucker is responsible for the failures at NBC, and that Comcast plans to keep him. Probably it’s one of those articles that will help convince Comcast to fire him if they haven’t made that decision already, but the whole deal (see below) suggests they are just dumb enough to do that. Stick with the guy who moved Leno to prime time and has the NBC affiliates outside his window with pitchforks.
I don’t want to be callous about all this. I feel sorry for all the people at Comcast and NBC and Universal who will lose their jobs because the people on top are so arrogant and foolish. But ultimately this is like the forest that must burn down so that the new growth can begin.