Adele Had the Best Worst Night at the Grammys (While the Grammys Just Had the Worst)

It takes guts to start a song over in the middle of a live Grammys broadcast, but Adele had the confidence to do just that. She sensed that she was off key during the first several measures of a tribute to George Michael, a slowed-down version of “Fastlove,” and she boldly stopped and started again, refusing to get things wrong in Michael’s memory.

Alas, it wasn’t enough to make it a great tribute. She sang beautifully, because she’s a beautiful singer, but everything about the conception was wrong: To honor a man who gave us rousing classics like “Freedom ’90” and “Faith,” the Grammys chose a slowed-down version of one of his lesser known hits, in the process stripping it of its campy fun—it is, after all, a paean to the joy of hookups.

And this moment wasn’t even the worst one for Adele during last night’s production. She seemed to be forced to shoulder the Grammys’ worst foibles, of which there were many: sound problems, ill-conceived productions, and, oh right, racism and lack of cultural relevance.

Adele’s most difficult moment of the night came, ironically enough, when she had to accept Album of the Year for 25 and Song of the Year for “Hello,” the biggest awards of the night. It should have been a triumph, but even she knew she didn’t deserve to beat Beyoncé in either category: Adele made a perfect pop album. Beyoncé made a tour de force in which she turned her personal pain into an allegory for the divisions of our nation. (Good to know the Academy refuses to learn from its mistakes despite a changing political climate; remember when Taylor Swift’s 1989, another perfectly beautiful pop album, beat Kendrick Lamar’s incendiary masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly?) When they first announced this year’s nominations, it honestly felt insulting that Beyoncé would even have to “compete” with the likes of Justin Bieber (also a good album, but come on).

When 25 beat Lemonade last night, Adele graciously used her speech to thank Beyoncé (who had delivered yet another scorched-earth performance earlier in the night, baring her full, pregnant belly while dressed as a goddess, urging the nation toward healing with her songs “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles”).“I’m very humbled and very grateful and gracious, but the artist of my life is Beyoncé,” Adele said. “The Lemonade album, for me, is so monumental.”  She went on, acknowledging what the Grammys surely would prefer not to: that there was a racial element to this. “You are our light,” she said. “The way you make me and my friends feel, the way you make my black friends feel, is empowering. You make them stand up for themselves. I love you. I always have and I always will.”

Later backstage, Adele still couldn’t get over it. She even broke her Grammy in half to give a piece to Beyoncé: “What the fuck does she have to do to win Album of the Year?” Adele asked. Apparently Frank Ocean—who kept his music out of the running this year due to the ceremony’s “cultural bias”—was beyond right. And it’s time we state the obvious: Kanye, sorry. You were right, too.

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Upcoming SEINFELDIA Events

In the next several weeks, I’ll be in Georgia, Philadelphia, Connecticut, Oregon, and Staten Island talking Seinfeldia. Join me if you’re in the area!

Feb. 16-19, Savannah Book Festival, GA: Appearance.

7 p.m., Feb. 22, Museum of Jewish History, Philadelphia: SEINFELDIA presentation and signing.

11 a.m., March 8, JCC Greenwich, CT: SEINFELDIA presentation and signing.

7 p.m., March 14, Mittleman Jewish Community Center, Portland, OR: SEINFELDIA talk and signing.

7 p.m., March 16, Staten Island HillelSEINFELDIA talk and signing.

The Most Feminist Super Bowl Ever

Saturday Night Live was onto something with this year’s version of its annual mock Super Bowl ad for Totino’s Pizza Rolls. In it, Vanessa Bayer’s traditional wife worries about feeding “my hungry guys” for the “big game” … until she meets Ted’s sexy sister Sabine, played by Kristen Stewart.

Not only was it by far the funniest take they’ve ever done on the Totino’s ads, but it also anticipated the overarching cultural theme of the next day’s Super Bowl: Gender roles out, equality in.

For several years, the drill was this: Super Bowl happens, a bunch of disgustingly sexist ads run during it, there is a brief outcry, then everyone goes back to their lives. But this year, we had Audi musing about equal pay in an affecting—if still a bit patriarchal—ad in which a father hopes for future equality for his young daughter.

Hulu ran an ad for its upcoming adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s feminist-themed dystopian novel. Lady Gaga gave us what was likely the campiest halftime show ever and, despite truncating several of her hits to fit the time slot, included the entire “Born This Way” spoken breakdown full of call-outs to acceptance of all genders, sexualities, races, and nationalities: “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen …” Even GoDaddy, once known for its ads objectifying women, dialed it down and included a subtle nod to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

It was easy to get distracted by the two gorgeous ads that saluted immigrants, um, coincidentally at the exact time our president is trying to keep some out. (Check out the 84 Lumber and Budweiser spots if you haven’t.) But at a time when women’s issues are under attack in Washington, this year’s mainstreamiest celebration of capitalism and macho brute force said, “We’re with her, and her, and her, and her.” As the Totino’s (very clever) Twitter account said after the SNL bit: “Hey, it’s like we always say: pizza rolls, not gender roles.”

We Are All Political Writers Now

Like many of my colleagues in the pop culture writing business, I had a career crisis after the election: What, exactly, was I doing with my life? Was it enough to write about TV, music, and pop culture history? Should I be breaking important political stories instead, or at least writing scathing commentary about the state of our society?

By the time I emerged from my post-election stupor/denial/insomnia nightmare, however, it was clear that what I do for a living is just fine. Because any subject matter, at least now, can become a scathing commentary. Every subject matter bends back toward the black hole that is now our U.S. government. Maybe it’s because our incoming president is an “entertainer” that I find myself quite able to write about him while staying in my expertise lane; after all, I covered the man for a few years when The Apprentice was a hit. But maybe it’s just because literally everything seems tainted by the mood of the country.

My first three assignments of 2017 have all been about Trump-related issues in comedy, television history, and pop music. Meanwhile, there was that great Vanity Fair review of Trump Tower Grill that had our future president fuming—and absolutely serves as both a thorough restaurant review and a political piece for the ages. And now there’s this delightfully snide TV listing (!) for Trump’s inauguration, which ran in the Scottish Sunday Herald and treats it like a dystopian drama that couldn’t possibly be real life. We are all political writers now.

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Drake’s Real Rap Debut (on ‘Degrassi’)

Before Drake was Drake, he was Canadian actor Aubrey Graham, best known for depicting Jimmy Brooks on the excellent Degrassi: The Next Generation. This totally addictive teen show, which continues with yet another generation of young characters on Netflix, hit its first heyday in the ’80s as a cult favorite after-school special, and another one in the 2000s with The Next Generation, which aired on The N in America, a now-defunct teen network.

Out of nowhere and for no actual reason besides Degrassi‘s awesomeness (and Drake’s current blossoming romance with Jennifer Lopez), I had a passionate online discussion about Degrassi, and specifically Drake’s time on it, with some friends (thanks, Pamela!) and my sister, Julie, who got me into the show back when she was in her early 20s and I was … older than that. But being in my early 30s did not make me immune to this show’s charms, and I wasn’t the only adult watching. Because it was Canadian, it dealt more honestly than American teen shows with major issues like gun violence (Jimmy was paralyzed in a school shooting), sex, drinking, sexual assault, class differences, and abortion (The N originally refused to air a character’s decision to get one). The actors were playing closer to their age than most American teen shows, which tended to employ actors pushing 30 to play high schoolers. They were also far more diverse. And this all made the show very compelling to watch.

One of my favorite set visits ever when I worked for Entertainment Weekly was to Degrassi. I spent several days there, roaming the halls of the actual former school building that served as the set. Most sets are sets—they have no fourth wall. But Degrassi was actually in a school building and felt like school. The halls had lockers. We ate in a school lunchroom. I sat on the steps of the school to interview the erstwhile Aubrey Graham—already Drake-charming and uncomfortably flirty at just 17.

To honor Drake’s rise, I give you his first rap performance on Degrassi. The show had a lot of music (there’s an epic Battle of the Bands episode pitting the boys—Downtown Sasquatch—versus the girls—Hell Hath No Fury), and the kids were all legit talented. But Julie and I both remember watching this and going, Whoa. I think he might be really good.

R.I.P. Grant Tinker, a Goddamn Legend of the TV Biz (Who Actually Deserved to Be a Goddamn Legend)

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I looove this pic of Mary and Grant at the Emmy Awards. ’70s Glamorous.

TV executive Grant Tinker died this week, but I hate describing him with such a generic, dismissive label. He was an advertising man and a producer, the guy at the head of MTM Enterprises and later NBC. But none of these descriptions do him justice, either. So let’s try one more time: His rare combination of business acumen, creative instincts, respect for writing and vision, and his old-fashioned decency made him a goddamn legend who deserved to be a goddamn legend. There. That’s at least a little closer.

You could go your whole life enjoying many of the products of Grant Tinker’s genius without ever knowing who Grant Tinker was. He was a vice president at Twentieth Century Fox Television in 1969 when his then-wife, actress Mary Tyler Moore, was putting together a new show for CBS. He spotted the talent of writer-producers James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, who were running the innovative high school drama Room 222, produced by Twentieth Century. He asked the two to take a crack at whipping up something for Moore—the result was the beautifully crafted Mary Tyler Moore Show.

“I hired you because you did stuff that seemed to be in the real world,” he told Brooks and Burns. “And that’s what I want this to be.” Tinker would have to fight CBS executives to secure his producers the right to do (mostly) what they wanted with the show: They pitched Moore as a divorced woman starting over. CBS balked and even asked Tinker to fire Brooks and Burns. (Divorce was still a big deal in 1969.) He refused to do so, but the team-MTM worked out a relatively harmless compromise by making her character a single, professional woman getting over a breakup. The divorce didn’t have to be the point, per se. They made a show that was not only a classic, but also a watershed moment for women on television—she may not have been divorced, but she was a professional, single woman who took birth control, stayed out all night sometimes, and never bothered to get married in the seven-year run of the show.

Tinker wanted his wife to have the career she wanted, a sadly remarkable trait for the time. CBS’s then-vice president of development, Fred Silverman, told me in my book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted that Moore and Tinker were a formidable business team: “They knew exactly what they wanted to do and they were going to do it. After that the network threw its hands up.”

MTM Enterprises became a gold standard for TV studios over the next two decades. Their series included The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, Lou Grant, WKRP in Cincinnati, Hill Street Blues, Remington Steele, St. Elsewhere, and Newhart. The studio lot on Radford Avenue was known as “Camelot” because of Tinker’s insistence on creative autonomy for his producers.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about Tinker is that even though I talked to dozens of people about him for my book, not one said one even slightly negative thing about the guy. This is in Hollywood, mind you. All they had were tales of generosity, goodness, fairness, and principles. When I talked to the man himself, he was a forthcoming gentleman, the real deal. He will be missed, but his influence lives on in every great show you see today.

‘Saturday Night Live’ Wakes Up With the Rest of Us

Saturday Night Live opened its first post-election show with a moment that grows only more extraordinary with thought (and, in my case at least, repeated viewing): Kate McKinnon, dressed in her familiar Hillary Clinton character, played the piano and sang the recently departed Leonard Cohen’s classic “Hallelujah.” When I first saw her at the piano, I assumed she’d be performing a parody song that, even if respectful, would also make us laugh. In fact, I spent the first half of the song still sort-of waiting for it to take that turn, even though that would be a questionable choice in light of Cohen’s death; the comedic turn never came.

As the comedy-free trajectory sunk in, its brilliance shone: It gave me, and presumably the rest of the half of the nation that supported Clinton/cannot sleep at the thought of a Trump regime, an image we didn’t know we wanted, but felt like the perfect catharsis. It served as a far more memorable tribute to Cohen, one that will be remembered for years, than some basic musical performance would. It opened the show on what had to be the most somber note ever in the show’s history following an election result. It kept any image of our new president, even a lampooning one, out of our sight at this raw time. And it was only improved by McKinnon’s in-tune but modest singing voice, more earnest than technically beautiful. Who knew the world could even stand another cover version of “Hallelujah,” let alone desperately need it?

The performance also flowed well into the opening monologue from host Dave Chappelle, who was booked for the appearance before the election but served as the perfect transition into a new time for America, and thus the show. He dropped N-bombs, as is his wont, as well as some brutal commentary on Black Lives Matter, ISIS/mass shooting jokes (yep, it worked), a stunning story about visiting the White House for an all-black (except for Bradley Cooper) party recently, and a genuine wish for Trump’s presidency. (“I’m wishing Donald Trump luck. And I’m gonna give him a chance. And we, the historically disenfranchised, demand that he give us one, too.”) Chappelle was at his finest, deploying beautifully phrased stories and jokes and gut punches as spontaneously as if they had just occurred to him.

It was great to see Chappelle back in the national-television game at a time when we need gutsier, more pointed satire of the kind he used to do on his Comedy Central sketch show. (No doubt whom his blind, black white supremacist character would vote for this year.) I hope this signals a bolder direction for SNL as we move into uncharted territory. As Saturday’s show proved, comedy can be a serious force if it wants to be.

Why ‘Saturday Night Live’ Needs to Update Its Act Before It’s Too Late

This weekend, Saturday Night Live debuted its new Trump for election season, played by Alec Baldwin. Naturally, Baldwin nailed the character like he would if he were playing him in a serious biopic, and the fake-tan game was next-level. But some Sunday-morning critics like Yahoo!’s Ken Tucker were quick to point out that Trump is no usual politician; simply making fun of his obviously eccentric mannerisms, and equating those quirks with those of Hillary Clinton or other candidates, is offensive at this stage.

It is offensive. It’s also just lazy comedy. And Saturday Night Live needs to rethink its approach, with a mere 36 days to go before Election Day.

SNL can and should go way, way deeper on this one. Not because they are our only hope against electing a racist, unstable narcissist — believe me (as he’d say), the SNL powers that be guarded themselves well against that expectation in the press leading up to Saturday’s season premiere, denying that their little comedy show could have any real impact on elections. “I think it has an effect,” creator/executive producer Lorne Michaels said in a great analysis piece in The Washington Post“but we don’t influence people in how to vote.”

Of course, they could, and have, affected elections, Tina Fey’s devastating Sarah Palin portrayal being the prime example. (We all know by now that it was Fey-as-Palin, not Palin, who said, “I can see Russia from my house.” Right?) But there are ways SNL could still give The Daily Show and its descendants (Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee) a run for their political cachet. To do that, SNL has to get over the way it’s done things for 41 years.

When the show premiered in 1975, simply poking fun at the mannerisms and speaking patterns of a president or potential president was a radical act. Moving from the JFK days of grave respect for our leaders to the era of Nixon, this represented a genuine shift. So re-enacting the week’s events — press conferences, debates, and interviews most of us had seen in real life — with the SNL satirical twist was enough. Ha, ha, we said to ourselves. That was what he really meant. 

Now, the show must go far beyond sending up politicians the same way it sends up pop stars. It needs to skip the debate re-enactment — by the time it airs, the Internet has chewed up every moment and spit it out via memes, recaps, and tweets anyway. You knew Kate McKinnon was going to do Hillary’s debate shimmy, but it was funnier when Internet memes compared her to Shaq, and we’d seen a billion other iterations by Saturday.

I’m loathe to start pitching sketch ideas to the professionals, but as a general starting point, why not imagine scenarios Trump’s insane policies might bring about? He builds his precious wall, but refuses to pay the workers, as he’s done so many times in his own business, so he has to finish it himself with his tiny hands. He finds himself in office with no actual plan besides, “Believe me, it’s gonna be huge. We’re gonna win.” He fills his cabinet the only way he knows how, via Celebrity Apprentice, only to find his mid-list celebrities are taking the job more seriously than he is. He stars in a terrifying buddy comedy with Putin. Baldwin and Fey play Trump and Palin in a Very Dark 30 Rock about supposed leaders who can’t seem to form complete sentences.

As I said, I’m not an SNL writer, so I’m not pretending these are the ideas that will save us. Just examples of new ways to think beyond impressions and lazy re-enactments. Maybe they won’t save us. But it might even be good for comedy if they try.

Some SEINFELDIA Press

People like to talk about Seinfeld! Here are some places it has been recently:

I talked Seinfeldia with my smart friends at Vulture.

Particularly great excerpt (i.e. I like the bits they chose) about “The Junior Mint,” “The Contest,” and others in The Guardian.

I also talked Seinfeldia with fellow Seinfeld geek Jim Turano at WGN (in my hometown, Chicago!). 

A Salon.com discussion about the antiheroes of Seinfeld.

And ‘How Seinfeld Became About Something,’ from NBC online.