Why Stephen Colbert Is Special (Hint: That Biden Interview)

There was something special about Stephen Colbert’s first week in the traditional network late-night business. The show itself felt a touch messy, especially that first episode, which we later learned almost didn’t make it to air. That was kind-of endearing. But as his first four shows accumulated, a sense, intangible at first, began to sneak in, a sense that this new late-night host was different from all the other recent new late-night hosts.

Jimmy Fallon looked polished and confident from the get-go, and put his stamp on late-night right away: Namely, we learned, he was going going to play a lot of silly games with his guests. This was brilliantly suited for the times, producing almost daily viral videos of celebrities lip syncing, driving around in bumper cars, and the like. Audiences love it because they’re over the canned interviews, and celebrities love it because … they, too, are over the canned interviews. Also these games allow them to look “authentic,” which is super hot right now. Seth Meyers, when he took over the spot following Fallon, looked like he certainly knew how to be a late-night host. I’m not sure he’s brought much new to the gig, which is why it was a shame NBC didn’t give it to a more innovative (and maybe, I don’t know, female and/or minority) performer.

Anyone interested in Colbert wanted to see at least his first night in Letterman’s old time slot on CBS. He would be switching from the blowhard persona he embodied on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report to the actual Stephen Colbert, and none of us were exactly sure who that was. At first it mainly seemed like he was a guy who smiled and sang way more than his retired alter ego. But two moments stood out this week that proved he had something new to offer the late-night scene, rather than being just another straight, white guy who would be competent enough.

The first came, in general, with the bits he does after the first commercial break, which loosely mimic what he did on Colbert: sitting at a desk and opining on the politics of the day. (In this case, this has mainly meant ranting about Donald Trump.) Because he’s ditching the Colbert persona, he comes off closer to Jon Stewart — which is just fine, since we recently lost his sorely needed voice of reason. For me, the Oreo cookie bit he did was the moment I actually thought, “Oh, I’m glad he’s on TV again”:

His first incredible moment, however, came when he interviewed Vice President Joe Biden, both men getting emotional as Biden discussed the stream of tragic family deaths he’s endured. What’s great about this is that only Colbert could do this, and only the real Colbert:

All due respect to Fallon and his lip sync battles, but there’s no way he could pull off such a feat. Welcome to late night, Mr. Colbert. We’ve needed you — the real you — whether we knew it or not.

For Your ‘Seinfeld’ Listening Pleasure …

Two fun podcasts to share with my Seinfeld fans here:

First, I’m thrilled to be the guest this week on Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast, talking about my recent story on The Verge about the difficulties with translating Seinfeld:


And sometime Seinfeld writer/Everybody Loves Raymond character actor/all-around funny guy Fred Stoller has launched his own interview podcast. You’ll particularly like the episode in which he talks to Larry Hankin, who almost landed the role of Kramer, then got to play the guy playing Kramer on the sitcom-within-the-sitcom, Jerry.

What Is the Deal with ‘The Show About Nothing’?

imagesEvery time I tell someone I’m writing a book about Seinfeld, they say something along the lines of: “Oh, you should call it The Book About Nothing.” This week, I’ve written a few pieces about Seinfeld in anticipation of its Hulu launch on Thursday, and almost every editor I’ve worked with has asked me to add something about it being “the show about nothing” and/or has said they plan to use a variation of the phrase in the headline.

I know popular TV shows have often had sticky catchphrases, but to paraphrase one of Jerry Seinfeld’s other catchphrases, “What is the deal with ‘the show about nothing’?”

It’s not useful, like 30 Rock‘s “I want to go to there” or “Blurg.” It’s not a catch-all exclamatory phrase like Good Times‘ “Dy-no-mite!” It’s not even as funny as a lot of other Seinfeld-isms like “spongeworthy” or “master of my domain.” But people love it.

I like to try to figure these things out, but maybe I’m too close to the topic this time. So I’m asking you, readers: Any ideas? What’s so interesting about “the show about nothing”?

Being an Extra on ‘Nashville’

11096554_692008618036_6881256909531933780_nI made my network television debut on last night’s Nashville. Except there’s no way you’ll find me anywhere if you watch the episode.

A few months ago, during a trip to Nashville, I pulled some strings to get the privilege of working as an extra for a day on Nashville, a silly soap with great music that I love. My fellow fans Julie Armstrong (also my sister) and Sean Skyler (her boyfriend) came with me. I’ve been on sets before as a reporter, but I’d never been an extra. I thought about pitching it as a story to one of the outlets I write for, but in the end, I decided I wanted the full extra experience. I got it. The day reinforced something I already knew, but it reinforced it harder than ever: A lot of damn work goes into every moment of television you watch; so much that it’s shocking so much television gets made.

We started the day with an 8:30 a.m. call time. We were asked to dress “Nashville chic” because we were playing “backstage VIPs.” We had to bring a change of clothes in case the costume folks didn’t like our first choice. They really did check every single one of us, and style us a little bit. They asked me to tuck in my shirt a certain way and push up the sleeves. They had my sister change out of her plaid shirt into a dressier sweater.

For about four hours, we walked. Back and forth, over and over, via slightly varying routes, in what was deemed the “backstage” set. We were VIPs at the Rascal Flatts show where the fictional band The Triple Xs were opening. We were given cues and motivation: We were to be relatively uninterested in the fictional band members during the earlier scenes before their sets; we were there to see Rascal Flatts. But once the Xs had played their set, we were to be impressed and interested in them.

It was seriously exhausting. They had production assistants assigned to small groups of us, directing our moves and genuinely concerned if the scene looked “a little dead” in terms of extra movement. All of this translates to this: One of the blurs you saw in front of the camera, walking by as Avery talked on his cell to Juliette, was probably one of us.

By the end of our first four-hour shift of doing this, we were starving and needed the restroom like nobody’s business. Luckily, back at the holding room, they had lots of snacks (and later a meal), drinks, and porta-potties. For the next three or four hours, numbing boredom set in. This was alleviated only by our chatting up a woman sitting near us. Her name was Kathy Meredith, and she was a kick. It was her first time as an extra, too, even though she’s a local. She’d grown up in Nashville and had amazing stories. She’d had the chance to go to what turned out to be Elvis’ final birthday party when she was a teenager, but she declined because she was a good girl and knew she couldn’t stay out all night. She works as a flight attendant, among several jobs. Her husband and son have driven music-tour buses for a living. She impulse-bought a stunning Antebellum mansion — we saw video of it — that she hopes to turn into a bed and breakfast.

After this storytime break, we finally got to go back to the set, where we now played audience members with a much larger pool of extras — maybe 300 or so. It was fun to see it on the episode last night, with the smaller audience presumably CGI-ed to look much bigger, like an arena audience.

By the end, we’d put in a 12-hour day and were exhausted — just to make sure a few blurs passed in front of the camera at the right time, and a bunch of blurs were in the audience for the concert scene. But even in the moment, we were glad we’d done it. (We did also get paid for our time; about $75 after taxes for the day.) Watching the episode last night, I thought about how hundreds of people had put in 12-hour days, and dozens of people had put in many, many 12-hour days, to make that one episode of television. Notice the background players when you watch shows. I always do now.

Why You Should Be Watching ‘Chasing Life’

18319Cancer is a tough sell, but I’ve been loving ABC Family’s Chasing Life, a drama about a 20-something with cancer. Its first season finale is tonight — it does look like it’s going to involve more cancer after a remission — and you should check it out. Despite the cancer, because of the cancer, whatever works for you.

I must admit that the reason I started watching is that my brilliant friend, Patrick Sean Smith, who created one of my favorite shows of the last decade, Greek, is the showrunner on Chasing Life. I mention this as a disclaimer, but also because it explains why the cancer wasn’t a hurdle for me. I watched it to support him, but I kept watching because I was drawn into the show. Cancer — and other fatal illnesses — have been sort-of romanticized at times in teen entertainment, as in The Fault in Our Stars and The Red Band SocietyChasing Life chooses a nice middle-path, making cancer simply one part of main character April’s life. On one hand, fighting with cancer has given her more perspective on her young life. On the other, what seemed like a big deal to her at first is just becoming part of who she is. She still has to struggle with work and romance and friends like any 20-something.

Those are the reasons I actually like this show: First of all, she’s a newspaper reporter, which is what I was in my 20s. And, miraculously, the show gets newspaper drama right, which is a rarity. (Don’t get me started on Never Been Kissed.) In some ways, April’s race to break more scoops than her colleagues felt more dramatic — or maybe more relatable — than her fight with cancer. And as a Greek fan, I have, of course, particularly enjoyed her romance with fellow cancer patient Leo, played by Scott Michael Foster (that is, Cappie).

A second season is happening, so that’s the good news. I’m looking forward to seeing lots more of Chasing Life.

I Want to Talk About the ‘Sopranos’ Finale

Sopranos621I know it’s been almost eight years since The Sopranos famously cut to black. But I just finished bingeing the entire series for a second time, and even though I was obviously familiar with the ending, I can’t stop thinking about it a day after watching it. It’s actually more interesting to watch for a second time, knowing what’s coming — instead of getting caught up in the complications of mob politics and the spate of shocking deaths that comes near the end of the series, you can look for the clues to whether … and this is your one SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched and somehow don’t know what happens … Tony Soprano dies in the end or not. This is the question that everyone asks series creator David Chase every time he’s interviewed, and probably an annoying number of times when he’s not being interviewed, too. It is a question that will plague Chase all the way to his own cut to black. I even wonder if he knew just what he was setting himself up for when he wrote that finale. Mass perceptions can be very different from authorial intent.

There are two things I want to say right now after re-watching what is still a brilliant, if not perfect, show, and its brilliant, and in my opinion perfect, finale:

1. Whether Chase intended the finale to be such a subject of continuing cultural debate, on the order of “About whom was the song ‘You’re So Vain’ written?”, it is perfect for the era of TV bingeing and digital obsession. We can now treat all these shows as if they are “always” on, so we can go over and over this for as long as it pleases us. He’s smart to keep giving ambiguous answers to the question. What fun would it be otherwise? One of the reasons the Lost finale was so disappointing is that its definitive answer was, despite the producers’ great strains to complicate the matter, exactly what we expected and also kind-of silly. I like a good “choose your own adventure” ending, as long as it is, in fact, good. I think The Sopranos ending is good. It makes sense for a show that played with audiences’ expectations as a way to enforce its themes and was at its best when showing restraint. It could get overly obvious and proud of itself at times, especially toward the end — gosh, did you want to say something about America and the war in Iraq with those nine million shots of flags and A.J.’s constant speechifying about George Bush? A cut to black at what I believe really was the moment of truth is genius.

2. Yeah, I totally think Tony Soprano is dead. I could go on and on about this, but a lot of people have already taken great pains to do this all over the Internet. (If you’re feeling ambitious, comb through this 10,000-word comprehensive analysis of every sign that Tony is dead. I did read the whole thing, and while some of it is repetitive, I enjoyed all of it.) What I will add is that it seems so obvious to me that I get a little mad that so many people think differently. I cannot conceive of a way this show and all of the symbolism of the final season make any sense if he just goes on living. The three ducks (a series-long symbol for his family) with the bell sounds flying away at the lake, coupled with the bells that accompany the family members’ entrances to the diner in the final scene? The lingering on the idea that you “never hear it coming” when you’re killed? All the references to assassinated leaders? The way the fates aligned to make the hit work? (Carmela abandoning plans to make manicotti for dinner to instead go out; Meadow struggling to parallel park and thus leaving the space to her father’s back right open for a clean shot; the very real possibility that the presumed gunman in the Members Only jacket followed A.J. to the location.) The cut, not fade, to black? Right in the middle of the chorus of “Don’t Stop Believing”? I know, I know, everybody loves that theory about how the final scene really shows that Tony will always be looking over his shoulder or whatever. That sounds like a nice rationalization for a nation that wants its favorite antihero to live, and is maybe hoping for a film version at the time James Gandolfini was still alive. I subscribed to that theory at the time it aired. I realize now that I was too distracted by thinking my cable cut out to think logically about what I’d just watched. I also know that Chase supposedly told this writer for Vox that Tony didn’t die. Whatever he said, I don’t believe it was as simple an answer as that. Chase released a statement after the piece ran that said as much. And while I don’t like to cast aspersions on other reporters’ work when I have no reason to, I also know these discussions can be complicated to convey in simple quotes. Besides which, I like Chase’s original answer; that is, the finale he wrote and directed and ended with a black, silent screen.

Why ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’ Fans Should Read Nick Hornby’s ‘Funny Girl’

urlNick Hornby is one of my writing idols. His way of combining pop sensibilities with serious emotions, humor, and great characters has always spoken to me and inspired me to become a better writer. So I almost felt like I had made it up myself when I read that his newest book, Funny Girl, was about a British woman in the 1960s who happens to be both beautiful and funny, who also happens to land on a groundbreaking television comedy. I wrote a book kind-of like that, except it was the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States, and it was real, and the woman’s name was Mary Tyler Moore.

If you have any interest at all in The Mary Tyler Moore Show — and I suspect at least some of you found me because you do — you should definitely check out Funny Girl. My book, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, focuses a bit more on the female writers and the feminist movement than this one does. But it’s easy to see Funny Girl almost as a prequel, documenting a fictional history mixed in with some real history; the book does mention the influence of Til Death Us Do Part, for instance, which was the precursor to the massive U.S. hit All in the Family. It also documents the difficulties of being an ambitious, independent woman at the time. I even suspect that the heroine, Sophie Straw, is modeled loosely on Moore; Sophie rises to fame as the wife in a domestic comedy, like Moore did on The Dick Van Dyke Show, though Sophie gets first billing in the humorously punctuated Barbara (and Jim). Her follow-up show includes a female co-writer and features Sophie as a single woman, though her show sounds fluffier than The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

In any case, if you love Mary, you’ll love Sophie.

What ‘The Bachelor’ Teaches Us About Narrative Structure

1417720585_chris-soules-lgI have a number of legitimate excuses for watching The Bachelor regularly: I really did start watching several years ago because I had to cover it at Entertainment Weekly. I write about television, particularly gender on television, and it is certainly some very gendered (and heteronormative, and white) television. I’m also very interested in the biology and psychology of attraction, and it’s full of that as well. But as I sat and watched two hours of it last night, about 90 minutes longer than I had intended, and past my bedtime, I was more aware than I normally am that The Bachelor is, at its core, just damn good storytelling. Professionally manipulative storytelling, lacking in all subtlety and art. But if you want to know how to tell a good story (then, hopefully, add your own subtlety and art), you can learn some things from The Bachelor:

Add some competition. At its heart, The Bachelor is a sport. Every week is one game, and the overall arc is that of a bracket elimination. We love it in sports, we love it on dating shows. It satisfies our human desire for order and sorting the good from the bad from the best. If you can give your story some sense of competition leading to a final showdown, you have a good story. This is among the many reasons sports movies like The Karate Kid are so compelling.

Plant revelations along the way. The Bachelor always involves some major revelations at some point. A number of the women vying for the bachelor’s affections inevitably have secrets they must eventually tell him. Traumatic past relationships are big; we had two widows this season. So are secrets that may cause some judgement, like Jade’s Playboy past this season. Secrets cause tension, and their revelation always leads to some kind of resolution.

Make heroes and villains. We love rooting for an against people. The Bachelor will always have at least one villain per season. Once, in a fun twist, the bachelor himself (Juan Pablo) became the villain.

Pull characters out of their element. This season has the advantage of a farmer from a teeny Iowa town as its title star. This inherently means that at some point, the women — most of them model/actress/waitress types from places like Los Angeles — have to decide whether they can live on a farm. This discussion began with a trip to bachelor Chris’ hometown this week; the expected explosions did ensue. Other seasons contain this element, too, even if it’s just giving the bungee-jumping date to the girl who obviously said on her pre-show questionnaire that she was afraid of heights.

Golden Globe Nominations: Why You Should Be Watching ‘Jane the Virgin’

jane-the-virginI will talk to anyone who will listen about The CW’s new show Jane the Virgin. So I was thrilled to see it get nominated for a Golden Globe yesterday. The Golden Globes are kind-of an also-ran of awards shows when it comes to the big guns — it’s not going to make a huge difference for, say, Game of Thrones — but they can be a boon to a little show that not many people have heard of. It’s telling that when I saw the phrase “Jane the Virgin” trending on Twitter yesterday, my heart sank; I thought it had been cancelled. (It had already gotten a full-season order, at least, but I didn’t know that at the time.) Instead, it turned out to be trending as a surprise nominee and because many Twitter users’ response was, “What the hell is Jane the Virgin?”

So glad you asked, Twitter. Jane has gotten rapturous reviews, but for whatever reason hasn’t quite caught on at a mass level yet. Probably because it doesn’t occur to most grown adults to watch The CW, especially in such an oversaturated market for high-quality programming. Add a very basic statement of the premise — “young woman who is a virgin gets pregnant when her doctor accidentally inseminates her instead of giving her a pap smear” — and you’re not exactly packing in the crowds. This is no How to Get Away With Murder, with a killer title, spectacular and known star (Viola Davis), and spectacular pedigree (produced by Shonda Rhimes). This is a show starring an unknown actress with an absurd plotline. And it’s on The CW, which didn’t get nominations even for critical favorites like Gilmore Girls.

It also happens to be a magical, star-making vehicle for Gina Rodriguez, who’s also nominated. Jane is an adaptation of a Venezuelan telenovela, and it’s Americanized in particularly clever ways, unlike Ugly Betty‘s more straightforward translation. Jane has one of the greatest voiceover narrators of all time, the unseen Anthony Mendez playing Kristen Bell in Gossip Girl here. He gives the set-up a winking tone that acknowledges the absurdities and allows us to go with them. In an extraordinary move, particularly for a dramedy, Jane’s immigrant grandmother speaks only in Spanish, with subtitles. The plots are twisty and silly and utterly engaging, with any given episode dabbling in hostage-taking, extortion, murder, sting operations, prostitutes hired to drug and seduce hotel magnates, and the occasional lesbian affair between a doctor and her stepmother.

Despite these crazy telenovela flourishes, the show is sweet and grounded, thanks in large part to Jane. Rodriguez has one of those faces you want to watch constantly, and she doesn’t play dumb or naive just because she’s a virgin in her early 20s. It’s a hard sell, but she nails it without breaking a sweat. I’m also crazy about the character of Rogelio, Jane’s once-absentee father and telenovela star, who’s charmingly clueless about how to be a normal person. (When Jane explains that she’s having trouble with her young, twin half-sisters because he bought Jane a car, he solves the problem not by having a talk with the girls, but by buying the teenagers identical cars.) He’s an egomaniac with a huge heart, not something often seen or easily played. Then there’s Justin Baldoni as the father of Jane’s accidental baby (it was his sperm in the inseminator), a hotel magnate whom Jane once coincidentally kissed. They’re now testing the waters of romance, and their chemistry is off the charts, in large part because Baldoni is pure sex — I was so excited to see him in this show, as I have fond memories of drooling over him when he was on Everwood. He, too, lends a sweetness to a character who still maintains some edge; I believe he was a playboy, but I also believe he loves Jane. Jane the Virgin is, in short, the perfect antidote to the era of dark, serious, antihero-driven dramas that are heavy with their own importance.

I hope the Golden Globe nominations encourage more people to check out Jane the Virgin over the largely programming-free holiday break. It deserves all the love it can get.

Here’s the trailer for the show to whet your appetite: