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The top 10 legends of late night

LATE-NIGHT-LEGENDS

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The late night comedy talk show format is an institution nearly as old as television itself, one of the few that remain from those heady early days of visual media in every home. A brightened-up version of that same style is used for all sorts of daytime shows as well, but there’s some enduring charm about comedians set loose during the waning hours of the day, or more dangerously, the wee hours of the morning. For the most part, it can be a grind, but there’s always that sense that anything can happen when writers get slaphappy or guests go far off script – all of which takes a strong personality to emcee the proceedings and bring it all together. Here are ten of the most legendary late night hosts ever to grace the small screen.


1. Steve Allen

You have to start with the man who started it all. In 1953, this intellectual musical-comedy showman joined NBC and started “Tonight,” a 1.5 hour talk-variety show with future “Match Game” host Gene Rayburn as his announcer which he based on a local New York show he’d been doing. Everybody doing the late night talk show schtick owes a debt to Allen and his innovations, not to mention his talent for wordplay. On the first show, he made a joke about the length of the broadcast, quipping “I want to give you the bad news first: this program is going to go on forever…” Little did he know how prescient he was – nearly 60 years later, it’s still on the air, and his declaration that it was not a spectacular, but rather monotonous is eerily apt these days.


2. Jack Paar

In 1957, Allen left “Tonight” to work on his Sunday evening variety show competing with Ed Sullivan, and in July of that year, Paar became the new host, and the tone shifted into something else until 1962. With Hugh Downs as his announcer, Paar’s show was more cerebral, as he was not really much of a showman. He was a conversationalist and a storyteller with a penchant for getting particularly emotional – he once walked off the show in mid-broadcast for about a month after a joke he told was censored. He had public feuds as well, with people like Ed Sullivan and noted muckraker Walter Winchell. Eventually, the workload was too much for Paar, and he moved to prime time, handing off the show to one of his guest hosts –a guy you may have heard of.


3. Johnny Carson

The reigning king of late night for 30 years, Carson set the standard and inspired an entire generation of comics to prove their worth to him, because if you could get a stand-up spot on his “Tonight Show” and get the rare call to come chat with him at the desk, your career was made. He defeated all comers, survived all sorts of changes in popular culture, and he’s still the model everyone else aspires to be. He could take the lead and be hilarious if need be, and he was never hesitant to lean back and play straight-man or support – whichever made his guests come off the best. His monologues were the last thing a grateful nation wanted to hear before going to sleep each night. You just can’t touch this guy.


4. Dick Cavett

This wry intellectual got his start by slipping monologue jokes to Jack Paar while working as a gofer for TIME Magazine, and Paar then brought him on board as a talent coordinator for “Tonight.” He left the show not too long into Carson’s reign to try his hand at his own show – and while his late night effort lasted only five years on ABC, but enough wild controversy and strikingly strange things happened to merit a legendary status. Be it Salvador Dali throwing an anteater into Lillian Gish’s lap, or Norman Mailer getting drunk and having it out with Gore Vidal, or Marlon Brando post-Oscar-rejection, or a Vietnam war debate with John Kerry that earned the ire of President Nixon – hell, a man even died on stage with him once. Through it all, his clever wit has served him well.


5. Tom Snyder

The time slot after “The Tonight Show” was opened up in 1973, when Snyder’s “The Tomorrow Show” began. He preferred a pared down style with no audience, band or any of the usual trappings. Instead, he would just have a guest on, sit down and have a long, in-depth conversation full of actual human moments rather than scripted banter. He was John Lennon’s last televised interview during the whole deportation debacle, and he was “Weird Al” Yankovic’s first television appearance ever – not to mention his notorious moments with both Johnny Rotten and with KISS. Eventually, the show was canceled to make way for David Letterman’s new show, but Dave always idolized him, and once he moved to CBS, he brought Snyder in as the first host of The Late Late Show in 1995. His laugh could bowl you over, and his sentiment would make you think, and he’d always tell us to “fire up a colortini, sit back, relax, and watch the pictures, now, as they fly through the air.”

Weird Al in Milo Murphy’s Law

News of the Weird

“Weird Al” Yankovic to Get Animated In New Disney XD Series

"Weird Al" debuts as Comedy Bang! Bang!'s new bandleader this spring on IFC.

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Photo Credit: IFC/Disney XD

It’s hard to imagine Comedy Bang! Bang!’s newest bandleader any more animated than he already is, but “Weird Al” Yankovic will soon loosen the shackles of the physical world and become a cartoon. The parody singer has been cast to voice the lead character in Disney XD’s upcoming animated series Milo Murphy’s Law, the new show from the creators of Phineas and Ferb. 

As Milo, “Weird Al” plays an accident-prone jinx who suffers from “Extreme Hereditary Murphy’s Law Condition.” True to the age-old saying, everything that can go wrong for poor Milo does in hilarious fashion. And Al’s dulcet tones won’t be sacrificed either: Milo will occasionally bust out a tune throughout the show and Yankovic will also compose the intro’s theme song.

Of course, “Weird Al” is no stranger to the animated realm. Check out his 3D-rendered ’80s form in UHF’s parody of Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing.” And check back for more updates about Al’s debut as Comedy Bang! Bang!‘s new bandleader and musical cohost.

Top Five American Historical Films

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History and movies are well paired, particularly during award season. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which has grossed over $150 million, as well as “Hyde Park on Hudson,” are part of the great film tradition of films about politics and about history. Daniel Day-Lewis, almost a lock for Best Actor, is part of an industry tradition that recently included Colin Firth, in “The King’s Speech,” and Meryl Streep, in “The Iron Lady.” This year’s Tony Kushner-scripted movie about America’s political situation between 1861 and 1865 is one of the most gripping films ever made about the civil war. As we leave the holiday season behind, here are five other great films about American history to be thankful for:


5. “All The President’s Men” (1976)

Alan J. Pakula directs Dustin Hoffman (Bernstein) and Robert Redford (Bob Woodward) in this dramatic adaptation of Richard Nixon’s fall from power. Hoffman, in particular, is at the height of his powers as a reporter obsessed with following the story to its end. Watching it nowadays one wonders if there was ever a time when newspapers were powerful enough to bring down a President of the United States. Pakula also helmed The Parallax View, another great American political thriller with a convoluted, conspiracy minded plot, but “All The President’s Men” is a masterpiece and tragedy about American power and overreach.


4. “Oh Brother, Where Art thou?” (2000)

Written, produced and edited by Joel and Ethan Coen, this is one of the best films about the Great Depression. Starring George Clooney, Holly Hunter, Charles Durning, John Turturro and John Goodman, this film, scored, organically, with American folk music, is about chain gangs, treasure, robbery, selling ones soul to the devil in order to play good guitar and other all American past times. If you haven’t seen this movie, please do.


3. “The Patriot” (2000)

Much has been made of the whitewashing of slavery in this film – not its best selling point, to be sure — and much has been made of Mel Gibson afterwards. That having been said, flaws and all, The Patriot is one of the best contemporary retellings of the American Revolution and, particularly, the way in that war divided colonial society. Historians believe that roughly one-third of Americans supported the revolution. I cannot think of another film that expresses that difficult fact as thoughtfully as this one does. Nor has there been a film in recent memory that captures the uphill battle that the patriots fought in revolting against the British, at the time the world’s superpower, with only minimal help from the French. Chris Cooper, as Henry Burrell, does an amazing job as well.


2. “Malcolm X” (1992)

Spike Lee’s sprawling, magnificent “Malcolm X” is another American historical film that was looked over, unfortunately, by Oscar. Taking in much of the 20th century from the point of view of a complex, driven and principled African-American man, Denzel Washington gives the performance of a lifetime. The three hour and twenty minute running time goes by briskly as Spike takes us from the era of Pullman porters of Harlem jazz, of the rise of the Black Muslims and, towards the end, the Vietnam war. As Roger Ebert wrote, “Watching the film, I understood more clearly how we do have the power to change our own lives, how fate doesn’t deal all of the cards.” What could be more American than that?


1. “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007)

Okay, the title is a bit off putting. But the performances – by Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck and Sam Shepard and Mary-Louise Parker – are astonishingly good. Clocking in at 160 minutes, this is a richly drawn American film about outlaws and the thirst for fame (notoriety?). It could not have been made anywhere else but on this shore.

Brad Pitt, one of the best actors of his generation, gives us the ultimate Jesse James: rich, complex, criminal, possibly bipolar, yet all the time sympathetic. He should have won an Oscar for this role. This might be one of the best films ever made that few people have heard about. If you, like me, love history – particularly the history of the West and of railroads – watch this film via Netflix. Roger Deakins does an amazing job at cinematography, with his slow, majestic scenes of railroads and of the nineteenth century landscape.


What is your favorite American Historical Film? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

The Five Best Revenge Movies

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Revenge, or retaliation is as old an impulse as the reptile brain. “Django Unchained,” Quentin Tarantino’s slavery revenge fantasy, opened on Christmas, following the spring release of “The Avengers.” The theme of revenge, it seems, and the business of avenging was strong in this year passed. Lately, however, it seems as if Tarantino (“Kill Bill,” “Inglorious Basterds”) has taken proprietorship of the whole revenge fantasy film genre. But he is not alone, of course. “The Dark Knight Rising” is in its entirety from start to finish a paean to revenge, from Bane’s revenge against The Bat to The Bat’s revenge against Bane.

Quentin may be on to something. Revenge, when done well, is as immensely satisfying a cinematic experience as it is a dark psychological pleasure that arose in dark antiquity. The feeling of satisfaction from a revenge fantasy movie is not entirely unlike how at the end of TV’s “Law and Order” the bad guys – generally – get their comeuppance. The viewer feels as if all is well and good in the world (even though, of course, it often is not) after a hard day of work in a universe where fortune appears to favor the most aggressive and ethically neutral among us. And who among us wouldn’t prefer to watch Spielberg’s “Munich” than, say, Angelina Jolie’s massive downer of a film, “A Mighty Heart”? Would you rather pay admission to “A Mighty Heart” over “Munich”?

In the spirit of revenge, in all its dark glory, here are my five favorite films from that genre:


5. “Leon: The Professional” (1994)

Icy-precise hitman Leon Montana led a pretty nihilistic, efficient life until he took the contract of little Mathilda. Mathilde, played by Natalie Portman, seeks the avenging of the death of her family by the sleazy-precise corrupt DEA agent Stansfield in an apartment complex. The death of her innocent four year old brother and the powerlessness of a twelve year old girl against such forces of governmental corruption strike a universal chord. And the redemption of Leon, one of the most loveable cold-blooded killers of all time, makes this film truly a superlative example of revenge fantasy. Rest in pieces, brother.


4. “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982)

“Revenge,” hisses Khan Noonien Singh, “is a dish best served cold.” This, Khan tells us, is an old Klingon proverb, but many actual civilizations have lived by that same idea. Fifteen years earlier, Captain James Kirk stranded Khan in the remains of the USS Botany Bay to live out the rest of his days in the cold embrace of outer freaking space. How cool is that? Sheer geekiness notwithstanding, Star Trek II is an instance of a sequel outdoing the original. The slowly played out space cat and mouse game is masterful, a cosmic dance. “The Wrath of Khan” is timeless, transcending the limited appeal of mere science fiction.


3. “The Unforgiven” (1960)

Before Clint Eastwood made an ass of himself chatting with an empty chair in public, he was one of the greatest American badasses of all time. “The Unforgiven,” widely seen at the time as “the last Western” is also about Redemption, one of the thematic pillars of any great revenge story. There is nothing conventionally good about any of the characters, outlaws all. Eastwood, as aging outlaw William Munny, is no saint – and neither are his gunfighter sidekicks or the prostitutes who post a $1,000 bounty on the heads of the animals that disfigured one of their own.  And yet our primal, reptile brains cannot help but anticipate with dark joy the bloody comeuppance sure to come. Delicious.


2. “Gladiator” (2000)

“Gladiator,” on its surface, is formulaic. The noble Maximus is wronged by Power. He struggles, against all odds, and gets his revenge. And the film won Best Picture. Still, this is not Rocky II. The execution is so brilliant, the story so perfect, the acting so convincing, that Gladiator of the only movies that I have ever seen where the audience at the theater broke into applause several times during the film as well as at the end. Gladiator can only be properly construed as cathartic. We cheer at the sanguinary death of the whiny “Emperor” Commodus because he didn’t deserve the throne; we cheer at the death of the whiny “Emperor” Commodus every time power, unearned, holds its boots to our collective necks. Rest in peace, Maximus; semper fi.


1. “The Godfather” (1974)

Not only is “The Godfather” one of the greatest films in the history of cinema, it is the greatest revenge fantasy in the history of cinema. Vito Corleone, granted, is not as noble as the Roman soldier Maximus, but he, after his own fashion, is not without an ancient moral code guiding his behavior.

Three of the film’s most effective scenes involve intricate depictions of the psychology of revenge in an almost classic tragic form. In the first, Vito Corleone movingly forgoes revenge for the death of Sonny, withdrawing his objections to the Tattaglia’s in the meeting with the Five Families for the sake of peace. In the second hugely effective rendering of the psychology of revenge, Michael Corleone, the next generation of Don, bides his time and brutally exacts his revenge, consolidating his power. And in the final, and most effective scene involving the psychology of revenge, Michael – the son of his father — blatantly lies to his wife, Kay, about the bloody-tragic actions he set in motion.

Retaliation, or revenge, is as old as the reptile brain, but it is that most civilized of human art –motion pictures – that has fully expressed that impulse in all its dark, glorious beauty.


What is your favorite revenge movie? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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