As Stephen Colbert says, “I don’t know if these are actually sins, but I do feel bad about them.”
I have a seven-decade long reputation to maintain as a dour, serious-minded stick-in-the-mud, with no time for trivialities. My theme song is Party Pooper. My favorite color is gray. My wife used to call me, “The man who can’t have fun.”
I argued back that I have lots of fun, but for me fun is reading Gilgamesh or Xenophon, listening to Beethoven piano sonatas while following along with the Schnabel edition of the score (including reading all the footnotes), listening to lectures on the Indus Valley Civilization or the Black Death from the Great Courses Plus, watching C-Span Booknotes and waiting with great anticipation for the C-Span bus to visit Sheboygan or Wilkes-Barre. These things give me great pleasure and fill my life with great joy.
Yet, that doesn’t mean I don’t have my guilty pleasures — bits of pop culture that I partake of on odd occasions. There are times I switch away from the PBS Newshour or online lectures from M.I.T. and let my hair down. You won’t tell anyone, will you?
Here, then, are five guilty pleasures that I recommend to you. (There are more, but my quotient for mortification is limited).
Drunk History — It would be hard to find anything sillier than Comedy Central’s Drunk History. Created by comic Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner, it asks various, mostly D-list entertainers to drink themselves goofy and attempt to tell the story of some historical figure, while various, mostly A-list actors and comedians lip-synch costumed re-enactments of the events.
The camera switches back and forth between the drunkard, in a home with an equally plastered Waters, and the beautifully photographed recreations, in which the actors perfectly mime the words of the storyteller, right down to the hiccups and incoherence. A fair number of the drinkers wind up finishing their tales while driving the porcelain bus; others pass out on the couch.
A few for-instances: Actor Eric Edelstein tells the story of Elvis and Nixon, while we see the re-enactment with Jack Black playing Elvis, Bob Odenkirk as Nixon and Jack McBrayer as H.R. Haldeman.
In another, Tiffany Haddish (they’re not all D-list) tells us about French Resistance fighter Rose Valland, who saved and helped retrieve hundreds of art treasures threatened or stolen by the Nazis, with Busy Philipps playing Valland in the dramatization.
For most of the half-hour shows, three stories are told, with the first two taking up 5 to seven minutes each, separated by annoying commercials, and the third filling two segments, with annoying commercials in between. (As usual, the best solution is to Tivo the show so you can fast-forward through the muck).
One of the best shows recently was when Lin-Manuel Miranda got himself pie-eyed and tried to summarize the life of Alexander Hamilton. He got the whole half-hour. Blind-casting adds extra confusion to the show: Hamilton was played by Alia Shawkat; Aaron Burr was Aubrey Plaza; Bokeem Woodbine was George Washington; and Tony Hale was James Monroe. I am astonished that Miranda would risk reputation, alcohol poisoning and brain damage to take part, but it was a scream.
And one can actually learn things from this show, although you will want to verify what you find out by actual reading and research. Sometimes the drunks get confused.
Jay Leno’s Garage — I’m old enough to remember when Jay Leno was funny. Before the Tonight Show de-clawed him and turned him into a toothless shill for Hollywood celebrity backslapping, Leno was edgy, took chances and snookered the very thing he later became mouthpiece for. Now retired from the daily grind of pleasing his corporate masters, Leno, now 67, is still a workaholic, but it seems now he can put his energy into something he actually cares about: cars.
Reportedly, he owns 286 vehicles, both cars and motorcycles, and has a garage that could double as a museum. In his current show, on CNBC — a network that as far as I can tell, is watched by no one — Leno gets to play with his toys and his enthusiasm is infectious.
As someone who does not care about cars — I think of them as being appliances, like washing machines on wheels — I am surprised myself at how much I enjoy watching Leno enjoy driving Maseratis, Bugattis, Abrams tanks, fire engines, monster trucks, drag racers, and a 1939 Ford pickup truck loaded with the radial engine of a Cessna airplane.
He often has Hollywood friends show up with their own favorite autos and bikes. Keanu Reeves manufactures high-end motorbikes. Comic Adam Corolla has been collecting race cars once owned and driven by actor Paul Newman. Tim Allen plays “Stump the Car Nerd.” Arnold Schwarzenegger shows off his electric Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen conversion.
It is less the high-end muscle cars that interest me and more the peculiar vehicles he encounters, like the Mars Rover, the Ripsaw EV-2 civilian tank that can reach 60 mph, the two-story tall dump truck that carries borax from the mines, the wienermobile, a convertible filled with water and turned into a mobile hot tub. There are a lot of these.
But mostly, it is the obvious pleasure Leno takes in his toys that makes this series a joy to watch.
Young Sheldon — This never sounded like a good idea. A spin-off from The Big Bang Theory, this show follows the 9-year-old genius, Sheldon Cooper, as he negotiates life, neuroses and high school.
The parent show has long jumped the shark (although I continue to watch it because, even worn out, it has more energy — and more smarts — than most things on TV).
Many years ago, when the Colbert Report first broadcast, it was sharp and funny, but I was sure — and most people I knew were sure — there was no way to keep this up. But it kept up for nearly 10 years. In the same way, I don’t see how Young Sheldon can keep it up. But I was wrong once; maybe again.
Young Sheldon is quite different in tone from its predecessor. Big Bang is a three-camera, live-audience show and written to showcase gags and caricatures. (This is not a complaint: It has done that very well for many years). But Young Sheldon is a one-camera show, with no laugh track, which allows it to be more real.
And, while it is hard to actually care for the Big Bang characters — they are all there to be laughed at — Young Sheldon has so far given us warm, three-dimensional human characters. None more warm or more human than Sheldon’s mother, Mary Cooper, played by Zoe Perry, who happens to be the daughter of Laurie Metcalf, who has long played Sheldon’s mother on Big Bang Theory. The physical resemblance is striking, but more so, the personalities. There is a harried, confused wisdom in her character.
Just as good, 10-year-old Iain Armitage plays the 9-year-old Sheldon without ever being cute, without downplaying his atheism or his neuroses. Or his innocent bafflement at the complexities of the human condition.
The core of the show is Mary’s relationship with the gifted Sheldon and with her mother, the cantankerous Meemaw (Annie Potts). If there is a flaw, it is that the rest of the family, father George, sister Missy and older brother George Jr., are rather less developed, although Lance Barber brings warmth to a blustery father George, who we know from Big Bang, will die of a heart attack. That gives added resonance to the show.
Please excuse me if I sound like a critic writing a review. It’s what I am; I cannot shake it.
But, I recommend Young Sheldon. It really surprised me.
The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson — Ferguson left the Late Late Show in 2014, after nine years behind the desk. But segments of the show are all over YouTube, uploaded by several perseverant chroniclers.
When the show was live, I often watched (via Tivo the next day, so I could fast-forward through those damned Shamwow and boner pill commercials) but even I have to admit there were bits of the show that proved tedious. I could never enjoy the e-mail and tweet segments, and the monolog was often rather shaggy. And when there was a musical guest, I just turned the thing off.
But Ferguson must be the best late night interviewer there has ever been. The purpose of late night TV is for celebrities to come on, pretend to be regular people and plug their latest project with the assiduity of a used-car salesman. The whole set-up is unashamedly artificial.
Ferguson, in contrast, didn’t interview his guests so much as have a conversation with them. It was not unusual for them never to get around to the current “project.” Oh, there were guests who were duds, who wanted to coerce the talk back to their sales pitch, guests who did not seem to understand the nature of Ferguson’s self-described deconstruction of the late night talk show.
But there were many guests who got it, and they often came back over and over. Kristen Bell appeared 28 times. William Shatner 25, Regis Philbin 25, Betty White 22.
I am old enough to remember Jack Paar. Paar had a stable of regulars who came back over and over and took part in witty conversation. Peter Ustinov, Robert Morley, Oscar Levant, Hermione Gingold, Genevieve, Jonathan Winters, Dick Gregory.
Ferguson had his crew, too. They were those who obviously adored Ferguson, and understood the subversive nature of the broadcast. They often showed up with nothing to promote. Just to be there and talk. Bell was prime among them, but so, too, were Rashida Jones, Michael Clark Duncan, Paula Poundstone, Larry King, Kathy Griffin, Carrie Fisher, Mila Kunis, Lauren Graham, Jeff Goldblum, Morgan Freeman, Marion Cotillard.
This was a fabulous stable of personalities, including several that had obviously been previous amours of the host, and they hinted furiously at it.
The advantage of the YouTube videos is that you can see the interviews, often strung together (the set of Kristen Bell interviews lasts 4 hours, 41 minutes). Among the most infectious: Rosie Perez’s 8 visits;
Ferguson is also obviously intelligent, although he did his best to downplay that. But he has had many authors on, spent an entire hour with Archbishop Desmond Tutu (for which he won a Peabody Award), and another hour with Stephen Fry — and once had as a guest a professor of moral philosophy (who happened to be Claire Danes’ father-in-law).
Cowboy movies — I use this term instead of “Westerns” because I mean a specific type of film: the cheaply made series films from the late silent era through the 1930s with stars such as Buck Jones, Col. Tim McCoy, Hoot Gibson, Bob Steele, Ken Maynard, William Boyd and, of course John Wayne.
I was born at roughly the same time as television, and in those early years, stations scrambled to find content to fill those broadcast hours, and reams of old cowboy films were re-released cheaply to the stations and ran constantly, especially on the independent channels. I saw a ton of them through my pre-school years and into grade school. I loved them.
So, it is with some nostalgia that I watch them again as a grown-up.
I am not talking here about the legitimate Westerns by John Ford or Howard Hawkes, but of those films pumped out week-by-week from tiny studios such as Monogram and Republic. They were “programmers,” with repetitive plots, recognizable landscapes and often acting just this side of organic when compared with a dead tree.
Not that there weren’t some good actors. Boyd, as Hopalong Cassidy, had a natural screen presence and a comfortable way with dialog. And John Wayne was magic on the screen, even in those early films when he was saddled with playing Singing Sandy, the singing cowboy.
And the secondary actors and the villains were played by what was almost a stock company of real pros such as Earl Dwyer, Charles Middleton, Harry Woods, Charles King, and Roy Barcroft. Dependable, every one. It was mostly the heroes who were stiffs.
But what most impressed me in these movies was their settings, the imaginary West of the cowboy, kicking up dust galloping through the Alabama Hills of California, with the glorious Sierra Nevadas in the distance, or the Santa Clarita Valley. Those backgrounds show up over and over again. I almost memorized them.
Alas, such a golden age couldn’t continue. Singing cowboys invaded the screens, such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, in movies much slicker and emptier than the earlier ones. And worse, the rising need to include a boy sidekick. Cowboy movies gave up on adults and became pabulum for children. In the ’30s, even grown-ups watched Hoot Gibson. He was my late father-in-law’s favorite actor.
Some good B-Westerns continued to be made in the early 1940s, but by the time Eisenhower became president, we had descended to Lash LaRue and Whip Wilson and the most stolidly oaken of all of them, Tim Holt. The lighting flattened out, as it tended to do in the TV-influenced ’50s, and no one really seemed to believe in what they were doing.
The quality of many cable channel Westerns is atrocious, all grainy and contrasty, and at least one S.O.B. has added synthesized music to the originals. But a good print is as beautiful and professional as anything else the studios pumped out in that wonderful era of film. Luckily, one can still occasionally find a good print on Turner Classics, and the Hoppy movies are usually in good shape, thanks to the foresight of Boyd, who bought them all up in the late ’40s and curated them carefully.
So, there you have it, the pleasures I am embarrassed to admit to. I have no defense. But I know I share some of these sins with some of you.