November 29, 2010

Coming Soon: Ira Glass

He is a fixture on National Public Radio. His show is crafted out of living, breathing pieces. Each week he presents us with a quilt portraying America; patched together with the fibers of its citizens. His award-winning show is broadcast on NPR radio waves and is the most downloaded podcast in the country. The man is Ira Glass, the bespectacled host and producer of NPR's "This American Life," a program that is one of the smartest and yet warmest snapshots of our culture.

As a radio personality, Ira Glass is the unassuming hero of the airwaves. Imagine Ferris Bueller's perspective inside Cameron Frye's body and you begin to get an idea of his persona. As airwaves crowd with the polarizing likes of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, and Alex Jones, Ira's personality is a most refreshing one; and his voice is distinctive for being so unremarkable and devoid of impertinence. Glass's winsome appeal extends to his signature creation, giving it a unique charm. Make no mistake, "This American Life" is his baby, and he's nurtured it since its inception in 1995.

Smart and yet warmly engrossing, each episode of "This American Life" focuses on a theme, and is composed of different kinds of stories to underline this topic. All are genuine and thought-provoking. Sure, they may not be as visceral as other radio podcasts. But for those of us who rely on rumination rather than knee-jerk reactions, these tales are infinitely more fascinating and revealing. In short, the stories captivate you. The allure stems from its "every man" spirit. They are tales that could be about your neighbors, your friends, your family or even yourself. And in many ways, they are.

What's most striking is the authenticity of the people involved. The narratives are often first-person, and serve as a testimonial to our diverse land. Many of the stories have a tint of melancholy, creating clouds over our country's amber waves of grain. And yet, it's all so identifiable. It's tailor-made for radio, where your mind is free of any pre-conceived notions that images can provide. For a short while, "This American Life" was adapted as a television program on the Showtime network, but it never captured the same vibe. On the air, the show feels casual and even extemporaneous, but on TV it felt overproduced. Sometimes, stories don't need anything else but our ears and imaginations to bring them to life.

The first time you hear Ira Glass, you are struck by his voice, but not for conventional reasons. The voice is not what one expects from a typical radio vocal talent. No one will ever confuse him with James Earl Jones. Yet, I'm of the opinion that one of the most important elements in the success of "This American Life" is Ira's voice. To be honest, it's slightly timid and nasal. And that very lack of command is distinctive. What he lacks in baritone, he makes up for in sincerity. More importantly, it doesn't distract us from the power of the stories themselves. His common voice allows us to hear both the literal and figurative voice of the subjects. Don't take my word for it. Visit the official site, browse the library and give a listen. Just follow the glasses.

The beauty of "This American Life" is that it allows one to breathe and taste the lives of others. Ira Glass's conversational tone make it feel like bedtime stories for adults. These tales are unconventional and rarely follow a straight path, yet Glass reads between these lines. We find that in this great land, the space between all of us can become the very bridge that connects us. Storytelling at its best reveals the culture of the narrator and the audience, and this man provides a peek at our nation's very soul.

His name is Ira Glass, and he is a modern day Paul Harvey of sorts. A throwback to an era where radio men didn't aim to crossover all media; he stays true to the spirit of storytelling and its power to enlighten. The stories engage us, gestate inside us, and affect us in ways we may not expect. Glass pulls back the curtain on what typifies America to focus on the citizens across our land. News stories may be about events, but they are always rooted to the people that are effected. Here's a man that holds onto that truth: that it is these people that comprise (as Paul Harvey would himself say) the rest of the story.

"This American Life" by Ira Glass can be found at iTunes, the official website, and of course, on the radio. In the Austin, TX area, Ira is on KUT 90.5 FM radio Sundays at 10 a.m.

Ira Glass will be appearing live at The Paramount on Saturday Dec. 4th, at 8:00 p.m.

November 15, 2010

Coming Soon: A Tuna Christmas

Ahhhh. Breathe in the slightly cooler air, Texas, it's almost Christmas time again. Unless, of course, you've entered a retail store in the past few months. In that case, Christmas season began sometime in August.

With autumn moving towards the exit and Thanksgiving a week away, we can all turn our attention towards the winter holiday season. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid al-Adha, Kwanzaa, Bodhi Day, or even Festivus, there are some universal and ageless staples of the season (like that holiday fruitcake no one ever wants to eat). Everyone has their own habits and traditions they can enjoy, sharing the holiday cheer with others.

A great deal of the people I know have an implicit laundry list of traditions they experience between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Some of them even brave the crowds of Black Friday, but to me that's a whole different kind of madness. For the rest of us, perhaps visiting Santa Claus at the mall would suffice, or just watching a holiday show or display of some sort with your loved ones will do.

Some have their own Christmas film festivals. These staples of the season are universal, and many shows and exhibitions celebrate this joyous time: "A Christmas Carol," shooting your eye out with A Christmas Story, "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" (the real version, not the Jim Carrey one), chuckling with the Griswolds in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, yipee-ki-yaying with Die Hard, or simply basking in the warmth of "The Charlie Brown Christmas Special."

Here in Austin, TX, there's another timeless holiday treat this year. That would be the return of the annual Zilker Park Trail of Lights performances of the comedic play "A Tuna Christmas." Wait? You don't know about Tuna? Well, let me fill you in. Rest assured, it has nothing to do with Jessica Simpson.

"A Tuna Christmas" is the second play of a four part series created by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard. The first was Greater Tuna, and the holiday tale was followed by Red, White and Tuna and Tuna Does Vegas. Set in the fictional town of "Tuna" (proudly proclaimed as the "third-smallest in Texas"), the play revolves around the community's annual Christmas Yard Display Contest, a wayward vandal, family strife, and a frustrating attempt to stage a production of "A Christmas Carol."

There are twenty-two roles in this play, but here's the kicker. It's a two-man show directed by Howard. Yep, Williams and Sears play every single role. Judging by all the acclaim they've accumulated over the years, the guys are fast, witty, and hilarious. These satirists grew their creation right here in Austin, and constantly tour the country performing their shenanigans about Tuna, TX. They've taken "Tuna" off-Broadway, played at The White House, and even had an HBO Special back in the 1980s. It's not easy to take a swipe at small-town conservative ideals here in the great red state of Texas, but the trio shows that Tuna is greater.

Something tells me the humor is really gonna hit close to home for your truly. You see, with all respect to John Cougar Mellencamp (or whatever he calls himself now), I was born in a small-town. And let me tell you something, growing up in small-town Texas is a unique experience. I often marveled at how ludicrous the small-town mentality can be, and I think my old stomping ground was the very prototype of half-baked, bass-ackward ideas. Even as a kid, I couldn't understand its policies and contradictions. What's worse is that decades later, they haven't changed.

Allow me to paint an example of what my hometown does. Recently, this town was suffering from an identity problem. Located smack dab in the middle of nowhere (seriously, it's a two-hour drive from Austin, Houston, San Antonio and Corpus Christi), the local leaders decided the city was lacking, from a marketing standpoint. They need a trademark, something that will make people come and spend tourist dollars in that coastal oasis that resides 100 miles from civilization. After spending a good chunk of taxpayer money, they decided on an image. They would brand the town with... wait for it... boots. Yeah, boots. No, not Dora's little monkey buddy.

I know what you're going to ask, and the answer is also "no." The town is not known for boots or for bootmaking of any kind. If anything, I'd say the town is known for being populated by conservatives who raise children that can't wait to grow up and escape. Imagine, if you will, The Last Picture Show without Ben Johnson (or Cybill Shepard) and you'll begin to get the idea.

Oh, and get this. This week, the city staged some fabricated event to pat themselves on the back and market a line of boots emblazoned with tacky graphics of the town's various logos. All I can say is that the focus groups must have been blind. Trust me, the boots are truly hideous. That is my hometown, ladies and gents. You can't make this stuff up. It's all so sad and funny in a Waiting for Guffman kind of way. With towns like this all over the Lone Star state, I'm sure the Greater Tuna trio has a wealth of experiences to draw upon. I fully expect my jaw to hurt from laughing.

So as I enjoy life in Austin now, I look forward to starting my own holiday tradition in this city. "A Tuna Christmas" will anoint this jolly season with some Texas-sized laughs at the expense of small-towns. Heck, I guess I shouldn't complain too much. I know I've harped on my hometown, but it's done out of love as much as frustration. After all, it's Christmas. And like George Bailey learned, everything has its sweet and salty moments in this wonderful life. Maybe even that holiday fruitcake. Not that I would know, because I'll never try it. You eat it this year, and I'll help myself to a serving of Tuna.

Re-gift the fruitcake and come enjoy "A Tuna Christmas" with me. It is playing at The Paramount from November 23rd through the 28th.

November 11, 2010

Coming Soon: John Oliver

"Hmm, John Oliver. That's the guy from The Daily Show, right?"

This was my first impression a few months ago when I saw his name on the list for the Paramount 2010/11 season. Now that I'm familiar with his work, it's a show I will not miss. Please, allow me to explain.

Confession. I'm not, or ever have been, a regular viewer of The Daily Show. It's not that I don't find merit in the program, because I do find the writing witty and the insight to usually be spot on. Admittedly, I may be more inclined to appreciate it due to my seed of counter-culture inside me (particularly in a state that for some reason just re-elected Rick Perry as governor, again).

I've not watched it all these years because I never thought it would be my cup of tea (as in the drink, not the crazies political movement). However, just because I don't watch The Daily Show, doesn't mean I'm a lunatic who prefers Glenn Beck. In fact, I'd rather opt for lobotomy over watching anything on FOX News (which coincidentally, may be the requisite for finding anything informative about that very network).

Oh, but did I mention I don't have cable TV? That kind of answers the whole "why I don't watch" thing. I probably should have mentioned that to begin with. Oops.

Of course, through the miracle of the interwebs I've been able to catch up on what I've been missing all this time. My appreciation for the show grows... well... daily. What I find most enjoyable is the cast. There are enough personality types on the show that it replicates a kind of family dynamic. And by "family," I obviously mean the dysfunctional (yet endearing) kind. Political rantings dyed with this level of satire is likely reminiscent of Thanksgiving dinner for most of us. Ah, I can almost hear it now. "Uh oh, Uncle Lewis Black is ranting again. Someone get his high blood pressure meds."

For those more familiar to the show than I was, they know that a strength has historically been the hilarious correspondents and contributors. Off the top of my head, I can think of the aforementioned Lewis Black, as well as Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Samantha Bee, John Hodgeman, Ed Helms, Rob Riggle, Rob Corddry, Mo Rocca, Dave Attell, and (why not?) Olivia Munn. Each quirky and brilliant in their own way. Browsing endless clips on YouTube and Hulu, I've developed a short list of favorites. At the top of that list is the ever affable... John Oliver.

Oliver is a stand-up comedian who appears as a "Senior British Correspondent" on The Daily Show. After discovering his work online, I discovered I can whittle away hours watching his comedy. His pieces are consistently funny, and all have a boyish charm that make his humor appear countercultural and precocious. He's like a cross between Sacha Baron Cohen and Harry Potter.

But what is it about Oliver's twist on the news that makes me ask for more? Is it the Emmy-winning writing? The sharp social commentary? The sometimes tongue-in-cheek exasperation? The nonchalant delivery? Nah.

It's the British accent.

There seems to be a mystical power over us American yokels regarding Brit accents. I've met many people who are absolute suckers for an English dialect, and evidently they represent a microcosm of how this country feels about Great Britain in general. How does the old saying go? The U.S. and England are two nations separated by a common language? I'm inclined to believe it, and I guess for us the grass is always greener over on the British Isles.

For those seduced by the land of fish and chips, bangers, beef trifles and afternoon tea, I imagine the accent just makes things sweeter and more pleasant to listen to. It's like a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Wait, who said that? That's right. Mary friggin' Poppins, the nanny. And guess where she's from?

Contemplating the why was a tricky proposition. Perhaps the accent sounds so familiar and yet so (paradoxically) foreign that it demands our attention. Perhaps we're tired of listening to our own boorish speech. Perhaps the accent makes discussion sound more regal or sophisticated. We seem to respect the British more, as if it lends itself an increased cachet.

For instance, look at recent Oscar winners. What do Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet, Tilda Swinton, Rachel Weitz, Judi Dench, Daniel Day-Lewis, and a few dozen other nominees have in common? You guessed it. Old Blighty. Heck, even Gwyneth Paltrow has an Oscar, and I attribute it solely to her playing a British role in Shakespeare in Love. Because, let's be honest; if Paltrow was truly talented, we wouldn't be marvelling at her performance at the Country Music Awards, now would we? As a side note, I'm pretty sure the CMAs are the one venue where a British accent won't help.

And do you think television news networks aren't aware that British accents equate to increased credibility? Take a look at (former CNN darling) Christiane Amanpour. Or how about Martin Bashir? Why else do you think more people would trust BBC news over MSNBC or (gulp) The Drudge Report? The accent, baby.

So it stands to reason that John Oliver's candor (and accent) allows him to brazenly tell the truth to American audiences, even on a fake news program. We can tolerate the Horatian satire because of how earnest he is. Hopefully, we can also learn a thing or two.

Here's a prime example of what allows our great state of Texas to select the like of Rick Perry... again.

Even better, here's this. This clip summarizes what I've been personally espousing for years now. And why I always remember that "nostalgia" isn't just a yearning, it's a malady. A reminder that clarifies the proverbial "rose-tinted glasses" are really just cataracts that cloud one's vision.

We laugh, then laugh some more, and hopefully see through our self-delusion. American folly can be brought to light and we won't feel inclined to shoot this messenger. John Oliver can tell the truth because he's British. After all, it worked for Simon Cowell.

Comedian John Oliver has two shows at The Paramount on Saturday, November 20th. An 8 pm, and a late show at 10:30 pm. Go to one of them. You know you want to. What else are you gonna do? Go to the movies and watch Harry Potter, Part 7?