Thursday, September 29, 2016

Yukkin' it up over laugh track history (from '15)


I plan to spend tomorrow commemorating the 2003 death of Charles Douglass by laughing my merry ass off.

I’ll chortle, giggle, titter, guffaw, hoot, howl, cackle and generally spend the day behaving like I’m being tickled by invisible feathers. 

Douglass died 12 years ago tomorrow at the age of 93. If his funeral was a sad one, I think Douglass would have disapproved. His funeral above all others should have been a laugh riot.

Douglass was the father of the modern laugh track.

From the late 1950s through well into the ‘80s, Douglass was responsible for  mechanically producing nearly all the laughter for America’s golden age sitcoms. TV Guide profiled him and said in 1966 he’d built a monopolistic empire on canned laughs.

Douglass’s recorded laughs are the uncredited co-stars of “Bewitched,” “The Munsters,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Lucy,” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

It was very expensive, but apparently less costly than producing anything that was genuinely funny on its own.

“Cheers was filmed before a live studio audience.”

Except when it wasn’t.

Every episode of  “Cheers,” one of my all-time favorites, kicked off with those words, a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval that verified the laughs you were about to hear were authentic.

The problem is Douglass’s tickling fingerprints are all over “Cheers,” too. Same goes for “Frazier,” “Barney Miller,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Taxi,” and a host of others.

Many of the supposedly “taped live” shows were artificially sweetened by what was known in Hollywood as Douglass’s “mysterious laff box.”

Want to hear something funny?

The laughs over the years are all the same. Many of the laughs you still hear on today’s shows were harvested from shows from decades ago and simply replayed.

So a truly discerning listener could conceivably go back and detect the same precise laugh from the same man or woman who laughed one time at a show that today is 40-years old.

The humor changes. The laughs do not.

I became hyper-sensitive to laugh tracks, I guess, when I started being bludgeoned by the ones Disney Channel uses on shows designed to appeal to girls like our young daughters.

Each punchline produced the uproarious kind of laughter you’d hear down at the old Bada Bing after Tony Soprano told a knock-knock joke.

The only ones not laughing were the intended target audience right there in the room.

The blatant manipulation was infuriating. They were watching something because they thought it was funny even when they reflexively understood what they were watching wasn’t funny at all.

As a father, it was upsetting. It was upsetting, too, as a hockey fan because I wanted to throw their asses the hell out of the room so I could watch the Penguin game.

But, no, they kept staring at the mysterious laff box like it was bestowing the gift of spontaneous hilarity.

Does the laugh track make something funny even when it is not?

“Seinfeld,” maybe the funniest show ever, uses a heavy, but deft laugh track. 

Would it be as funny without? I think so.

“Curb Your Enthusiasm,” its sort of alter-ego uses none and it’s every bit as funny.

Would this blog be funnier if I had a chorus of gigglers to prompt you where you’re supposed to chuckle?

Maybe it’d be worth a try.

I guess I feel the same way about laugh tracks as Milton Berle did. He was at first reportedly miffed his humor needed any sweetening. He didn’t become a believer until one of his favorite jokes failed to click with the actual audience.

“Well, as long as we’re here doing this, that joke didn’t get the response we wanted,” Berle said, directing laughter be added. First some, then more and then until finally his ego was satisfied.

“See,” he said, “I told you it was funny.”


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Monday, September 26, 2016

RIP Arnold Palmer: a lucky local says goodbye


Half the fun of watching Arnold Palmer golf was watching him extricate himself from impossible situations.

I don’t think he can club his way out of this one.

Then again he’s only been dead one day.

I’m touched by the number of people who’ve reached out to me over the death of a man I was privileged to call a friend.

They say it’s going to be alright, that time heals all wounds and that he’s gone on to a better place.

I say any place Arnold Palmer goes is automatically better.

I imagine years from now newcomers getting heaven orientation tours and hearing winged old-timers say, “Yeah, well, it’s always been heaven, but it just got so much better when Arnie got here.”

People ask how I’m doing.

I tell them I’m feeling about one part heartbreak; three parts euphoria — roughly the same proportions one would find in a refreshing Arnold Palmer tea.

Heartbreak because I’ll never again be able to banter with one of the most legendary and beloved men America’s ever produced; euphoria because, by God, I once did.

It didn’t start out that way, not back when I treated him with all due reverence.

I treated him the way you’re hearing him being treated in many of today’s loftiest eulogies. I’d preface my questions with accolades about his accomplishments, his humanitarian endeavors, his historical significance, etc.

In short, I’d blow sweet smoke up his ass.

That’s not my description. It was his.

After we’d become friends — I interviewed him more than 70 times from 2004 through August 16 — I sat down in his office and began the interview by saying how much I looked forward to our breezy exchanges. 

His exact words: “And I can’t tell you how much I look forward to you coming in here to blow so much sweet smoke up my ass!”

I kept waiting for the day he’d ask me to pull his finger.

Understand, this is the same guy who the week before had been at the Bush White House dining with Queen Elizabeth.

Talk about having the common touch.

Arnold Palmer, the drink, is one part lemonade; three parts unsweetened ice tea.

Arnold Palmer, the person? It was like he was one part champagne; three parts beer.

My assignment during most of my hour-long interviews was to get him to answer questions dictated by upcoming content of the next Kingdom Magazine (Kingdom is his luxury boutique magazine about all things posh and Palmer).

But my goal was always to say two or three things that would get him to throw his head back in wild laughter.

I remember one autumn interview that started late because he’d just come back from having a tooth yanked. Did he want to reschedule?

Hell, no.

First question: “It’s my understanding you’ll soon be departing Latrobe, where we’re about to endure four months of bitter weather, for sunny Orlando. My question is … Will you take me with you?

He roared with laughter.

Then he said no.

I don’t envy the men and women who are right now tasked with composing a proper obituary for a man so monumental.

Do you start that he was a great golfer who transformed sports? Or that he from scratch built a business empire Forbes estimates at $700 million?

Or do you start with the philanthropy? All the scholarships, the charity initiatives and the two renown hospitals that bear his name?

Certainly, you must include that he in 1976 set an aviation record for zooming around the globe in just 56 hours.

I wondered in 2013 why he agreed to so publicly endorse my “Use All The Crayons!” book. Then it dawned on me. I had it backwards.

My book is a de facto endorsement of his entire life.

My favorite quote about Palmer comes not from a golfer or president, but from an actor whom he barely knew. It was Kirk Douglas who in 1970 said, “No one — not Frank Sinatra, not John Wayne or Ronald Reagan — has more charisma than Arnold Palmer.”

John Paul Newport of the Wall Street Journal wrote on Palmer’s 80th birthday, “Lasting popularity of Palmer’s magnitude simply cannot be explained.”

The last question I asked him was August 16 (it may have been his last formal interview). The question: “Do you think there’ll be golf in heaven?”

Inconceivably, editors cut it from the story, hedging their bets, I guess, that Keith Richards wasn’t going to be the only one who’s going to live forever.

Palmer said: “Oh, I think there will be a lot of golf in heaven. I’ll bet Nelson and Hogan are up there having a match right now. I know a lot of guys who’ve been good golfers who are looking forward to resuming great matches with friends and family just like they did here on earth. I think the courses will be a lot like the ones here. But the hazards will include clouds that get in the way of approach shots. I’m sure it’ll be great.”

Had I known then it would be the last time I’d ever see him, I’d have dropped my pencil and thrown my arms around his once-robust, now-tottering frame and told him how much I loved him.

I’d have tried to do it in a way that would have convinced him I wasn’t just blowing sweet smoke up his ass. 

Who’s to say if there is golf in heaven?

All I know is heaven just got way more heavenly now that Arnold Palmer’s calling heaven home.


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Sunday, September 25, 2016

RRS: Dining discounts for device-free families

A growing number of restaurants are giving 5 percent discounts to families who agree to put the damn devices down and engage loved ones during vital meal time.

Their motto: “Disconnect phones, reconnect families.”

I think it’s a great idea. I read about on my phone last week while I was ignoring my family at a local restaurant.

I think it would be fun to exasperate a waiter or waitress by insisting I was entitled to the discount anyway because, indeed, even though I’d been on my phone my calls dealt with uniformly grave matters.

Then I’d let the server overhear me talking about my blog.

Of course the best thing to do would be to as your order was being taken would be to pretend to answer your phone and shout, “No! No! No! Make the incision behind the left ear! The left ear!”

Then set the phone down and say, “And I’ll have the lasagna.”

I’m always fascinated by the increasingly common site of the family unit sitting at the restaurant and appearing as socially distant from one another as the planets of the solar system.

When did it all go so wrong? What if you need the salt? Text the request?

What about if you need a genetic match for a new kidney? I guess you could try Craig’s List, but there are merits to asking a sibling.

And, most pressing, could that one day be me and mine?

See, I’ve been at that table as both son and father. I understand how family dynamics can pulverize efforts to even appear civil in public. We had a night out a couple of weeks ago that was brutal.

The sisters were warring. Val was angry. The tension was palpable.

Heck, I was the only one who managed to appear serene and the only reason for that was because I was the only one who’d had the good sense to stop at the bar and get a good snootful before our table was called.

It happens. I mean, we can’t all be as happy as Jon & Kate Gosselin. 

The difference these days is disgruntled family members can e-scape to places that make them feel loved and important.

Places full of total strangers using fictitious names!

I admit the only time Val and I halt our ceaseless gazing at our electronic devices is to admonish our children to halt their ceaseless gazing at their electronic devices.

But she and I would never dream of using our phones in any dining situation. Like so many parents, we’re trying to set a good example. It seems to be understood by the 14 year old. She’s yet to push back on the policy.

How that’ll work with Lucy, 8, remains to be seen. After all, she’s the one who when we tell her she can’t have dessert reacts like young Damien Thorn does in “The Omen” when his parents try to take him to church.

What do these people — children and parents — have in common?

The only thing I can figure is a desire to feel important, to feel needed.

It’s confounding. 

Our lives become appreciably more balanced and sane the instant we realize our jobs aren’t nearly as important as we think they are.

Of course, that’s easy for me to say.

I haven’t taken what I consider a really important phone call since the mechanic called and said, sorry, my car wouldn’t be ready ’til 2 p.m. and I had a 1 p.m. tee time and my clubs were in the trunk.

So I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to be truly important.

Still, I’ll never understand how so many people allow the need to appear important usurp the need to be loved.

Because each and every one of us has the opportunity to be truly important in ways that matter most.

Just don’t be disappointed if it’s only to the person you’re asking to pass you the salt.



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Friday, September 23, 2016

Charlotte: Skin-coloring pills will solve America's racial problems


I predict within five years our socially-conscious pharmaceutical manufacturers will develop a pill that will for weeks at a time alter our skin pigments. The pill will act like hair dye, but for the whole epidermis.

Trendy kids will pick vivid blues, fiery reds and canary yellows.

I’d like to see as part of their training our white police officers be given ones that let them know what it’s like to appear black.

I think that would be helpful.

Heck, I’d take one of those too.

Being black for me would be ironically enlightening.

See, I have zero personal insights on what it’s like to be black. 

Everything I hear is anecdotal. Like stories about successful black men who enjoy nice cars — rich, white dudes like ‘em, too, or so I hear — getting pulled over at night for Driving While Black.

I think that would be a nuisance until you start hearing about so many unarmed black men and boys being shot dead in the streets for some innocuous yet insane escalation.

One of the commentators said about how we had a suspected terrorist who’d been shooting bullets at police survive his arrest in downtown Manhattan, yet 40-year-old Terence Cutcher was shot dead on a Tulsa street after calling 911 about a disabled vehicle.

It’s appalling.

It’s happening with such numbing regularity, who can be surprised when there are episodes of reciprocal violence?

I find it odd that an issue that is so ostensibly black and white is imbued with so much gray.

Me, when I’m in trouble, I pray a cop shows up right away. I go out of my way to be extra nice to police officers because I think they have it tough.

I was once moved to anonymously pay for the dry cleaning of a Pennsylvania State Trooper when I saw his uniform hanging there behind my stuff. 

Did I extend a gratuity to a bad cop? I’ll never know.

He may have been dirty, but his uniform was spotless.

I couldn’t extend the same grace to a black person. Our skins are different, but you can’t tell by our duds.

But whenever I’m in Pittsburgh, I without fail extend extra courtesies whenever I deal with diversity. 

Happened just last week. I had one of those awkward sidewalk dosey-dos with a big black guy. He stepped left while I stepped right. My nose nearly bumped into his nipple.

We both smiled. He said, “After you!” and let me proceed.

We made warm eye contact and I said, “Thanks, man. Have a great day!”

I know I’m an idiot, but I like to think our encounter reassured him we can bridge  our racial divides. Like maybe he thought, “Sure we’ve endured nearly 400 years of racial prejudice, but at least that one white dude is trying. I think I’ll go home and download some Barry Manilow!”

It’s my form of affirmative action.

I was touched by Cutcher’s father’s poignant lament: “What breaks my heart is the film shows my boy doing everything I taught him to do … and he still wound up dead.”

How can we as a people ever overcome what to me now seems institutionalized injustice?

I have to think a national pigment altering pill program would help.

Everyone could be cedar green for a month; cerulean blue the next; then, yes, we the purple!

Once we’ve been through a uniform coloring we’d all get to pick a color of our own.

After we’ve all been all the colors, maybe then finally none of them will matter.

Call me crazy, too, but I think I see multitudes of positive responses in the Charlotte protests.

I see people of all races realizing there’s a problem and taking urgent steps to solve it.

That’s very healthy.

Healthy, that is, for everyone but the poor bastards who keep getting killed with their hands up.



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Monday, September 19, 2016

Soulful encounters while waiting for gyros


Saturday morning I had one of those moments so sweetly humane you later sit back and think, man, I just hope God was watching.

Even if He was not, a lot of people at the Ligonier Farmer’s Market were. I’d gone there jonesin’ for gyro.

So were about six other people. The long, slow-moving line had me feeling crabby and I began making petty judgements about those who were snaking ahead of me.

The old guy dawdled trying to retrieve the exact change. Surfer dude couldn’t make up his mind on his desired toppings. Worst of all, was the woman right in front of me.

About 60, I guess, she kept a big, four-foot gap between her and the guy in front of her meaning I was practically in the lap of the soap-selling hippy at the stand across the midway.

What kind of monster doesn’t comprehend basic line behavior?

Then just as I was about to begin a nasty Simon Cowell-esque critique of her hair — boom! — down she went, like she’d been drilled by a sniper.

 What did I do?

I in an instant became Florence Nightingale. I dropped to my knees, took her hand in one of mine and began stroking her hair with other to offer maximum comfort.

“Are you all right?”

Note: I didn’t even momentarily pause to consider whether I might have been providing perhaps live-saving care to a potential Trump voter.

I just saw a fellow human being in need and instantly began to render aid.

Her knee had buckled. The only real damage was done to her dignity.

“I’m not drunk,” she said. “I’m not high. Right now, I’m just embarrassed.”

"It's okay. No need to be embarrassed."

She lay there for about two minutes with me holding her hand and assuring her she it was all right.

Then — One! Two! Three! — I got her to her feet. She was still unsteady so we wrapped our arms around one another for another minute, long enough that I knew if someone from our church spied me there’d be a scandal.

And that was it. She got her gyro, thanked me once again and away she went.

I got my gyro and did the same.

As I walked away, I was surprised by claps on the back and smiles from people telling me I was a great guy.

Admit it: You’re jealous.

Who among us doesn’t crave more opportunities to do good? To help. To prove even if it’s just to ourselves that when the situation calls for it, we are decent human beings.

Oddly, it was the second consecutive time in one month when purchasing a gyro led to soulful encounters.

The other was last month when Josie and I were in Pittsburgh’s Strip District to chow and I, as I always, do required tasty gyro from the guy with Pittsburgh’s best mustache, the man who coincidentally makes the city’s best gyro.

The guy shaves lamb meat at a stand outside Labad’s, a Middle Eastern grocer at 1727 Penn Avenue.

He shaves a lot of meat so there’s plenty of time for cheerful conversation. He’s a very kind and friendly man.

I tell him my mustache wants to become his when it grows up.

He laughs.

We talk about what a beautiful day it is and in his thick accent, he says “in America, it’s always a beautiful day.”

I asked my exotic-sounding friend about his nation of origin.

“I’m from Syria,” he said.

Oh, my. I was crestfallen and launched into a bleeding heart sermon about how I pray hostilities cease and homeland justice prevails.

“Oh,” he said, “it’s no big deal.”

Huh?

“It’s almost over. Everything will be fine. You’ll see.”

I couldn’t believe it. I express more soulful concern when I learn there’s a cafeteria bully loose in the lunch line at my kid’s elementary school.

Did he still have family there?

“Sure, they’re fine.”

Was he really talking about Syria? 

He was. 

“It’s very pretty there. Do you know they get a lot of snow? Syria will be fine.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. 

On the one hand it’s encouraging to hear someone — anyone — say things in Syria will soon be swell.

On the other, I now in hindsight realize not every opportunity for us to uplift is going to involve someone who’s fallen down.

And I guess all I really know is this:

I’m suddenly craving gyro for lunch.



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