All entries for March 2007

March 28, 2007

Funny Tim Minchin Thingy

Anna writing about The Culture Show on TV Scoop reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to flag up for a while.

First some context: Tim Minchin (musical comedian and piano player extrodinaire) appeared on The Culture Show around the end of last year (I think) and they started with an interview, the latter part of it is spent discussing the song Darkside which “You’re going to play for us tonight”. Tim explains how it’s about the fact he’s too light-hearted and easy going and so girls don’t like him because he’s not deep enough, his desperate search for any little piece of ‘darkness’ within him, and points out that it ends with him coming to the conclusion that he’s damaged as his Dad never came to his ball games, “but he did, he coached them.”

And then we get the song, go watch:

One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen – and putting aside the fact that it’s a great and funny song, just the audience reaction is something to behold. They’re clearly the BBC’s Culture Show rent an audience, and don’t really know how to react when faced with this bizzare Bill Bailey look-alike singing a song which isn’t actually that laugh-out-loud funny. And then when you think it couldn’t get any weirder, the song ends as he’s only been given a two and half minute slot to squeeze it into, so has to truncate it, missing out the whole “Daddy never came to my ball games” refrain that he discussed in the interview earlier. This leaves thousands of Culture Show watchers trying to figure out how the verse about Sony and record sales is a metaphorical examination of the ball games issue which I find just brilliant.

Then to top it all, if you listen very carefullly at the end of the video you can here someone in the audience go “Is that it?”.

It’s brilliant.

March 22, 2007

Shows You Should Be Watching Number 1: Studio 60

First Aaron Sorkin made Sports Night: a sitcom/drama set behind the scenes of a sports news programme. Then Aaron Sorkin made The West Wing: a political drama set in The Whitehouse. And now we have the natural progression: Studio 60 – a drama set behind the scenes of a topical (and primarily political) comedy show. A show which is Saturday Night Live by any other name.

The show is crucially flawed, as Sorkin simply cannot write comedy sketches: so when they show the sketches the fictional cast and writers have produced (often after a lot of hyping them up) they fall flat. The show is in the strange position where much of the dialogue between our fictional characters is funnier than the sketches these characters are writing. I remember one episode of The West Wing where the entire build-up was about what would go in the Presidents State of the Union address. Everything builds up to this and as Bartlett takes to the podium we fade to black and run the credits. It feels frustrating but it happens as we all know that after all that hype nothing Sorkin puts into Sheen’s mouth will live up to expectations. This is what Sorkin needed to do here, but he doesn’t. Thankfully later episodes of the show fix this a little by showing less sketches.

Second problem: holy schizophrenic show Batman! For the first 5 or so episodes it’s a straight behind-the-scenes drama, then it raises it’s game and has a lot of plots on the wider nature of the studio and the fictional TV company, NBS, their battle with censors and so on. Then it focuses in massively for four episodes and becomes a bit of a romantic comedy between four of the characters. It’s a show still finding it’s feet, though whether it will be given a chance to do so is now in question as NBC have withdrawn it from the schedules early, to replace it with The Black Donnolys. But with hope and good heads prevailing, it’ll get to air it’s remaining episodes and hopefully get a second season. Because it’s really good.

One criticism aimed at it (and all Sorkin’s previous work) is that it’s massively unrealistic. Not only does TV not work like that, but people don’t speak like that either. And that’s true. But it’s not a bad thing. It’s a drama folks. A dramatic interpretation. People didn’t go around criticising Shakespere as people didn’t actually speak in iambic pentameter – it was like that as it made it sound good. That’s how Sorkin’s dialogue works too, it has a unique flowing rhythm to it that just makes it real fun to listen to, and the characters are all smart, witty and far quicker than and of us. Which makes them eminently likeable.

The other great thing about the show is the cast portraying these characters. Matthew Perry is simply brilliant and shows that while the likes of David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston may be getting all the movie deals, Chandler was everyone’s favourite not just because he got all the best lines, but because Perry can act the rest of them out of the country. In a brilliant move Perry’s character spends the entirety of the first episode drugged up on painkillers, so we get all the silly comments, clowning and other ‘Chandler-isms’ out of the way. For that one episode, Perry is basically playing Chandler, and it’s established that his character is as high as a kite. So in one deft move the type-casting is broken. We’re no longer waiting to see the character of Matt Albie act a bit like Chandler; it’s come, it’s gone, it’s over, let’s move on.

West Wing regular Bradley Whitford (arguably the ‘star’ of The West Wing, as when it came down to it, that show was basically the story of Josh Lynman) plays Matt’s creative partner Danny with aplomb, while Amada Peet is actually quite brilliant as the network president, despite many critics unfairly slating her. Steven Weber is brilliantly cast as the network chairman Jack Rudolph – hero and villain in one, while Timothy Busfield and Deadwood’s Sarah Paulson are great as Cal and Harriet, if under-used and over-used respectively. The entire ensemble cast works brilliantly, even if we haven’t had a chance to see all the relationships forming yet, as the fictional cast, the writers and producers, and the network execs don’t interact between groups much. The other thing strangely missing is a father figure: The West Wing had Bartlett, Sports Night had Issac, but Studio 60 is really missing that figure to truly add a sense of gravitas to the proceedings.

It’s a brilliantly enjoyable show to watch despite its flaws because of the sheer awesomeness of the writing and performances. Hopefully the show will get renewed for a second series, and if it does it should make its way to More 4 in the UK later this year.

March 21, 2007

Shows You Should Be Watching

Television is currently in a strange place, by which I mean the very medium itself becoming extremely fractured, and not that my television is in the fridge. Through some bizarre circumstance we’re currently faced by a medium that is simultaneously at it’s best and worst. If you turn on your TV at any given point in time there’s a fairly high chance you’ll be confronted by some of the most appalling, cynical, low-brow programming we’ve ever seen. Melodramatic soap-opera’s dominate the airwaves, shorn up by increasingly ridiculous and exploitative reality TV show. It’s truly awful. But if you know where to look, and when to look, there are TV programmes out there far better than anything you’ve ever seen. Movies are great, I love them, but their literary equivalent is the short story: a quick over-in-two-hours tale that can amuse, move and challenge the viewer. But their intrinsically short nature means you can only tell so much, you can only have your characters say and do so much, before it has to be wrapped up.

TV shows don’t have this restriction. The running time of one year’s worth of a US-produced TV show is generally between 10 and 20 hours: the potential for far deeper stories exists in the medium. Of course, it took a while for people to realise this: while the soaps were telling ongoing stories on a weekly basis for years, serious ‘dramatic’ television took a while to catch up, with the best you could hope for being a 8 hour ‘mini-series’. Occasionally the concept of a ‘character arc’ was used (eg. over the course of five years on screen the detective slowly falls in love with his assistant) but generally one episode of a TV show presented a single story with a distinct beginning, middle and end. Then came Babylon 5: a single story (admittedly featuring it’s fair share of single episode mini-stories) written to be aired over five years and around 100 hours. Then came Murder One: your regular court-room drama show, except it’s first series followed a single case in massive detail: through jury selection, to the trial itself, to the appeal. Suddenly people realised you could do this, and in many ways the ‘arc plot’ has become de-rigour for pretty much every television series out there. Some only use it very lightly: Doctor Who and ‘Bad Wolf’ or Star Trek: Enterprise and it’s ‘Temporal War’ but just as many rely on it to the point that watching a single episode in isolation becomes pointless. 24 is the obvious example, basing it’s very premise on the nature of season-long arc plots, but many of the best HBO series such as Deadwood, The Sopranos and Carnivale do it in a far more subtle fashion. There’s nothing in there screaming at you that this is a single tale, it’s just taken as read that the viewers will watch the whole thing. Each ‘chapter’ or episode may have a three-act structure but taken alone they make little to no sense. Nevertheless they also refuse to talk down to the viewer by providing vast amounts of exposition to inform or remind them of previous events. It’s assumed that you’ve been paying attention. A refreshing attitude, wonderfully at odds with the likes of prime-time reality shows, which invariably spend at least thirty seconds after each commercial break reminding you of what happened a whole three minutes ago.

So what, prey tell, is my point?

These shows, the ones that represent the pinnacle of television as a dramatic medium, that provide far more in depth plots and characters than any film can hope to fit into it’s running time… These shows are hard to find. To get to them you need to set the VCR or Tivo for the early hours of the morning, tune into obscure satellite and cable channels, or even give up on them ever been show in this country and just import the region one DVDs. And in this series of blog entries I’m going to try and point out exactly which shows you should be making such an effort to go out and track down. Some will be old, some will be brand new. Some will be nigh on perfect, others will be fatally flawed but still necessary viewing. We’ll start tommorow with a new and also somewhat flawed show: Studio 60.

See you there.

March 19, 2007

The James Files – Part the 1st: Hey, your favourite band is back.


So I find out a few months back that my favourite band, James, are getting back together and touring at the end of April, and one of my first thoughts was “that’s quick”. In these days where gig tickets go on sale 6-9 months before the actual event, going from finding out that they were getting back together, to buying gig tickets the next week, for gig happening in just three months time… that seemed fast.

So imagine my reaction when, upon checking the forums at last Wednesday night, someone had posted a link to Ticketweb, supposedly selling tickets for a James warm-up gig that Friday. Reading on the initial scepticism (is it just a DJ called James? a cover band?) fell away as it was confirmed. I thought 3 months from buying tickets to seeing them was fast: try 18 hours. And so tickets were booked and the getting in touch with fellow fan friend to inform them, and for them to inform there friends and so forth, as the network kicked into gear. Of course, the majority couldn’t make it at such short notice, but being unemployed scum this wasn’t a problem for yours truly. I couldn’t really afford it, but there was no way I was missing this. After booking tickets I was literally shaking with excitement: it’s just as well it worked out this way really, as had I been waiting for the first gig I was seeing on the tour, I probably wouldn’t have been able to sleep at all the week before!

So fast forward a day and a half and I’m walking to a little venue in Hoxton, London. Here the paranoia sets in: What if my tickets haven’t been processed properly? What if they don’t show up? (internet scuttlebutt claimed the ticket sales were one almighty cock-up). But on getting there and hearing them sound checking from just outside the venue (fuck me, is that Stripmining? and Play Dead?!) nerves are calmed somewhat. ‘Tickets’ turn out to be a stamp on your hand, and the venue open the desk outside the gig room to stamp your hand half an hour before the gig itself opens: “You get the stamp and then you’re in – you can go get a drink or whatever without having to queue to get in later”. Clearly the venue were un-aware of the obsessive freaks of James fandom they were dealing with however, as we all calmly got our stamps, and then remained standing right next to the venue doors, to ensure we’d get a good spot at the front.

Finally we’re let in, and rush right to the stage, to find a tiny stage that will barely hold the six of them, and set lists sitting there in plain view: If Things Were Perfect, Fine and Really Hard amongst the songs to played! I’d rather have not been spoiled about what they were doing but when you’re that close to the stage it’s unavoidable. Also bought onto the stage are Tim’s cue-sheets with words to the songs on. There’s lots of them, and I can’t help but thing when you have more than two or three you should maybe invest in a Michael Stipe-esque music stand. The next forty-five minutes is an excruciating wait, the panic of earlier replaced by a sort of Zen-calmness. The advertised start time comes and goes, but around fifteen minutes after that a door in the side of the venue opens, and the band walk onto the stage… and it’s strange, the reception isn’t what you’d call rapturous, but it’s understandable. I’m trying to applaud and cheer but I’m mostly just stuck there with a big cheesy grin on my face, there being no other facial expression to possibly sum up the mixed feelings of ecstasy, dumbfoundedness and relief I’m feeling. This is here; this is happening, and what I thought was another five years ago at best is taking place right now. Tim’s entry on to the stage just after the others is somewhat of an anti-climax – I’ve seen him perform with his band multiple times in the past few years, it’s the appearance of Dave, Saul, Adrian and Jim (who looks five years younger than on the last tour, rather than older) that bring it all back. And then there’s Larry. This guy was playing with the band before I was even born, and had left well before I discovered them. Sure I’d seen him play a couple of songs with them on the farewell tour but that was a guest, now he’s in the band, as he proclaimed himself “We are James”. It was already all the same, but different – which quickly became the theme for the night.

And so they start the first song. And had I not seen the set list, I’d have no idea what it was, the intro completely reworked, only Larry’s slide guitar riffs giving it away before Booth’s vocals kick in: “Blow me away…”. It’s Seven, from the album Seven, and this is the original line-up of James that made that record, with the exception of trumpet player Andy Diagram. The one big memorable riff from this song, the one thing that everyone remembers is Andy’s rising trumpet chorus riff: “Understand the world we’re living in durr-durr-durr-duuuur”, and it’s pretty much ignored entirely. To ignore the one big riff and not even try and synth it on keyboards makes no sense. To play the song at all without Andy makes no sense. To open with it as your first live song in five years is stupid. And it’s beautiful. It’s so out-of-left-field that it works brilliantly; it’s one of those things the old fans would call ‘typically James’, the sort of crazy thing I’ve heard of and heard in live recordings but which had been abandoned by the time I got into them in favour of playing the exact same 20-song Best-Of set on arena tours 6 nights in a row.

And then it’s Destiny Calling, with Tim offering a knowing look as he delivers the line “Come back when we’re getting old”, though it took them long enough to get there, as no-one seemed to know how to start the song. Still, after two or three tries and them remembering how it starts we’re there. Some of Saul’s equipment appears to break in the middle, so some things never change. So now two songs into the set it’s clearly time for a new song no-one has heard before of course!

Who Are You? Is an interesting track, it’s somewhat reminiscent of English Beefcake, the verses being delivered in a very conversational style, with the chorus being done in Booth’s falsetto voice. It’s also backed by a very dancy beat, giving it a feeling reminiscent of some of his solo work. It also has an ending refrain reminiscent of English Beefcake: “Walled in, coming down”, which builds from just Tim singing it to incorporating Larry and Saul’s backing vocals.

“Music depresses me” shouts a sample, and then it’s Play Dead, because – well why not. This ends with a great acapella harmony between Tim, Larry and Saul – and while it’s not exactly on par with the sorts of harmonies Ben Folds and his bands produce, it’s a far, far cut above the old days where Saul’s backing vocals were best described as ‘painful’ and Mike Kulas had to be bought in to do live backing. I always felt the one thing James lacked live was anything interesting in terms of multiple vocals as none of the band other than Tim had the voice to carry it – if they can keep working on getting these harmonies up to scratch it could be an interesting technique to add to their live repertoire.

And then it’s Fine, the weird dancy number from Pleased To Meet You, that was never really done live more than a couple of times even when the album had just come out. While they tune up for the next song there’s a bit of Q&A (Saul somewhat disappointed, as he’d announced it was ‘joke time’ but never got to tell one) – someone asks about the new album, Tim says to buy the double disc edition, not the single one, as they get more money. No not really, it’s because the single disc is just for selling in Asda and stuff and has just the Mercury singles, while the double disc has every single they’ve ever done in chronological order. Which is nice as it means it’s worth buying to finally get copies of the old vinyl only singles on CD. They’re also not working with Eno, as Coldplay are paying him ten grand a day, “but he’ll work with us for free”, quips Tim.

Stripmining then. At this point I’m sure you’ll cease to have any surprise at the set list whatsoever, the only small disappointment being it’s not followed up by Refrain. Really Hard, ironically one of the softer and more laid-back songs from Stutter, is next and is equally great.

5-0 is next and it’s very much the centrepiece of the set – probably the tightest of all the songs all night. Amusingly this is the reunion gig of the ‘Laid Six’, and this is the first song from that album. On that basis it makes quite some sense that it’s the most polished song of the night, this line-up having played it together many times in the past. It can’t hurt that Booth’s been performing it at solo gigs too.

It’s been a fairly quiet and subdued crowd for a James gig so far – generally they’re boisterous affairs involving lots of moshing at the front which hasn’t really happened at all so far – I think it’s been a combination of people still being in shock, a set that’s only included two songs people only familiar with the singles would know, and everyone being five years older. But Getting Away With It kicks the gig in a higher gear and the crowd are really getting into it. So this is obviously followed with another new song: Chamelon. Like Who Are You?, it’s a pretty rocky and dancy track, very sharp and pointed, reminded me of Greenpeace for some reason.

Then that song that has kicked off so many big arena gigs, and could really bring the crowd back around to it: Say Something. Except it’s slowed down to a crawl and instead abandons it’s rocky roots for a gentler more beautiful track. With the second chorus it picks itself up into more familiar territory but it’s still a little slower than normal, and this is the one song in the whole set I’m not sure worked.

Sometimes brings the set to an end, and this really gets the crowd going. At this point some nutcase mosher starts jumping into me, and at first I’m pissed he can’t just mind his own business, but then I remember this is a James gig. I honestly haven’t been to a real heavy rocking and moshing style gig since seeing REM in 2003 so I needed that little nudge to remind me what I used to love about these gigs, above and beyond the music itself, it’s the chance to go utterly mental and leap around like a loon, so I do!

So with that it’s time for the ‘encore’ which is marked by the words “this is your encore okay?” as they don’t want to go and stand outside in the fire escape where it’s cold because…. well it’s a pointless tradition. With sometimes the stage is set for a massively rocking encore of the hit singles, and that’s exactly what we get, assuming you count 1985 single If Things Were Perfect as a hit. The twelve or so people there that know the song think it’s brilliant, the rest seem confused, given it’s not on any of the albums and only available on vinyl. If they open every encore on the tour with it, I’ll love them even more. I spent most of the ‘shall we go outside for the encore’ chat desperately trying to get a signal on my phone to call Steph so she could hear If Things Were Perfect (the handy part of looking at the set list!) and finally managed to get a connection just as the song started. Must be fate and shit.

Then it’s Protect Me, in the full band version rather than the acoustic one favoured in their later years. And it works magnificently. And now it really is time for the big guns: Ring The Bells gets the crowd moving again and is reassuringly familiar, if only five minutes long this time around. Then Laid and the crowd go mental and that too is reassuringly familiar. Then it’s over and done, thank you all for coming and see you in April. And I’m utterly knackered from just jumping about to Laid and Bells, not sure how I’ll manage a full two hours on two or three consecutive nights in April!

Wow. Just wow. Were I a reviewer for the NME I’d point out that they were technically poor and a little all over the place, but since I’m a human being I know that that doesn’t matter. This was truly a work in progress, but not only are James back, but they’re planning on being better than ever.

Walking back from the venue we briefly see Saul and Tim: apparently the songs they did tonight were about a third of the songs they want to have ready and rehearsed for the tour, so with a library of around 45 songs that means there should be some nice variety there. They want to do Jam J and Honest Joe, and also Johnny Yen (the track most conspicuous by it’s absence tonight) but they’re not quite “in the zone yet, but we’ll get there”. They’re also not playing Glasto (boo!) as they’re too good. And also because legally they can’t since they’re doing V and TitP. Not sure why they’d want to do them instead of Glasto… I’m not even going to V when it’s just twenty minutes drive from my house as they’ll probably only be on for 45 minutes. Guess they pay more though.

So yes, James, they’re back, I’m happy, and I need April to hurry up and get here.

March 08, 2007

Reflections on Comedy Soc

Warning: Self-centered pretentious blog entry below.

I’ve just spent the past 4 days in Leam at the house of my friends Tom and Pete (both Phd students) and it’s been aces. At first I thought I was missing being a student, with all the cool stuff going on: I watched the Chortle Comedy Competition on Sunday, went to The Reckless Moment comedy gig on Monday, and went to one of the Performance Comedy society nights in Kelseys on Wednesday. I miss being a student and being able to go to all this cool stuff, while not being five years older than the youngest people there.

But then I realised that most of these cool things didn’t exist while I was a student, and so I started feeling somewhat bitter. In some ways I wish I was a fresher this year, with all these cool comedy things to go to and meet like-minded people at rather than going on the same old kitchen nights out to Varsity or whatever. I love all those people I hung out with back in my first year, but damn I really wish I had the sort of options this new generation of students at Warwick does.

But then there’s another side to this: what if I had been born four years later? Without wishing to appear big-headed, if I hadn’t been at Warwick when I was, how much of this would actually be there for me? For a start, the fact that the Comedy Society is now running regular socials to these events is something I fought hard to build up over a couple of years, moving it from a society that promotes and offers members discounts on gigs, to an actual genuine society where people actually socialise. Without that system in place, would I ever of met other comedy fans to go to such events with – after all it took three goes for me to talk one of my kitchen mates into coming with me to the comedy gig in The Cooler in my first year!

And then there’s The Reckless Moment itself: born from the sheer tenacity and bloody-mindedness of Messers Hughes and Falconer, resolute in the belief that such a weekly comedy night was possible in a town such as Leamington Spa, but at the same time it was an event that benefited greatly from working with the Comedy Society to bring socials there, especially in the first few weeks. Would it still exist if that was taken out of the equation? Probably, yes, but quite possibly in a different shape or form. Likewise the new Performance Comedy soc nights – they could certainly get thier own audience in without any support from Comedy Soc, but there’s something to be said for the widening of thier audience beyond the typical friends/coursemates/housemates of performers and society members that often characterise performance-society nights.

I’m not trying to claim that I’ve single-handly revolutionised how comedy works at Warwick, and were I not there when I was it’s quite possible someone else with a simmilar drive to change things up a little would have done just as good, or even better, a job. But looking at things now I know that were I just entering university as a fresher this year, I would be having more fun than I did. But that’s in part down to me. And that makes me happy: I’ve made things more fun for people like me – and while I don’t reap the benefits, hopefully many future generations of students will. In my little part of the university, in my small corner, I left things in a better state than I found them, and that’s an accomplishment.

I guess I’m reflecting on this now as I’m now seeing myself move two generations away from the Comedy Society itself: the people that I knew and trained up as a new exec are now in turn finding new people I’ve either never met or know only in passing to train up to take over from them, my last direct connection to something I put so much effort into is fading away, and it’s sort of sad. But at the same time, it’s wonderful, as things move on and the society continues to improve – I didn’t create something that existed only as long as I was there to will it into being, I made something that lives on in the hands of others, and which will hopefully get even better and make things even more cool for the people like me that turn up at Uni for the first time next september.

March 2007

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