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kottke.org posts about TV

My recent media diet for March-ish 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 05, 2018

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I was out of town for a few days so there are more books on here than usual. I’m trying to keep it up…reading right now but too early to call: Broad Band, Am I There Yet?, Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet. Oh and I’m really glad The Americans is back on, even though it’s the final season. (As I’ve said before, don’t pay too much attention to the letter grades. They are subjective and frequently wrong.)

Star Trek Voyager. Not in the same league as Next Generation, but it hums along nicely after they get going. (B)

Mr. Robot. I watched the first episode of season three and then got distracted by other things. Anybody watch the whole season? Is it worth circling back? (TBD)

Annihilation. I enjoyed this more than many people I know, but not as much as Matt Zoller Seitz. Eager to watch it again since reading the book (see below). (B+)

Lincoln. I love this movie. One of Spielberg’s best. (A)

Ugly Delicious. I wanted to hate this, but it’s really interesting and David Chang wears you down with his, well, I wouldn’t call it charm exactly. The episode that really hooked me was the Thanksgiving one, when he’s wandering around a massive supermarket with his mom, who’s mockingly calling him “David Chang” (you can almost hear the appended ™ in her voice) and then refers to him as the “Baby King”. Also, for a chef, Chang is weirdly incurious about food but harangues people for not appreciating kimchi. I really should write a longer post about this… (A-)

Murder on the Orient Express. Better than I had heard, if you choose to embrace its slight campiness. I really enjoyed Branagh’s Poirot. (B+)

Geostorm. I love disaster movies like this, but I kept checking my phone during this one and a day or two later I couldn’t have told you a single plot point. That will not stop me from watching it again because (see first sentence). (C)

Sunsets. I recommend them, particularly on the beach. (A)

The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann. “I recommend that you read The Wizard and the Prophet”. (A)

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Great book, deserving of all its accolades. (A-)

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. This is likely an unpopular opinion, but I liked the movie more. Upon finishing, I was not inclined to read the sequels. (B)

The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson. As I mentioned here, I’m reading this aloud to my kids, which feels a little like a time machine trip back to antiquity. (A)

An Incomplete History of Protest. Inspiring collection of objects related to the protests of everything from the AIDS crisis to Vietnam. Fascinating to see how the disenfranchised leveraged art and design to counter their neglect by the powerful. (A-)

Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables. Fun to see American Gothic up close, but I was more impressed by some of Wood’s other work, particularly his illustration-like landscapes. I showed the kids a photo I had taken of one of the paintings and Ollie said, “that looks like a 3D rendering!” (B+)

Stephen Shore at MoMA. I’d label this a “must see” if you’re into photography at all. Shore’s shape-shifting career is inspiring. (A-)

Red Sparrow. I was texting with a friend about how cool it would be if J. Law’s character in Red Sparrow was Paige Jennings from The Americans all grown up, but the timelines don’t match up. (B-)

Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle. I don’t play a lot of board games so maybe this is a common thing now, but I really like how all the players have to work together against the game to win. But once you get past the first couple of decks, the games take *forever*. (B+)

The Royal Tenenbaums. Rushmore will always be my sentimental Wes Anderson fave, but Tenenbaums is right up there. (A)

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace. I have been listening to the audiobook version while in the car, and Wallace’s reading of the first story, Big Red Son (about an adult video awards show), made me laugh so hard that I had to pull of the road at one point. (A)

Logan Lucky. Much better on the second watch. I don’t know why I didn’t appreciate it the first time around…I love Soderbergh and this is basically Ocean’s 7/11. (A-)

Moon. I saw this when it originally came out but didn’t like it as much the second time around. Great soundtrack though. (B+)

Sleep. An 8-hour-long album designed to be played while you sleep. I listened to the entire album while working, and it’s pretty good for that purpose as well. (A-)

Simon and the Whale. Wonderful room and service. Really good cocktails. I know the kitchen crew and they still blew me away with the food. (A)

Girls Trip. I haven’t laughed so hard at a movie since I don’t know when. Bridesmaids maybe? Can’t wait to watch this again in a few months. (A-)

Ready Player One. I very much enjoyed watching this movie. Spielberg must have had fun going back through the 80s pop culture he had a large part in shaping. (A-)

Electricity. I’m writing this not from my usual home office but from the lobby of the local diner/movie theater. We had a wind storm last night, which knocked the power out at my house. That means no heat, no water, no wifi, and very poor cell reception. And a tree came down across the road I live on, so I was “stranded” for a few hours this morning until someone showed up with a chainsaw. I unreservedly recommend electricity (and civilization more generally). (A+)

Lessons from the Screenplay: the influences and cleverness of Black Mirror

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 04, 2018

In this video, Lessons from the Screenplay examines what makes one of the best episodes of Black Mirror, USS Callister, so effective and entertaining.

The USS Callister episode of Black Mirror is a bit of an anomaly amongst the nineteen episodes of the series. It cleverly introduces the antagonist in an unconventional way, brings the premise of an old Twilight Zone episode into the near future, and manages to constantly be doing multiple things at once.

His second example of how the show does multiple things at once, which occurs right at the end of the episode, is excellent.

Poetry in America series on PBS

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 02, 2018

Poetry in America is an upcoming 12-part series exploring poetry on a variety of topics. Each episode features the discussion of a single poem — “I cannot dance upon my toes” by Emily Dickinson, “Skyscraper” by Carl Sandburg, “N.Y. State of Mind” by Nas — with a collection of notable people — Samantha Power, Shaquille O’Neal, E.O. Wilson, Yo Yo Ma, Bill Clinton. The first episode airs this week but is already available on Amazon.

Fake laughs! The invention of the laugh track.

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 29, 2018

Encyclopedia Of Misinformation

On Tuesday, my friend Rex Sorgatz came out with the very timely book, The Encyclopedia of Misinformation, the full subtitle of which is “A Compendium of Imitations, Spoofs, Delusions, Simulations, Counterfeits, Impostors, Illusions, Confabulations, Skullduggery, Frauds, Pseudoscience, Propaganda, Hoaxes, Flimflam, Pranks, Hornswoggle, Conspiracies & Miscellaneous Fakery”. Today I’m happy to present an excerpt about the genesis and use of the laugh track on television. [The video insert on how the laff box worked is mine.] -jason

No technique in television production has been more maligned than the laugh track, yet it somehow perseveres through decades of ridicule.

It all started innocently, as a quick hack to solve a technical problem. Charley Douglass, a sound engineer at CBS in the early ’50s, was annoyed at studio audiences who inconveniently laughed at the wrong moments. Sometimes they chuckled too long at unfunny bits; other times, they refused to bellow with sufficient gusto. To evenly redistribute the laughter, Douglass invented a contraption that looked like a steampunk organ collided with a cyberpunk adding machine, connected on the back end to magnetic tapes with recorded laughter. By pressing buttons on the laff box (that’s actually what he called it), an orchestrator could punch up guffaws, chortles, and giggles on demand. The magical machine also acted as a sort of demographic keyboard, with inputs for specific genders, ages, and ethnicities, plus a foot pedal that controlled the duration of each laugh. One keystroke might simulate frothy housewife giggle; another, guy who missed joke but laughs anyway. Keys could be combined into melodic chords of laughter, bringing down the house in a crescendo of hilarity.

The gizmo was a success, smoothing out the aural wrinkles in programs like The Abbott and Costello Show and I Love Lucy. It was a necessary evil of this nascent era, when television was rapidly changing from live broadcast to taped recordings. Audiences were still growing accustomed to the big square tube in their living rooms, and the laugh track helped ease the transition by simulating an intimate theater experience at home. You knew when to laugh because they told you when to laugh.

Naturally, this quaint bag of laughs was quickly abused. Sitcoms in the ’60s and ’70s took the laff box and cranked it to eleven. Realizing canned chuckles freed them from the burden of a live audience, shows like Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch ratcheted the laugh track to egregious levels. No show could escape the canned laughter craze — beloved programs like The Muppet Show and M*A*S*H used laugh tracking, even during outdoor scenes, when a studio audience was improbable. When animated shows like The Flintstones and The Jetsons added tracks of artificial mirth, the entire illusion of a captive studio audience was finally shattered.

Show creators hated the laugh track, spurring a constant feud with network executives who believed audiences enjoyed the audio cues. To adjudicate the conflict, CBS held a controlled experiment in 1965 with its brand-new show Hogan’s Heroes. The network tested two versions of the World War II comedy — one with canned laughter, one without. The test audiences overwhelmingly preferred the laugh-tracked show. Since then, nearly all CBS comedies have contained audience laughter.

Fake laughter was far from universal though. Many beloved shows, including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Friends, Cheers, and Seinfeld, used studio audiences for most of their laughter, only adding dashes of the canned stuff through sweetening (that’s the term of art).1

But laughter of all kinds — live or tracked — was becoming the joke of the sitcom industry, as a morose aura started to envelop the merriment. An oft-told anecdote asserted that due to track age, the laff box contained the chortles of dead people. The canard seems to have originated with Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon (1999), who ad libbed this bit of dialogue about sitcoms like Taxi:

It’s just stupid jokes and canned laughter! And you don’t know why it’s there, but it’s there! And it’s dead people laughing, did you know that? Those people are dead!1

It might have been true in the ’70s, but the claim is likely not accurate today, as audio engineers are known to assiduously update their libraries with new snorts and snickers.

Regardless, the stench of dead laughter was in the air. Starting in the early aughts, shows began to jettison the laugh track, as most celebrated comedies of the era — The Office, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Orange Is the New Black, 30 Rock, Community, Louie, Modern Family — abandoned the cheesy blandishment. Some programs maintain laugh tracks today (especially those on CBS), and they do tend to get good ratings. In fact, one can almost divide sitcoms into two categories — “critically acclaimed” versus “high ratings” — on whether they use a laugh track. As a generalization, shows that cozen a laugh from the viewer perform better in the ratings but seldom win Emmys.

Although widely derided, the laugh track served its purpose. Television began as a medium for viewing live events with an audience (essentially theater-at-a-distance), and it took decades for television to evolve into its own medium. The laff box allowed producers to literally play the audience, like an organ. Perhaps it was synthetic, but the technical innovation put the audience into the tube, creating a more communal experience in our homes. Today, that role — incorporating a disembodied audience — is played by social media. LOL.

If you’re interested in reading about more simulations, skullduggery, and flimflam, The Encyclopedia Of Misinformation is now available on Amazon.

  1. Sweetening is demonstrated with dismay in Annie Hall when Woody Allen witnesses laugh tracks being added to a live broadcast in a Los Angeles television studio. The term is also invoked in other commercial arts. When Kiss’s Alive! was released in 1975, it claimed to be a live album but many tracks were clearly sweetened, as they say, with studio overdubs to sharpen the sound.

  2. Another oft-cited (but inaccurate) source for this old saw is Chuck Palahniuk’s 2002 novel Lullaby: “Most of the laugh tracks on television were recorded in the early 1950s. These days, most of the people you hear laughing are dead.”

Being Serena

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 27, 2018

Being Serena is a five-art HBO documentary series on Serena Williams that focuses on her pregnancy, the birth of her daughter, and her determination to get back on the court and compete at a championship level.

I don’t know if there’s anything left for me in tennis, but I’m not done yet.

The first episode will air on May 2. Deadline has further details.

Hip Hop All Stars on The Arsenio Hall Show

posted by Aaron Cohen   Mar 22, 2018

For the final show of The Arsenio Hall Show, Queen Latifah organized a huge amount of hip hop talent for a tribute. It’s amazing. Some more details here. The segment features Yo-Yo, MC Lyte, Naughty by Nature, A Tribe Called Quest, Fu-Schnickens, CL Smooth, Guru from Gang Starr, Das EFX, GZA and few others from Wu-Tang Clan, KRS-One, and Mad Lion, and, as mentioned previously, is amazing. (via @mattwhitlockPM)

The trailer for Won’t You Be My Neighbor

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 20, 2018

Morgan Neville’s documentary about Fred Rogers will be out in theaters on June 8; the trailer above just dropped today.

Fred Rogers led a singular life. He was a puppeteer. A minister. A musician. An educator. A father, a husband, and a neighbor. Fred Rogers spent 50 years on children’s television beseeching us to love and to allow ourselves to be loved. With television as his pulpit, he helped transform the very concept of childhood. He used puppets and play to explore the most complicated issues of the day — race, disability, equality and tragedy. He spoke directly to children and they responded by forging a lifelong bond with him-by the millions. And yet today his impact is unclear. WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? explores the question of whether or not we have lived up to Fred’s ideal. Are we all good neighbors?

You can watch a clip of the film here.

A surgery resident analyzes medical scenes from TV & movies

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 15, 2018

Annie Onishi is a general surgery resident at Columbia University and Wired asked her to break down scenes from movies and TV shows featuring emergency rooms, operating rooms, and other medical incidents. Spoiler alert: if you seek medical treatment from a TV doctor, you will probably die. Secondary spoiler alert: that adrenaline-shot-to-the-heart scene in Pulp Fiction is not as implausible as you might think, even if some of the details are wrong.

Katja Blichfeld’s personal reinvention

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Mar 05, 2018

katja-blichfeld-high-maintenance.png

We should all be talking more about High Maintenance, a show sort of about weed but really about the human condition. 

Last season’s episode “Grandpa” is unlike anything else I’ve seen on TV, but do yourself a favor and start with their original webisodes and work your way up to the current season on HBO. “Rachel” is also not to be missed (Dan Stevens plus Rachel Comey, swoon).

Emily Gould’s recent profile on co-creator Katja Blichfeld
 gives a look at half of the real-life (former) couple behind the show. I particularly like the story of her career trajectory.

Before she was known for High Maintenance, Blichfeld was a casting director, a job at which she was very successful (she won an Emmy for her work on 30 Rock) and at which she arrived via an indirect path. Born in Long Beach, California, to Danish parents, she grew up attending Evangelical Christian schools, where she was taught that much of pop culture was the devil’s doing. “Like I couldn’t watch The Smurfs,” she explains, “because of witchcraft and sorcery.” She spent a couple of semesters at Long Beach City College, dropped out, moved to Chicago, worked in admin at a university, and then, in 2004, followed a relationship that had begun on Friendster to New York. “We were watching a lot of movies together, and the way that I would talk about movies was always very actor-centric. And I remember this person saying, ‘You should be a casting director.’” Blichfeld decided she’d try to get an internship. She made a list of people she wanted to work for, topped with Jennifer McNamara, who had just won a bunch of awards for her work on Sex and the City: “She, being a casting director — you know, very good at seeing potential — saw it in me, lucky me, and took me on.

The life-imitates-art-imitates-life aspect of Blichfeld’s breakup and the show really gets me, too.

8-bit scenes from TV shows

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 21, 2018

Pixel Art TV

Pixel Art TV

Pixel Art TV

Pixel Art TV

For his Pixel Art TV project, Gustavo Viselner illustrates scenes from TV shows in a pixelized video game style. Looks like he’s done scenes from Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale, Breaking Bad, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Seinfeld, Star Trek, and several others. (via @john_overholt)

Update: See also The Screenshots, a project by Jon Haddock from 2000 in which scenes from historical & fictional events are rendered in a The Sims-like style. (via @dens)

Mister Rogers learns to breakdance and moonwalk

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 21, 2018

In this clip from an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, breakdancer Jermaine Vaughn shows Mister Rogers and his television neighbors a few moves, including some popping and locking and the moonwalk.

That guy is game for anything, even if it makes him look dorky…probably especially if it makes him look dorky. Rogers knew the value of not letting what others might think about you get in the way of your curiosity or a new experience.

Also, DJs and producers take note: his lines “like there’s a wave going the whole way through your body” and “then make it come back, huh” are ripe for sampling.

My recent media diet, special Black Panther & Olympics edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 19, 2018

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I have fallen off the book reading wagon…I really really need to find some time to start reading more. Maybe after the Olympics are done and I’ve made it through all of the levels in Alto’s Odyssey

2018 Winter Olympic Games. Yes, the Olympics are corrupt & corporate and NBC’s coverage is often lacking, but on the other hand, all of America gets a two-week look at all of these amazing women, immigrants, children of immigrants, and openly gay athletes (some of them just children) displaying many different kinds of femininity and masculinity while performing amazing feats and suffering humbling defeats. The Olympics, as the joke goes, is the future that liberals want and America is watching and loving it. (A-)

Black Panther. Really entertaining and affecting after an expositional slow start. (B+)

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. Leonardo da Vinci is not overrated. (B+)

Alto’s Odyssey. A worthy successor to one of my favorite games. (A-)

Reply All: The Bitcoin Hunter. Is admitting that you bought illegal drugs on Silk Road a thing you can do without the risk of being prosecuted? (B+)

Black Panther The Album. I can’t wait to drive around playing this as loud as I can. Also, based on my experience, movies should put more effort into their soundtracks. The really good ones (like this one) inspire repeat viewings and cause me to remember the movie more fondly. (A-)

Paddington. If more people in the UK over 65 had watched Paddington, Brexit wouldn’t have happened. (A-)

Paddington 2. Seriously, these Paddington movies are better than they have any right to be. Smart and lots of heart. (B+)

See You in the Cosmos. Read this to the kids as a bedtime story over the past few months. We all loved it. Rocketry, Carl Sagan, the Voyager Golden Record…what’s not to like? (A-)

Allied. Bland and forgettable. (C-)

On Being: interview with Isabel Wilkerson. An excellent interview of the author of The Warmth of Other Suns, one of the best books I’ve read in recent years. (A-)

Phantom Thread soundtrack. More strong work by Jonny Greenwood. But don’t listen if you want something upbeat. (B+)

Song Exploder. A podcast where musicians break down their well-known songs. Always solid. I recently caught the episodes about the Stranger Things theme song and DJ Shadow. Oh, and I’m going to give the Arrival score a listen soon. (A-)

Apollo 13. One of my I’ll-watch-this-whenever-it’s-on movies. Love the scientific and engineering detective scenes. (B+)

Alias Grace. Several people asserted this was a better Margaret Atwood adaptation than The Handmaid’s Tale, but I didn’t think so. (B)

I, Tonya. I enjoyed this more than I thought I would. (A-)

Goodthreads T-shirt. Goodthreads is one of Amazon’s house brands. Ordered a couple of these after a recommendation from Clayton Cubbitt and damn if they’re not some of the most comfortable and best-fitting t-shirts I’ve ever worn. And only $12! My new go-to. (A-)

Sleep. One of the best things I’ve done for my work and my sanity is going to bed at about the same time every night and getting at least 6.5 hours (and often 7-8 hours) of sleep every night. (A+)

This American Life: Chip in My Brain. Holy parenting nightmare. (B+)

Professor Marston & The Wonder Women. The surprising role of BDSM in the development of Wonder Woman. (B+)

Atomic Blonde. John Wick-like. I wanted to like this more but the plot was a little muddled. (B)

SpaceX launch of Falcon Heavy. That choreographed double booster landing… (A)

Past installments of my media diets can be found here.

An oral history of the “fuck” scene in The Wire

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 14, 2018

In the fourth episode of the first season of The Wire, the one that really hooks you fully into the show, detectives Bunk and McNulty enter a crime scene and scour it for potential clues, communicating with each other almost entirely using variations of the word “fuck”.

It’s a great scene, almost pure visual filmmaking and an homage to a singularly versatile word. In his new book, All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire, Jonathan Abrams details how this scene came to be made. New York Magazine has an excerpt.

David comes up to us and describes a scene. He says, “You’re going to go to the scene. You’re going to realize that [the previous] detective, he did a bad job. Wendell, you’re going to see the photos of the girl. Dominic, you’re going to start getting the stats, looking at what the report was. Going back over, you’re going to realize it’s impossible to have gone down the way it was reported, because the guy would have to be like eight feet tall to get that trajectory. If he did, then something must be left in here, and you’re looking for any evidence that may be around, and Wendell, you discover that there’s a shot through the window. The glass is on the inside. It means it came from the outside. That means whoever the perpetrator was wasn’t inside, like the person they say in the report. The bullet came from outside. From there, let’s see the trajectory. It would be right here, in the refrigerator. Let’s see, not the wall. In the refrigerator, we find the bullet here. Let’s go outside, make a new discovery.” He explained the whole scene to us. He said, “Now you guys are going to do that whole thing, but they’re going to be on me about the profanity and language that we use.” So, I said, “Let’s just come out the box with it.” He said, “You’re going to do that whole scene, but the only word you can say is ‘fuck.’” I said, “What?”

The history and lifecycle of CRT television sets

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 09, 2018

Sony TV Guide.JPG

Adi Robertson at The Verge has a fun, informative history of old cathode ray tube television sets, plus the people who study them, keep them working, and continue to use them. One maybe-surprising constituency: retro gamers.

Old games may look torn or feel laggy on a new TV. That’s in part because LCD screens process an entire frame of an image and then display it, rather than receiving a signal and drawing it right away.

Some games are completely dependent on the display technology. One of the best-known examples is Duck Hunt, which uses Nintendo’s Zapper light gun. When players pull the trigger, the entire screen briefly flashes black, then a white square appears at the “duck’s” location. If the optical sensor detects a quick black-then-white pattern, it’s a hit. The entire Zapper system is coded for a CRT’s super fast refresh rate, and it doesn’t work on new LCD TVs without significant DIY modification.

Old-school arcades, too, need to constantly maintain and replace their old tube monitors. Weirdly, this makes old television sets extremely valuable, even as it’s more and more difficult to have them recycled or thrown away.

“CRTs are essentially the bane of the electronic recycling industry,” says Andrew Orben, director of business development at Tekovery, one of the companies Barcade uses to dispose of irrevocably broken hardware. The tubes contain toxic metals that could leach into a dump site, and 18 states specifically ban sending them to landfills. They’re made of raw materials that are often impossible to sell at a profit, primarily glass that’s mixed with several pounds of lead.

They’re also insanely heavy. Even in 2002, a 40” tube TV would weigh more than 300 pounds. (Bigger TVs used to be rear-projections, remember?)

How Martin Luther King Jr. really felt about advertising

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 05, 2018

The worst commercial aired during last night’s handegg match was this Dodge Ram ad featuring a snippet of a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. King, of course, was an outspoken critic of capitalism. In fact, later in the very same speech, he railed against this type of advertising. Here’s the audio of that part of his speech overlaid on the Dodge Ram commercial:

Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. In order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff. That’s the way the advertisers do it…

It often causes us to live above our means. It’s nothing but the drum major instinct. Do you ever see people buy cars that they can’t even begin to buy in terms of their income? You’ve seen people riding around in Cadillacs and Chryslers who don’t earn enough to have a good T-Model Ford. But it feeds a repressed ego.

You can listen to King’s speech in its entirety here:

(thx, hyder)

The genius physical comedy of Mr. Bean

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 31, 2018

For the latest installment of Nerdwriter, Evan Puschak explains the distinct brand of physical comedy practiced by Rowan Atkinson, best known for his character Mr. Bean. For my money, this scene of Mr. Bean running late for a dentist appointment is one of the funniest things ever put on screen.

This is the comedy of personality rather than the comedy of gags. It’s not about doing funny things. It’s about doing something quite normal in a funny way.

Atkinson himself explained and demonstrated the principles of physical comedy in a 60-minute documentary called Funny Business; here’s part 1:

This is really odd timing. Just two days ago, I was watching some videos with my kids and we stumbled across Rowan Atkinson performing as Mr. Bean at the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics in 2012, which a) opens Puschak’s video, b) I had completely forgotten about, and c) is perhaps the most British thing ever.

My recent media diet for January 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 31, 2018

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I worked so much in January, mostly on getting the Noticing newsletter launched, that by the time the evening rolled around, all I wanted to do was collapse and watch a little TV or maybe go to a movie (I’ve seen all the Oscar Best Picture nominees this year). But I still managed to read a couple books and am currently working my way through two more: Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey and Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet.

Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield at ICP Museum. A retrospective of Greenfield’s photographic survey of wealth. Also available in book form. (A-)

Lady Bird. This one’s been growing on me since I saw it. (B+/A-)

The Post. My main problem with this movie is that Streep, while otherwise excellent, does not properly sell the transformation of her character at the end. (A-)

The Farthest - Voyager in Space. I had no idea about many of the amazing things about the Voyager program. If I’d seen this as a kid, I might work for NASA right now. (A-)

Black Mirror season four. Perhaps not as strong as some of the previous seasons, but USS Callister is one of the best episodes of the series. (B+)

Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright. A compelling argument that Buddhists figured out thousands of years ago how to route around a human brain designed to delude us, a tendency that neuroscientists and psychologists have only learned of more recently. (B+)

Call Me By Your Name. A touching love story. One of the best movies of the year. (A)

Jane. Jane Goodall is a remarkable person, one of the best scientific researchers of our time. The footage in this movie of her early career is stunning, like it was filmed specifically for the documentary. (A-)

Jane soundtrack. Philip Glass. What more needs to be said? (A-)

Darkest Hour. Churchill is over-acted by Oldman, like an SNL character. I much prefer Lithgow’s take in The Crown. (C+)

The Shape of Water. This was ok, I suppose. (B)

Bullseye with Jesse Thorn: interview with Errol Morris. I could listen to Errol Morris talk about film and truth all day. (A-)

Phantom Thread. One of those movies that gets better once you read about it afterwards. (B+)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Frances McDormand is amazing in this. I’m also unconvinced of the straightforward reading of the movie as the redemption of a racist cop. (B+)

Slow Burn. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme. (A)

The New York Times For Kids. The rest of the paper should be more like this. (A-)

Past installments of my media diets can be found here.

A Mister Rogers biopic starring Tom Hanks (WHAT!!?)

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 29, 2018

Variety is reporting that Tom Hanks is set to play Fred Rogers in a biopic called You Are My Friend.

“Now more than ever, we all need a re-introduction to Fred Rogers’ message of uncompromising love and kindness between all living things. Mari Heller is the perfect visionary filmmaker to bring Noah and Micah’s script to life and because of her vision and this remarkable script, we have the quintessential actor to play Fred Rogers,” said Turtletaub and Saraf.

The script is loosely based on Tom Junod’s Esquire piece about Rogers, Can You Say…Hero?, which is very much worth a read if you’ve never had the pleasure.

Nearly every morning of his life, Mister Rogers has gone swimming, and now, here he is, standing in a locker room, seventy years old and as white as the Easter Bunny, rimed with frost wherever he has hair, gnawed pink in the spots where his dry skin has gone to flaking, slightly wattled at the neck, slightly stooped at the shoulder, slightly sunken in the chest, slightly curvy at the hips, slightly pigeoned at the toes, slightly aswing at the fine bobbing nest of himself… and yet when he speaks, it is in that voice, his voice, the famous one, the unmistakable one, the televised one, the voice dressed in sweater and sneakers, the soft one, the reassuring one, the curious and expository one, the sly voice that sounds adult to the ears of children and childish to the ears of adults, and what he says, in the midst of all his bobbing nudity, is as understated as it is obvious: “Well, Tom, I guess you’ve already gotten a deeper glimpse into my daily routine than most people have.”

Oh, I hope this doesn’t get derailed. Unless it’s going to be bad, in which case: shelve away!

The sounds in that cute falling penguin video are likely fake

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 18, 2018

In the past few weeks, a old video of a penguin falling down and its pals hooting sympathetically has been making the rounds on social media again: “Penguin falls down resulting in best sound ever”.

It’s funny, right? The sounds are also probably fake, added in the editing phase of whatever nature documentary this came from. Foley is the process used by filmmakers to add and enhance sounds in the editing phase…almost every movie and TV show uses them, including nature documentaries.

Whilst I’m no wildlife expert, it’s fairly straightforward to conclude that such an unpredictable and uncontrollable subject as wildlife would have prompted the need to often shoot on long lenses, thus making it almost physically impossible for a sound recordist to obtain ‘realistic’ recordings that would match the treatment and emotive style of the programme. Combine this with the shooting climate, as well as the need for frequent communication between crew just to capture the necessary shots that will cut well in the edit suite and you have a recipe for failure in regards to obtaining useable sound. Therefore, it’s not only impractical but virtually impossible to capture the ‘real’ sound that some of these disgruntled viewers may be protesting for.

I mean, just listen to the footsteps of the penguins in that video. There’s no way that was recorded on a mic while shooting that scene from that distance. The noise of the penguin falling? Probably a foley artist punching the innards of a watermelon. Now, maybe the penguins really did make noises that sounded like that and they recreated them in the studio, but maybe they also juiced them a little to seem more anthropomorphic. It’s impossible to know.

Perhaps this is a case of “even if it’s fake it’s real”, the idea that there’s genuine meaning in that video even if those penguins were completely silent in real life. You can imagine some group of penguins somewhere doing exactly that so it’s funny & life-affirming. But you know what…I don’t like the direction “even if it’s fake it’s real” has taken in our culture lately. I’m ready for “if it’s fake, call it out and look for the truth” or something like that, even if it makes penguins a little less cute.

Season two of The Handmaid’s Tale

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 16, 2018

Oooh, the trailer for season two of The Handmaid’s Tale. The first season was one of the best things I watched last year. Season two premieres on Hulu on April 25th. Season one episodes are available on Amazon and elsewhere, but if you’re going to binge it, it’s cheaper to just sign up to Hulu (30 days free then $8/mo).

Update: The second trailer shows a bit more of what to expect in the second season:

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, David Letterman’s new Netflix show

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 08, 2018

David Letterman is returning to TV with a Netflix series called My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. There will be six 60-minute shows in the series and he’ll interview only one guest per show. The guests will be George Clooney, Malala Yousafzai, Jay-Z, Tina Fey, Howard Stern and President Barack Obama. The Obama show is first up on January 12, with an additional show following each month after that.

This is a big departure from how Netflix normally releases shows. Usually they put all the episodes of a series out there at once. Is this the first instance of them releasing episodes one at a time?

My other big question: do any of his guests play the drums?

Update: This isn’t the first time Netflix has episodes of a show one-at-a-time: Chelsea Handler’s show and Riverdale have also been released that way.

Oh, and here’s the story behind “Are those your drums?” (thx @t_w_t, @ShaneMBailey, @inayali)

Update: Here’s a short clip from Letterman’s interview of Obama; they’re discussing Obama dancing onstage with Prince.

Custom minifigs of Star Trek: The Next Generation characters

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 04, 2018

Star Trek Minifigs

Oh these are cool: custom-made minifigs of all your favorite Star Trek:TNG characters. The Wesley Crusher one is kinda funny, but Wil Wheaton makes a good case as to why it’s unfair to the character. And it turns out, you can get custom minifigs for just about everything, from LeBron James to Game of Thrones to yourself. (via io9)

Your fave TV shows, but with animoji characters

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 02, 2018

Happy New Year everyone! Let’s get the year started off on a good note with some lowbrow laaaaaaaaffffs. Video funnyfolk Corridor took scenes from TV shows & movies (Stranger Things, Arrested Development, The Office, Full Metal Jacket) and replaced the actor’s heads with iPhone X animoji. The Gob scene is *kisses fingers*.

The best of my media diet for 2017

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 01, 2018

EOY Media 2017

In 2017, I kept track of almost everything I read, listened to, watched, and experienced. I don’t know about “the best”, but as the year draws to a close, these are the things that I thought about the most, that made me see things in a slightly different way, or taught me a little something about myself. I marked my very favorites with a (*). (Above, my #bestnine images of 2017 from Instagram.)

Books. I don’t know how many books I read this year, but it was fewer than I wanted. My work demands a lot of reading online, so when I’ve finished with that most days, reading for leisure or enrichment is often not enticing.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann were perhaps the best books I read…you’ll hardly find anyone who speaks ill of either one.

Wonderland by Steven Johnson pulls together technology, culture, and science in a way that I aspire to.

I enjoyed Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem when I read it early on in 2017 but it grew in my esteem as the year went on. Crazy, but I might reread soon?

The Devil in the White City. A masterful dual tale of two men who seized the opportunity due to cultural and technological changes in late 1800s America, told through the events of the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893.

I reread Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote…no recent book has helped me more in figuring out a path forward in life.

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book 2 blew my doors off. I have never felt so uncannily like a writer has been rummaging around in my brain. *

Television. What even is television anymore? To paraphrase US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, I know it when I see it. And I saw a lot of it this year. And much of it was excellent.

The Crown (season two). I kept expecting this to falter as it went on, but it never did. A keen portrait of changing times and a dying empire.

Mad Men. Rewatched it all the way through for the first time since it aired. One of the all-time great TV shows.

Halt and Catch Fire (season four). Very strong finish to a great series. I kind of want a season five in about 5 or 6 years that’s set in 2002. Still can’t believe I got to be on the show for like 2 seconds.

The Vietnam War. I feel like this didn’t get the attention it deserved. Along with OJ: Made in America, one of the best documentaries of recent years in terms of understanding the United States culturally and politically.

Wormwood. What the hell is even a documentary anyway? Errol Morris is at the top of his game with this one.

The Handmaid’s Tale. My favorite drama series of the year. So hard to watch but also essential and so well done. *

Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II. Incredible. Aside from the eclipse, these are the best things on this list. *

Honorable mentions: I anticipated Game of Thrones more than anything each week, but I’ve already forgotten most of what happened. There were dragons? Big Little Lies was very solid and enjoyable, but the last episode was some of the best television I’ve ever seen. Zoom out a little, and The Defiant Ones was actually about creativity, collaboration, and management.

Movies: Though I haven’t seen many of the end-of-the-year movies yet, I felt like this was a strong-ish movie year. But only four films stuck with me.

The Handmaiden. I don’t even know how to classify this film, but I wish they’d make more like it.

Maybe Blade Runner 2049 wasn’t great, but I saw it twice and have thought about it often since. Amazing visual experience.

Paths of the Soul. A window into the lives of people very unlike mine. Underscores how much living “the simple life” in wealthy countries is made possible by good infrastructure, social safety nets, and privilege. The simple life in most of the world is neither a choice nor easy.

Dunkirk. Absolutely thrilling. My favorite movie of the year. *

Music. Let’s be honest, Lemonade was probably the album of the year. But I guess some good music came out in 2017 as well. Oh, and I’m old so I still listen to albums.

Big Fish Theory by Vince Staples got the most airplay in my car this summer and fall. Early fave track was Crabs in a Bucket but BagBak came on strong later in the year.

DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar. Probably my favorite album of the year…every track hits the mark. *

4:44 by Jay-Z. The contrast between his last album (lazy, full of swagger) and this one (introspective, urgent) could not be more stark. This wasn’t the best or even my favorite album of the year, but I thought about it more than any of the others I listened to this year. Worth noting this album was only possible because of Beyonce’s superior Lemonade…imagine the hypothetical Jay-Z album had she not slammed him to the wall with that.

Experiences, etc. As I said on Instagram, I prioritized experiences over things this year. But because things like books, movies, and TV shows are easier to summarize and review, I kept most of the experiences for myself. You have to hold some things back or you lose your edges.

Van Gogh Museum. Van Gogh is one of my favorite artists and I’m grateful I got to spend a few hours witnessing how his career came together and his life fell apart. One of the best museums I’ve ever been to.

D3 Traveller. I travelled quite a bit this year, and it would have been more difficult without this bag. Worth the huge splurge.

Sainte-Chapelle. I am not religious at all, but you can’t help but feel something in this wonderful building.

iPhone X. A remarkable machine.

Rijksmuseum. I keep going back to two works I saw here: Vermeer’s The Milkmaid (I spent a good 15 minutes with this one) and this early self-portrait by Rembrandt (the lighting! the curls!).

The total solar eclipse. By far the best thing that I witnessed this year…or maybe in my life. It still gives me chills just thinking about it. *

How to make Baltimore foods (pit beef, lake trout) featured on The Wire

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 27, 2017

For the holidays, the dusky-voiced gentleman behind Binging with Babish prepares some of the Baltimore specialties featured on The Wire…like pit beef and lake trout, which as Bunk says, features “no lake, no trout”. He even prepares the beer with an egg cracked in it enjoyed by the dock workers, although I didn’t appreciate his “kind of inferior season two” remark.

Speaking of inferior seasons of The Wire, I wonder if it’s time to go back to see how season five holds up in this current atmosphere of fake news. Maybe it wasn’t so outlandishly over-the-top after all?

My recent media diet, special Star Wars edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2017

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I’ve been busy with work, so leisure reading time has been hard to come by…but I’m still working my way through Why Buddhism is True. Lots of great TV and movies though.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I’ve been watching Star Wars for almost 40 years, and I can’t tell if any of the movies are any good anymore. At this point, Star Wars just is. Even so, I really enjoyed seeing this and will try to catch it again in a week or two. This is a favorite review that mirrors many of my feelings. (A-)

Wormwood. Errol Morris is almost 70 years old, and this 6-part Netflix series is perhaps his most ambitious creation yet: is it a true crime documentary or a historical drama? Or both? Stylistically and thematically fascinating. See also Morris’s interview with Matt Zoller Seitz. (A)

Flipflop Solitaire. Oh man, this game sucked me waaaaay in. My best time for single suit so far is 1:25. (B+)

The Hateful Eight. I liked this way more than I expected based on the reviews, but it lacks the mastery of Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino at his self-indulgent best though. (B+)

Our Ex-Life podcast. A divorced couple, who live almost next door to each other in a small town, talks about the good old days, the bad old days, and co-parenting their three kids. (B+)

Paths of the Soul. A documentary about a group of Tibetan villagers who undertake a pilgrimage to Lhasa that has a genre-bending scripted feel to it. I’ve been thinking about this film since watching it…it’s full of incredible little moments. What do I believe in enough to undertake such a journey? Anything? (A)

Stranger Things 2. The plot of this show is fairly straight-forward, but the 80s vibe, soundtrack, and the young actors elevate it. (B+)

Stranger Things 2 soundtrack. As I was saying… (A-)

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography. Huge Errol Morris fan (see above), but I was a bit bored by this. (C+)

The Crown, season two. This is one of my favorite new shows. I know she’s not the actual Queen, but I still want to have Claire Foy ‘round for tea. (A)

Blue Planet II. Just as good as Planet Earth II. Incredible stories and visuals. Premiering in the US in January. (A+)

The Moon 1968-1972. A charming little book of snapshots taken by astronauts on the Moon. (B+)

Donnie Darko. This one maybe hasn’t aged well. Or perhaps my commitment to Sparkle Motion is wavering? (B)

Part-Time Genius: Was Mister Rogers the Best Neighbor Ever? Yes, he was. (B+)

The Circle. This hit way way way way too close to home, and I couldn’t finish it. Also, not the best acting. (C)

Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom. Really interesting, but I stopped listening to the audiobook because I wasn’t in the mood. (B)

A Charlie Brown Christmas. You know, for the kids. (B)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Charming, perhaps my favorite holiday short. (B+)

xXx. An un-ironic favorite. Sometimes, dumb fun is just the thing. (B)

Perfumes: The Guide by Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez. Tim’s recent post about smell reminded me of this book, which is a masterclass in criticism. (A-)

Young Frankenstein. I’d only seen this once before, but I wasn’t feeling it this time around. (B-)

Past installments of my media diets can be found here.

Sesame Street puppeteers explain how they play their characters

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 19, 2017

If you grew up watching Sesame Street but are now old enough to realize that Bert, Ernie, Big Bird, and Oscar aren’t actually real, this behind-the-scenes video about how the puppets are controlled is a must-see. What struck me most was that the puppeteers do both the movement and the voice for these characters…the guy inside the Snuffleupagus suit is actually speaking the lines. It would be so easy to separate the two activities with voiceovers added later, but I bet the final result wouldn’t be as good as using the on-set full-body performance.

See also Four things about Mr. Snuffleupagus, including the unusual reason his existence was finally revealed to the grownups on the show. (via @simplebits)

A Bite of China

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 11, 2017

A Bite of China is documentary TV series on food and cooking in China. Writing for The Guardian, Oliver Thring called it “the best TV show I’ve ever seen about food” and one commenter called it “the Planet Earth of food”. While A Bite of China predates it by 3 years, Chef’s Table might be a better comparison. Here’s a trailer:

China has a large population and the richest and most varied natural landscapes in the world. Plateaus, forests, lakes and coastlines. These various geographical features and climate conditions have helped to form and preserve widely different species. No other country has so many potential food sources as China. By collecting, fetching, digging, hunting and fishing, people have acquired abundant gifts from nature. Traveling through the four seasons, we’ll discover a story about nature and the people behind delicious Chinese foods.

The first season is available on Amazon Prime (with English subtitles) but you can also find it on YouTube at varying levels of quality with and without subtitles and dubbed in English. (thx, seamus)

My recent media diet, special Amsterdam edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 28, 2017

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past three weeks or so. I was in Amsterdam recently to speak at a conference. I had some free time and as it was my first time there, I took in some obvious sights. No books this time…Scale is currently on hold (and perhaps abandoned permanently) while I read Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True and listen to Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci on audiobook.

Thor: Ragnarok. Henceforth, all superhero movies should be as fun as this. (B+)

Mindhunter. This one had a slow burn to it and got better as the season went on. Also, now that I know what to look for, the David Fincher camera thing was impossible to ignore. (B+)

Requiem for a Dream. The last 30 minutes of this movie is relentless. (A)

The Book of Life. I tried to steer the kids away from this one to no avail. (C)

On Margins with Kevin Kelly. The bits about how much of the world used to be pre-industrial until fairly recently and how most people only took 20-30 photos per year in the 70s were especially interesting. (B+)

The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel (season two). Not quite as good as the first season, but my kids are still riveted. (B+)

Doctor Who. I’ve been slowly introducing the kids to Doctor Who, which I watched as a kid with my dad. So far, we’ve seen Jon Pertwee’s final episode and a handful of early Tom Baker episodes…probably the show’s sweet spot. I didn’t want to throw them into the deep end with William Hartnell right off the bat. (B+)

The Dark Knight Rises. A parable for our times: a white, female Bernie supporter (Selina Kyle) votes for Trump because she believes the system needs a reset but comes to appreciate what a terrible fucking idea that was. (A-)

Athenaeum Nieuwscentrum. Kevin Kelly recommended this impressive little magazine shop to me…they must have carried over 1000 different titles. (B+)

Whisky Café L & B. They stock more than 2300 whiskies (!!)…but the space is so small that I don’t know where they keep it all. (B+)

Van Gogh Museum. Maybe the best small museum I’ve ever been to? Utterly fascinating to see how his entire life and career unfolded. (A)

Rijksmuseum. I missed a lot of this one, but what I did see was great. Gaping at the impossibly exquisite lighting in Vermeer’s The Milkmaid for 15 minutes was itself worth the price of admission. (A-)

Amsterdam’s Red Light District. Really conflicting feelings on this. On the one hand, there were hordes of drunken men walking the streets literally shopping for women’s bodies…anyone unclear on what the male gaze means only need spend a few minutes in De Wallen on a weekend night to fully grasp the concept. On the other hand, it can be empowering, economically and otherwise, for women to engage in sex work. Is the RLD sex-positive? I… (-)

Schiphol. Much faster wifi than at my house. Really lovely airport…it would get an “A” if it weren’t actually an airport. (B)

Amsterdam (generally). Visit if you’re a process and infrastructure nerd. Van Gogh Museum and a boat ride in the canals are musts. Didn’t have enough time to sample as much food as I wanted, but I will definitely be back. (A-)

Michael Clayton. I liked this a little less than I remember, even though its star has been on the rise lately. (B+)

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. I knew next to nothing about Didion before watching this — aside from her hiring Harrison Ford when he was a carpenter. It’s probably better if you’re already a fan? (B)

Heavyweight: Jesse. One man in a car hits another man on a bike and both are changed forever. And for the better? (B+)

Arrival. Maybe my fourth time watching this? A friend commented on the economy of the storytelling…not a second is wasted. (A)

iPhone X. Most of my early impressions still hold. Still don’t like the notch, it is ridiculous. (A-)

Transparent (season four). The recent allegations against Tambour took the shine off of this season for me, but this is still one of the best TV shows in recent years. (A-)

Coco. I didn’t love this as much as everyone else did, and I don’t know why. (B+)

The 21-minute Frozen “short” that played before Coco. Total unimaginative and cynical garbage. This is what happens when marketing has too much pull. (F)

Stranger Things 2 soundtrack. The music is the best part of the show IMO. (A)

Past installments of my media diets can be found here.

Trailers for Black Mirror season four (starts Dec 29th!)

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 27, 2017

Netflix has released two trailers ahead of the release of season four: one for an episode called Arkangel and the other for one called Crocodile. Arkangel, directed by Jodie Foster, seems particularly Black Mirror-ish…helicopter parenting x100 in a society where people live for hundreds of years.

Update: Here’s the trailer for a third episode, Black Museum.

Update: Trailers for two more episodes:

Eventually they might tell us when the full episodes will be available on Netflix?

Update: Finally…a premiere date (Dec 29th) and a full trailer. (thx, david)