‘The Comcast Evening News’

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Walter Cronkite brought us the evening news for decades; we watched in awe. Uncle Walter packaged stories of import that made tens of millions stop, sit, lean forward, and grab it in. There was never a doubt that Cronkite was in charge.

These days we have Brian Williams presenting segments that are for the most part neatly packaged promos with a tie-in to Universal and Comcast. NBC’s daddy has a huge portfolio of lower-rated cable networks that Comcast feels must be showcased on the network news. These include the Weather Channel, NBC Sports Net, USA Network, Cloo, and even a new African American storytelling site (theGrio), all of which are mentioned in more than half of what’s covered in News With Brian Williams (not including the previews of NBC’s Dateline).

Where a sacred shroud of church and state existed during Cronkite’s day — entertainment programming knew nothing about the news division and vice versa — has gone by the wayside thanks to new-fashioned desperation in the form of memos from the TV gods.

Williams keeps losing his cred as he brings on “experts” from various Comcast holdings — see early May’s letter to the Justice Department about Comcast by Sen. Franken — and hypes the latest Universal movie in segments, wincing all the while. Like most wage earners Williams must believe he’s imminently replaceable and the hardworking chap can still see skid marks where Tom Brokaw was pushed out. He probably thinks they can wind up a new anchor via the hype machine called “NBC.”

Yes, network advertisers are mentioned in the news all the time. (It’s comical when a sanctimonious reporters act as though that never happens.) But corporate entities make news and many of the giants are solvent enough to run ads too. As for the giggly morning shows, these have been promoting primetime programming with gusto between stories about menopause since J. Fred Muggs — the chimp — hosted Today in the ’50s.

But a well-preserved, ultimately brief, news show has a duty not to produce three segments about USA Network’s airing a 50th anniversary telecast of To Kill A Mockingbird; or do nightly storm stories right after its parent buys the Weather Channel; or hype meaningless sports hours to help low-rated NBC Sports Network. These aren’t reasons to use 22 measly minutes allotted for informational programming.

And Williams is no innocent. He joyfully previews news-free interviews coming up on his own Rock Center With Brian Williams, NBC’s “Dateline Lite” that keeps getting new time slots searching for viewers (Monday, Wednesday, Friday–now off the air during May Sweeps). NBC This self-promotional NBC Gone Wild is so out of control that last month Weekend Evening News host Lester Holt ran five minutes of a commencement address he gave at Pepperdine U!

If the network news producers act like weaselly pegs in oversized conglomerated wheels while the bosses dictate all movements then it’s soon going to be hard to tell what is news from what is a commercial for Comcast.

Watching actual ads on the evening news (i.e., must-pee pills for erectile dysfunction or overactive bladders) prove there isn’t a lot of demand to advertise. So cancel the evening news, already, and produce 30 minutes of promos of shows on Comcast properties rather than pretending 6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. is news. This new show is exactly what E! Entertainment Television — NBC’s closest sister — does with ease.

Comcast owns or co-owns more than 25 networks and sites — iVillage, A&E, History, Oxygen, Golf Channel and DailyCandy to start — and many were smart investments. But ripping apart the proud peacock when NBC News has better ratings than its weak nighttime lineup is sure to lessen Comcast’s value. What’s bad for viewers is bad for shareholders.

It’s likely “creatives” like Williams and Holt have built enough goodwill within NBC to ignore the baser objectives of their bosses. I remember how, after Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus talked to the media about her new show Watching Ellie. She said she refused to allow network executives on the set. The quick-witted star snorted: “As if any notes from the network has ever helped a show.”
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How To Fame

Posture is life.

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What you say and do, along with how you say and do things are obviously important components of the new verb faming, but achieving favorable results with these two things alone isn’t a sufficient accomplishment: We must always consider who we are with everything we say and do. A scattered personality during communication will be detrimental to the message you’re trying to express. We have to be certain who we are in relation to what we are saying.

We see this disparity constantly in the retail world. Take for example two very successful businesses: Wal-Mart and that religious icon, the Apple Store. Employees of both essentially serve the same function: Sell To People. The difference is that at Wal-Mart, we think about the employees as indifferent sales people who have a job to do. They stock the shelves and do what’s required, but they don’t have more than minimal interest in providing assistance. (Though the greeters sure are a nice touch, eh?) At the Apple Store, however, we see real-time folks who just want to get us what we need…people genuinely interested in helping us! Gosh, doesn’t their fascination and loyalty shine through?

The message is the same, and the position is the same, but the posture could not be more different.

    No way, no how.

As you go about your everyday activities (and here’s a hint: don’t do anything in rote-manner every single day if you want to seem “different”) while you interact with colleagues, friends and executives, think about how you’re posturing yourself - and then ask yourself some questions:

Am I present?

If you aren’t aware of what’s going on in front of you (but instead, thinking about your endless To-Do list), your apathy will come across as arrogance and indifference. Show genuine interest by looking at the person you’re talking to and acknowledge what they are saying with questions and comments.

Do I have a positive attitude?

Positivity brings optimism to your life and is often contagious. A positive attitude is a state of mind and it’s one worth your time to develop and strengthen. Remember, nobody wants to hang out with a Debbie Downer or a Negative Nelson! (I love the name Nelson…) Incidentally, I will talk about whining in a few minutes give me time

Am I prepared to tackle the new?

Hey I don’t want to sound new agey here but a challenge is the thing that makes you strong. If you aren’t prepared and at the ready for whatever comes your way – no matter what curve ball– you just aren’t posturing. We don’t always have the answers immediately, but the key is to remain in control and confidant so as to come up with a solution. Demonstrating effective crisis management skills shows your ability to be a quick thinker, stay calm in the midst of turmoil and negotiate. Hone in on these skills and show your ability to move from crisis to opportunity.

Never say the words “I don’t know”. Find out… Just go and get the answer. And please, don’t tell me “I don’t know” should be followed (in you speech mind you) with “I’ll go find out.” That’s what the first words should be, dammit. See Gumby for more - please.

Oh, and am I motivating others?

We all know that to succeed we must find something to focus on that both motivates and inspires us. Be the “thing” that gets people around you UP and MOVING! Provide answers, new ways to approach challenges, and come up with ideas for success. By inspiring others, you will engender trust and loyalty. You must know that, but often forget…. When people think of you as the engenderer of loyalty and trust, you are in a fantastic position.

Am I respected?

If those around you don’t respect you, you might as well close up shop now and jot an Out of Business sign on your forehead (tattoos “r” us). When we admire the accomplishments of others we inevitably come to see their value and importance! This positive feeling of esteem is earned - over time – through our actions alone, not by spewing hyperbole.

So go ahead, crank up the volume and let Aretha’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T get you pumped –I also recommend Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up” –and demonstrate you’re a person of real worth.

Do I Act Like I Give A Crap?

I probably don’t need to explain that.

Improve Your Life (and Those Of Others)

breaking-bad-habits.jpgEvery day we act in ways that don’t move us forward. I stay in bed longer than needed, sue me. With that here are a few late-year ideas on ways to make everyone around you like you some and tips on how to be a better human:

1. Stop using “!” in email subject lines since you’re not as important as you think you are. Remember nothing is urgent except babies flying out of mothers. And stop blind-copying. This is a big eyeroll and people will think less of you (and thinking is hard to do).

2. When stepping into an elevator turn off all contraptions and talk to the person there. Try a few human steps and maybe Orwell can stop spinning in his grave!

3. When driving just drive. Try it once. No CD changing, satellite connecting, phone dialing, talking to yourself, text making, makeup wearing, seat adjusting, screaming at back seat person, even singing. “Accidents will happen. I don’t want to hear it /Cause I know what I’ve done.” (Thanks Elvis.)

4. Pick up the phone and call someone with whom you sport-mail constantly (back and forth, forth and back) but haven’t called in — no, no you’ve never called! Voices carry. Indeed.

5. Grab a piece of trash on the way to work (stop — not a person) or Starbucks. After dropping the trash in the can, spritz your hand with Purell when you arrive.

6. Say one fabulous and positive thingat random about your spouse, whether you feel like it or not. To anyone.

7. Count your change. I bet you half the time there’s a mistake there. Let the cashier know they got caught. The crowd behind you will cheer…

8. Ask someone — anyone — for help. Even if you have to pretend you don’t know everything. This act always surprises people. Then you’re not the jackass they thought.

9. Read something that surprises you, and share it with someone you don’t ordinarily like. See the response. Then watch the relationship change in seconds.

10.First breathe. And then speak. Three breaths, deep and strong. It’s stunning what happens when things that come to you in your own addled head stay there.

11.Ignore the newest technology. For once. Don’t run to the Apple Store. Damn it, watching the last episode of Grey’s Anatomy on your new techno-toaster is not a good use of your glasses.. If we put a machine down for seven seconds an hour, we become better than Neanderthals. Vonnegut will smile down from wherever he is.

Thanks for playing. Now try and become a better words of wise-ass-ness than me. I dare you.

Are you still reading?

@laermer good

…being in Athens as it falls down

athens_plus1.jpgAthens is the dirtiest, foulest, most-disorganized city I’ve visited in decades. The capital city of Greece is ripe with pollution; there isn’t a motorbike that doesn’t snort emissions far worse than cars. I can’t get enough of it and you can sense the excitement in every section of town. Each person wants to help make this nation great again.

I am drawn to the pact the citizens have made with each other to do whatever it takes to improve the bad scene that scares everyone I’ve met. (Bizarrely, there is nonstop graffiti on every pubic available space that appears to be an encouraged outlet!) Still, if you ask any Athenian he will tell you “I have no idea how to fix this. I just know doing it will be painful for us all.” To fix this place there must be some consensus on what went wrong, and this Government can’t even say that is decisions have been bad for decades.

Not a political reporter by trade, I have spent four decades running towards cultural happenings before their awareness is widely known for magazines, newspapers, TV commentary–and via fiery blog posts. Here in Civil War Athens I blanched when I was first told about the Government’s policies on getting away with it - there isn’t anything the Greek Government won’t do for its friends - and I wonder if the organized strikes the world witnesses so casually are only the first spark of hell for this godforsaken place.

The entire town sat still for 48 hours while protesters took over the city square, forcing every business that sold anything to shut down in solidarity. (It’s wild to find everything here being unionized while none of these groups are, to the naked eye , connected by ideals.) The local pharmacy closed to protest a law that says anyone with a permit–even an optometrist–can naturally pass it down to his next of kin. This is madness. If you own a taxi medallion you can hand it to anyone you know at a price set–by you.

This is a place that, since the torturing junta was thrown out in 1974, turned to a definition of democracy that says “Here!” Public sector jobs are given to whoever the giver knows. There are no standards here–a recent census proved every family has an unwarranted worker among them. d. There has been a general acceptance of tax evasion for anyone who has a cash business including service pros, General Contractors and any smartass who could take cash. The only people who hate these facts are the ones in the streets now. Does this sound famili A relatively small percentage of the nation makes a lot of money–and everyone is under- or unemployed. Sound familiar? made a lot of people rich–and the rest of the people unemployed. It is such a known fact how Greece has been bilked by its childish leaders and “those in the know,” in its shamelessness it renders Bernie Ebbers and that Tyco freak petty thieves. Only thing that surprises Greek citizens is how long it took for these outrageous backwards laws, a known house of cards, to bankrupt the whole nation.

Patronage is a word that you don’t hear much in the “first world”. Here it is a matter of record. The citizens are asking millions of Greeks with work paid for by Government to stop their selfishness and think of the whole: They want workers to work in jobs that are sanctioned; they know some of them will be unemployed and sacrifice is the word everyone throws around. It may seem comical to the British or American, but no one in Greece has ever been “made redundant” and yet there are more than two people doing every public sector job. So this is political nightmare that can only be undone when tough, swallowable rules are voted upon. Don’t forget: two years ago when the I.M.F. asked leaders how many Government employees existed the answer was no one had ever counted!

Older people and young kids are holding placards in the city center alongside those you expect at a loud protest. (Police are reticent to act; they appear to recognize friends in the crowd.) All the people are asking, from where I stand, is that jobs are kept by the ones who work their asses off and pay correct taxes–jobs that are unnecessary must cease. And, yes, union heads must agree to take concessions in order for the European Union to loan Greece all the funds it needs to keep it from losing incoming travelers.

After a week here I believe that these leaders are childish and scared to change; and that Greek professional workers will never accept those in power. A lady I like here said: “You have laws in your country and we don’t. I’d hope Americans realize how lucky they are every day.”

I am proud of all Greeks in what I am calling the European Fall because although it is hard to breathe the air and the trash guys still refuse to budge, no one is fleeing–I haven’t met anyone who wants to abandon what they started. “Something has got to give,” a lively store clerk said with a sudden sad expression. “I have a job today and am lucky; tomorrow I probably will not. Who can know!” There is a sense Greeks will accept what may come–even if it means the worst. Like all Mediterraneans, at night The Plaka is packed with partiers. I don’t see a lot of Athenians staying home eating takeout–they need to converge. When I asked a new friend in a trendy café in Gazi–once a slum, now a super-busy Soho–he shrugged. “We will get through it–but we’ll be hard to recognize on the other side.”

It’s difficult to sleep The hotel window is open and the buzz outside is palpable even as the daily The New York Times claims Greece is turning a corner I think not: The nation will fall hard before its revival because no one on any of the multiple sides wants to budge. The next time I come here I’m certain nothing will be the same. There will be many people out of work. Taxes will be paid by people who have never filled out a form. Undeserved funds handed by the European Union–which Greece should never have joined–will have been spent and a hand will be out again. Garbage will be collected by private entities. Each union will ask for concessions and most will be thrown a bone. Yes, strikes will occur every day. The tourist areas will be separated and likely overseen by troops. There will be many people to blame, and a whole country to thank, for the changes. The Ancient Greeks will be proud.

[My new book out in 2012 is titled How To Fame.]

The Recession Needs Balls

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I’ve been hearing a lot of people tell me they won’t do anything gutsy: Friends advising me against certain actions cause someone might react poorly (as if anyone’s paying attention); colleagues warning they think everything should be on pause while the economy recapitulates; partners saying no to events because they think it could hurt their “personal brand” (whatever that latest cliché means); and clients who feel their dulled-out partners might “get mad” over an overly-aggressive PR campaign (their partners couldn’t get press on their own though). Then I’ve overheard many suffering financially tell me they are waiting out this period to see what happens in a kind of take it day by day attitude that emits this kind of what will be will be or it is what it is or what can I do but wait and see. What I call “blah blah blah.”

Guess what? The chips have now fallen once again. Recession is here to stay, and regardless of what Government officials say, this is not a double dip. This is the third one… So get off the floor.

Laziness equals self-importance during a crap economy. If you think somehow things will magically change overnight–look Ma, Dow moved a notch–then you live in a fantasy land and the faster you wake up and stop paying attention to the creeps on TLC and E! Entertainment and DO SOMETHING the better it is for and your bank statement.

Having balls are at issue. The only way to get anything done worth doing is to take risks. No chance taken is wasting precious energy since same old same old sucks; you aren’t doing much to upgrade your position in life. Dare I say: it will help your personal brand?

There is no better time to stand up and say, “Let’s try that ridiculous idea in the office” (and in your personal life too, just imagine) than this goddamn second. It is that simple. If you look at our nation’s checkered history, all the fine successes that came up during down-down periods were when companies, the government or individuals said screw it let’s do it and went head-first to partake of the nuttiest, “over-the-toppest,” and most outrageous thing they could think of in their wildest, and least expensive, dreams.

Why? First, no one is paying attention to you anyway. Everyone is so darn turned inward right now that to get any attention you have to be shouting from a multitude of rooftops (see The Rules below).

Your clients/friends/lovers/associates/bosses/enemies could care less if you’re loud or noisy do because they’re ultimately worried about their own skin. They’ll appreciate you had the chutzpah to make a thing happen when they cannot. (Well, they won’t admit that to you but you’ll sense it.)

As for trouble gathering, it’s like the old saying that I will now make NEW: If it makes you feel good…do it!

There is a big group of workers doing a great noiseless job covering their asses–they worry about keeping their jobs more than doing their jobs. You know the ones: they act like wallpaper and hope to G-d no one notices they’re still there because they just do what they are told. Never make waves, always seem to be on the side of zero activity. Those people are useless. Yeah I know you aren’t one.

Alas, making money in this gargantuan recession is tough; there is not a ton of money for companies to spend. Ah but…when the dust settles ones who excelled with their heart will be remembered; the CYAers whose heads were down will be despised. With that, I offer some assistance.

The 5 Rules For Ballsiness In These Bad Times

1. Be consistent, be yourself
You know, I never thought I’d say this, but you got to hand it to Ex-VP Cheney. He never veers from who he is–even when it’s dastardly! The other day he was asked about the torturing he oversaw and said he wouldn’t take back the decision even if rendered unlawful. That’s an attitude many of us can learn from: not the position he’s taken, but the feeling that what he believes in is not swayable and you can’t make him take it back. In these times that kind of resoluteness is respected.

2. Rule the roost somehow
Find something that you can do at work that no one else can do and MAKE SURE it’s obvious that you are doing it–and well, and a lot of it, and with glee. Oh, and it helps if this is not part of your job! This is not kissing butt; it’s just finding a new way to be useful above and over the norm. Then, when you want to do something outrageous like I’m about to describe, more people will think “Yeah him.”

3. Find the loudest perch–and be a contrarian from atop the thing
Come up with a statement that is contrary to the popular view (like “I hate candy!”) and then get known for it. I’m serious.

4. Think up something fantastic
When you’re falling asleep at night and something weird but doable occurs to you, jump up and type it out on your PDA. Once you determine what you were trying to say, it will be a better idea in the morning. Then that germ of an idea has to be something you talk about with lots of folks. Shift your energy–daydreams and small talk - and get collaborative in a real sense. Don’t be competitive; be outright damning to anyone who thinks it is a bad idea. Remember that if everyone likes it there’s something wrong with the idea–someone has to hate it (it’s the law). And don’t let it get murdered by Committee Think, Inc.

5. Be Known as a Bitta Trouble Maker (Key Word “Bitta”)
Darn! Show off a little. They’re going to talk about you anyway. So in order to wreak havoc, make waves. It’s good to be remembered, particularly since the layoffs are not over, no matter what the economists (wrong) say. Trouble is healthy and yet more common in headier times. These days with so many scaredy cats working at their desks, someone with some verve/gusto will stand out as someone to KNOW. Everyone may be mad at K West, but his tour went on sale Friday and it’s nearly sold out. Trouble? T for paycheck.

And don’t forget: this thinking can help in pursuit of late night activities too.

Bottom line is there is no bottom line. There is no energy or gumption or newness in almost every industry. But you - you! - have one superb idea that is rambunctious and in line with how people are feeling–you can feel its ingeniousnes. I bet you could get others to participate in it, since, uh, they don’t have much going on besides award shows, tweeting, and fantasy football!

You got to be the guy who stands up in middle of a dull meeting and says what are we doing here? As good ole Sally Hogshead, author of “Fascinate”, says: “Never allow the size of your mortgage to exceed the quality of your work!”

Remember you have to secure buy in from everyone you work with. Way to get something going is to sell it, baby. Believe in the idea to such a degree that those whose normal M.O. is to naysay lunch orders might even go “You know! That dude knows what he is talking about.”

Be passionate, have your talking points at the ready, and explain what the agreeable colleague will get for going along. Show them what positivity/money/affirmation will occur should the idea become reality. Make it seem like they co-crafted it by writing down input. Like a Broadway producer once told me: “Never tell prospective investors the production is finished.”

If the ones who pay you paltry cash tell you “no you didn’t” cause you a) took a stand; b) went a little overboard with messaging or c) began to tell it like it is (”Our industry is so slow it’s killing us; it’s time to rush things,”) then you got to find better payers. Maybe you should simply say what I do when someone says to me, Well yes Richard but we should discuss this internally before it goes further….

“Okay I get it. It’s all good. Would you have the person that replaces you call me?”

Tweet @laermer

Ashton Kutcher’s Lateral Move to Nowhere

I just watched half of Ashton Kutcher’s romp-com No Strings Attached. By accident. I laughed at a bit player’s line: “The sounds of your sex are ruining my porn!”

Then I got bored and started staring at my thumbs.

Mr. D. Moore has done the same character in about 12 and a half movies, including the glopped-together Valentine’s Day, where he was, once again, the clueless cluck with a heart of gold. Inevitably, I’m confronted with his movies while on airplanes, and each time I shake my head in wonderment, “WHY is he hired?!” …”Why is HE the lead actor?” … “Can’t they find someone else with more than one expression?!” It’s not as though any of these starring roles — The Guardian, Guess Who, Butterfly Effect, Killers, Just Married, the list is endless — has made any money.

Dude, where’s my actor? Ashton Kutcher is not he. This guy is a puppet (also known as a marionette, which is commonly referred to as a dummy)!

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Which brings me to the news: Hiring his abs, err, this piece of plastic to replace America’s favorite Sheen-wreck in Two And a Half Men makes perfect sense — for Kutcher.

While he may be able to give excellent ghost-written speeches at TED and such events; boast about his one million Twitter follower milestone; handle a pretty good starry marriage to a lady who seems like an actress; talk a good game about causes he believes in, and somehow be credited with the forward to a book on social media … he is not a movie actor as much as a well-honed product placement.

Michael Kelso, the character he handily got us loving in That ’70s Showis Ashton Kutcher. He’s the clumsy, daft guy a lot of women find attractive. It’s what got him started, but sadly, he’s never learned to shake that persona and emerge as a respectable actor.

How about creator Chuck Lorre does something different … actually makes an “actor” of him? Shake it up! Bring him back on 2 ½ as the long lost gay cousin … or, shave his head, give him nerd glasses and make him gain 100 lbs. or wear a fat suit. Will the ladies still drool? Who cares. Pay for the guy’s scene classes and wash that perpetually goofy grin away. Otherwise we might just start missing Tiger Blood–at least ratings wise.

Kutcher possesses none of the traits thrown at him. He’s not this big social media guru; he tweets. As for his huge Twitter following, you do know that once you follow him you are unable to unfollow him, eh? Sneaky bastid. AK plays a public part that changes constantly and he does it quite well. Every choreographed move in this man’s life is strategically pieced together by his posse.

I’m glad — for Lorre’s sake, and for the goober mainstream media’s — that a bright-eyed, good-looking malleable Hollywood star has taken that asshole’s place in a show a lot of people like. I hope everyone at CBS is aware, though, that his ratings popularity is, just like Whoopi Goldberg’s, not guaranteed. Pre-The View a multitude of Whoopi’s movies, books, comedy shows and theater gigs fell with loud crashes; she always does well on TMZ“though. [Her unread autobiography was, not ironically, titled Book!]

The big Ash could pull off his new TV gig if he tunes in and recognizes the need for an eight-year-old show to evolve into something brand new AND different. This is a gig in which he desperately must succeed. We all know he is that guy who while not a trained actor (see above) can perform for his supper. As Daniel Tosh might say, “I thank him.” Because dumb is as dumb does.

But, do we have to be just as idiotic to watch?

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A portion of the above was originally created for HuffingtonPost but got killed by its AOL-purchased editors; do you think they’re in bed with Ashton Kutcher? I am not upset about it.

Find me on Twitter posing as @laermer. I’ll let you unfollow.

Award Shows Mean Nothing–And We Can’t Get Enough

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Let’s say you go to work, like me, and at the end of the year you get an award for doing your job. Silly, right? Wrong. That is what the “self-servicing” entertainment industries do: give awards for best film, music, TV, book, magazine, and hairstyle (well, not that).

Hello, and welcome to the world of award shows, one that will go away when TV becomes interactive and people vote for what they want. This year awards are being brought to you by–well, everyone! It normally happens in January, when entertainment groups consisting of no more than 200 people who were appointed by a politically inept process randomly select the best of last year’s crop. Strangely, it’s usually the same overhyped products that get all the groups’ awards. Funny.

And it’s a big moneymaking enterprise, involving sponsorship and hype and a lot of people paying (and thus begging) to be part of the process.

The awards biz has grown by leaps and bounds by every network on earth. Neil Patrick Harris is rich due to our insistence on a host who sings for his supper. The trend is that every organization wants to, or must, be the first to handicap the best film–or predict which blasé song or actor or drapemaker on a TV set is going to be the one that [fill in the year] will be forever remembered by.

So while televised award shows are tremendous opportunities to see our favorite singers and actors pimp their best in lights and colors and smoke (note recent Grammys), doesn’t it seem that every time a performer is on TV, you just saw him telling the same joke or singing the same product? Worse is when they go on a talk show and talk about the product. Each one is always the best experience with the best crew, script, team, director, hairstylist.

A few years back I was shocked–not Casablanca shocked–to see Chris Rock appear on two award shows in the sam week making the same lame joke about former Giuliani: “Rudy in a crisis is perfect–he’s like a pit bull. It’s great if somebody’s breaking in your house. But if they’re not, then, you know, the pit bull might eat your kids.” Even the cool are swept up in awards mania. It’s like a disease and an eye roll intertwined.

Could it be that the people who appear on those shows actually have an album or movie or book or surfboard line that was just released? Let’s pause to see how much of a wink rather than a contest these programs have become. Otherwise, you’d still hear “The winner is” instead of a wince-inducing “The Oscar goes to . . .”

I have nothing against good works of people who sing for their supper, but I never got an award for being best CEO of a veteran public relations company. (RLMpr turns 20 on March 1; cards and gifts are welcomed but keep the tributes silent.) I think that most entrepreneurs and people who work for a living would find an over-the-top acknowledgment embarrassing and a waste of time.

In the near future, as everyone on earth begins to get their due for being astutely funny or formerly fat or finding a new career (thanks, Bravo and VH1 for resurrecting dead celebs), good folks who work hard to enliven the world will get deserved pats on the back and the award show business will start to seem as silly and pointless as–an award show.

So we could make a pact: we decide right here and now that all writers and all filmmakers and kazoo players did their job really well and we thank them. By law, each will receive a letter from whoever pays them that merely say: “Hey, good job!”

Entertainment is a business that sells in a Darwinian fashion. What does the best mean now? Just what’s hot.

Talent matters little while shocking matters most. The most forgettable part of our culture always seems to win out. But we can change that.

That said, I’ll be tweeting the Oscars Sunday the 27th. I hope I win something for my efforts! Join me, yeah?

The Inanity of Fame & The Death of Gerry Rafferty

It’s so damn sad to think of anyone spending years in a room, depressed and drinking and hoping for a better life. But it’s worse when it is someone you thought “had it all.” Reading about the death of Gerry Rafferty, whom you had to know if you turned on a radio once in the late ’70s, was like poring over the news of someone Dickens might have conjured up. And once again proves that being famous, rich, or beloved by millions is hardly the life that we think it is.

Rafferty, who passed on January 4 at age 63 from alcoholism that had ravaged his liver, was one-half of the infamous duo Stealers Wheel, whose anthem “Stuck In The Middle With You” was sung in the manner of a Dylan song because the duo was mocking how Mr. Dylan made everything folky sound so damn serious (”Clowns to the left of me /Jokers to the right”). But if you watch the myriad YouTube videos of young Gerry, with his dark glasses and his unsmiling mouth, you get the sense that being in the limelight was hardly what he wanted to happen.

Rafferty defined multi-talented: a fascinating lyricist, musical savant who wrote relevant and often sad stories about those around him. Gerry Rafferty was everything nearly all of today’s pop stars aren’t (do you need a list?). On that note, I think a lot of us wander by street musicians who aren’t courted by conglomerate labels and think “Man, I hope you are going to make it big one day.” But what if he doesn’t? What if that isn’t the case and the stoop is his big, happy, momentous break?

I found out last night that Rafferty released a comeback CD in 2009–more than a dozen gorgeous songs that I, a well-informed media comber, didn’t even know existed. When he was interviewed a few years back at his home in Scotland, he explained that his slight outpouring over the years (a few songs, a few vocals, producing one record) was wholly due to his depressive state. It turned out that being famous and pushed/prodded/pumped for more (and Stealer writes about it in the song “Star”) was light years from a reality he’d imagined. And he didn’t want any of it.

This wasn’t a half-assed “George Michael”-style moaning. He didn’t publicly declare how fame made his life bad, boo-hoo. It was more complicated–and this is where I learned about Rafferty’s Dickensian life: In interviews for his 2009 comeback–ironically titled “Life Goes On”–the musician declared that his life started out a mess (a drunk father who beat him and his mother), moved into the phase where he fought with band members until he was forbidden to record solo (hello, lawyers), and then released “Baker Street,” a single that brought him to superfame and so defined 1978 for tens of millions that till death he continued to make $125k a year from it alone. (Rafferty wasn’t living on the streets.)

He recorded for several more years after the success of his first LP, then stopped; got married and subsequently divorced; and tried like hell to fight his way back into art by recording songs that, like the fast-paced “Right Down The Line” had been kept in people’s hearts and playlists because they simply too good, and never seemed dated.

I didn’t know what happened to Rafferty until now; posts like this one appear when the Twittersphere spends more than a day spitting out knowledge and wishes about a singer most of us didn’t think about. But he wasn’t neglected. Tarantino used “Stuck In The Middle” in that big bloody moment inside Reservoir Dogs. And when a Rafferty tune started, whether on Sirius, in a department store, on a DVD, or my Mom’s cassette player, I wondered if there was a Gerry Rafferty out there producing tracks for newbies like so many other 12-hit-wonders after tiring of music business vultures. Yes, Gerry Rafferty was an icon and an idol for many generations; I learned this by browsing the thousand garage-band cover versions of “Baker Street” on every video site imaginable. No, Gerry Rafferty did not have a career during these undefined decades. It appears he was just trying to rise from a stupor.

I am left with a burning question. If he’d had a lesser fame like that of Steve Forbert, who in the 70’s went gold with a single (”Romeo’s Tune” or “Meet Met In The Middle of the Day”), would Rafferty have been able to live like Stevie and record a CD every year, change genres at will–Forbert is a kind of elder statesman in Nashville now–and keep doing what he loved most?

I can hope that would not have been drinking.

[Ending on a happy note: Take a sweet look at how much people adored Gerry Rafferty and watch this 2-minute random short film called Gerry Rafferty Takes Up The Bongos.Rafferty Dead At 63

I’m tweeting about pop culture via @laermer

The Last Decade & Mediocrity……A Look Ahead

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There’s a Kurt Vonnegut short (very short) story called Harrison Bergeron. In it the United States Handicapper General, under the auspices of the 211th, 212th, and 213th Constitutional Amendments, has stamped out individual talents and characteristics for the sake of total unimpeded equality. The population is fed mindless entertainment, all their memories periodically wiped clean. It isn’t torture, not exactly, nor is it intolerable. It’s just mediocre. Imposed, entrenched mediocrity.

And it is terrifying.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that our current moment is anything like this Vonnegutian nightmare. But it was close to this for the last decade. We weren’t physically burdened by actual weights meant to “level the field”, nor did buzzing alarms trigger mass distraction and short-term amnesia. Intelligence and beauty are not outlawed. We still had our wits and our various beacons — in politics, culture, athletics, the arts, and so forth. And yes (or no), we were not suffocated by comprehensive, dystopian egalitarianism.

Things did seem during the unfriendly 2000s to be damn mediocre! We seemed to be waiting, on pause, not necessarily with bated breath so much as with Lunesta and an Us Weekly. It was as though we’d been treading water beneath mostly gray skies for a seriously long time, without a “Look, land in sight!” We were weary, we’re wary, and rather than swim for shore we floated straight-laced and glazed. Our so-called entertainment stood in for our current events (quotes left out for obviousness). Our political anger was sooner directed toward straw men than funneled into substantive policy debate and prescription. And while we don’t loll about hamstrung by the Handicapper, world citizens did tend to diminish or ignore our most natural advantages. Our enormous opportunities — many of them unique to America — for renewable alternative energy. Our once-prodigious diplomatic capital. Our heavy industry. Our edge in scientific and technological innovation.

So ready for good news: We did not die out nor did it turn out we were living a post-American life. And Newsweek was sold for a dollar to an old geezer destined to destroy its whiny words of nothingness and bold headlines that made us feel worse. Now we are starting to scrape the sky. We’ve since become — not in every way, but in a lot of ways — just a wee bit more than average. In our actions and in our expectations, we stop this toeing of that safe, paunchy middle.

Look back. Kennedy promised the moon by a decade’s end — it happened. WW II’s Greatest Generation was asked to tighten belts and roll up their sleeves — they did. And while these admittedly cherry-picked examples might have been nothing more than a function of their unique times, is it easy to imagine us reflexively rising to the moment in ours? Look where we stood for nine-and-two-thirds endless years: on a precipice, always told of danger and devastation. But even with terrorism, climate change, one or two constantly-simmering wars, genocide abroad, a credit crunch affecting us till we cried “Uncle”, and countless other messes the newest century has brought..what precisely defines US (not Us)? Had we struck out with renewed vigor? Had we succumbed to fear? Neither. We are slowly becoming less mediocre. We’re embracing a new term.

Like our heroes, a lobotomized couple who are at the center of Harrison Bergeron, we sensed something wasn’t right from 2001-2010. We knew we ought to be breaking inertia. And this unease wasn’t just a tickle in the recesses of our minds because, behold, it has pushed itself front and center. But what will do the trick and wake us all from the stupor (stop checking your email while reading this)? Could it be another catastrophe? Web 7.0? One of those Tea candidates that actually won? Or will it not be so dramatic, this eventual extrication from the muck of mucks? Might it be more like the car you rock back and forth until what had been an inconspicuous gathering of momentum launches it back onto the road with a heart-starting roar?

Let’s forget the 2000s. Things today aren’t so terrible; they are (to use a teen word) ‘meh’. I know that most of us feel that: plateau coasting is better than a downward spiral. But the Internet-savvy 1990s were notable ONLY for jejune prosperity. Those unnamed 2000s are remembered for the steady unease we could never shake.

I proclaim a promising decade starts in 2011. It will be nothing like its immediate predecessor–because that would be the saddest sign ever. Means we’d be living inside a pattern of room temperature mediocrity that hasn’t soured us but kept us looking down, at our laps gazing at the latest text or news. (Taylor Swift has a new CD out; it’s everywhere.)

Look forward. . . only forward.

Like-minded ideas are found in the book 2011: Trendspotting for the Next Decade, now out in whatever you want it to be.

[On twitter via @laermer for laughs and reportage.]
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Special Episode of “The El Show” (El-ection Day Wrap-up)

The regular Tuesday El Show on Blog Talk Radio was interrupted this Election Day for a special with guests anchor David Brancaccio and ad man Steve Cone. Listen in. But here is a summation just so you know what’s in store:

    Blog Talk Radio Presents “The El Show: El-ection Day Special”

On this Election Day special, I start off with an idea there won’t be much change in these mid-term elections which I find arguably disappointing since I’m really a big believer in change. Joined in this discussion is David Brancaccio from Public Radio’s “Marketplace” (former host of the fabulous “NOW” on PBS) who takes a different standpoint and claims that these mid-terms will result in change and that is due to the issue of money. David claims that the economy plays a big part in determining the election despite education being the classic fundamental issue of elections in the past. He says that despite economic indicators saying we’re coming out the hole, consumer confidence is down which gets people annoyed and they lash out on the polls. With certain politicians losing their seats, despite not making an obvious difference, David believes the makeup of congress dictates how money flows so as more republicans come in, money flows change which in turn affects how large companies choose to invest. However, I point out to David: let’s be real. I feel precarious about the true scale of change that is going to happen particularly in the next two years, not just because a lot of people aren’t showing up to vote except for the partisan supporters on either side, but also because even if certain politicians get displaced for others within their party, they’re still going to stick to party lines as there’s not enough passion out there to make radical changes.

Speaking of passion, David brings in the youth element arguing that there’s neither the passion among the youth to register to vote nor the interest due to the disappointment from the lack of change that was promised to them at the last election. Many just look and see the same old thing. Obama was an opportunity lost to the in-house politics and fighting and less focus on what’s for the greater good (my feeling). David blames the media too for focusing too much coverage on these issues, making it out to be a sports race and less on how much peoples votes can actually make a difference. Negative advertising and campaigning, said to have cost a staggering $1 billion this election, doesn’t necessarily make people want support the one releasing the negative campaign. If anything it just puts more people off voting because it all gets blurred together, where everyone is made to look like the bad guy, hardly good publicity for Congress’ already low approval ratings. So after all the money spent they shouldn’t be surprised when turn out is low. Although sticking to his argument that this election will matter, David argues that low turn-out has historically benefited the Republicans.

So we turn to the ad whiz Steve Cone (”Steal These Ideas”) who has noticed that the theme of voter’s sentiment is to “throw the rascals out” )to quote Norman Mailer) and to “get rid of the incumbents”. Cone, too, is disappointed to see just how much money has been spent on negative advertising arguing that 90% of adverts are negative and found the same correlation that it doesn’t swing votes. In fact, he believes its backfiring on all politicians as it makes them out to be crooks. He has yet to see an advert that he believes is of good quality and that a campaigner could be proud of. The only people they appeal to and persuade to come out and vote are the extremists and already committed. We both believe that a more successful candidate would be one who came out with a feel good campaign such as what Spitzer did and Cuomo just completed in New York, promising to weed out the crooks on both sides.

A solution that Steve proposes is that candidates should be more aggressive at seeking people out online, use technology to make people feel engaged like President Obama did in his successful campaign. Rather than spending obscene amounts of money on ineffective adverts, they would get more votes by using the Internet as its cheap, easy, interactive and most people are online these days. Politicians should ask people what they want to see in an advert, what issues they want addressing and resulting in more effective advertisements that they can say are approved by the people. Adverts need some form of response mechanism to get feedback from their viewers.

As a final note to end the show is the very true statement that everyone should vote because if you don’t vote you can’t complain! To listen to the whole kaboodle: http://blogtalkradio.com/TheElShow. Play it.

Don’t forget The El Show is live and taking calls every Tuesday at 9 AM e.t.

Twitter @theelshow and @laermer

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