In Medias Res: Shows About Shows

With 30 Rock coming to an abbreviated end in its seventh season, I’ve been watching and re-watching past seasons. A friend of mine once complained to me about movies and shows about making movies and shows, and I understand his frustration, but the media-making premise is solid. It has a lengthy history going all the way back to Shakespeare’s plays but also includes many classic television shows, from serious, news-room dramas like Lou Grant to silly comedies like Newsradio and WKRP in Cincinnati. The media made on these shows is only the anchor for the interaction of the characters, and as long as the characters are good, the rest is gravy. I mean, Party Down is about catering in the same way that That 70s Show is about the 1970s. Compare the latter to the short-lived That 80s Show, and you’ll immediately see what I mean. A good TV-show premise gets out of the way and lets the characters drive the narrative. Cheers isn’t bout the bar; the bar is only the setting, but there’s something special about the making of a show being the setting for another show.

'Studio 60' cast

Aaron Sorkin’s only series not continued after its first season was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which ran on NBC for a twenty-two episode, single season in 2006 and 2007, the same season that 30 Rock debuted on the same network. In spite of Studio 60‘s win in the ratings, 30 Rock stayed on while Studio 60 wasn’t renewed. Watching the show, you can tell that it was very expensive to make. I’m only halfway through the season, but so far, I wish that they’d kept making it.

Studio 60 gave me a new respect for Matthew Perry. As writer Matt Albie, he only rarely pulls Chandleresque reactions to the situations he faces as the new head writer on the show. Little Sorkinian gems like the following exchange between Albie and Harriett Hayes (one of the stars of the show within the show and Albie’s on-and-off love interest; played by Sarah Paulson) give this show its shine:

Harriet: I got a laugh at the table read when I asked for the butter in the dinner sketch. I didn’t get it at the dress. What did I do wrong?
Matt: That’s one laugh out of thirty you’re going to get tonight.
Harriet: What did I do wrong?
Matt: You asked for the laugh.
Harriet: What did I do at the table read?
Matt: You asked for the butter.

Albie’s partner Danny Tripp (producer/director; played by the inimitable Bradley Whitford) is just so damn likable. Their struggles with standards and practices and network politics, as well as constant budget concerns, are tempered by the new head of NBS, Jordan McDeere (who is loosely based on Jamie Tarses, who was head of ABC while Sorkin’s Sports Night was on; played by Amanda Peet), who brought them back on after previous head writer Wes Mendell (their old boss; played by Judd Hirsch) melts down on air. The power dynamic is refreshing, as it is more complex than just Creatives versus Suits. The guys who run the show have someone in power on their side, and even though the hierarchy still includes the usual power struggles with higher-ups (most often with McDeere’s boss, Jack Rudolph; played by Steven Weber), it’s handled with more nuance than usual.

Power dynamics aside, equal time is given to the interactions between the writers, actors, producers, and assistants. The boardroom might determine a lot of the show’s conflicts, but live on stage is where it lives and dies (and I adore the Nicolas Cage bits). Behind these scenes is where the pressure builds.

Created by Mark Frost and David Lynch, as well as many more members of the team who brought us Twin Peaks, On the Air tells the story of the 1950s variety show, “The Lester Guy Show.” In true Lynch/Frost fashion, the pressure that builds while trying to put together a live show always blows everything sideways at air time. On the Air was only actually on the air (on ABC) for three episodes, though they filmed seven. Lester Guy (Ian Buchanan, who also played Dick Tremayne in Twin Peaks) is the washed-up yet spoiled thespian, who is immediately imposed upon by the dimwitted Betty Hudson (Marla Rubinoff), who becomes the star of his show (a situation noticeably similar to 30 Rock‘s addition of Tracy Jordan to the cast of “The Girlie Show”). Special mention must be made of Buddy Budwaller (played by Miguel Ferrer, who played Agent Albert Rosenfield in Twin Peaks) as he is the foil to the show’s fun and few play that role better than Miguel Ferrer (see also his appearance as FBI Agent Bill Steele in season 2, episode 10 of Lie to Me). Overall On the Air as tedious as it is hilarious, and you almost have to be a David Lynch fan to like it, but like most of the other shows assembled here, it pays homage to the golden age of television as only Lynch and Frost could.

All of the above shows deal with a live television broadcast, whereas Greg the Bunny‘s show within the show, “Sweetknuckle Junction,” is prerecorded. This lowers the on-screen stakes a bit, but the Greg the Bunny is about the same things as the others: the behind the scenes drama and politics of making a TV show. Page One of all of these shows includes a major change in the cast. In Studio 60 it includes a change in the writing staff as Wes Mendell (played by Judd Hirsch) loses his shit on screen about censorship and such, setting the stage for the show’s on going strife with Standards and Practices. On the Air starts with the addition of Betty to the cast (see above), while 30 Rock of course starts with the addition of Tracy Jordon (Tracy Morgan) to the cast of “The Girlie Show.” And Greg the Bunny unwittingly ends up as the new star of “Sweetknuckle Junction.” Planting big changes on Page One is screenwriting 101, and these shows illustrate exactly why: They get us in on the narrative just as the characters are dealing with those changes; we’re invested in their story right from the start.

Greg the BunnySean S. Baker, Spencer Chinoy, and Dan Milano’s Greg the Bunny has had several incarnations as a public-access show (Junktape), short film spoofs on IFC, and a more recent spin-off on MTV (Warren the Ape), but the show they did for Fox is the real gem. Pairing their great puppet characters with humans played by Seth Green, Sarah Silverman, Eugene Levy, Dina Walters, and Bob Gunton, eleven episodes made it to air in 2002 (two more unaired shows are included on the DVD). If On the Air is 30 Rock on LSD, then Greg the Bunny is just plain high. Puppets in Greg the Bunny, though second-class citizens, are citizens nonetheless (a trope the writers use to great comedic advantage). The show is fun and funny and plays on its obvious classic forebears like Sesame Street and The Muppet Show.

Similarly, Studio 60‘s references to classic TV shows, including Lou Grant from Mary Tyler Moore (“I hate spunk!”) and actually including Ed Asner in a minor role on the show (as executive Wilson White), not to mention Judd Hirsch, and 30 Rock‘s parade of guest appearances (e.g., Carrie Fisher, Jennifer Aniston, Brian Williams, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon, Aaron Sorkin, Fred Armisen, Michael Keaton, Andy Richter, Al Gore, et al.), including Tim Conway as almost himself, make these shows each slices of comprehensive television. That is, their allusions are not only to other similar shows but also to their genres and the television medium itself.

With that said, I get the gripe of my friend about shows about shows. His beef is really about the self-indulgence of Hollywood and their losing touch with anything outside of the studio. There are plenty of other things to talk about with all of these shows, but I find it interesting when a medium has become declassified enough to be this reflexive. To varying degrees, all of these shows let us get backstage and right in the middle of things. We already deal in meta-media with shows like Talk Soup or The Daily Show and follow actor salaries and box-office earnings as much as we do plots and characters, but when we speak fluently in a medium such as television, it opens itself up to us in a new way. Once we’ve assimilated it into our media lexicon, we can explore its inner-workings in a way that was alien to us in its newness.

Until the End of the World, 2012

The last few years have been hectic, and 2012 kept it moving in a big way. I’ll get to my personal stuff in a bit, but first, here are the people, events, music, and media that shaped my year.

Encounters of the Year: I had the honor of breakfast with longtime mentor and friend Howard Rheingold at SXSW this year. Howard has offered me endless advice and encouragement over the years online, and it was a true treat to chat with him face-to-face over a meal.

Also at SXSW, I was invited by my good friend Dave Allen to sit on a panel about music technology with Rick Moody, Jesse von Doom, David Ewald, and Anthony Batt, all of whom I am proud to now call friends. I’ll never forget the look on Rick’s face when I asked him to say grace at lunch that day.

We also ran into Hank Shocklee who was doing a panel discussion adjacent to ours. As the architect of the Bomb Squad, who produced such frenetic noisefests as Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet, as well as Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, Hank has been a hero of mine since high school. He hung out and conferred with us like we were all old friends.

Dave Allen, Hank Shocklee, and me at SXSW, 2012.

Comebacks have really made a comeback this year.
Seth Cockfield via Twitter, December 3rd, 2012.

Speaking of Public Enemy, I caught “The Hip-hop Gods Classic Tourfest Revue” at The House of Blues in Chicago on December 5th. I hadn’t seen P.E. since 1991, and I’ve only seen them on package tours like this (once in 1990 with Digital Underground, Kid N’ Play, Queen Latifah, and The Afros, and twice in 1991, once with Sisters of Mercy, Gang of Four, Warrior Soul, and Young Black Teenagers, and again with Anthrax, Primus, and Young Black Teenagers). This time around it was them, X-Clan, Monie Love, Leaders of the New School, Wise Intelligent, Schoolly D, Son of Berzerk, and Awesome Dre. Chuck did a lot of talking and Flav did a lot of goofing, but the few songs that they did–both old and new–were absolutely on point.

Earlier in the year, I barged into Helmet’s dressing room at The House of Blues in Chicago to meet Page Hamilton. In my defense, I was looking for Ume‘s room, and once inside, I asked Page where it was. Before I left, I got Lily to take a picture of us together because people always say we look alike, to which Page quipped, “Yeah, but I’m 105 and you’re, like, 29.”

Page Hamilton and me backstage at The House of Blues.

Coup of the Year: Death Grips: As Christopher R. Weingarten explores in his “Artist of the Year” story on Spin.com, Death Grips showed how to use technology to get what you want, and then disappear before anyone knows what happened. They duped the internet, a major label, and their fans and became one of the most talked-about artists of the year. It goes, it goes, it goes…

The Return of Aggro Rag Freestyle Mag: While Mike Daily has been perpetually busy over the twenty-two years since he ruled the BMX zines, he brought Aggro Rag back out for one last issue before the zine gets anthologized in book form on new year’s day, 2013. The come-back issue boasts interviews with fifteen flatland undergrounders like Mark McKee, Aaron Dull, Gary Pollak, Chris Day, Jim Johnson, Derek Schott, Gerry Smith, and Dave Nourie. Being “The Hip-hop Issue,” the zine also features interviews with Dark Time Sunshine, Sole, and a review of Death Grips’ Money Store.

Mike Daily and Aesop Rock at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon.

Daily even asked me to contribute an interview with my friend Aesop Rock, which you can read right here. Big props to Aes for bringing sketchy back this year with Skelethon, giving wack(y) haircuts on tour, sporting the hobo beard™. The steez is on lock.

Music of the Year:

I’ve clearly had a Gunplay problem this year:

Other than Gunplay mixtapes and my usual prog/post-rock fare (e.g., Radiohead, Mogwai, The Mars Volta, Eno, Baroness, Followed by Ghosts, God is an Astronaut, etc.), these are some releases I relished:

Erik Blood Touch Screens (Erik Blood): How much reference to previous work is the right amount? Thomas Kuhn called the dialectic between tradition and innovation the “essential tension,” and Erik Blood has found the perfect middle. To call Touch Screens unoriginal would be to admit you didn’t listen to it. Yes, this is stuttery, gooey, taffy-like pop in the vein of Brad Laner and Kevin Shields, but Blood puts these things together with that third thing, the thing that comes from more than just nailing the essential tension.

“Most of [the shoegazers] couldn’t rock their way out of a paper bag,” once quoth Simon Reynolds. Not so with Erik Blood. There’s as much Loop here as there is Main, as much Anton Newcombe as there is Courtney Taylor-Taylor. I also hear some Can and Neu!, which Blood claims he likes but doesn’t consider an influence. “Though I guess everything one hears is an influence,” he concedes. I could listen to the last half of “Amputee” all damn day. “That’s the idea,” he told me. Blood broadcasts these soundtracks from some unplaceable future, some unknown space out of time.

With a pornography-related concept and a cover reminiscent of H. R. Giger’s painting for Dead Kennedys’Frankenchrist poster, Touch Screens is guaranteed to offend some. Don’t be scared, especially if you like your valentines bloody and your Warhols dandy.

 JK Flesh Posthuman (3by3): To explicate the pedigree of Justin K. Broadrick would require a book-length exploration, but let’s try to nick the surface. He was a founding member of Napalm Death, invented and inverted genres in Godflesh, and happily drones in headphones in Jesu—not to mention stints in final, Head of David, Fall of Because, Ice, God, Techno Animal, Greymachine, and Pale Sketcher, among others. Now Broadrick revives his JK Flesh moniker to make some noise that doesn’t fit under any of his other active names. The sounds on Posthuman land between the lines and demonstrate that the disc deserves its own designation. Sure, there are echoes of past projects, especially Greymachine and Pale Sketcher, but this record has a soul of its own. A soul that deserves to be played very loud. These songs need to stretch out, to reach out, and to touch someone. “Idle Hands” sounds like some bastardized, end-of-the-world Hip-hop (apocalypse-hop?), the title track is the theme song to a spy movie with an all-android cast, and the other ones will satisfy your need for a soundtrack to entropy and the heat-death of the universe. No one knows what that would sound like better than Justin Broadrick.

Neurosis Honor Found in Decay (Neurot Recordings): Among the many burgeoning subgenres of post-metal, there is one band that is consistently named as a starting point: Neurosis has been bending and rending metal, punk, crust, sludge, drone, doom, ambient, folk, and other odd musical categories since 1985. Their latest, Honor Found in Decay (Neurot Recordings, 2012) more than illustrates both why they’re the godfathers of this sound and what exactly it is that all of their progeny are still trying to achieve.

On their tenth studio outing, the Oakland sextet gathers together pieces from their storied past to pull off a defining document of their sound. Honor Found in Decay is that rare record that serves the seasoned fan as well as the newbie. It continues their long and fruitful recording relationship with Steve Albini. The ten-plus-minute dirges are here (e.g., “At the Well,” “My Heart for Deliverance,” “Casting of the Ages”). The growling and wailing are in tact (e.g, “Bleeding the Pigs,” “Raise the Dawn”). The bulldozer grooves are as deep and wide as ever (e.g., “We All Rage in Gold,” “All is Found… In Time”). Like all of their releases since 1992’s Souls at Zero, this is nothing less than a monolithic affair.

Not that it doesn’t move them forward, but Honor Found in Decay feels like a summary of sorts—much like The Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief were. And like those two bands, Neurosis has plenty to summarize: They’ve always pushed themselves in new directions and they’ve kept fans and critics guessing at every turn. Honor Found in Decay is just as complex and dynamic as the collective history that created it. It’s as lush as it is loud, as heavy as it is heady, and as mysterious as it is majestic. Your expectations will be immediately reached and quickly wrecked.

Other releases that stayed in the speakers and headphones include Deftones Koi No Yokan (Reprise), Baroness Yellow & Green (Relapse), The Mars Volta Noctourniquet (Warner Bros.), Sean Price Mic Tyson (Duck Down), and mixtapes by Waka Flocka Flame, Gucci Mane, Chief Keef, Alleyboy, and A$AP Rocky. Along with Gunplay (see above), Skweeky Watahfawls, Johnny Ciggs, Fan Ran and the whole Gritty City Fam are the finds of the year. Here they are with The Jam of the Year, “Hunnid Dolla Bills” [runtime: 5:23]:

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Video of the Year: Killer Mike “Big Beast” featuring Bun B, T.I., Trouble, & El-P: If this video doesn’t move you in some way, you’re probably dead. First of all, the pairing of Killer Mike on the mic and El-Producto on production is a match made somewhere south of Heaven: It’s dark, it’s evil, it’s raw, and it’s hard as fuck and the record they just did, R.A.P. Music, proves it many times over. Next, we have this straight bananas lead track “Big Beast,” including sick verses by Bun B. and T. I. that will remind you why they’re both Hip-hop legends, and a catchy chorus by Trouble. Then, we have this face-eating, car-chasing, enthusiastically violent video that has them all doing some ill shit (that’s El-P in the mask) directed by Thomas C. Bingham and produced by CFILM1 in partnership with Adult Swim. Like I said, check your pulse [runtime: 9:23].

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Movie of the Year: Looper. Rian Johnson is one of my favorite people on Twitter (his day-long stories about his beef with Jason Reitman are hysterical), and he’s finally made his Philip K. Dick movie. Time-travel is a trope I never tire of, and it’s used masterfully here, as in it stays out of the way of the story. Looper features stellar performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, and Jeff Daniels, but the real surprise was the young-but-amazing Pierce Gagnon. Watch out for that one.

Book of the Year: Nick Harkaway Angelmaker: A Novel (Knopf): Nick Harkaway’s second novel is a surrealist noir novel like no other. Angelmaker is heady and heavy, but Harkaway’s prose is giddy in its grasp. It’s a little bit steampunk, a little bit spy novel, a little bit mystery, and a whole lot of fun. As an added treat, I also got to interview him earlier this year, during which he told me of his writing, “…I suppose I have a tendency to use movie shapes — like the Classic Myth Structure George Lucas used for Star Wars — because they’re dramatic and recognisable and they keep you on track. Writing the kind of books I write, with lots going on, you need not to get lost. Structure helps. A story spine is vital. And so is knowing what the voice is, the tone. With those, you can go all over the map and come home safe, and you know it, and your reader gets that confidence in you and settles, so you can take liberties and amaze them. The less secure they are, the less likely they are to go with you when you do something unusual — and that unusual thing is often why you’re there, so that’s bad. They close the book. And once they do that, you have a hell of a time getting them to open it again.” Unlike several other books I read this year, that’s not a problem I had with Angelmaker.

Skateboard Video of the Year: Girl and Chocolate’s Pretty Sweet: You know nothing else came close.

Documentary of the Year: The Unbookables (Fascinator Films): The Unbookables are a loose band of comedians (emphasis on “loose”) handpicked by Doug Stanhope.This movie documents their 2008 tour of the middle of the country, from my own Austin, Texas through Kansas City, Missouri to Peoria, Illinois. The cast of characters (emphasis on “characters”) includes Brendon Walsh, Sean Rouse, Andy Andrist, Norman Wilkerson, Brett Erickson, Travis Lipski, James Inman, and Kristine Levine. The unfortunate star of the show is James Inman. If nothing else, this film documents how reckless behavior can bring people together as well as single one of them out.

The first gig is at Nasty’s in Austin, and one of my own University of Texas colleagues gets the narrative rolling by leaving drugs around for Inman to find, like an Easter Egg hunt with negative repercussions. I was at Nasty’s that night, and everyone killed. It was proof of both why these guys are The Unbookables and why they’re such revered comedians. Night two was a “chicken wire” show at Beerland during which chicken wire is draped in front of the stage and the crowd throws fruit at the comics while they attempt to tell jokes. True to its heritage, the show was a complete trainwreck with mostly just the comedians pelting each other with fruit. Few jokes were told as everyone just made fun of Inman.

Inman’s shady behavior continued through the gigs in his then-home Kansas City. He almost ditches the others as they get fired from the first show of the weekend there thanks to one of Travis Lipski’s tamest jokes. Tensions mount, Kristine Levine joins the crew, and the plot spirals out of control as our heroes reach Peoria. Luckily Brett Erickson is there to save the day.

There’s obviously a lot more to it than I’ve detailed above, but it’s not all worth mentioning. With that said, The Unbookables is a gruesome glimpse into the world of touring stand-up comedy, and it’s damn worth checking out. Props due to all involved — except Inman, of course.

Move of the Year: Austin to Chicago: Continuing the family trade, my girl Lily got into grad school at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, so we packed up and moved from the Tattooine of Austin to the Hoth of Chicago. Thanks to Zizi Papacharissi, I joined the adjunct faculty at The University of Illinois at Chicago. This will be the biggest, coldest city I’ve ever lived in, but we’re certainly enjoying it so far.

Cloud Gate

Many thanks to Chris Noble at Level Magazine, for which many of the reviews above were originally written throughout the year. Thanks to Tim Baker over at SYFFAL for turning me on to Gunplay and the Gritty City Fam. Mad thanks to Michael Schandorf, Adriane Stoner, and Zizi Papacharissi for making the transition to Chicago a smooth one. Onward.