Friday, September 11, 2009

Larry Gelbart R.I.P.

Larry Gelbart, one of the veteran writers from Your Show of Shows and who developed M*A*S*H for television, passed yesterday at the age of 81. He had been suffering from cancer.

Larry Gelbart was born on February 25, 1928 in Chicago. His father was a barber, while his mother was a seamstress. In 1942 his family moved to Los Angeles. There his father's clients included both agents and actors. Among them was Danny Thomas, to whom his father bragged about young Gelbart. Thomas told him to have Gelbart write something to see how good he was. Gelbart wrote a short comedy sequence, which landed him a job on the radio show Maxwell House Coffee Time, which featured Thomas in a regular segment. By the time he was 18 years old he was writing for the show Duffy's Tavern.

It was when he was 18 that Gelbart was draughted into the post-war Army. During his years in the service, he wrote for the Armed Forces Radio Service show Command Performance, while still writing radio shows as he had before he was draughted. It was in 1950 that Larry Gelbart first entered television as one of the writers on the classic series Your Show of Shows. He also wrote for The Red Buttons Show and he wrote an episode of Four Star Revue. During the Fifties he went on to write for Caesar's Hour, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, and The Art Carney Show.

In 1961 Larry Gelbart made his debut as a writer on Broadway with the musical The Conquering Hero. He followed it up with the smash hit A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which ran from 1962 to 1964. It was also in 1962 that The Notorious Landlady was released, the first movie with a screenplay by Gilbert. During the Sixties he also wrote the story for the Doris Day sex comedy The Thrill of It All and screenplays for The Wrong Box and Not with My Wife, You Don't. He was one of the writers on The Danny Kaye Show.

It was in 1972 that Gelbart adapted M*A*S*H for television. Set in the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War, the television show came about due to the success of Robert Altman's 1969 movie of the same name, which was based on the novel of the same name by Richard Hooker. Gelbart wrote many of the episodes of the series and served as one of its producers as well. Gelbart also created the short lived 1973 series Roll Out and the 1980 series United States. He wrote the screenplays for Movie, Movie and Oh, God. In 1976 he returned to Broadway with the comedy Sly Fox.

In the Eighties Gelbart wrote the screenplays for the movies Rough Cut, Neighbours, Tootsie, and Blame It On Rio. He created and wrote several episodes of the M*A*S*H spinoff AfterM*A*S*H. On Broadway he wrote the plays Jerome Robbins' Broadway, Mastergate, and City of Angels. Gelbart continued writing almost up until his death. He wrote the teleplays Weapons of Mass Distraction and Starring Pancho Villia as Himself, as well as screenplays for C-Scam and the 2000 remake of Bedazzled.

Larry Gelbart was one of the greatest comedy writers of the late 20th Century. Although he is best known for his work on M*A*S*H, his career entailed so much more, from the classic Broadway play A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum to movies such as The Thrill of It All and The Wrong Box to his work on Your Show of Shows. He was a great satirist, with the gift of a sharp wit Gelbart's career lasted over sixty years with good reason. He was a very funny, bright man whose talent for comedy lent itself well to different media.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Blast From the Past: Generation Jones Does Not Exist

Okay, I have never "reprinted" one of my blog entries before, but yesterday I received a comment that claimed I am not a Gen Xer. Instead the individual insisted I am a member of Generation Jones. Here I must point out that not only am I very proud to be a member of Generation X, but I do not believe a "Generation Jones" even exists. Here then is part one of a series I did a couple of years ago entitled "Defining Generation X." This one was entitled, "Generation Jones Does Not Exist." Here I offer my arguments as to why anyone born from 1961 to 1977 should be considered part of Generation X. For those of you who want to read the whole series, it's here.

About ten to sixteen years ago the media was talking a lot about Generation X. This was the up and coming generation that was, at the time, roughly in their twenties. Madison Avenue seemed intent on selling products to Gen X. Hollywood was intent on making movies for Gen X (more often than not failing--just look at Reality Bites). If the Sixties was all about the Baby Boomers, it seemed as if the Nineties would be about us.

Unfortunately, there were a few problems with all of this. First, no one seemed to know exactly what Generation X was. Different sources would cite the generation as being born between 1961 and 1972 to being born roughly between 1965 and 1980.There was absolutely no consensus as to when Generation X was born. In fact, there still isn't. Second, the media seemed to be intent on fitting Generation X into a preconceived stereotype that simply did not fix the average Gen Xer. Worse yet, they seemed intent on marketing to that stereotype instead of the actual members of Generation X! Already knowing that Gen Xers were slackers who dressed in flannel, listened to Nirvana, and were hip when it came to pop culture, they fashioned commercials and movies around that stereotype, never stopping to think that this may not be the way that Gen Xers really were.

Of course, the third problem that the mass media had with regards to Generation X was the generation themselves. As the first generation raised in front of the television from birth and exposed to more mass media than any generation before it, one thing that has seemed to hold true about the media's stereotype of Gen X is their knowing cynicism. Not only does the generation tend to look upon mass marketing and even such commercial products as television and movies with a bit of scepticism in my experience as an Xer, but we tend to dislike any kind of label. This is a natural extension of the generation's cynicism, tending to view labels as simply another means of Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and other groups to peg someone as something they might not be in order to simply sell them things.

Given the fact that no one is quite sure what Generation X is and that Generation X themselves have resisted being pegged, defining Generation X is then a very difficult proposition. Indeed, the question must be raised as to whether any generation can be defined. Does any generation have a set of defining attributes that characterise the generation as a whole? Ultimately, it would seem that such things as family background, gender, ethnicity, religion, where was one was born, and many other factors would seem to be more important to shaping individuals than when they were born. Indeed, while many may be aware that, going by when they were born, they are Baby Boomers or Gen Xers, but they generally don't use that to define themselves. In some respects, then, it would seem that generations really aren't that important when it comes to defining individuals.

That having been said, while the generation in which one was born may not be as important as one's family background and so on, I think it is possible to say that each generation does have characteristics that generally define it. If human beings are largely shaped by their environment, then it would seem that we as people are then shaped by the events occurring around us, the things we experience as children, and so on. If that is the case, then it would seem to me possible that the events at any given time and the various pop culture artefacts then prominent in society could give a generation a set of very general characteristics that help define that generation. That having been said, it then becomes possible to define Generation X.

Here I must add a bit of admonition. If generations are largely shaped by cultural influences (the media, events at the time, et. al.), then I think it is safe to say that what holds true for a generation in one country may not hold true for others. That is, Generation X here in the States (and perhaps Canada as well, the two nations being so intertwined) would not be the same as Generation X in the United Kingdom, if the United Kingdom can even be said to have a "Generation X." What I say here then hold trues only for the United States and perhaps Canada as well.

Of course, it might be a good idea before even trying to define the generation to examine the origins of the term "Generation X" and other terms for the generation. As I said before, it seems to be true that most Gen Xers do not particularly care for the term Generation X. Indeed, my best friend absolutely abhors the term. He prefers to call us "the Star Wars Generation". That having been said, "Generation X" has become the most common term used for our generation. As it is, the term did not start with us, but was coined even as we were being born. The term was first used in a study conducted by journalist Jane Deverson in Britain for Women's Own magazine. Deverson's study was ultimately rejected by the magazine, but Deverson went ahead and published her study in collaboration with fellow journalist Charles Hamblett. Entitled Generation X: Today's Generation Talking About Itself, the book was essentially a collection of interviews conducted in an 18 month period from January 1963 with young people in Britain. As to the nature of Deverson and Hamblett's "Generation X," they largely engaged in premarital intercourse, tended not to believe in God, didn't like the Queen, and distrusted their parents. Sound familiar?

Even in Britain "Generation X" would not become the dominant term for a generation (born roughly between 1925 and 1944) that in America would come to be called "the Silent Generation." It would become the name of a popular punk rock group. In 1976 Billy Idol and Tony James formed a band which they called "Generation X," no doubt appropriating Deverson and Hamblett's term for themselves. As the name of a band and not a term for a generation, "Generation X" was not yet applied to those previously considered late Baby Boomers and members of what has been called "the Baby Bust (after the decline in births following 1963)."

This brings us to a Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland. Coupland used the term "Generation X" in his book Generation X: Tales for an Accelarated Culture, first published in 1991. There he applied the term to a generation following the baby boom, born between 1960 to 1965, which was at that point coming into its own identity but at the same time feeling overshadowed by the Baby Boomers. Coupland did not take the term from Deverson and Hamblett (he was apparently ignorant of their work), but rather developed it based on a term from the 1983 book Class by Paul Fussell. In that book Fussell used the term "Category X" to refer to a group of people who ignore social strata and simply drop out of the class system to live life according to their own rules. Coupland felt that this was the primary characteristic of "Generation X." Coupland's term caught on with the media, who expanded upon his definition of "Geneartion X" to stereotype it as a generation of slackers.

While "Generation X" has become the most popular term for the generation, from the beginning it has co-existed with other terms. The term "MTV generation" predates "Generation X," being used as early as the Eighties. It comes from the cable channel, MTV (short for Music Television), which was launched on August 1, 1981. It always seemed to me that many have objected to the term "MTV Generation," not the least of all Gen Xers themselves. While MTV was an important pop cultural development at the time, I know of no Gen Xer who believes that it was a transformative event that changed the entire generation. Another similar problem is that technically the oldest Gen Xers had already entered adulthood, albeit very recently, at the time of the channel's launch or were about to enter adulthood. Its overall impact on Gen X would then seem to be minimal.

Another term used for Gen x was "the Baby Bust," for the dramatic decline in births that followed the Baby Boom. This term rapidly fell out of use, probably because for many the oldeset Gen Xers (born 1961 to 1964) would technically have been born in the final years of the Baby Boom, hence the term could not be applicable to them. William Strauss and Neil Howe called the generation "the 13th generation." I'll discuss that in detail later, but let's just say that it never caught on. Another term used of Gen X has been "the Slacker Generation," from the generational stereotype of the average Gen Xer as a slacker. I won't go into why this is untrue at the moment, but the sheer negativity of the term is probably why it never caught on. For better or worse and even though Gen Xers generally hate the term, "Generation X" has remained the most popular name for the generation.

Initially Coupland placed "Generation X" as being born between 1960 and 1965, although he also said that his book was meant to demonstrate a lack of a single description for the group more than anything else. He has also said that Generation X is not a chronological age, "but a way of looking at the world." That having been said, since many people born in approximately the same period of history often tend to have a shared sense of values and world views, I think it is safe to say that when they are born does play a role in determining when the attitudes of the generation. This presents a probelm for Generation X, as no one seems to be able to agree as to when they were born.

Despite the fact that Coupland would say that being "Generation X" is more about a way of looking at the world than an actual, chronological age, he would revise the general age of Generation X to include anyone who was in their twenties between 1987 and 1991. This would include everyone born from 1958 to 1971. It seems to me that for the most part that the media would generally skew Generation X somewhat younger. I have seen the media state that the first Generation Xers were born in 1961, 1963, and even as late as 1965.

It would seem that to make sense of all this that it would be a good idea to turn the United States Census Bureau for help in determining precisely when Generation X was born. The United States Census Bureau tends to use the term "birth cohorts" rather than "generations," but the concept is roughly the same. The Census Bureau also tends to ignore such commonly used terms as "Silent Generation" and "Generation X," preferring to use their own terms. The exception to this is the Baby Boom, which they see as being born from 1946 to 1964. They divide the Baby Boomers into Leading Edge Boomers (born from 1946 to 1957) and Trailing Edge Boomers (born from 1958 to 1964). Those born from 1965 to 1977 are part of the Baby Bust (II) cohort. The Census Bureau's birth cohorts would seem to be based entirely on the number of births at any given time. It is true that a baby boom took place from 1946 to 1964. It is also true that this boom peaked in 1957, allowing the Bureau to divide the Baby Boom cohort into two periods (one being pre-peak and the other post-peak). The problem with this is that it ignores the shared experiences common to people born around the same time. Baby Boomers born in 1946 would have become adults before the advent of Saturday morning cartoons. In the Sixties some of them would have taken part in the protests against the Vietnam War and some of them would take Dr. Timothy Leary's advice to "turn on, tune in, and drop out." On the other hand, those born in 1964 would grow up watching Saturday morning cartoons, never knowing a world without them. And while some might have "turned on, tuned in, and dropped out," none of them took part in protests against the Vietnam War (I don't recall seeing any five year olds taking part in the protests in the old news footage...).

More useful is the book Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe. Strauss and Howe eschew the term "Generation X" in favour of the term "13th Generation," so called because it is the 13th generation to live under the United States flag (going back to the first generation, that of Ben Franklin). Rather than simply look at birth rates as the Census Bureau does, they look to cultural trends as well. They saw the influences on the 13th Generation as being an increase in divorce, an increase in women in the work place, declining birth rates, and what is sometimes called "devil child films (movies such as Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and It's Alive that deal with children as demonic antagonists)." They place the 13th Generation as being born between 1961 and 1981. While I don't really care for the term "13th Generation," I cannot argue with either Strauss and Howe's reasoning (as the movie Fight Club observes, with reference to the increase in the divorce rate, we were a generaton of men raised by women--not true of myself, but of many of my comtemporaries) or the age range they give for the generation. And that age group does generally have the same cultural experiences in common and hence similar viewpoints.

In an article entitled "Proceed with Caution" in the July 16, 1990 issue, Time Magazine posited the existence of a generation following the Baby Boomers. They did not give this generation a name, simply referring to them as "twentysomethings." The article notes that many of these twentysomethings were born in what was usually considered the tail end of the Baby Boom, but actually had very little in common with the Boomers and had much more in common with other twentysomethigs. They place the age of this generation in a range spanning from 18 to 29 years of age. In other words, this generation would have been born between 1961 and 1972. According to the article, a dominant force in the lives of the twentysomething was the poor job market, economic strain, the rising divorce rate, the centrality of televison as a medium, drug use, and homelessness. At the same time the article offers what could be the earliest stereotype of Generation X as slackers. It claims that the generation shys away from 70 hour work weeks and have no desire to change the world. It posits that the generation has a desire to keep life simple and do things in modest ways. It does offer some things positive to say about the generation, positing that they hold family life and local activism dear.

Here I should also offer my best friend's view of Generation X, a generation he prefers to call the "Star Wars Generation." My best friend is not a sociologist or historian, nor has he ever been published as a writer (he doesn't even have a blog, being somewhat computer illiterate). But he is an expert on pop culture whose knowledge of the subject is as labyrinthine as my own (We have our specialties. He tends to know more about movies than I do, but I know more about television. I know more about Golden Age comic books, but he knows more about Seventies comic books.). My best friend believes that the Star Wars Generation was roughly born between 1960 and 1977. His acid test for whether one belongs to the generation is whether one was old enough to have been present in a theatre when Star Wars made its debut in May 1977, even if it was only as a baby. Admittedly, this is hard to take seriously, but my best friend has other reasons for choosing this age range as well. Namely, we all came of age in an era when the economy was under strain and jobs were difficult to find. Even those who completed college were hard pressed to find any job, let alone one that paid well. The Star Wars Generation was the first generation that was literally overwhelmed by pop culture. It came at us through such media as television (finally in its prime as we were born), independent TV stations, FM radio, the movies, and video games. For my best friend the pivotal pop cultural event was the premiere of the film Star Wars, which transformed pop culture the same way that The Beatles' arrival in Amrica (which he views as the pivotal pop cultural event of the Baby Boom) did 14 years earlier. I find it very difficult to argue with my best friend's reasoning...

Yet others deny that Geneartion X was born between 1961 and 1981. Around 2000 pop cutlure expert Jonathan Pontell claimed that he had identified yet another geneartion which he termed "Generation Jones." He chose this label because he views the generation as being large and anonymous, and also based his name for this so-called generation on the slang term "jones," which originally referrred to the craving for drugs among addicts but came to mean a craving for anything--in the case of Pontell's alleged "Generation Jones" it refers to the craving for unfulfilled expectations. Pontell places his so-called "Generation Jones" as being born between 1954 and 1965. He points to the rising divorce rate, the women's movement, the civil rights movement, the gas shortages of the Seventies, and the Watergate scandal as events that shaped his "Generation Jones." Pontell's concept of "Generation Jones" has received coverage in the media, in newspapers such as The Denver Post, The Denver Post, The San Diego Union Tribune, on cable networks such as CNN, MSNBC, and the BBC, and on such various outlets as the Talk Radio News Service. Googling the term "Generation Jones" one will find pages on which individuals do identify with the term "Generation Jones." Between the media coverage and the apparent existence of people who identify themselves as "Jonesers," there would seem to be some legitimacy to the concept.

That having been said, I have some serious objections to Pontell's concept of "Generation Jones," even if it is hard to dismiss entirely. I feel that he may be placing too much importance on certain cultural events and too little importance on others. While the rising divorce rate and the women's movement did have an impact on many people, that impact was much, much less on those born in 1954 than those born in 1965. That is, more people born in 1965 are children of divorce than those born in 1954. Furthermore, those born in 1954 came of age when the economy was still fairly robust in the Seventies. They walked into good jobs as they graduated from college, even from high school. Contrast that with those born in 1965 who often found themselves working at McDonalds or video stores even after graduating college! They came of age in the Eighties when a depression was on (okay, I know a lot of historians and political commentators will try to claim there was no depression in the Eighties, but then what do you call economic conditions in which there is low inflation and a very high rate of unemployment?). As to pop culture, those born in 1954 were adults when Star Wars came on the scene and in their first ten years of life there was no such thing as a Saturday morning cartoon block! In their late teens and early twenties, disco was the most popular music form. Contrast that to the heavy metal that returned to popularity just as those born 1965 were in their teens and entering their twenties. Another problem I have with the concept of "Generation Jones" is that Pontell first expressed his theories on this generation in 2000. This so-called generation's youngest members would have been 35 at the time! Contrast that with Generation X, who received their most popular name in 1991 when its youngest members were only 15 years of age. I've no idea when the phrase "Baby Boomer" originated, but the earliest I could find its use in the archives of Time Magazine was a January 21, 1974 article on Bob Dylan. This means that its earliest use could have been when the youngest Boomers were only 14. Of course, this only reflects its first appearance in Time Magazine. It could have been used much earlier; indeed, it's been in use as long I can remember. At any rate, all of this begs the question, "If 'Generation Jones' exists at all, then why did it take so long for someone to discover it?"

A more serious objection I have to the label "Generation Jones" is that while googling the term does reveal individuals who do identify with it, I have yet to meet even one such individual in person. My contemporaries born from 1961 to 1964 tend to identify themselves as either Boomers (which is less common in my experience) or Xers (more common in my experience). Those born in 1965 inevitably identify themselves as Xers. To me this presents a very serious challenge to Pontell's entire thesis. Admittedly, I think we can all agree that there are differences between the older Boomers (those born from 1945 to 1952 and experienced the Vietnam War protests, the Hippie movement, and psychedelia) and the younger Boomers (those born from 1953 to 1960 and experienced Watergate, gas shortages, and disco). In fact, I think we could legitimately speak of a "Beatles wave" of Boomers (the older Boomers) and a "Led Zeppelin wave" of Boomers (the younger Boomers). Despite some differences, both "Beatle wave" and "Led Zeppelin wave" Boomers share a number of important experiences (experiencing network television from its infacy to its maturation, good economic times, and so on), allowing for certain common interests to exist between the oldest and the youngest. In fact, I would dare say that there exists more common ground between "Beatles wave" Boomers (1945 to 1952) and "Led Zeppelin wave" Boomers (1953 to 1960) than there is between "Led Zeppelin wave" Boomers and the oldest Gen Xers (1961 to 1965). Given the profound differences that exist between "Led Zeppelin wave" Boomers and older Gen Xers and the rarity of individuals who identify with the term "Generation Jones," I think it is safe to conclude that Pontell is wrong. Those born before 1961 were just more Baby Boomers. Those born after 1961 were Gen Xers. Quite simply, Generation Jones does not exist.

Anyhow, given disagreement over the age range of Generation X and even whether there should be a generation placed between the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers (the alleged Jonesers), it is difficult to determine when the Generation began and when it ended. I submit that my best friend may be right, that it began anywhere from 1961 to 1962 and ended in 1977 (I won't be so precise as to say May 1977...). My reasoning is simple. First, I once said that Generation X was the first generation to never know a Saturday morning without cartoons as children. This might seem trivial to some, but it seems an important point to me. Baby Boomers are often apt to start conversations between themselves with "Where were you when JFK was shot?" or "What were you doing when you first heard (fill in the blank with an appropriate song)?" Gen Xers are more likely to start conversations with, "Do you remember the cartoon where (fill in the blank with whatever cartoon you remember)?" Gen X pop culture, whether we are discussing Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith films or various rock songs, are rife with references to Saturday morning cartoons. Second, an experience shared by Generation X is that many had difficulty finding jobs upon coming of age. Taking into account that the depression of the Eighties started roughly around 1981 and ended roughly around 1992, the oldest Gen Xers would have been born around 1961 (making them around twenty in 1981) and the youngest would have been born around 1972. Given that the economy was still a little shaky for a couple of years after the depression's end around 1992, we could perhaps extend the end of Gen X from 1972 to 1977. Third, people born between 1961 and 1977 had greater access to pop culture than previous generations. While there were only three television networks when the majority of us were growing up, the fact that there were a huge number of independent stations made up for it. These independent stations aired an inordinate number of reruns, sometimes dating to several years before our births, as well as movies made decades before we were born. This gave Generaton X more familiarity with films from the Thirties and Forties than even their seniors born in the Baby Boom and a greater knowledge of television shows than their juniors born in Generation Y (independent stations having gone the way of the dinosaur just as the oldest of them were in their teens). Indeed, a complaint that my Baby Boomer older sister has about me is that I prefer "old stuff" when it comes to TV shows, movies, and music! To say that Gen X was born in 1961 and 1976 then allows for the common cultural experiences necessary to any given generation.

Of course, just as there are differences between the "Beatles wave" Boomers and "Led Zeppelin wave" Boomers, there are going to be differences between older Xers and younger Xers. In Saturday Morning Fever by Timothy and Kevin Burke (highly recommended, mind you), the authors note that some pundit (though they don't clarify whom, it was the aforementioned Howe and Strauss) made a distinction between an "Atari wave" of Xers and a "Nintendo wave" of Xers, although they noted that they could also be called "the Herculoids wave" or "Wacky Races wave" and "the Ghostbuster wave" or "Joe Wave," after various cartoons. I tend to agree with them, Saturday morning cartoons being a major part of all Gen Xers' childhoods, although I would prefer the terms "Space Ghost wave (superhero cartoons being dominant in the younger years of older Xers)" and "Scooby-Doo wave (comedies being more dominant in the younger years of younger Xers)." To me, Saturday morning cartoons were much more an experience common to Gen Xers than video games (which really didn't come about until the oldest of us were nearly grown). Whatever term you prefer, there are some differences between older and younger Xers. My best friend and I have noted that older Xers tended to be nostalgic about shows like Underdog and The Man From U.N.C.L.E, while expressing ignorance of Transformers and MacGyver. Younger Xers tend to be exactly the opposite. While they have much in common, they also tend to be very different as well.

That having been said, the "Space Ghost wave" and "Scooby-Doo wave" of Gen X probably have more in common than "Beatles wave" and "Led Zeppelin wave" Boomers do. In fact, I daresay that enough common ground exists among people born from 1961 to 1977 that we can adequately determine the defining characteristics of Generation X. Knowing that, we can go forward and determine what Generation X and, conversely, what it is not.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Growing Up with The Beatles

Today both the remaster of The Beatles' catalogue and the video game The Beatles: Rock Band have been released. In the many months leading up to this event there have been several articles on The Beatles, some of which have been written by individuals who discussed how The Beatles changed their lives. In my case, as a member of Generation X, I cannot say The Beatles changed my life so much as they helped shape it.

I was born in 1963 (I know--the truth is out--I am no more 39 than Jack Benny was all those many years), only a little less than a year before The Beatles would arrive in the United States. Given my parents watched The Ed Sullivan Show loyally, chances are I saw, or at least heard, their historic first appearance on that show. Whether I did or not, the earliest songs I can remember hearing on both the radio and on the telly were by The Beatles. Among the earliest cartoons I remember, along with Underdog, Jonny Quest, and Space Ghost, was The Beatles cartoon. My brother and I watched it each and every week. In the Sixties, Beatles merchandise was everywhere. I have vague memories of owning a toy Beatles guitar as a very young child--I have to wonder what it would be worth now. I think it can easily be said that, in addition to being the first generation to know television from birth and to never know at time without Saturday morning cartoons, Generation X was the first generation to grow up with The Beatles.

It is impossible for me to gauge the complete extent to which The Beatles first shaped my life. Certainly, their music made me a life long Beatles fan. The Beatles were my favourite band when I was three years old and they remain my favourite band to this day. If I were to set down and make a top ten list of my all time favourite albums, most of them would be Beatles albums. If I had made a top ten list of my favourite songs, most of them would be by The Beatles. I have seen A Hard Day's Night, Help!, and Yellow Submarine numerous times. I even own all three films on DVD. A day does not go by that at least one Beatles song does not pop into my head, totally unexpectedly.

Of course, because they are my favourite band, alongside other British Invasion bands, The Beatles would have a huge impact on my tastes in music. While I have gone through such phases as New Wave, heavy metal, and Goth, it has been the subgenre of rock music which The Beatles invented that has remained my favourite: power pop. Many of my favourite bands to this day remain power pop bands: The Who (whose Pete Townshend gave the subgenre its name), The Kinks, Small Faces, Cheap Trick, Enuff Z'nuff, The Posies, and many, many others.

It is also seems to me that, beyond shaping my tastes in music, The Beatles and the other British Invasion bands are part of the reason I am a total Anglophile. Of course, there were other factors as well. British pop culture had been making inroads into the States even before The Beatles, through such films as The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Mouse That Roared, and Billy Liar and TV shows such as Danger Man and The Saint. Of course, once The Beatles arrived, British pop culture would become a dominant force in American pop culture for a time. The hour long version of Danger Man (called Secret Agent here), The Avengers, and other British shows all crossed the Pond. Mod fashions from Carnaby Street made their way here. Even more British films found success on American shores. Along with The Beatles, these various factors (especially television shows like The Avengers) would conspire to turn me into an Anglophile. Of course, here I must point out that almost from birth I have known I was English in descent, my mother's family having fled here from the Cromwellian tyranny in the 17th century (which begs the question, can you be an Anglophile if you are English in descent), so that Anglophilia may have come very naturally to me.

Of course, The Beatles would have a great impact on my life other than simply my tastes in music and my love for anything English. While there were many other more important factors which shaped my life (my family, my community), I do believe that The Beatles did have a profound impact on my personality and outlook on life. If there is a good deal of optimism in me to counteract my innate cynicism, it is probably due in a large part to The Beatles. It was John Lennon in the song "All You Need is Love" who sang, "There's nothing you can do that can't be done....All you need is love." As low as my society can be at times, and as disappointed as I can be in people, I still believe Lennon's words. As bad as the world can be, as trying as times can get, I still think that one can survive if he or she has love--love for himself or herself, love for his family and friends, love for life.

Indeed, I have to say that more than any other musical artist, perhaps more than any artist in any medium, The Beatles have saved my life on more than one occasion. If I have never considered suicide or violence against others, it is perhaps because all I have to do is listen to Beatles songs to realise that everything will be all right. To me if there is one lasting message to be found in The Beatles songs, it is that ultimately there is always hope. Although it may be a "long, cold, lonely winter," to quote George Harrison, the sun will return. The Beatles have seen me though various break-ups, stress at work, and even the deaths of my parents and other loved ones. They have always been there to reassure me that, in the end, everything will be okay.

Unlike the Baby Boomers, I cannot remember a time without The Beatles. Unlike younger Gen Xers and the successive generations, I can actually remember The Beatles themselves. I think in many respects this has placed me in a slightly different situation than older or younger Beatles fans. For me The Beatles are not simply a band I discovered when I was young, nor are they a classic rock act that my older siblings or parents listened to. For me they have always been part of the landscape, while at the same time being very real and at times very flawed human beings. I then look to The Beatles with a combination of hero worship and the genuine affection for any musician, actor, director, or writer whose work one enjoys. Indeed, there have been only two times I have literally cried for days following a celebrity's death--once when John Lennon was assassinated and again when George Harrison died. I have no doubt I will cry for days again when Ringo Starr and Sir Paul McCartney die as well. I do not think I cried when John and George died simply because I had lost two musicians I admired greatly or even two of my heroes. I think I cried because I felt as if I had lost something of myself. In some ways, maybe I did.

In the end I suspect that, more than any other artists in any medium, The Beatles helped shape me as a human being. No other artists whether musicians, writers, artists, or directors, have had near the influence on me that The Beatles have. Not only do I believe that they helped make me much of what I am, but I think that ultimately they helped make me a better person. It is an enormous debt that I owe all four of them, and one that I do not think I could ever repay.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Writer Keith Waterhouse and Illusionist David Avadon R.I.P.

Keith Waterhouse

Writer Keith Waterhouse passed on September 4 at the age of 80. He is perhaps best known for his novel Billy Liar and his work in British television, particularly That Was the Week That Was.

Keith Waterhouse was born in Leeds on February 6, 1929. He served for two years in the Royal Air Force. He started his career as a roving reporter for The Yorkshire Evening Post. It was because of his reports from the Pennines that he received a job at The Daily Mirror in 1951. He wrote an extended style book for The Daily Mirror, entitled Daily Mirror, Waterhouse On Newspaper Style. It was during a newspaper strike that he wrote his first novel, There Is a Happy Land, published in 1957. In 1958 he left journalism to work as a full time writer of fiction.

Waterhouse's next novel, Billy Liar, became what could be his biggest success. Based on his own experiences, Billy Liar centred on a 19 year old living with his parents in Yorkshire, daydreaming like Walter Mitty in order to escape his dull existence. Billy Liar would be adapted as a play in 1960, a movie in 1963, and a TV series in 1973-1974. Waterhouse also wrote a sequel, Billy Liar on the Moon. In all Waterhouse wrote fourteen novels.

Keith Waterhouse also worked in television and movies. His first screenplay was for The Valiant, released in 1962. That same year he began a stint as one of the writers of That Was the Week That Was. Over the years he would write on such TV Series as The Frost Report, Inside George Webley, Budgie, Queenie's Castle, Billy Liar, and Worzel Gummidge. Waterhouse also wrote plays, including his own adaptation of Billy Liar (with Willis Hall) and Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell.

Keith Waterhouse was a talented writer who did very well in four different media (books, television, movies, and the stage). He had a gift for biting satire and writing about losers with little to look forward to in life. Billy Liar centred on a constant daydreamer, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell on a journalist who lived life to excess, and Jubb on a man altogether seedy and unappealing. Waterhouse also fought against the decline of proper English, with the goal of improving modern grammar. Although there can be no doubt he will be best remembered for Billy Liar, he should be remembered for much more.

David Avadon

David Avadon, the illusionist with a talent for sleight of hand, passed on August 22 at the age of 60. The cause was a heart attack.

David Avadon was born David Hutchins in Inglewood, California on December 11, 1948. His father was an engineer. His mother had been an acrobatic dancer in vaudeville. When he was twelve, Avadon boasted that he could perform magic until a teacher, not believing him, set him to perform before his whole school. For the next week Avadon immersed himself in books on the subject. His performance before the school proved to be a hit and he became hooked on the art of illusion for life.

He was in his twenties when he adopted the stage name "David Avadon." It was in 1973 that he discovered what he called "theatrical thievery" when attending a show featuring British pickpocket Vic Perry. Picking pockets would become a hallmark of Avadon's act. In 2007 he published the book Cutting Up Touches: A Brief History of Pockets and the People Who Pick Them on the art of picking pockets.

David Avadon performed at the Magic Castle in Hollywood for over thirty years. He also toured the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Japan regularly.

David Avadon was a very talented illusionist. He was a master of sleight of hand and was incredible as a pickpocket. It was fortunate that Avadon was a honest man and only used his talent for entertainment, as he could easily pick pockets without the victim ever realising it. It is very sad that he had to die so young.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The 2009-2010 American Network Broadcast Television Season

Okay, I realise that every year I express disappointment in the broadcast networks' new fall season. And I know there have been a few times I have thought a particular season was the worst one in years. Sadly, I think this coming season no one can really accuse me of hyperbole. In fact, I think the 2009-2010 television might just be the worst season in decades. This year the networks have shown an incredible lack of originality and have served up shows that, at least from their promos, look incredibly dull to me.

Of course, the big news this coming season was a rather surprising move on the part of NBC in scheduling The Jay Leno Show at 10:00 PM Eastern/9:00 PM Central every weeknight. I must say that I am not particularly happy about this myself. Oh, I have nothing against Jay Leno. He seems like a nice enough fellow. I thought he did well enough interviewing guests. I must confess that I did watch The Tonight Show with Jay Leno from time to time. Therein, however, rests my problem with NBC's scheduling of The Jay Leno Show five nights a week. I only watched Leno from time to time. Personally, while Leno seems a nice enough fellow to me, he is only moderately funny at best. He is no Johnny Carson, let alone Jack Paar. I honestly do not think Jay Leno will be able to compete against such hour long dramas on CBS and ABC as Castle and CSIL NY. All of this would not be so sad, except it means that NBC will air fewer hour long dramas of its own because of the only moderately funny comedy scheduled every weeknight.

At least I find Jay Leno moderately funny. Many of the shows debuting this coming season do not look entertaining whatsoever. Indeed, whether because of the success of House (which is a medical mystery rather than a medical drama) and Grey's Anatomy or because the networks have simply run out of ideas, the 2009-2010 television season will see a bumper crop of medical dramas this season. On CBS there is Three Rivers, with Alex O'Loughlin playing a transplant surgeon. On NBC there are two shows that could well be considered medical dramas. One is Mercy, a show about three nurses. The other is Trauma, which is about paramedics in San Francisco. Granted I am not particularly fond of medical dramas (I can count the number of I have liked on the fingers of one hand), but none of these shows seems the least bit appealing to me.

Of course, every year sees a new crop of situation comedies on American television, the one genre which never seems to go out of style. Unfortunately, most of the new sitcoms do not sound particularly interesting to me. ABC has several scheduled on Tuesday night. Hank is about a Wall Street executive who loses his job and must reconnect with his family in the Midwest. Honestly, the premise just doesn't sound that interesting to me. The Middle centres on Patricia Heaton as a middle class mother of a family in the Midwest. I don't know if anyone at ABC realised that this is one of the oldest sitcom concepts in television. I think the title of Cougar Town could be considered offensive. I certainly don't care much for the concept--fortysomething Courtney Cox decides to date younger guys. Just how much comedy can one get out of that? The only sitcom that shows on ABC that shows any promise to me is Modern Family, a mockumentary which will follow the lives of a fictional American family. The series was created by screenwriter Christopher Lloyd (veteran of both The Golden Girls and Fraiser) and Steven E. Levitan.

CBS's only new sitcom, Accidentally on Purpose sounds contrived to say the least. The show centres on a thirtysomething movie critic who gets pregnant by her twentysomething boyfriend. The two then decide to live together platonically. Fox's only new sitcom is not contrived, but it is hardly interesting either. Brothers centres on two estranged brothers who are pressured by their family to get along. NBC's only new sitcom is the only one besides ABC's Modern Family to show some promise. Community was created by Dan Harmon (who co-wrote the underrated animated feature Monster House and centres around a suspended lawyer who goes to a community college. The promos look very funny and, given Harmon's track record, there's no reason to think the show won't be funny.

As far as hour long dramas beyond the medical genre, there are a few genre shows debuting this season. FlashForward is based on the novel of the same name by Robert J. Sawyer and was co-created by Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer. The concept of the show is that a global event takes place in which people experience what their lives will be like in the future for two minutes and seventeen seconds. FBI agent Mark Benford and his team proceed to investigate the incident, trying to figure out what exactly happened. Given the people involved, FlashForward does have possibilities. The other genre show debuting this season on ABC is Eastwick is based on John Updike's novels and follows the witches there. I must admit, I am really at a loss as to what one would even do with such a concept, unless they wish to simply adapt the novels themselves.

Another genre show debuting this coming season is on the CW. The Vampire Diaries is based on the book series of the same name by L. J. Smith. The show centres around a young woman who just happens to become the romantic interest of two brothers who are also vampires--one good and one evil. To those who don't know better, The Vampire Diaries might sound like a rip off of both True Blood and Twilight. In truth, however, the first Vampire Diaries book was published in 1991--ten years before the first True Blood book and fifteen years before Twilight. Unfortunately, with the Twilight movies and the True Blood series, The Vampire Diaries will probably seemed derivative nonetheless.

It is perhaps a mark of the lack of originality possessed by the broadcast networks this coming season that one new show is a spin off and another is a revival of an old one. NCIS: Los Angeles is a spin off from the popular NCIS. Fortunately, unlike the CSI spin offs, NCIS: Los Angeles looks to be substantially different from the original series. The series centres on the Office of Special Projects, a division of NCIS which specialises in undercover work. My brother, whose favourite show is NCIS, tells me that some fans have said they will not watch the show. Having like the pilot, I probably will. In fact, my only objection to NCIS: Los Angeles is its name, which is rather bland and a bit too reminiscent of CSI. I much preferred the names NCIS: Office of Special Projects and NCIS: Undercover.

While NCIS: Los Angeles is a spinoff, Melrose Place is a revival of the old nighttime soap opera Melrose Place. Now I have to confess. The original Melrose Place was a guilty pleasure of mine, the only soap opera I ever watched besides Dark Shadows. The original Melrose Place was campy and often tacky. It was at its best when it was downright outrageous (as in one episode where one of the show's villains kidnapped a character with the intention of lobotomising him...). Unfortunately, I don't think that is going to be the case for the new version of Melrose Place. From the promos, it looks like it is going to be simply another teen drama of the sort The CW is known for. Of course, that may be because it is airing on The CW....

While NCIS: Los Angeles is a spinoff and Melrose Place is a revival, The Good Wife may be less original than either. From the promos which have aired on CBS this month, one would think that the show is going to be about a woman and her husband, a United States senator, rebuilding their lives after a sex scandal. Well, the protagonist is the wife of a U.S. senator who is involved in a sex scandal, but that is as far as it goes with that premise. It seems her husband is jailed following the scandal and the wife returns to her former job of being a defence attorney. That's right. It's yet another legal drama, as if they were not done to death in the late Nineties....

The Forgotten may be, along with FlashForward, one of the few hour long dramas this year with an original concept. The Forgotten centres around a group of amateur detectives who attempt to identify unidentified murder victims by reconstructing their lives. The series is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, so it could possibly be good. At the very least, it sounds much more interesting than the various medical dramas on the schedule and the one legal drama (The Good Wife) airing opposite it.

Over all, the coming season on the broadcast networks looks to be a very drab one. While I must confess that one must expect a large lack of originality on the part of the networks (they have not show much in the way of originality since the Seventies), this season seems to have more derivative, unoriginal, uninteresting shows than usual. If I had to hazard a guess as to the reason for this, it could well be because network television is between cycles, the regularly occurring trends towards specific genres. Most of the Naughts have seen network television dominated by two cycles, one towards police procedurals and another towards reality shows. Both cycles ended a while back, so that the networks are between cycles. Sadly, that means the networks are seeking the Next Big Thing. That could explain the number of medical dramas debuting this season. Without an ongoing cycle, the networks will return to those genres which have been done to death on American television. We could have just as easily had several detective shows (which I would find more interesting) or legal drama (which I dislike even more than medical dramas). Right now I just hope that The Forgotten is a success. Sad as it sounds, a cycle towards mystery shows would be a vast improvement over this season...