Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend

Most likely you’ve heard of the comedian Conan O’Brien, most well known as the host of the late night TV show Conan, where he puts his abrasive yet endearing personality on display in sketches and interviews. Personally, I’ve never enjoyed late night talk shows; I usually find them to be overly political, extremely shallow, or just thinly veiled advertisements of celebrities and other entertainment. Most of the hosts are too dramatic, as if they were trying to entertain children, or they are just clearly bad at conducting interviews. Conan is no exception: a few of his skits force a laugh, his personality is unique and comical, and his interviews are no worse than any other late show, but I have never been able to sit through an entire episode. Whether it be a lack of interest, or a failure in the talk show formula, I’ve never been able to consistently watch any late night show, let alone Conan. However, I was recently told that Conan hosts a small podcast, which is widely praised and quickly gaining popularity. The name of the podcast is Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, and each week Conan interviews one of his celebrity contacts in a search to find out who is actually his friend and who is just a professional acquaintance.

Image result for conan o'brien needs a friend"I’ve tried podcasts in the past but they never caught on; I couldn’t be bothered with downloading them, finding them, or finding time to listen to them, so I eventually gave up. Recently it’s been different, ever since I started listening to Conan. It’s the one podcast that I can listen to from beginning to end and still wish there was more, that’s how impressive and unique his podcast style is. First, I find the concept of the show interesting, which considers how famous celebrities often struggle to make authentic friends just like the rest of us, humanizing them and painting them as regular people with extraordinary experiences. Second, I think this is the ideal format for Conan; he can rely on entirely verbal comedy, not childish antics as often seen in his TV show sketches, and I think his interview style is much more suited for the intimate setting of a podcast. When he interviews in front of an audience, both him and the guest are putting on a trained persona, crafted to create a positive public opinion and maintain a certain reputation. On the podcast, Conan becomes authentic, and in doing so he is able to draw out the authentic personalities of his guests.

Some of my favorite podcasts so far have been interviews with Ben Stiller and Stephen Colbert, both amazing and inspirational celebrities in their own right, but also fascinating people with complicated histories. It was so strange hearing Ben Stiller give a genuine recount of his childhood and cracking jokes, not promoting some new movie or TV show. I got caught up in how normal and hard-working he was, hearing about how he got into comedy and paved his way in the industry. The interview with Stephen Colbert was very similar, as Colbert talked about his rough childhood and related to Conan about the power of suffering to produce comedy. It was something you would never see on TV, since it would be considered too dark and not entertaining, but I found myself more intrigued than I had ever been watching a TV interview. Overall, I think Conan is in a unique position with his podcast: not only does he have the ability to interview other celebrities, he also has a talent for leading sincere and thoughtful conversations through his personality and comedy. I highly recommend giving it a listen, even if you aren’t one to listen to podcasts; Conan O’Brien needs a friend is the gold standard for the power of podcasts.

Game of Thrones

One of the most anticipated shows, Game of Thrones, comes back and starts its final season on Sunday.  It has been two years since the last season, season 7, aired on HBO, and people cannot wait for to see the final season.  There are no rules in the show and everyone is waiting to see who, if anyone, will survive till the end of the show. Game of Thrones is one of the most watched shows in the U.S. right now, so there will be many watch parties for the premier of the final season.  Here are some ideas for a Game of Thrones watch party.

Game of Thrones is a show that you have to devote your entire attention to or else you will undoubtedly miss something important in the show.  But if you think that you can handle multitasking, there are many drinking games that are fun to play to the show. These could be good to make you and your guests watch the show more closely to see when you have to drink.  My favorite list is to drink when: Daenerys dragons appear, someone gets drunk, main character dies, Little Finger schemes, when there is lots of violence, white walkers appear, the Iron Throne is shown, and someone says “winter is here”.  This list will make you drink steadily throughout the episode.

While it is hard to eat while watching game of thrones because of the gore, some snacks would be ideal for a watch party.  An easy snack is to make Game of Thrones cookies, they may be difficult to decorate if you decide to put the houses banners on them.  You could also just decorate them with house colors or with each houses saying, such as “Winter is Coming” and “Fire and Blood”. Another idea is to make cake pops that are shaped like dragon eggs, or even just a cake that is shaped like a dragon egg.  If you have all three eggs guests can choose which dragon they want to eat.

The last thing that you could do for a Game of Thrones watch party is to dress up for it.  It is hard to find any clothes that resemble the characters that are under $70, but shirts are only $20.  There are many shirts that say “Winter is coming”, “You know nothing, Jon Snow”, and “A girl has no name”. You could buy a shirt that represents you favorite character and wear it in the hopes that they will not die.

America’s Got Talent

The tv show Americas Got Talent (AGT) is a popular summer show that the whole family can enjoy.  It has been running for 12 seasons and has gone through many changes in judges, sponsors, and now hosts, but one thing that has remained constant throughout the show is that singers dominate the competition, particularly child singers.

With an abundance of singing shows like The Voice, The X-Factor, and American Idol one would think that someone aspiring to be a singer would audition for one of those shows.  But a very large amount singers audition for AGT. Singers dominate that competition on the talent show to the point that it almost certain that there will be at least one if not two singers in the final three.  Singers have won the show over half of the time. In the past several seasons, child singers have begun to dominate the field. Child singers have won the past two seasons of the show. This has become a trend in the past several seasons but the very first winner of AGT on season 1 was an 11 year old singer named Bianca Ryan.  These children are very talented but they get a lot of their votes on their “cute factor” instead of only their talent. There voices may also change and they can’t grow into an amazing career, which is the goal of the show.

All of the singers present and competing on the show leave less room for the unique and variety acts that AGT was created to discover.  Perhaps there should be some limit on the number of singers that can be let through to the finals, because it’s not that these singers don’t have talent, there are just many other options for them to show their talent.  Where other acts don’t have that platform, like magicians and dog trainers. For true off the wall and unique acts AGT is the only place to show off their gift, and season after season they are overshadowed by the singers who come on the show.

I’m Growing Skeptical of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel…

[Warning: Spoilers ahead. Please read only if you’re familiar with the show– I don’t want to ruin it for anyone!]

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From the very first episode of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel starring Rachel Brosnahan, I was utterly, breathlessly hooked. From the cinematography to the flouncy ‘50s costume design to the vibrant pastels to the gorgeous New York landscapes– from the premise of a high-spirited, hilarious young mom who finds herself suddenly divorced by her flighty jerk of a husband, to her assent into New York’s comedy scene as a woman– from her caustically funny manager to her down-to-earth father and her new season 2 boyfriend– the jokes, the conversation, the writing– everything about this TV show, at first glance, is extremely well done. I loved it, and still do. But Season 2 made me suddenly weary of all its flaws. I found out, moreover, that the show is written by Amy Sherman-Palladino, of Gilmore Girls fame. From where Season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel ended, knowing the poor large-scale writing for Gilmore Girls, and after deconstructing the subtly problematic premises of Midge’s character, I’ve come to seriously fear for the fate of the rest of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

The last episode of Season 2 ended with Midge getting a call from a famous singer asking her to tour with him in Europe for six months. This is big break she’s been waiting for a year now since she’d seriously started doing comedy. However, by the end of the episode and season, she realizes that her focus on her career necessarily means she’ll lose her domestic family life. The last minute of the series shows Midge going back to her ex-husband to spend only one night with someone who she knows loves her. Theoretically, a woman being torn between domestic, conventional life and pursuing a career in comedy in the fifties could be a very compelling and believable conflict, especially in the midst of a divorce– but this really isn’t the case for Midge. If there’s anything that Susie Meyerson reminds us of over and over again, it’s that Midge is extremely well off and has multiple support systems. She doesn’t really need to choose between her career and her family– she has parents and a maid at home who basically provide totally free child care and housing, she has an ex-husband who is still gaga over her and willing to beat up any blundering male comic who gets in her way, a boyfriend who– on top of being an accomplished surgeon and owning a mansion of a New York apartment– is head over heels for Midge and wants her to live out her dreams of being a comedian, she has a manager who works tirelessly to book her in the best gigs in and out of New York– and yet– you really expect me, an intelligent audience member, to believe that Midge has to choose between her career and the rest of her life? It’s bullshit.

And… this is where I remember that the show was written by Amy Sherman-Palladino. She’s a fantastic writer and director, always seamlessly building engaging and funny dialogue, directing gorgeous scenes and settings. It’s all fun to watch episode to episode. But her work breaks down upon closer inspection, and, if there’s anything I know from watching Gilmore Girls, Palladino’s writing meanders and gets lost somewhere in the middle of the series, and I’m worried this will also be the fate of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Both series center around a powerful female character archetype– like smart, good-natured, and hard-working Rory Gilmore and lively, stunning, hilarious Miriam Maisel– who have huge networks of support, wealth, and privilege, and whose only downfall, apparently, is being a woman. These characters don’t seem to have a lot of flaws, they’re perfectly poised. In short, it’s just a fantasy that it becomes a little hard to believe at some point. Emily Nussbaum in an article called “Hello, Gorgeous!” for The New Yorker sums it up perfectly: “The verbal anachronisms (“totally”), the sitcom clams (“Good talk!”), the cloying Disneyfication of Midge’s Jewish family…. Her marvellousness comes from the fact that she’s immune, a self-adoring alpha whose routines feel like feminist TED talks, with some “fucks” thrown in.”

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is, like Gilmore Girls, a sweeping, glittering fantasy of a powerful and ambitious young woman storming the world that Americans, and especially American women, seem to want to right now. It’s not a bad fantasy– in fact, it’s quite good and engaging and hilarious, a distraction from exhausting dystopias like The Handmaid’s Tale. But like all fantasies, it’s not an accurate reflection of sexism or the stakes of chasing a reckless dream. I’ll definitely keep watching the show– but not without a grain of salt.

Deconstruction Means “Freddy Got Fingered” and “School Days” Are Good, Actually

I grew up being exposed to gross-out comedies, so even though I can’t remember specific movie titles, the opening sequence to “Freddy Got Fingered” feels extremely familiar and tired. It’s almost laughable how lame the movie’s beginning is, and I was concerned this bad movie wasn’t going to reach a level where it was so bad it became good. I’m not surprised that there is debate over whether or not the movie is parody. However, I’m convinced this is intentionally left unanswered because the movie is satire. The man-child cartoonist called Gord who is unfortunately the protagonist of the film put my concerns to rest 30 minutes in, right when he begins to spread pain and suffering on a wider scale in his quest to have his cartoons adapted into a TV show.

Gord (Tom Green) storms an animation studio by force, bypassing security and harassing a secretary in an effort to meet the TV executive who runs the company (Anthony Michael Hall). When informed that the executive is at lunch, the public nuisance goes to the restaurant and harasses diners until he finds the person able to turn his dream into a reality. While this is off-putting to Hall’s character at first, he immediately listens when Gord begins to sell his comics.

Gord being given the chance to pitch his work despite being a terrible writer and a threat to society. Source: IMDB

This is amusing to me only because Gord had a hard time finding the exec after running into many men who look and are dressed like the one from the animation studio. The fact that Hall is just one of many blond-haired, blue-eyed men eating at Movers and Shakers restaurant is transparent criticism of the lack of inclusion in Hollywood and, by extension, powerful institutions in America. The way the TV executive turns away in disgust from Gord’s ridiculously unprofessional proposal but automatically turns around again to give the desperate cartoonist a chance when Gord starts to beg to sell his cartoons suggests that influential people in the media are more open to giving opportunities to some people more than others, even when it is undeserved…

In this scene, Gord is giving up on his cartoons at the same time Green is giving up on his movie. Source: IMDB

Despite his generosity, the TV executive is not blind to how talentless Gord is. He tells the artist that while the art of the comics is good, the stories and humor behind them are awful and would never sell. This pushes Gord over the edge, making him pull out a gun and lament that his characters are losers so he is a loser. He threatens to kill himself right then and there, which is shocking and completely unexpected if not for how this situation would be played straight in a normal comedy movie with the hero getting the job and the girl at the end. It is extremely funny to me how the stepping stone of Gord’s career is when our protagonist declares he needs to die, because this is the most illustrative way possible for Tom Green to scream about how much he clearly hates gross-out comedy movies and explains why the 90 minute run-time is used to push tropes of the genre to their most grotesque and absurd limits in order to make a point.

The infamy of “Freddy Got Fingered” reminds me of the reputation of “School Days”, an anime that I think wasn’t intentionally satire but ended up criticizing the short-comings of harem animes anyway. The formulaic show is based on a video game where a painfully average young man named Makoto suddenly finds himself becoming the most eligible bachelor in his high school after creating a love triangle. The video game has many endings determined by how well you navigate having multiple girlfriends, and the majority of the outcomes are good. However, “School Days” is infamous for its few bad endings that depict the absolute worst possible consequences of someone playing with the affections of a group of people.

Makoto easily guilt-tripping Otome, the third girl he’s cheating on, in order to keep their relationship a (poorly kept) secret. Source: MyAnimeList

The value of this criticism I think is highlighted in the anime when Makoto goes from being too shy to talk to an attractive girl in the first episode to having romantic encounters with three girls in one day by the end of the show. He is warned by his latest conquest, Otome, that problems will arise if the fact he is seeing several women at the same time becomes known. He tells her what he has already told his other girlfriends, that she is as responsible for the delicate situation as he is and that she should just let things happen. The anime adapts the worst possible endings of the game and illustrates that in real life it would take someone to be extremely narcissistic and emotionally abusive to sustain a harem like in anime.

I think these two works were poorly received because fans of these comedy genres weren’t expecting the deconstruction of the tropes they have come to love. The shocking violence and overall bad taste is only believable as the work of professional writers if the intention is to show how ridiculous the cliches expected from viewers are. It is difficult to make a parody or satire of something, especially with film, without being mistaken for the real deal, but as someone who thinks they’re in on the joke I think I have the right to laugh along.

We Are What We Cook

I was always fascinated by the flickering flame that lit up the stove top. The blue lights gave off a seductive heat that I was warned against. The results were magical too. My grandma conjured up steaming concoctions of Chinese broccoli and sausage, sweet pork ribs, and sticky pork knuckles, glistening with a fine sheen of oil and love. But all my efforts, even under her tutelage, were met with disappointment. “Too much shrimp paste”, my grandma says, after the briefest taste of my limp green beans. “Not enough soy sauce”, she says of my steamed eggs. She teaches me how to wield the cleaver, but its overly large handle keeps slipping from my hand. She shows me how to shake and shiver the wok, but my garlic keeps burning anyway. I end our endeavors at the age of twelve in a petulant fit, disappointed.

It was years later, before I approached the kitchen again. This time, I was hesitant, much readier to leap away from the flame than to embrace it. I changed tactics. Instead of homegrown techniques, I turned to the endlessly tacky. Instead of the intimacy of family, I chose the distance of a stranger. Thus, began my journey into the depths of food television, starting with the most generic channel of all, the Food Network. As I watch Bobby Flay chop onions for his Chicken-Posole Soup or Giada De Laurentiis grate parmesan with a pearly smile, I wonder why I and thousands of others have fallen for their effortful charm. I am not sure that I am really looking to be an excellent chef. For I don’t need to know how to perfectly poach a chicken breast nor do I care how to pulverize a mixture of pine nuts, parsley, and peppercorns into a pesto. It even feels traitorous in some ways, to pursue this life of domesticity, instead of the modern, working woman that I was taught to be. Why do cooking shows, then, continue to entrance me?

But cooking shows were not born in the modern era. The first cooking show was an invention of the late 1940s by a balding British man named Philip Harben. According to current standards, he is not telegenic, but there is a jolly workman look to his crumpled tie and rolled up shirt sleeves. Harben taught people how to cook, not for entertainment, but out of necessity. With Britain still on rations, his cooking show showed how to cook with a nearly bare cupboard. Not so today, when television shows promote only fresh, organic, picked-minutes-ago produce. Perhaps Harben’s show does not seem to be the direct answer to my question. But one can easily see the key characteristics of the modern cooking show already germinating underneath the surface. By 1947, a year after his show first started, the BBC began referring to him as a ‘television chef’. It is more than a simple name change. It is the birth of an entirely new profession, a new genre of television. It turns what was once relegated to an individual kitchen to something broadcasted into a million homes at once.

It is a community that I thrive in. I eagerly look up recipes on the official Food Network website. I buy cookbooks and collect all the recommended gadgets. I have become a dedicated fan, not of cooking itself, but of cooking as an imagined lifestyle. It turns out I didn’t need cooking as a reality; only as a fantasy.