Archive | Popular Culture

Holiday Gift Idea: Buy the New Tim Minchin CD

Tim Minchin
Tim Minchin via Wikimedia Commons

I’m one of those people who daydreams about being interviewed in important news outlets and being asked to rank my “Top 5” this and “Top 10” that. I’ve already shared my song list if I’m ever asked to come onto BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Disks and narrate my life. And if I’m ever asked to list my favorite comedian, I have no doubt whom I’ll pick: the wacky Australian singer/songwriter/comedian/actor Tim Minchin.

I got to thinking about Minchin while scrolling through some old holiday-themed posts on this blog. I was curious to see what sorts of topics I’d written about during holiday seasons past, and came across a post from December, 2010. In it, I recommended that everyone rush out and buy Tim Minchin’s (then) new CD. My husband and I had just gone to see Minchin perform live, and I wanted to shout to the rooftops about him.

For those of you who don’t know Tim Minchin, he’s the guy who wrote the lyrics to the blockbuster show Matilda the Musical, based on the book by Roald Dahl. Until the pandemic hit, this show was still running in London’s West End, and has also toured internationally. He also wrote the music and lyrics to Groundhog Day The Musical, if (gasp) you happened to miss Matilda. (Don’t.)

Matilda put Minchin on the global map, but I first got to know him when he was still up and coming as a song-writing comedian here in the UK, where he got his start. Here’s how I described him back then:

He’s a bare-footed, mascara-wearing, red-haired Australian: funny, irreverent, profane, absurd and just a little bit mad. What I like most about Minchin – apart from his hysterical lyrics – is the unadulterated joy he seems to take from his work. He really looks like he’s having a ball up there on stage, and his enthusiasm is infectious. More importantly, when you watch Minchin perform… you get the sense that this oddball decided early on in life that he wasn’t going to give a toss what other people thought about him. He was going to choose a path – in this case, playing the piano bare-footed – that worked for him. And if he looked and sounded weird, so be it. He would be true to himself.

All of that still holds. But a funny thing happened in the ensuing decade: Tim Minchin grew up. He moved back to Australia with his family. And his latest album – Apart Together – is actually serious. I know this because I heard Minchin interviewed recently on BBC Radio 4.

He’s still funny and odd and irreverent. But he’s also a middle-aged, married Dad. So, for this album, he decided to write about the kinds of topics that confront us all as we age: love, fidelity, and the meaning of success. Some of the songs recount the temptations he’s faced with other women while on tour. These are intermingled with lyrics sharing his disappointment with LA (where he lived for a while).

One critic described the new album as “Randy Newman-esque.” It’s an apt comparison. I love Randy Newman. Newman is also quirky and writes a mix of the the absurd (“Short People“), melded with the serious (“Lost without You“). (And yes, in case you’re wondering, I also listened to a Radio 4 “mastertapes” interview with Randy Newman not long ago. Are you sensing a pattern here?)

I find it deeply comforting when our pop culture icons age alongside us, instead of trying to remain forever young. Bruce Springsteen also comes to mind in this regard.

How about you? Which of your favorite performers have accompanied you as you age?

Why Garry Shandling’s Death Made Me Cry

garry shandling

Garry_Shandling_(2076448529)From time to time, I’ve indulged in an exercise where I pretend that I’m famous and am being interviewed for one of those glossy magazine profiles where they ask you to list things like your favourite meal or your favourite film. When they get to the question where they ask about my favorite comedian, I’ve always known that I wouldn’t hesitate before answering “Garry Shandling.

Shandling – who died at his home on Thursday at the age of 66 from causes as yet unknown – was never a household name in the way of Robin Williams or Chris Rock. Still, Shandling had an almost cult-like following among people like me, for whom his brilliant 1990’s sitcom – The Larry Sanders Show – changed our understanding of what television was and could be. He was also clearly both a visionary and a mentor for an entire generation of comedians, as the outpouring of heartfelt tributes to him last week from the likes of Bob Odenkirk and Ellen De Generes demonstrate, not to mention Conan O’Brian’s very moving, personal tribute on his show.

The Larry Sanders Show was a behind-the-scenes send up of what it was like to work at a late night television show. It ran on HBO for six seasons was universally recognised as the harbinger for subsequent pathbreaking television shows like The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock and others. (If you’ve never seen The Larry Sanders Show I’ve got good news for you – HBO is about to re-release it.)

But Shandling – a practicing Buddhist – stayed largely out of the limelight after The Larry Sanders Show ended, save the odd cameo here and there in film, TV and as a host on assorted award shows. I myself had nearly forgotten about him until I saw him on The Jon Stewart show a few years back (Stewart being yet another comedic superstar – like Judd Apatow and Sarah Silverman – who made his name on The Larry Sanders Show).

Read the rest of this post at The Broad Side

Image: Garry Shandling via Wikimedia Commons

Why TV Needs More People “On The Spectrum”

saga noren, on the spectrum, the bridge

saga noren, on the spectrum, the bridgeAn old friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen in years recently visited us in London. We talked about the usual stuff: His job. His wife’s job. His home town (where we used to live). When I asked after his 10 year-old daughter, he responded: ” She’s quite spectrum-y, so we’ve gotten her into horseback riding. It really helps.”

Spectrum-y. I smiled. While I knew that he was referring to being “on the spectrum”, I’d not yet encountered the adjectival form of this condition. I also smiled because as an American living in London for the past nine years, I welcomed the unabashed, un-self conscious way he dropped this fact into the conversation, rather than the hush-hush, highly coded way these sorts of issues still get talked about over here in Britain.

Autism Spectrum Disorder” – for those of you not in the know – refers to “any of a group of developmental disorders (as autism and Asperger’s syndrome) marked by impairments in the ability to communicate and interact socially and by the presence of repetitive behaviors or restricted interests.” That’s the formal definition. More colloquially the term “on the spectrum” tends to refer to people with social tics or awkwardness.

We all know people like this. We work with them.  We go to school with them.  They are our friends and our siblings and our children.

According to the Autism Society, more than 3.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder. The percent of children in the U.S. classified as “on the spectrum” rose by 119.4 percent from 2000 to 2010, from 1 in 150 kids to 1 in 68. Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability.

That’s an awful lot of “spectrum-y” people floating around out there. Which is why it’s really important that the entertainment industry – and television in particular – begins to acknowledge this form of identity and captures it in its characters.

Read the rest of this post over on The Broad Side

Image: Saga Noren by Hans Drieman via Flickr

Ellen DeGeneres: Funny But So Much More

Comedian and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres is this year’s recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. To which I do my own version of Ellen’s signature happy dance.

DeGeneres is not the first female to win the prestigious award, which has been bestowed by the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts annually for the last 15 years. Tina Fey, Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg are all past winners. But it’s always great when another woman makes it into the traditionally male pantheon of comedy.

Let me say up front that I’m not a huge fan of Ellen’s day-time talk show, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” To my taste, it’s too sweet, too schmaltzy and too, well … safe.

But I’m a huge fan of Ellen. For starters, she’s funny as hell. She started out as an emcee at a local comedy club in her native New Orleans. In 1982, a video of her stand-up routine won her Showtime’s “Funniest Person in America” award. In 1988, she became the first female comedian summoned to Johnny Carson’s desk to chat about her performance on “The Tonight Show.”

And if you’ve never seen the episode on the erstwhile Garry Shandling Show where Shandling – in his role as a (fictional) talk show host – tries to persuade Ellen to “come out” on his show (and then ends up sleeping with her), it’s laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Read the rest of this post on The Washington Post’s She The People blog


Image: Ellen Degeneres by bernie.levine (back to no computer) via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

‘Doonesbury’ On Ultrasound As Rape

How does Garry Trudeau really feel? This week, the creator of the popular “Doonesbury” comic strip launched a new series depicting vaginal ultrasounds as GOP-approved rape.

The strip, which will run all week in newspapers around the world, is a response to the law passed by a Republican-majority Texas legislature last spring that requires a woman who wants an abortion to first have a vaginal sonogram so that she can hear the heartbeat of her fetus.

Similar, albeit less extreme, bills have been passed in Virginia, as well as in Oklahoma and North Carolina, where they are on hold pending legal battles, and are being contemplated in Alabama, Kentucky, Rhode Island and Mississippi.

In the comic strip, a woman turns up at an abortion clinic in Texas and is told to take a seat in “the shaming room.” A state legislator then asks if she’s been at the clinic before and, when she says she’d been there to get contraceptives, he replies: “Do your parents know you’re a slut?”

Read the rest of this post on The Washington Post’s She The People blog


Image: Doctor by jscreationzs via

Tips For Adulthood: Why You Should Abandon Glee For Downton Abbey

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Well, after yesterday’s rather somber post, I thought I’d lighten the mood around here today with some pop culture fun.

I don’t watch a lot of television, but when I find a series that does strike a chord, I tend to become obsessed and arrange my entire week around it.

For a while, that show was Glee. As I wrote not long ago, even when I began to find the story lines a bit tired, I was still inspired by the singing and dancing.

My TV obsession du jour right now is Downton Abbey. I almost gave up on it after the first few episodes, but now I’m thoroughly addicted.

Here are five reasons I’d recommend that you privilege Downton over Glee:

1. Plot. We’ve just finished Season Two of Downton over here – so I won’t include any spoilers. But suffice to say that while Glee felt really fresh during its first season – forcing us all to go back to that awkward, uncomfortable space called High School – it hasn’t really evolved very much, plot-wise. The basic arc every season seems to be one of the Glee Club being threatened with destruction – whether from inside or outside – and having to somehow manage to overcome that implosion. And after a while, that just gets boring. Downton, on the other hand, started off in an almost ridiculous fashion. (I don’t know about you, but when that guy died having sex, I nearly clicked the “off” button. When, since Private Benjamin, has anyone had to rely on that kind of plot device?) Since then, however, they have figured out ways to make the plot grow outward, rather than inward. Sure, it’s a soap opera. But at least there are multiple and constantly moving threads, rather than one central narrative.

2. Character Development. Similarly, and I’ve harped on this before, the characters in Glee feel like they are becoming more and more one-dimensional, while the characters in Downton are getting more nuanced. It’s true that Glee has done a great job in Seasons Two and Three of featuring some of the minor characters like Brittany and Mike and Tina. But I’ve been particularly disappointed by Sue Sylvester (played by the marvelous Jane Lynch) who – other than a very moving episode where her Downs Syndrome sister dies – has become a sort of sinister, freak show maniac over time. As Downton moved into Season Two, in contrast, I felt that all of the main characters – and particularly the nastier ones – began to show their humanity, which really went a long way towards making the show feel more realistic.

3. Leading Man. This is, of course, purely a matter of personal preference. But I’ve always been pretty creeped out by Matthew Morrison (Mr. Shue) and it’s not the hair gel. Downton’s Hugh Bonneville (The Earl of Grantham) isn’t exactly about to win People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive award. But there’s something wonderfully noble and endearing about him that makes you want to sit down for an extended fireside chat. (Or is that just me?)

4. Leading Lady. This is a really tough call because it’s comparing apples and oranges. I adore Jane Lynch, (along with just about everyone else on the planet, as far as I can tell.) If she hasn’t yet won you over, watch her perform one of former Representative Anthony Weiner’s Facebook messages with Bill Maher (NSFW). But Downton has Dame Maggie Smith in the role of the Dowager Countess of Grantham. And as we all know, there is nothing like a dame. (You can see how terribly hard it is for me to renounce the show tune aspect of Glee…)

5. Setting. Sorry, Ohio. I know that you’re a pivotal swing state and all. And I’ve always adored this song about you, which was apparently performed by Jane Lynch and Carol Burnett last season on Glee. But suburban, mid-western America can never hope to hold a candle to the breathtakingly beautiful English countryside. I don’t even think that the town of Rippen – featured in Downton Abbey – actually exists. But, oh, how I long to go there all the same. Don’t you?


Image: Downton by lauredhel via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.