Thursday, May 29, 2014

A long-form story

Most of the pieces I write are in the 600-800 word range since I typically appear in newspapers. I think after editing this one checked in around 1,500 words, so that's a lot for me.

This was a fun story to report. I got to hear a few stories from Anthony Curran that I wish we had space for, but he and his kids were all really nice to talk to. Here's a link to the result.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Tales from the Battle of the Decades

For a game show fan, it was like getting the opportunity to see the Final Four, the Super Bowl AND the World Series.

Maybe even better than that: Because the Super Bowl cannot match up the 1989 49ers and the 2004 Patriots. You can only dream of seeing the New York Yankees of the 1930s and 1940s take on the Big Red Machine. And those UCLA teams of the late 1960s will never play Bob Knight’s 1976 Indiana Hooisers.

Yet Christina and I were lucky enough to be among the audience last month when Brad Rutter, Ken Jennings and Roger Craig faced off in the two-game final of the JEOPARDY! Battle of the Decades, which was shown Thursday and Friday night. We were guests of quarterfinalist Mark Dawson, who is a childhood friend of one of our Buzztime Trivia friends, Tom Michael.

I would say our only disappointment at the April 17 taping was that we did not get to root for Mark since he was eliminated in the fifth quarterfinal match the afternoon before. Because Mark was sitting on the other side of the spectator area with the other players, we did not know until they got ready to tape the third semifinal that he did not advance.

For the most part, the taping was the same as any other week of JEOPARDY! episodes, with three games played in the late morning/early afternoon, followed by a lunch break, and then the Thursday and Friday shows. Unlike the typical week of shows, however, tickets were not available for the general public, so everyone who was there had some affiliation with one of the players or the show.

Since the taping took place more than a month ago, I have a few stories I have been waiting to tell. There are some spoilers here, so if you still want to watch the finals, go read something else on my blog right now.

     * When we lined up in the parking garage before heading to the studio in the morning, a lady complimented Christina on her dress and asked where she got it. Turns out the lady was Brad Rutter’s mom. After we figured out who she was, Christina said that Brad’s mom can probably afford to buy her dresses at somewhere more upscale than Macy's.

     * There were a few technical issues. One was almost immediate, when the board for Monday’s first round did not completely fill in before the sound effects stopped. There were four or five boxes that still had no dollar figures in them. Alex Trebek joked that “this round should go faster since there are fewer answers.” Of course, that was edited out.

   * For the three semifinal matches, Christina and I sat on the front row, so after Wednesday’s episode was completed, I was able to get autographs from all three of the Clue Crew members: Jimmy, Kelly and Sarah, who was actually impressed that I had brought a Sharpie along. (Collecting autographs on baseball cards has taught me well.)

     * During the break between the semifinals and two-game final, Christina and I walked down to the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf near Washington and Overland and saw a number of other folks wearing the same “contestant guest” stickers we had. We got back to the lot in time to see the JEOPARDY! 30th anniversary cake being carried into the stage next door, where a post-show party was being set up.

     * When we returned to the studio for the finals, one of the stagehands pointed out that there were “cheater cams” in the rafters to keep the audience honest. These cameras, which are not usually present, looked similar to the small devices now in vogue in bars, casinos and department stores. 

     * Thankfully, Ken Jennings’ encouragement of Roger to bet it all on a Daily Double in Thursday’s Double Jeopardy round was not edited out. “Do it,” Ken said, turning toward Roger (although you cannot see that in the broadcast). “Yeah, everything. Why not.” Roger responded. Alex asked, “Everything?” and Roger said, “Sure.” When he could not come up with an answer, losing $10,200, Roger was somewhat nonplussed. “We have time to play,” he said. When he ended Thursday’s show $800 in the hole, Roger still displayed a great attitude, asking Alex rhetorically, “It’s a two-day final, right?”

     * Without any money to bet on Thursday’s Final Jeopardy, Roger had to sit it out. He, and many of the other vanquished contestants in the audience, wrote their responses to the Final Jeopardy (“One of the two movies in the last 30 years, one a drama and one a comedy, to win Oscars for Best Actor and Best Actress”) on cards, and came up with either “Silence of the Lambs” or “As Good As It Gets.” Neither Ken nor Brad got it right.

     * On Friday, Roger bet it all on another Daily Double, and again missed, despite Brad calling back to Thursday, exclaiming “Don’t do it this time,” to the audience’s delight. Once again, the broadcast did not quite capture the atmosphere in the studio when Roger went for it.

      * Also on Friday’s show Brad told a story about how 1996 college champion Shane Whitlock’s son Declan was less than impressed when they met before the taping. The 5-year-old’s response to meeting Brad: “Where’s Ken?” After the championship was decided, Christina and I had a couple of minutes to talk to Shane and Declan.

      * The betting for Friday’s Final Jeopardy took a long time – probably 10 minutes. Roger, who was pretty much guaranteed third place, and Brad both responded correctly (Buchanan and Rice) to the clue (“Serving 160 years apart, these two Secretaries of State are the only ones who never married.”), but Brad did not bet anything. He later shared that it turned out the math was just too difficult and he finally decided to put down a zero. If Ken had answered correctly, he would have won the tournament’s $1 million top prize.

When the taping was done we waited outside so we could thank Mark for including us. He was actually the first alternate following the quarterfinals, so if for some reason one of the nine semifinalists could not play, he would have stepped in. As it was, it was neat to meet Mark when he was in town earlier in the week (along with Tom) for the 25th Annual Honda Campus All-Star Challenge National Championship, a College Bowl competition for historically black colleges and universities. Mark was one of the moderators during the round-robin stage of the games, while Tom was working media relations. That’s an event we hope to attend again the next time it’s in Torrance, and I would not be surprised if some of the students we saw compete someday on JEOPARDY!

Christina said she was so nervous for everyone involved that she didn’t play along while we were in the studio, but spent her time observing how folks did their jobs, and also looked around the audience trying to figure out who some of the other spectators were. We saw Ken’s dad and “Team Roger” among others.

After seeing such high-powered, well-known players going at it, Christina said she is not sure she can go back again, because it could never be as thrilling as these five games.

Oddly, through a quirk in the production schedule, I don’t have to make that decision – I’m also in the audience for the episodes that run Monday-Wednesday this coming week, which were taped in March.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Missing Letterman

The first time I remember seeing David Letterman on TV I was 13 or 14. He was appearing on “The Tonight Show” and his stand-up material was mostly observational humor about dumb commercials.

I was hooked. 

I remember one of his early guest-hosting appearances, and one of his monologue jokes concerned the small print on a shaving cream can that warned against spraying it into an open flame. “After going through all of the trouble of building a fire in the sink…” Genius.

His morning show – what I could see of it when I wasn’t in summer school failing geometry (in some sort of effort to “get ahead”) or dealing with WWBT’s decision not to show it after August – was also genius. But it was too edgy for housewives at 10 a.m. and was cancelled in four months. Nearly the same show moved into the 12:30-1:30 a.m. slot in February 1982, minus the live news updates from Edwin Newman.

That first spring I managed to see just a few episodes because it only ran Monday-Thursday. I have famously told anyone who would listen that I was watching Carson as long as I could remember in the summer and on Friday nights since my 9 p.m. bedtime was not enforced on those occasions. Seriously, by 1975 I was watching a lot of Johnny. And I loved Steve Allen.

So Letterman is to my generation what the original pioneers of television are to my parents. And while I will miss the fact he is there, we have not been watching that much in the past five years – not that we ever watched Jay Leno.

I was extremely disappointed with the way NBC handled Carson’s departure. First, I think he still had another two or three seasons in him, which would have allowed him to pass the 30-year mark as host. Then, rather than move Letterman into the 11:30 slot (and then Jay could have come on at 12:30) he was passed over.

The logic that Leno should get it was flawed at best. There was a reason Letterman could no longer guest host The Tonight Show (as he did 51 times from 1979 to 1981). He was, ummm, busy with the show that came on right after it. So for NBC to say Leno was more identified with the show at that time was just a convenient excuse. 

As an aside, the one mistake Carson made in my mind was going to a permanent guest host with Joan Rivers in 1983. Yes, she had been filling in a lot up to that point (I used to turn it off is she was hosting, by the way), but it used to be a lot of fun to see Bob Newhart or George Carlin or McLean Stevenson in the chair every once in a while. When Joan Rivers went to FOX in 1986, the new Tonight lineup included Garry Shandling each Monday, a Carson rerun on Tuesday and then new shows Wednesday-Friday.  Only if Johnny was on vacation would Leno would host for the week.

After a year, Shandling left, and Leno would go on to host once a week while still spelling Carson during his vacations. 

Letterman had hosted about 2,000 episodes of talk shows in the time Leno had maybe hosted 500, and was a much more polished interviewer by 1991.

I was happy when Letterman moved to CBS in 1993, although a bit disappointed that he reined in a lot of the stuff that made “Late Night” must-see TV. But it was nice to have Dave on TV every night, and I watched more often than not.

In recent years, I would go through six-month patches where I watched nearly every night, then would get out of the habit. Now I know I don’t have much more time (although it will be “at least a year,” he did say on Thursday night's show) to enjoy the Letterman brand, so I will have to try harder.

My one contact with the show came somewhat by accident. In 2003 Martin Short’s daughter was named queen for the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival while I was living in Winchester and working at the Northern Virginia Daily in Strasburg. This was something the festival would do in an effort to bring in more celebrity power to augment the Grand, Firefighters and Sports marshals.

But because Short and Jason Alexander were doing “The Producers” in Los Angeles, he was unable to come to Winchester for the crowning ceremony. Short was able to dispatch Letterman’s bandleader, Paul Shaffer, to Winchester to take care of the responsibility.

I contacted “Late Show” producer Mike McIntee on Thursday afternoon (since they were not taping Friday) and told him I could mail the show a copy of the front page of our Saturday morning paper if he thought it was something they would want. Absolutely, he told me.

So after the typical Friday night of Apple Blossom (which means we were about two hours late getting off the press) I drove home to Richmond in preparation for my mom and stepdad’s annual Kentucky Derby party. It was 6 a.m. when I reached the Ampthill branch (23234 and 23237 ZIP codes for those scoring at home), where I knew there was a mail dispatch early Saturday morning. There would be no chance to do this via Express Mail; it was my only shot.

I got an e-mail from Mike about 6:30 p.m. that Monday. He said the page had arrived just before they started taping and Letterman wanted to include it in the show. The rest is television history.

Of course, we still had a paper to put out that night, so we went about our work, and at 11:35 we turned the show on. During the desk piece, Letterman asked Shaffer a few questions about the event and showed the page. My favorite part was when Shaffer recounted that the queen’s first duty was to bestow a knighthood on Dick Van Patten.

“Now I know you’re dreaming,” Letterman shot back.

Following the show, which aired May 5, 2003, I even got a nod in the Wahoo Gazette.

In more recent years, the cranky Dave has sometimes worn me thin, but I’m surely going to miss him, and all of those unpredictable nights.

I could not resist posting this, since it mentions my hometown.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Now you know...

When Paul Harvey was on ABC Radio he did several shows each day, but the one most people remember is “The Rest of the Story.”

Mr. Harvey would spend about two minutes spinning a yarn, and you could try to figure out where he was going before he actually got to the end. When you beat him to the punch it was actually a bit exciting, since it was often like completing a puzzle.

I bring up Paul Harvey because I am sure some of my friends are wondering how the heck I got a story in Monday’s issue of the Charleston Daily Mail, seeing that I live about 2,500 miles from West Virginia. 

(As an aside, when I lived in Winchester I was about 25 miles from Martinsburg, W.Va., but it seemed like it was 2,500 miles across the state to get to Charleston. The route to Cincinnati went like this: Virginia-West Virginia-Maryland-West Virginia-Pennsylvania-West Virginia-Ohio. If you told me I had to go back into West Virginia to get to Indiana, I’d probably believe you.)

About three weeks ago, Christina and I were looking for a baseball game to attend, and two of our favorite teams (Fullerton and UCLA) were both out of town. Also, it had rained most of the weekend, throwing the schedule for the teams that were hosting games (LMU, USC and Cal State Northridge) into disarray. When everything shook out, Northridge was hosting a doubleheader against Washington State, starting at 10 a.m. Sunday, and since we had never been to a game there, it seemed like the place to go.

While the school requires a $6 daily parking permit, even on weekends, it was nice that tickets are just $5. We also picked up a couple of programs and a schedule, and almost immediately I noticed that West Virginia was making a trip to Northridge in mid-March.

Max Nogay sports WVU's digital camo.
Thanks to my smartphone, I was able to check with Daily Mail Sports Editor Chuck McGill on Facebook while still at the site. Chuck and I worked together at the Northern Virginia Daily for a few years, and have been able to stay in touch over the years and miles.

Chuck said it was quite possible he’d want a story while the Mountaineers were in Northridge, which is about 45 minutes to an hour up the 405 from Torrance. By the time they got here, we worked it out that I would file a story and some photos on March 15, after the final game of their spring break trip.

 The game turned into a wild 14-11 WVU victory, which featured 38 hits between the teams, allowing the Mountaineers to complete their West Coast swing with a 5-2 record, and raise their overall mark to 10-6. Now competing against teams from Texas and Oklahoma in the Big 12, it was important for WVU to get on the diamond while its home ballpark is still under snow, coach Randy Mazey told me.

West Virginia is building its baseball program as it prepares to move into a new stadium in Morgantown next year, one it will share with a New York-Penn League team, similar to the arrangement that Penn State and the State College Spikes have. From what I saw Saturday, the Mountaineers have put together a solid team, so it will be fun to keep an eye on them the rest of the season.

And I will be sure to keep an eye on the schedules when East Coast teams come west. If you need a story or art, give me a shout.

P.S. Here's a link to the story:

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Cheesed off

So the European Union wants American food manufacturers to stop using words like Parmesan and feta to describe cheeses made here in the United States.

The Associated Press reports that this request has come as part of negotiations for new trade agreements between the old and new worlds. The EU says allowing American-made cheeses to carry those names, as well as others like Asiago, Gorgonzola and Romono, confuses consumers and hurts sales of European products.

I’d say the EU is full of baloney on this one, but it might want the word “bologna” back as well.

According to reporter Mary Clare Jalonick, who wrote the AP story on this issue earlier this week, Black Forest ham, Greek yogurt, Valencia oranges and prosciutto are other terms that the Europeans could endeavor to reclaim.

When I first saw this story, I wanted to make sure it wasn’t something out of the Onion. Speaking of which, I’m guessing if the U.S. goes along with this, we’ll probably be hearing from Bermuda next.

While changing the names of meats and cheeses sounds like a far-fetched request, and you’d think nations in the New World would just tell the EU to pound sand, some Central American countries and Canada have already acceded to the European demands. In the case of feta, Canada has agreed to market non-European versions under mouth-watering names like feta-like or feta-style, and will also refrain from using"Greek-like lettering" on the packaging.

There’s probably a joke about bacon vs. Canadian bacon to be made here, but since I really like their coffee and beer, I’m going to take a pass.

These names have now transcended their origination, and to capitulate on this issue will lead to only MORE confusion among American consumers. And in many cases, the connection is tenuous at best.

For instance, I had no idea that there is a region of France in the Vosgian mountains where there is  an abbey called “Munster.” All I know is that my grandmother’s recipe for pizza calls for Muenster cheese (notice the extra “e”) because it melts better and has more taste than mozzarella. If it has been called Muenster long enough that it’s used in a recipe that goes back at least 75 years, then I don’t need the EU telling me (or Dietz and Watson) to stop using the name.

And these names extend well beyond the deli. Thanks to “Jeopardy!” I know that Italian immigrants began using the word “cantaloupe” for muskmelons because of their similarity. I’m sure the EU wants its cantaloupe back too, even though the ones grown here are probably ten times better.

Our Smarties are different than their Smarties. And their Kit Kats are made by Nestle, not Hershey (can you imagine?), but the world has not collapsed.

U.S. Senate Democrats and Republicans, who agree on almost nothing, have found common ground fighting the EU request. The AP says a bipartisan group of 55 senators have written U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to ask that they resist requests to change the long-standing names associated with these foods.

This issue isn’t small potatoes. American-produced cheese is a $4 billion a year industry, according to the AP. Trying to get producers together to come up with standardized new names for these products is probably impossible.

Considering freedom of speech issues that would come along with this, I cannot imagine we’ll see food police penalizing grocery store managers for the use of words like scallion and Parmesan. It seems like a giant leap for Europeans to tell Americans what they can call their edibles.

But if we can use this issue for some consensus building in the Senate, then I am all for fending off the threat, as unlikely as it is.

Friday, February 7, 2014

NBC clings to prime-time Olympic recipe

Sometimes I feel like I am watching Phil Hartman do his impression of Charlton Heston through a litany of “Soylent Green” sequels.

You might remember the sketch from “Saturday Night Live,” where Hartman runs into the scenes of movies such as “Soylent White” and “Soylent Cow Pies,” still screaming that they are made of “people.”

Consider tonight’s broadcast of the opening ceremonies from the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, as “Soylent Green II,” and cue up Phil Hartman:  “Soylent Green is still made out of people. They didn't change the recipe like they said they were going to. IT'S STILL PEOPLE.”

Sure, NBC will stream lots of live coverage online for people who have cable or satellite packages and high-speed internet, and the Peacock’s sports networks will show live events, which is something sports fans overwhelmingly favored four years ago. But the focus of the network will still be on the overly edited, schmaltz-added prime time show each night. It has not changed that recipe.

It starts tonight with something that the rest of the world has already seen on the television sets live: The opening ceremonies. By delaying the telecast, there is no opportunity for viewers who like to tweet in real time to do so. About 65 to 70 percent of the audience will have the broadcast available at 8 Eastern/7 Central time, while another 25 percent will see it at 8 Pacific. Those on Mountain and Alaska/Hawaii will see it on other schedules. So forget sharing the experience with people who live elsewhere in the U.S., much less the rest of the world.

Then, as the competition gets under way, there will still be the issue of “spoilers.” And the people who don’t want to know the results of events that took place 12 or 18 hours ago because they want to watch it on NBC’s prime-time show.

Here’s a bulletin. It’s 2014. These are sports events. They are news, despite the way it might be packaged on NBC each night. If you want to/have to go out of your way to avoid the information, that’s on you. It might be best to just turn off your computer for the next two weeks.

I will give NBC a lot of credit for going ahead and clearing even the marquee events for live coverage on cable. Real sports fans will get to enjoy the competition as it unfolds. But that sort of increases the pressure on the folks who don’t want to know what happened until it appears on the prime time broadcast. While I like to be as considerate of other people’s feelings as I can, as a former sports editor I feel the other networks have zero responsibility to delay the reporting of any results.

It is quite silly in 2014, in this plugged in world, to call anything a spoiler. The number of folks who are now catching up with shows via binge watching makes having conversations even more difficult, as this great sketch from “Portlandia” notes. 

Christina and I steer clear of Twitter on Thursday nights so we can be surprised by each week’s episode of “Scandal.” If you want to take a similar stand so the NBC prime time show provides those thrills from the 1980s, go right ahead. But it will be awfully tough to remain unspoiled, and you should not harbor ill will toward the sports fans who will invariably be talking about the outcome of the competition.

It’s how sports fans talk to each other.