Posts Tagged ‘TV’

Watching too many TV commercials

November 17, 2011

Open with exterior shot of long white limo driving down a country road. Graphic points to car’s “blacked-out windows”.

Announcer overdub: “A lot of people don’t think food companies are honest about the source of their ingredients.”

Cut to interior shot of focus group sitting around a conference room table. Facilitator asks: “Do you think Domino’s wants you to know where their ingredients come from?”

Hispanic woman: “You should be able to know.”

Anglo woman: “Yeah. With Domino’s you assume the worst, so it would be reassuring to at least believe the ingredients are carbon-based.”

Black man: “I don’t know about that crust, man. Kinda reminds me of chipboard.”

Walls of conference room fall away.

Asian man: “Oh, my god. It’s an earthquake! The building is collapsing! Hand me that pizza so its rock-hard shell can protect my head from falling debris!”

Collapsing walls reveal exterior shot of expansive paper mill. Focus group surprised to find it’s now inside a large warehouse. Safety-helmeted plant worker approaches group and speaks:

“No, it’s not chipboard. Domino’s crust is made of only the finest corrugated cardboard, formed right here in this mill from virgin stands of California hardwood.”

Hispanic woman: “What’s that horrible smell?”

Worker: “That’s the smell of raw wood pulp being boiled and processed to make the grade-A cardboard that forms the base of our famous pizza.”

Black man: “So that’s how I can now order two medium-sized two-topping pizzas for only $5.99 each. You save on production costs by cooking the packaging right into the pie.”

Worker: “That’s right. By eliminating the box and building the pizza out of triple-laminated paper products, we save you money while also offering you the best quality possible.”

Announcer overdub: “Be sure to visit behindthepizza.com to see what else we’re baking into our product that you wish you didn’t know.”

Anglo woman: “I had a friend who worked at a Domino’s once. She said it’s not what’s behind the pizza you should worry about, it’s what’s behind the ovens, behind the counter, in the bathroom, under the fingernails of the workers. But seeing this paper mill somehow makes me feel better. Or at least light-headed. What are those chemicals I’m smelling, anyway?”

Asian man: “I always thought Domino’s was only slightly better than the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and the subsequent world war that killed over 60 million people. My opinion of them is now much higher, considering the paycheck I’ll be getting for this commercial.”

Announced overdub: “Order your all-natural Domino’s pizza today.”

Small disclaimer type at bottom of screen: “Not responsible if delivery man slays your family. Our drivers carry less than $20 in change and make less than $15 per day. Must purchase at least 50 pizzas to receive advertised price. Must specifically ask for ‘limited time offer’ and use a cartoonish high-pitched squeak to place your order. Prices, participation, delivery area and charges may vary. We reserve the right to substitute a picture of a pizza for a real pizza.”

Possible alternate ending for release later in current advertising campaign: Focus group questions quality of meat toppings, and conference room walls fall away to reveal a slaughterhouse. Panicked cows cry out as they’re stunned before butchering. Focus group participants comment favorably on freshness of meat. “You can almost taste the blood,” one says. “Or is that the tomato sauce?”

+++

Fed up with partisan bickering among the nation’s three branches of government, Americans appear ready to install a new regime headed by the three most prominent insurance pitchmen currently on commercial television.

An all-powerful triumverate consisting of Progressive’s “Flo,” Nationwide’s “The World’s Greatest Spokesperson in the World,” and State Farm’s “Vaguely Mexican-Looking Guy Outside a Coffee Shop” has agreed to rule the land with a sympathetic but iron fist.

“I’m ready for any change at all that will get the Republicans and Democrats out of Washington,” said Alyce Jones of Chicago. “Those insurance folks offer a goofy sincerity that seems right for these troubling times.”

“The World’s Greatest Spokesperson in the World has really come into his own since being lured out of his backwoods cabin and back into insurance sales,” said Rob Fallon of Las Vegas. “He’s convinced me that Nationwide wants to know everything about me so they can tailor a product that meets my needs. Have you seen the one where he’s dealing with a lady named ‘Pam,’ and he offers to change the name of the company to ‘Nationpam’? That’s the type of can-do spirit we need if we’re ever to convince the Chinese to allow their currency to float on the open market.”

“Like a good neighbor, that Mexican-looking guy is there, always hanging outside of cafes and introducing people to State Farm agents,” said Ronald Henderson of Atlanta. “He puts a real friendly face on the problem of illegal immigration. I’d rather see him outside a Starbucks than offering to do day labor outside a Home Depot.”

The trio would govern by fiat, announcing a new round of federal laws several times an hour on all the major networks. Viewers who don’t follow their every command will be banished to a world where modern insurance products don’t exist, and yet people somehow survive by simply being careful about how they live their lives.

Tentative plans call for Flo to head up the nation’s judiciary as a one-person replacement for the Supreme Court. The World’s Greatest Spokesperson will replace both houses of Congress, and the Mexican guy will become the nation’s first Hispanic president.

“Flo’s perky haircut and headband will look just darling accented by judicial robes,” said Jones. “And the Nationwide Guy, with that signature blue rotary phone hanging from his hip, should be able to reach across the aisle in both the House and Senate to compromise with himself. I’m finally excited about the direction our nation is headed.”

“I think the new president is hunky,” said Phyllis Lee of Oklahoma City. “That could carry some real weight in the START Treaty negotiations with the Russians.”

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Asking the rhetorical questions

October 21, 2011

Have you noticed how many television commercials these days start with a question?

(And blogs too, for that matter.)

Maybe it’s an attempt to open your subconscious to the possibilities of life, including the possibility you might be interested in buying not one but two new sport utility vehicles during a single commercial break. Maybe it’s a subtle way of drawing you into the unfolding scenario, making you care about the hundreds of characters holding arrow signs over their heads while dodging midtown traffic and riding unicycles. Maybe it reflects marketing experts’ puzzlement at why anybody would buy their product, a roundabout way of asking “you don’t seriously want to buy this stuff, do you?”

Whatever the reason, I think the idea of opening with a question originated with the short teaser ads that local news operations inject into prime-time programming. They want to lure you into staying up late with the promise of some sensational breaking story, when all they really have for a lead is the new garbage pickup schedule.

“Is that someone I hear trying to jimmy the lock to your front door?” asks the inevitably blond anchoress. “Details at 11.”

“Did you know that poisonous fumes could be suffocating your children at this very moment, while you think they’re peacefully sleeping?” counters her competitor’s recently promoted sports reporter. “Don’t miss our eyewitness report later tonight. Unless you’re the type of parent who likes poisonous fumes. You’re not that kind of parent. Are you?”

Then, Fox News recognized that its viewers might wander off into the woods during even the briefest commercial message. So they started tantalizing their audience with an upcoming whiff of scandal to make sure they hang around during the break.

“Is Obama space alien, Hitler and LeBron all in one?” reads the bumper graphic leading into the ads. Then, when the news returns, it’s a story about a gerbil who paints landscapes while drumming out in Morse Code with his tiny gerbil claws that no, Obama is not these things. “At least,” taps the gerbil, “not that we know for sure.”

Now, I know these commercial queries are rhetorical questions, not designed to be answered. Playful copywriters have discovered a new way to grab your attention, and they’re just having fun with it. If you’re not smart enough to figure how to use a digital video recorder to zap through the ads, you’re certainly not smart enough to answer a rhetorical question.

Are you?

This past weekend, I kept track of this latest advertising trend, and present below a sampling of these questions. And, foolishly perhaps, I try to answer them.

The financial headlines can be unsettling, but what if there were a different story, of one financial company who grew stronger?
It would make the fact that I lost my job and that my house is in foreclosure so much more bearable to know that a giant bank is feeling better now.

Can a smart phone be its own guardian angel? Can it keep an eye out for itself? And tell you where it is, when you don’t even know yourself?
I think my mind is officially blown. Are they saying that if you lose your phone you can use your phone to find it?

What if a moment standing still could be just as beautiful when it breathes? What if photography moved us, and we moved photography?
Well, then you’d have that commercial with the little girl with the hair being blown all over the place as she looks at a flower. I don’t know why her father doesn’t roll up that window for her, considering how taken she is with the begonia. Isn’t this a form of child abuse? Admittedly, not as bad as where that insurance guy offers one kid a pony and tells the other kid he can’t have one because he doesn’t have the special “equine rider” in his homeowner’s policy. But it’s certainly right up there with the ad where a skinny boy angers the local bullies, then runs and jumps in the back of his mom’s minivan, and she backs over the bullies.

What makes a Hershey bar pure?
This is only a guess but I’m hoping — fervently — it’s because it’s never had sex.

Smooth skin?
Heh, heh — no. No thanks, but I appreciate the offer. I can smooth it myself.

The best thing about the Arby’s value menu?
That there’s not an Arby’s located in my home town.

Who says all birth control pills have to be the same?
I do. My name is Rick Lawrence, and I’m head of the Food and Drug Administration’s Task Force on Birth Control Sameness.

What’s the difference between Tylenol and Advil?
With Tylenol you take two, while with Advil you take one and wait for a while to see if it works and it usually doesn’t so you take another one. That’s why they have the “1-2″ imprinted on the pill. Or does that mean you’re supposed to take only one-half? Oh, God, I think I just OD’d on Advil.

Are you trying to sleep with someone who sounds like a chain saw?
That’s kind of a personal question, don’t you think? I’ll only say that it’s not the sound of a chain saw I like as much as it is the vibration.

Hey Troy — have you been using my shampoo? Because it’s for guys who want thicker-looking hair
Yes, I’ve been using your shampoo, and everybody is noticing. This stringy mullet part that comes out the back of my helmet and obscures my name to make it look like “POL[hair]ALU” would be so unmanageable without it. If I didn’t have that built-in moisturizer and those seven essential botanicals, I’d frizz up so much there’d be no domed stadium that could hold me.

What’s in your wallet?
Well, I used to have a Capital One credit card. Now I leave it at home because, after seeing the newest contract terms you’ve sent me, I’m afraid to use it. I tried for a while carrying around the contract in my shirt pocket but it weighed down my upper body so much that I developed scoliosis. After that, I dragged it in a red wagon behind me in case I needed to consult the fine print while purchasing a bagel. Eventually, I just gave up and decided to pay for everything with cash. That piece of plastic still in my wallet that I use when I want to get screwed? That’s a condom, not a credit card.

Dancing with the Stars: Breaking it down

September 21, 2011

I finally broke down and watched “Dancing With the Stars” on television last night.

Most of the contestants joined me, either “breaking it down” with surprisingly adept dance moves (especially for a former federal prosecutor, a former woman, and a former Courtney Cox husband), or “broken down” in humiliation after their gyrations failed to impress judges and a TV audience of millions.

I came away from the viewing with several observations:

  • Dancing automatically looks better when you do it in front of fiery explosions
  • Ron Artest will now forever be called “The Basketball Player Formerly Known as Ron Artest”
  • Between hosting this show and “America’s Funniest Videos,” I don’t know how Tom Bergeron lives with himself
  • When we’re finally able to fully map the inky depths of the world’s oceans, I bet we come across several previously undiscovered Kardashians, living off the heat of volcanic fumaroles
  • It would be helpful if the “stars” could be outfitted in special garb that distinguishes them from the staff dancers they’ve been assigned as partners, because I can’t recognize either one as a celebrity (I suggest the “stars” either be painted entirely in gold, or be required to wear a crown)
  • Hostess Brooke Burke Charvet is no less palatable just because she added a third name
  • I have a headache

Oh, and one other thing: I’m glad I’ve never claimed to be a dancer.

Thus far, I’ve managed to make it through almost 58 years without significantly shaking a leg (unless you count my continuing bout with the neurological disorder Restless Leg Syndrome.) I have absolutely no grace and even less poise. My aptitude for rhythm is about what you’d expect from someone who’s last name is “whiteman.”

And yet I can still cite several examples from my personal history when I’ve attempted to “cut the rug” and somehow managed to avoid lacerating myself as well.

When I was about ten years old, I tried out for a local production of “The Sound of Music.” At the time, my actually-talented sister was involved in the South Florida entertainment scene, having made several local commercials, and taking voice, tap and acting lessons. Not wanting to leave me out, my parents arranged for me to join in the fun of show business.

The tryouts were held at a local college. I don’t remember much more than that. I assume I was up for the part of one of the von Trapp children who, in the story, learn about the glories of Bavarian music from their nanny nun in the run-up to World War II. I guess I’d be playing the fat, pimpled, sociopathic preteen, a part for which I had trained extensively.

I didn’t get the role, however, I did get my picture in the local newspaper, which was doing a feature on preparations for the musical. Somewhere deep in the photo archives of The Miami Herald, there’s a shot of young Davis leaping into the air, his arms extended high above his head. I’m not sure how else you’d describe the move, except to say it was strongly reminiscent of how fleeing Polish troops retreated before the onslaught of the German blitzkrieg.

My next opportunity to stomp about the room while music played in the background came during a junior high sock hop. A fear of dance combined with a fear of girls compounded this into a major trauma of my teen years. Somehow, I managed to convince one of the young ladies to stand across from me while I spasmodically seized to the tune of “Glad All Over” by the Dave Clark Five.

These were the early days of rock dancing, when steps like the Frug and the Watusi and the Monkey encouraged creativity. I had watched “American Bandstand” in preparation for the hop, but the moves shown by those kids were nothing I could imitate. Finally, I became comfortable with a dance called “The Hammer,” in which you raised and lowered alternating arms in a motion not unlike the milking of a cow. I lost my partner some time after the third song, when she suddenly left with an irresistible urge to consume dairy products.

By the time I got to college, dancing to music was considered passé, even bourgeois. Martha Vandella, only a few years before, had called for “Dancing in the Street,” despite the obvious dangers of mixing vehicular traffic with choreography.

“It doesn’t matter what you wear, just as long as you are there,” Martha claimed. “So come on every guy, grab a girl, everywhere around the world they’ll be dancing in the streets.”

In my circle of politically aware friends, dancing was a mindless way to waste energy that otherwise could be spent on the coming socialist revolution. We preferred to gather in darkened rooms, drifting in and out of a drug-fueled unconsciousness while listening to music. In a strict sense, it was still a form of artistic movement — we had to roll over periodically so we could vomit without choking.

My last exposure to dance as a means of personal expression came shortly before I was married. Beth and I were aiming to get back in touch with our German heritage by attending an Oktoberfest celebration and becoming ill from drinking too much beer.

While still only slightly inebriated, we were introduced to “The Chicken Dance.” We immediately fell in love with the quirky-but-simple steps: first you open and close your hands, like a squawking chicken; then you flap your elbows as if they were wings; then you shake your butt; then you clap your hands. It was so corny, so hokey, so trite, as to round the far bend and become ironically cool.

When we planned our own wedding and reception a few months later, we adopted a German theme for the celebration. My parents and my new in-laws opted for the more standard polka while our contemporaries absolutely adored the Chicken Dance. It was a great way to celebrate the beginning of our new life together, though our traditional first dance as Man and Wife — squawking and flapping and shaking our rumps — was not the charming memory my older relatives had hoped for.

Now, I’m closing in on 60 and can happily assume that my dancing days are finally over. I may someday face a forced “dance” at the retirement home, do-si-do-ing my wheelchair at the insistence of some sadistic physical therapist. After I die, I imagine my corpse might contort and shrivel in the flames of the crematorium. Then, of course, there’s the dancing on the head of a pin with my fellow angels in the afterlife.

Until then, the closest I plan on coming to the delight of dance is during my daily jog around the neighborhood. I swing my arms, I shuffle my feet, I barely avoid cars and I flee from dogs. The gestures are less than expressive, but I do work up a good sweat.

Which is more than you can say for the ever-delicate Nancy Grace.

The Chicken Dance (complete with chicken)

Memories of my baseball career

August 30, 2011

Did anybody else watch the Little League World Series over the weekend? Anybody with a life, that is?

Watching children play baseball is not something you’d expect to be my cup of tea. Usually, I’d regard it as several degrees of wholesomeness beyond what my cynical, misanthropic mind can handle.

True, there were several scary beanball incidents that normally would appeal to my dark side. And there was the pitcher who almost had his head taken off by a hard-hit comebacker, and the kid heading for home who had a throw from the outfield bounce wildly off his helmet. And, of course, the threat of a hurricane.

What appealed to me most, however, was the game of baseball itself, and the way these 12- and 13-year-olds played it with such joy. I defy anyone, even the most black-hearted among us, to not be moved by the sight of the winning U.S. team bouncing for joy, and the losing Japanese boys weeping in defeat.

It may be said that “there’s no crying in baseball,” but certainly that doesn’t apply to kids. (There’s also no touchdowns, dunking or exciting action in baseball, and yet still we watch it.)

Broadcasters went out of their way to humanize the youngsters. Along with stats like height and weight, the graphics revealed personal details such as favorite food, favorite TV show and favorite musical group. As surprising as it was to learn that one boy weighed in at only 74 pounds was the news that kids from Pennsylvania had heard of the Black Eyed Peas, and that the right-fielder from the Montana squad had access to chicken nuggets.

And I’m still trying to understand how a preteen pitcher from Aruba could possibly see the value of watching “Two and a Half Men.”

(Tip to Major League Baseball: How about letting us know big-leaguers’ favorites? What is Derek Jeter’s most-desired sex act? Tim Lincecum’s preferred conditioner? Big Papi’s favorite oil-exporting nation?)

I hope that the crushing defeat experienced by most participants doesn’t sour them on what should have been the event of a young lifetime. Organizing baseball, rather than letting it happen naturally in the playground, is risky business.

I remember my own years as a young baseballer with fondness, primarily I think because we played in an unorganized fashion. There was a little league, organized by the local Optimists Club, but I only participated long enough to learn I didn’t have the proper skill level (or, in the jargon of the times, that I “stunk”).

So instead of donning a uniform and pimping for sponsors/overlords like a local moving company, my friends and I took to the street in front our homes and made up our own version of America’s pastime.

There was me, there was my best friend Larry, there was the slightly older Lloyd, and there was chubby Ricky. We played barefoot on the asphalt of Miami’s lightly traveled N.W. 197th Terrace, using tennis balls instead of baseballs and a broomstick instead of a bat. Calling balls and strikes was replaced by the occasional call of “CAR!”, which would be our signal to step aside so traffic could pass.

Our diamond wasn’t diamond-shaped at all, but squeezed tight in the middle by the need to use mailboxes for first and third base. Home plate was a wad of gum baked dry and permanent in the tropical sun. Second base was a mound of rocks we had to reassemble every time a car passed over them. The outfield wall that defined a home run was the light pole in front of Ricky’s house.

Larry and Lloyd were the most skilled players and, as such, always tried to be on the same two-person team. Ricky and I were not bad; we just weren’t as good as the “L Boys” and would inevitably be defeated by something like 112-7 if we ended up on the same side.

The team playing the field would be comprised of a pitcher (who, our chatter insisted, couldn’t be an underwear stitcher) and an outfielder. The team on offense would have a batter up, while the other player served as catcher, unless one of us could round up a spare sister to play that thankless role.

Pitching was underhand when we started playing as 7-year-olds but later became overhand. Most hits were either singles or home runs. We didn’t have enough people to allow base-runners, so instead we relied on “Invisible Men” to occupy the base paths. There was no stealing (the Invisibles could be banned for trying), no balls, and no set number of innings to be played. When someone’s mom called them in for dinner, it was game over.

Occasionally, we’d expand our rosters to three players per team, but only when Larry’s friend Ernie was visiting from an adjacent neighborhood. Then, we’d stoop to allowing Larry’s older sister Donna to play, at least till our early teen years when she developed a mysterious lump in her abdomen which turned out to be an illegitimate baby.

We had favorite players and favorite teams, and showed our allegiance to these by “being” them.

“I’m Mickey Mantle,” Larry would invariably call, while Lloyd would transform from lanky Jewish kid to “Willie Mays” in an instant. As a Dodger fan, I’d anoint myself base-stealing king Maury Wills, despite the fact I was neither fast nor African-American. Ricky, a less imaginative kid, dubbed himself “Ricky.”

We played like this for years, never keeping any records or standings, consuming huge swaths of the summer like we’d consume hose water after hours of play rendered us nearly dehydrated.

I don’t remember an exact day when the games ended. The “L Boys” were both good enough to play organized sports, and gradually moved into these as we got into junior high. The athletic, good-looking Larry developed an interest in something called “girls” and, since I was not one of these, we gradually grew apart. I made up a dice version of baseball which I’d play in my room, or head into the backyard to play catch with the wall.

None of us ended up as professional athletes. I understand that Lloyd is a retired fireman in St. Pete. I heard that Ricky ended up as some kind of music executive. Larry became successful selling Texas real estate, and came closest to the majors through his son, a reserve outfielder for the Rays.

I tried a little intramural softball in college, then hung up the glove when I left Florida State. I tried playing some with my son, since having a catch with Dad has become an almost-mythic bonding experience. But the sport didn’t appeal to him as much as his beloved video games, and I eventually relented that yes, he could go back inside now.

As for the Invisible Men, I hear they’re enjoying successful lives as jet-pack salesmen, Sasquatch trainers, explorers of Mars and moderate Republicans.

All because of the positive influence of baseball.

From left: Larry, some kid, Ricky, some other kid, me, Lloyd and Ernie (not pictured: Invisible Men)

That’s racin’, though not necessarily entertainment

May 31, 2011

On Sunday, the biggest day in auto racing, Dan Wheldon passed what was left of rookie J.R. Hildebrand to win the Indianapolis 500, while in Charlotte, Kevin Harvick sped past an out-of-gas Dale Earnhardt Jr. to take the Coca-Cola 600.

I could give a shit, but it’d be about as hard as staying awake watching droning cars drive in circles for hours at a stretch.

Despite my sad existence as a white middle-aged Southerner, I’ve never been a fan of auto racing. I look at the car as merely a vehicle to get from one place to another, not as a high-powered machine with the ability to burn more petroleum in one afternoon than exists in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve.

Turning the workaday routine of driving into a “sport” makes about as much sense to me as forming a league for those who are fastest at using an ATM or at tying their shoes.

But summer is here, and quality television has started its four-month hiatus. Flipping the dial on Monday afternoon for something to watch, it came down to cats from hell, Kardashians from hell, and swamp people. So I tuned in to the so-called “greatest spectacle in racing,” the Indy 500.

This was the 100th running of the Brickyard classic, and befitting such a long-standing institution, the race was filled with tradition. The racers gathered to kneel and kiss the hallowed road surface in one of the most unhygienic traditions in all of sport (second only to hockey champions’ ritual group-pee into the Stanley Cup). An honored guest was designated to announce the classic line “Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines,” as if the drivers wouldn’t think of it unless reminded. The winner gets to drink a half-gallon of milk, exactly the kind of refreshment I’d be looking for after four hours in the stifling heat.

Amidst all this, they also held a car race, and it was one of the most exciting contests in history, or so I was told. For a while, someone I had actually heard of, GoDaddy spokeswoman Danica Patrick, was in the lead. She gradually fell behind a hard-charging Belgian named Baguette, who was then passed by Hildebrand, a driver making his first start at Indy.

Hildebrand had the race all but won when he rocketed into the final turn and crashed into a wall. His battered vehicle skidded toward the finish line only to be passed by the largely intact Wheldon. If any part of Hildebrand’s disintegrating ride had managed to be flung ahead of the wreckage, or any amputated piece of Hildebrand himself had skidded past the checkered flag, the rookie would’ve been the lucky winner pouring dairy products into his maw. Instead, it was the lactose-tolerant Wheldon who hoisted the Hallowed Half-Gallon to his lips in victory.

A few hours later, it was time for NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600, held just up the road from my home near Charlotte. This is where the good ol’ boys race real cars, not those road-hugging open-wheel homo-mobiles they run at Indy.

Long a favorite of those whose necks tend toward the red persuasion, NASCAR has its traditions too. Some — like running large parts of the race under a caution flag because beer cans constantly roll onto the track — are as quirky as anything Indy might offer. Others — like adding a hundred miles to the 500-mile length of most races in a piteous attempt to make the contest 20% better — are just dumb.

Much of NASCAR’s tradition comes in the form of nepotism. Most drivers are related to other drivers in an attempt to appeal to the sport’s largely inbred fan base.

Two of the biggest stars were near the lead when I tuned in near the end of Monday’s race. Kyle Busch is the brother of Kurt Busch and made his most recent splash in the news by being ticketed for going 120 m.p.h. on a 45-m.p.h. road that fronted a nearby church and daycare center. He’s also well-known for looking like a pinhead.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the son of racing legend Dale Earnhardt Sr., who died in a 2001 crash at Daytona. “Junior,” as he’s called, has been the most popular driver on the circuit since his father’s death. Unfortunately, being related to someone with a particular skill doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll inherit that ability, as Junior’s career-long losing streak has shown. (See also the presidency of George W. Bush, the singing career of Frank Sinatra Jr., and the bankrupt barber shop run by Abraham Lincoln Jr.)

Earnhardt Jr. too looks like a bumpkin.

But approaching the end of the 600-mile race, he was a bumpkin who appeared ready to shatter his losing streak in spectacular fashion. Then he ran out of gas. On his previous pit stop, he had been careful to make sure the windshield washer fluid was topped off, that the cup holders were cleaned of pretzel crumbs and that the eight-track tape deck still worked. But while he was in Gomer’s store buying a Mountain Dew and a chaw, he had forgotten to ask his crew chief to “fill ‘er up.” Eventually, with the help of Triple-A, he coasted across the finish line in seventh place.

Earnhardt Nation, many of whom had been camping in the speedway’s infield for a week in anticipation of a breakthrough for young Dale, sat stunned that the same result that had happened in his 103 previous races had occurred yet another, 104th time.

I was not particularly impressed with the “drama” of such an exciting finish. I’d have preferred to see something different. Maybe having the Target race team’s pit crew, each wearing a large target on the back of their jumpsuits, run for their lives as other drivers aim oncoming cars at them. Maybe having a second race run simultaneously with the first one, but in the opposite direction.

Fortunately, I was able to switch channels and enjoy the rest of my Memorial Day weekend watching the Hub Channel’s “Batman” marathon. That Batmobile could win any race.

Playing a game of “Pause Face”

May 4, 2011

When digital video recorders first arrived on the scene several years ago, one of the most-promoted features was the ability to pause live TV. Why anybody would want to do this, I failed at first to understand. Then I bought one, realized I had to go to the bathroom, and it all became clear to me.

Now, I’m using the pause feature all the time, and not just to take care of the occasional call of nature (which, at my age, can involve any number of things urgently trying to exit my body). I also use it to skip annoying commercials, draw out the drama of a field goal attempt, or look up the dresses of starlets trying to modestly sit down on talk shows. It’s one of those modern innovations you didn’t realize you needed until it came along, and now you can’t live without it.

One of my favorite activities playing with the DVR is a game my son and I call “Pause Face.” We take turns holding the remote and try to freeze whatever talking head is on screen at a particular moment in an especially comical expression or gesture. Whoever can capture the most awkward and/or ridiculous image wins the game. The only rule we have: No fair using Donald Trump, who’d be an automatic winner no matter what he was doing.

Here are some recent examples that we managed to capture:

Former president Jimmy Carter nods off when he remembers he's 86 years old.

Regis Philbin picks his nose on national television.
Christina Aguilera attempts to swallow an entire microphone.
Paul Shaffer simultaneously rocks out and receives a digital rectal exam.
Steve Martin marvels at the wonder of a passing bird.

And you call yourselves commercial spokespeople

April 26, 2011

My first impression of TV commercials growing up wasn’t that they were too loud or too obtrusive or too untrue. It was that they were, in the word we used frequently in elementary school, “conceited.”

“Why do they brag about themselves like that?” I remember asking my mother. “Isn’t it more polite to be modest? Why do they keep telling us how great they are?”

I forget my mom’s exact response, but I’m pretty sure it involved me going outside to play until it was time for dinner.

In my senior year of high school, I entered a scholarship essay contest in which entrants were to explain how advertising contributed to our great American democracy. Sponsored not surprisingly by the local advertising council, my theme was that TV commercials and other ads represented “freedom of speech” and therefore were intrinsically good. Sure, I argued, limits were necessary in some circumstances — you couldn’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater and you couldn’t say Kentucky Fried Chicken was edible — but in general all was fair when it came to advertised self-promotion.

Needless to say, I won a $500 scholarship.

Now I am a fully matured adult and recognize the realities of the commercial marketplace for what they are. There’s no point in resisting the thousands of impressions we receive each day from advertisers. We need only do what they say and trust that they know better than us. After all, they’re on TV and we’re not.

There are, however, three commercial spokespeople frequently seen on network television these days whom I wish to address about certain issues I have with them.

Sprint

Dan Hesse has used his position as chief executive officer of Sprint to wrangle a role as company spokesman. I’m sure the ad agency Sprint works with thought the executive’s idea to put himself on television was a brilliant masterstroke of salesmanship, or at least that’s what they better think if they expect to be paid.

Hesse appears in a whole series of commercials, usually standing outside somewhere in an overcoat and scarf. He speaks earnestly and directly into the camera, trying to convince viewers he’s smart enough to run one of the nation’s largest wireless carriers even though he won’t come in out of the cold to film his ad.

One particular spot has caught my attention. In it, Hesse tells how “I looked up the word ‘unlimited’ the other day” and it said nothing about hidden fees, overage charges or any other features of cell phone billing that consumers have come to hate.

I have two suggestions for Mr. Hesse. One, next time you pull out that dictionary of yours, please look up the word “rapacious”. Or I could save you the trouble — it means “greedy and grasping, especially for money, and sometimes willing to use unscrupulous means to obtain what is desired.” This is the word I tend to think of most when I’m considering the cost of my wireless service.

Secondly, can you use your power to get me appointed to the position of authority that will allow me to enforce what I think should be the rules of public cellphone use? For example, regarding the young mother I saw pushing a baby stroller across six lanes of rush-hour traffic while talking into the phone tucked between her shoulder and ear: can I turn her in to social services so the child can be put into foster care?

I’m sure you have the power to make this happen. Just reach into that overcoat of yours, grab your smartphone, make a few calls, and I shall become Cellphone Warrior, enforcer of arbitrary rules against the kind of usage that annoys me for some reason, though I’m not sure why.

T-Mobile

When I was in second grade, I had a crush on a little girl by the name of Cory Boulter. To show my affection, and to convince her I was someone she should not just like, but “like like,” I would give her my lunch money every day. It wasn’t much, even in those pre-inflationary days, when a quarter could still buy you choice of salisbury steak or sloppy joe, tater tots, creamed spinach, applesauce cake and milk. But I thought if I gave her enough quarters, she’d get the idea.

Hey, it worked for Donald Trump.

Today, I have that same innocent, pre-pubescent crush on the so-called “T-Mobile Girl.” I’m eager to sign not just one two-year contract with her company, but as many as they’ll let me sign. Just in the hope that she’ll notice me and maybe consider my offer to squire her to the Norland Elementary School Spring Dance.

She’s so cute! Though she might also be sexy, my affection for her has nothing to do with such a base, animal attraction. See how she swirls her kicky pink sundress as she prances past the T-Mobile logo? Notice how she almost bites her lip with coy insouciance as she watches some shlub complain about excessive buffering on his device? I could be that shlub, if only she’d give me a chance.

Unfortunately, the recent announcement on Wall Street that AT&T will soon be acquiring T-Mobile will probably crush the dream I have of the two of us skipping through a daisy-filled meadow, our young hearts pounding first from the exertion and then, as we tumble into the grass and our eyes meet, with an intense passion. Unless the Federal Trade Commission intercedes and considers the proposed merger to be monopolistic.

Please, FTC, I beg of you! Allow our relationship to bloom! I’ll give you a dollar if you’ll only block this acquisition. It not only excessively dilutes shareholder value; it’s also dilutive of a love that no federal regulatory agency could ever understand.

Domino’s

Finally, I wish to address a bright but misdirected young man by the name of Tate Dillow. He’s as plain a fellow as T-Mobile Girl is sparkling. Yet you have to admire his passion for creating the perfect boneless chicken nugget to accompany Domino’s pizzas.

Tate is the guy you see in the current ad campaign, reluctantly brought to center stage as the master chef who will create the perfect chicken to accompany tasteless, cardboard-textured pizza. A handheld camera watches him schlep around his kitchen, fretting over whether people will like his real-not-preformed chicken and, by extension, him.

His boss and the company’s marketing department have devised special packaging that allow consumers to weigh in on whether or not Tate should keep his job. “Did We Get It Right?” asks the type on the box. Our choices include “Nope,” “Almost” and “Yes We Did!”

Tate scowls at the camera as CEO Patrick Doyle describes how the survey will work. “I don’t like it,” Tate says of the feedback, and you get the vague impression he’s willing to do something about it (like travel around the nation to each of the 2,000 Domino’s franchisees and personally spit on every order).

Unexplained is how the box, once checked-off, makes it back to corporate headquarters. I’m guessing they have the same crews that collect “fresh” pizza ingredients from dumpsters being on the lookout for this discarded packaging.

Or, you can simply go to dominos.com and watch the Facebook and Twitter feeds coming in, like these that showed up just today:

The new chicken is horrible. The new ones are tasteless, tough, and a total disappointment. Sorry Tate but I don’t like the new chicken at all and won’t order it.

[Domino’s chicken] is, was, and always will be nasty. Found a big chunk of dark mystery meat in it one time.

Absolutely terrible. Ridiculous that this is what Domino’s can offer. Screw you Dominos. Take you ads and stick it up your ……

Just ordered the wings…They were soggy and meh.

Overpriced, tiny little nuggets that have no flavor.

Your chicken sucks.

Don’t let these nay-sayers get you down, Tate. I don’t want to be reading about any incidents of workplace violence up there in the Domino’s labs. Your life could always be worse. You could be a chicken.

‘American Idol’ results spark insurrection

April 8, 2011

LOS ANGELES (April 7) — Anti-American violence erupted in southern California Thursday night as the audience watching Fox’s “American Idol” took to the streets in angry protest of America’s decision to vote popular contestant Pia Toscano off the show.

Stoked by judges’ comments questioning the reasoning of the nation’s 300 million-plus citizens, the protest seemed primed to evolve into an armed revolt that could rival recent events seen across the Arab world.

“I don’t know America, man,” said judge Steven Tyler after the obviously talented songstress heard that she finished last in the nationwide vote. “A mistake is one thing, but lack of passion is unforgivable. They (America) are wrong. I don’t know what happened with this.”

“I — I have no idea what just happened here,” offered judge Jennifer Lopez. “I’m shocked. I’m angry. I don’t know what to say.”

Randy Jackson offered some of the most provocative comments of all.

“I’m gutted. Do you know what I’m saying?” Jackson asked. “I’m never upset on this show and I’m never really mad, but this makes me mad. It’s like, ‘what’s going on?'”

As the show ended and the credits began to roll, the judges approached the stage to comfort the devastated 22-year-old New Yorker. Her fellow contestants also gathered around, all wearing an expression of shock and outrage on their faces. Punk icon Iggy Pop even returned from backstage to join the growing protest, going so far as to put his shirt back on to register his bafflement at the surprising events.

Then, shortly after the show went off the air, the angry audience streamed out of the auditorium and began a rampage of setting cars afire, breaking windows and throwing Molotov cocktails at arriving police. Someone produced an American flag which was promptly set ablaze, then stomped to cinders by the enraged crowd.

“America got it wrong! America got it wrong!” they began chanting, picking up on Tyler’s assessment that the nation had lost its way. “Death to the imperialists! Death to capitalism! Serious injury — at least — to voters who failed to support Pia!” read several of the hastily prepared signs the crowd began carrying through the streets.

“This is not the America I grew up in,” host Ryan Seacrest shouted to the crowd from atop a city bus the protesters had commandeered. “An America that couldn’t see the obvious flaws in delivery, vocal range and song choice by (runner-up loser) Stefano is an America I’m not sure I want to live in anymore.”

“Where is the fairness? Where is the justice?” he asked the assembled mob. “And where is my hair gel? I had it in my hand just a minute ago.”

Alas, the gel tube had already been fashioned into an incendiary device, and was starting yet another storefront blaze in the downtown L.A. business district.

Steven Tyler said a serious look needed to be taken at the whole voting process, suggesting that U.N. observers be called on to monitor all remaining votes on this season’s shows.

“I’ll quote my friends in Green Day on this one,” Tyler said. “American idiots, that’s what they are. If they can’t cast well-considered votes, then maybe we need to move toward an Electoral College-type arrangement, so the fringe groups don’t have so much power. Or maybe we scrap the system entirely, burn the whole thing down, and start over from scratch, man.”

“This is like something you’d see coming out of the Republican presidential caucuses in Iowa,” he added.

Toscano, the spark for the insurrection, was quickly spirited away to an undisclosed location for safety reasons as the budding revolution unfolded. Her only public comment was relayed via Twitter.

“Whatever, I guess,” Toscano said. “Was still an amazing experience. Thanks to the fanz for hating America.”

Finally got the TiVo

April 4, 2011

About a month ago, we updated our pre-recorded home TV viewing experience by replacing our non-descript DVR with a TiVo device. Why we did this, I’m not sure. But with my wife and son pulling vigorously for the upgrade, it left just me and the cats as potential opposition, and I can’t count on those ungrateful layabouts for anything anymore.

The cable guy showed up to perform the installation and a few other moves that looked more like purity rituals than anything else, and that same day we were watching TiVo.

Like anything new, I hated it. For several days, I literally could not turn on the TV. There are three buttons near the top edge of the remote — labeled “TV Pwr,” “TiVo” and “Live TV” — and you’d think any one of these might allow electricity to surge into the mechanism, bringing me a world of education, entertainment and the closest thing to delight you can summon on a flat screen. I eventually learned that “TV Pwr” was the button of choice, unless I wanted to watch something pre-recorded or I wanted to switch from watching pre-recorded programming to something live. I now have this written on my hand.

As I’ve used TiVo more and more, I’ve developed fact-based opinions to replace the superstition I felt in those early days and weeks. I’m still not sure I see the big advantage over our old DVR. It still won’t allow you to insert yourself into sitcoms as the wacky next-door neighbor, and it won’t allow you to expunge Glenn Beck from the face of the planet with a gentle press of the “Death To ___” button. Still, I think I do see some plusses, along with some minuses and a few greater-than-or-equal-to’s, and I’m now able to enunciate these:

A thing I like about TiVo:
No longer do I have to struggle with the proper verb to use when I want to say I’ve recorded a show. “I TiVo’d it,” I can now say, and everyone knows what I mean. No more “I DVR’d it” (huh?) or “I digitally video-recorded it” or “I recorded it digitally on a video recorder” or, worst of all, “I taped it.”

A thing I don’t like about TiVo:
It doesn’t have a clock! Sure, you can push a few buttons on the remote to get the time to show on the screen, but the box itself has no LED constantly displaying the current time. I never realized how much I depended on that little clock to know where I stood in the time-space continuum while I lazed on the sofa in front of the television. As much as I enjoy watching “Seinfeld” reruns, I could be in the mid-nineties for all I know. In an age when every electronic device from toasters to vibrating marital aids have a clock, I find this to be a serious flaw.

A thing I like about TiVo:
It has more storage capacity than my old DVR. I can now watch all five hours of NBC’s “The Today Show” all seven days a week, and still have room to record A&E’s “Intervention” series, which I hope will eventually feature friends and family forcing a loved one who watches too much “The Today Show” into rehab.

A thing I don’t like about TiVo:
The remote control is shaped in such a way that it’s impossible to tell simply by feel if you’re pointing it in the right direction. Half the time when I’m trying to fast-forward through commercials, I actually have the thing pointed at my abdomen, which causes my digestion to seriously backup and give me a raging case of heartburn.

A thing I like about TiVo:
There are four colorful buttons spanning the beltline of the remote labeled “A,” “B,” “C” and “D”. I like these for two reasons: they remind me of M&Ms, and they help me recall the letters of the alphabet when I have the occasional forgetful spell. (Once I get started singing “The Alphabet Song,” musical memory takes over and I’m back on track well into the S-T-U-V range). I assume these buttons also have another function, but I haven’t watched the tutorial yet, and doubt I ever will.

A thing I don’t like about TiVo:
All those stupid sound effects for every function you perform. If I wanted to hear Little People cracking their knuckles incessantly, I’d go to a midget convention.

A thing I like about TiVo:
The logo is cute. It looks like a pregnant insect with Seal-like ritual scarring on its face.

A thing I don’t like about TiVo:
The pause button only holds the action for 30 minutes, whereas my old DVR lasted an hour. This disrupts one of my hallowed weekend traditions of waking up, turning on and pausing ESPN while I eat breakfast and read the paper, then un-pausing and enjoying sports highlights uninterrupted by commercials. The breakfast/newspaper routine takes about 40-45 minutes, so now I’m compelled to rush through my granola and obits (now, with 30% more dead people than I knew ten years ago) at a most unrelaxing pace.

A thing I like about TiVo:
In the dark, without wearing your glasses, with a little imagination, the remote control looks like a large chocolate bunny. It does not, however, taste like one.

A thing I don’t like about TiVo:
I hate the ghostly overprint describing dozens of unwanted details about the show you’re getting ready to watch, if only all that pointless type would get out of the way. It lingers way beyond its welcome. I doubt I’m going to enjoy “Secret Millionaire” any more just because I know I’m watching it in 720p. And I already know I can’t enjoy it any less.

A thing I like about TiVo:
It has a capital “V” in the middle of its name. Ever since BellSouth pioneered the “intercap” concept back in the 1970s, it’s always made me feel better about companies who employ this technique. They’re doing their part toward maintaining environmental sustainability by abandoning unnecessary spacebands.

A thing I don’t like about TiVo:
It lists episode names in quotes, which is fine if there is an episode name. If there isn’t, it quotes whatever details it happens to know about the show. Though I might be more likely to watch Jimmy Fallon if the episode is called “Howard Stern, Author Sarah Vowell, music by William Shatner’s Pants,” it doesn’t add much to my anticipation of “The CBS Evening News” to see that tonight’s show features “News.”

A thing I like about TiVo:
I like the “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” buttons, but I wish they’d also include a raised middle finger I could press every time Donald Trump appeared on the screen.

A thing I don’t like about TiVo:
The button that allows you to go back to the last channel is located at the very bottom of the remote and is for some reason labeled “enter.” You can’t hold the remote and press the button with the same hand without the risk of dropping it down your pants, which is a very real issue when you spend a late night switching back and forth between HBOZ and Showtime Undressed.

A thing I like about TiVo:
It suggests shows I might like based on a history of my viewing habits.

A thing I don’t like about TiVo:
It thinks I like “The Real Housewives of Harden County, West Virginia”.

A thing I like about TiVo:
It only adds a mere $6.95 a month to my cable bill.

A thing I don’t like about TiVo:
My total cable/wireless/phone/internet bill now runs in excess of $600, which doesn’t seem like a lot when you look at the details of your 23-page invoice and see there are thousands of charges on there but only a few that are more than about 37 cents.

Another thing I don’t like about TiVo:
It won’t allow me to see into the future.

Another thing I don’t like about TiVo:
Somebody keeps taping yoga shows, and it’s not me.

Another thing I don’t like about TiVo:
The type on many of the buttons is way too small. I had the urge the other evening to be teleported to the modern zoological park about 70 miles south of my hometown, so I pressed the “Zoo” button and the only thing that happened was that the picture on the TV zoomed in.

Another thing I don’t like about TiVo:
I have the feeling that it’s watching me back.

More stale leftovers from the mini-blog

March 18, 2011

The Bachelor is finally tapped out

TV’s “The Bachelor” finally came to its conclusion on ABC last night, not so much because Brad Womack had found the woman of his dreams, but because he had run out of words to say.

“I’ve talked and I’ve talked over the last few months, and I’ve said literally thousands of words, many of which I actually meant,” Womack told a TV audience estimated in the tens of millions. “Everyone who’s watched knows how much I hate to repeat myself, so I’ve decided this is the time to stop. I don’t know any more words.”

Womack told reporters at a press conference after the final episode had aired that his vocabulary is not terribly limited, but that in the course of various ruminations and lamentations and reflections and confessions offered since late last year, he’s said every word he knows.

“Some at least twice,” he noted. “Like ‘love’ and ‘special’ and ‘chemistry’ — boy, I bet I said them a lot.”

In last night’s finale, Womack told bride-to-be Emily Maynard that it was she who he’d selected to wed. Maybe. Eventually.

“You’re so much more to me than a leap of faith, you’re the one, Em, you’re it, you’re once in a lifetime,” Womack said. “Please let me be your best friend … please let me protect you and your beautiful daughter; please give me the opportunity to love you for the rest of your life.”

“Sure, why not?” Maynard, resplendent in a full-length white gown, responded. “Maybe it’ll finally shut you up.”

“I’m asking you to please give me your forever,” Womack pressed. “Make me happier than I have ever been in my life and marry me.”

“Alright, already,” a glowing Maynard answered. “Jeez.”

Cats mush toward Nome

The cat version of the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Race got off to a sloppy start in Anchorage, Alaska, yesterday, with teams of kitties attempting to pull their loads in dozens of different directions, none of which were anywhere near the finish line some 1,100 miles away in Nome.

Feline fanciers had long felt left out of the annual dog sled “mushing” competition, a grueling event that can last up to 15 days as teams pass through the rugged sub-Arctic wilderness. Organizers of the race, which began in 1973, argued that malamutes and huskies were much better equipped to traverse the snow pack than were common house cats. But a recent ruling by the Alaska Supreme Court required the race to create a special division in which cats could compete alongside dogs.

“But we’re drawing the line at hamsters and turtles,” said the court’s chief justice, Leonard Alexander. “Those creatures have no place in the snow.”

Once the kitty division race got underway, cats of all sizes and colors could be seen bounding through the two-foot deep snow where the trail begins just outside of Alaska’s largest city. Teams were made up of as many as 100 cats per sled, as opposed to the eight animals used in the dog division. It was hoped the larger number could provide more power to haul the 1,000-pound sleds containing a “musher” and supplies needed to set up camp along the icy trail.

Most entrants were animal hoarders, the notorious “cat ladies” who virtually turn their homes over to their beloved felines. A few teams tried to make do with far fewer animals, but these littered the trail in failure within several miles of the starting line, with the cats abandoning the effort in favor of sleep, cat treats, and more sleep.

“We hope to be in Nome by the end of the week,” said Mildred Hetherton, whose team had rushed to an early lead. “That is, if I can find a flight that doesn’t require me to check my cats as luggage.”

On Fluffy, on Puffy, on Muffy, etc., etc.
 

This Justin: There’s an intruder in my bedroom!

Somewhere not far from here this morning, a young girl awoke to either exquisite delight or bone-chilling horror.

I have a coworker who dotes lovingly, almost obsessively, on her daughter. I know this because she’s constantly telling us about it at the office.

“Jessica did this,” we hear, or “Jessica did that,” or occasionally, “Jessica did nothing at all — and that’s why I’m making a diorama out of a shoebox here at my desk, so she doesn’t get an ‘incomplete’ on her homework.”

For the girl’s eleventh birthday today, her mother bought her two gifts. One is a customized iPod being shipped all the way from where it was made in China. The mom has been devotedly tracking the progress of this shipment from Asia, announcing loudly on Thursday that “it’s in Hong Kong!”, then worrying Friday morning that the tsunami in Japan would waylay the delivery. By afternoon, however, her fellow employees had been assured that — disaster averted — it would arrive in the U.S. on time.

The second item is a life-sized cardboard cutout of teen singing sensation Justin Bieber. She saw it on display at a record store promoting his new album, and convinced the manager to let her buy it for her daughter, a big Bieber fan.

The plan for birthday morning was to sneak into the girl’s room while it’s still dark and set up the cardboard Justin next to her bed with the new iPod adhered to his corrugated paper body. When the daughter awoke, she’d spy the silhouette of a man-child in the shadowy light of her room and cry out either: “It’s Justin! And he has an iPod all for me!” or “Arrhhh! Mommy! Daddy! There’s an intruder in my room!”

Should it go well, I might try a similar move for my wife’s birthday in June. If only I can locate a cutout of Ralph Fiennes, her favorite actor, and figure out how to attach a selection of crocheting supplies to his two-dimensional form.

“Yikes! There’s a man in my room!” Or, “Hurray! There’s a boy in my room!”