OK, so we went to see “Knives Out” again the other day. I’ll talk about the movie in a minute when I list off five things that made me super-happy in 2019, but let me get this grump off my chest first: There were 20 minutes of commercials before the movie. Twenty.
I’m not talking about movie previews — as it turns out there were only three previews which felt like a ripoff. No I’m talking about commercials, awful commercials, a Levis commercial, multiple Google commercials, multiple M&M commercials, a flavored tea commercial, a dozen Regal Cinema commercials, a local real estate commercial, an impossibly terrible Cadillac commercial about how it is the perfect car if you have a crew, a truck commercial, I mean it just went on and on and on and on and on.
I realize that companies are having a hard time reaching people through advertising. Nobody watches commercials on television now except during live events. Most of us, if we can, pay extra so we DO NOT HAVE to endure commercials. Print newspapers are, tragically, near death so you can’t advertise there. Mailers are thrown out instantly. Internet ads are being blipped out by apps. I get it. It’s hard to get the word out.
But jamming us with commercials before movies is an absolute travesty. What, we’re not paying ENOUGH to get a commercial free experience? Those $339 buckets of popcorn are not paying the bills? It just feels so greedy, so utterly and shamelessly mercenary for movie theaters to trap us and hold us down and make us sit through an endless stream of commercials. ever after we paid a fortune to watch “Frozen 2.” I’m not sure what can be done about it, but we need a hero to stop this immediately.
OK, fine, that’s the end of the 2019 negativity. Onward and upward.
The Baseball 100 rolls along. I have no earthly idea how I am going to make it all the way through. But I must. I truly must.
I also wrote the season-ending Browns Diary entry — another season, another fiasco, another fired head coach. One thing about the Browns, they don’t give me much rest. Now I’m sure I’ll have to write about the coaching search and write again when they inevitably hire the wrong person and maybe write again when they fire GM John Dorsey, which is what usually happens around this time.
I really do want to thank everyone who went out and got my book “The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini.” I know that it was an out-there topic. I know some of you bought it despite not caring one bit about Harry Houdini. Thank you. Writing it was one of the great joys of my life. I’m deeply proud of it, and I’m so thrilled with the reaction.
And now, yes, I’m thinking hard about how to write a baseball book that will blow you away. More on that as I figured it out.
— I can’t tell you how thrilled I was do the EconTalk podcast with my friend Russ Roberts. We talked about Houdini, about celebrity, about Springsteen, about parenting, yeah, we covered pretty much everything.
— I’m going to be in Columbus in a couple of weeks for the MagiFest Convention, and I cannot wait.
— Because the Baseball 100 is taking up pretty much every waking moment, I’m going to go a bit lighter on the Hall of Fame coverage this year. But I am going to try to give you here in the weekly newsletter a little bit on every player on the ballot, and I’ll announce my votes as we close in on the big day, January 21.
Five Happy Things
There were many things that made me happy in 2019 — even if it seemed like a bleak year on so many fronts. Here are just five of them in no particular order:
Well, first of all: Knives Out is great. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s a little big mind-bending, it has wonderful actors, you know, all of those things that joyous and superb films have. But there was something special about Knives Out for me. I realize this might not make sense but it’s simply this: It was just a good movie.
That’s all. It didn’t exist for any other reason. It wasn’t part of a series. It didn’t feature a world in danger or a war in progress or an alien attack. It made some subtle points about the times we’re in, but it wasn’t about grand injustices, heroes facing impossible odds or psychotic villains coming of age. There was no animation, no CGI effects, no slapstick comedy, no excessive violence to thrill.
I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with any of these things — indeed, almost every movie we see features some of that. But that’s the point: Knives out was just different.
The star of the film was the dialogue — brilliant, sharp, funny, deep.
The star of the film was the understated performances — every single character, even the most minor of them, made you feel something, no two people bled together.
The star of the film was the cinematography and the music and, yes, the way everybody in it seemed to be having the time of their life.
Here’s how much I loved it: Without giving away any spoilers — I think the less you know the more you’ll love it — you probably know that Daniel Craig plays a detective and he has a comically overblown Southern accent. I hear some Savannah in it, but it’s really just over-the-top. When he first did it, I laughed; it was so ridiculous to see and hear anyone, but especially Daniel Craig doing that accent.
But as the movie went on, I came to utterly adore that accent. It actually was perfect. The voice became its own character in this bright and exuberant movie, and to see the way it bounced off the glorious Ana de Armas, the edgy Chris Evans, the spectacular Jamie Lee Curtis and the sublimely goofy Toni Collette, it was priceless. Knives Out was by far the most fun I had in the theaters even in a year that ended the Avengers series, ended the Star Wars series, and had Spiderman far from home.
Seeing Mike Birbiglia’s “The New One.”
There are two comedy specials on this list — there could be more. I thought this was an incredible year for comedy. The thing that made Mike Birbiglia’s show so fabulous and moving and hilarious is how beautifully written it is (you might find this writing thing to be a trend on this list). The show is about something seemingly so simple — the arc of becoming a parent. It was a particularly vivid arc in Birbiglia’s case for reasons that I will let him tell you (the special is now on Netflix).
The magic of the show is how he makes what is so personal universal … and what is so universal personal. The specifics of Mike’s life are very different from mine and from yours. Very different. And yet, everything he talked about — even things like sleeping in a special sheet to prevent him from sleepwalking and possibly hurting himself and others — felt utterly familiar because of the way he told the stories. I cannot tell you how many times my wife Margo and I turned to each other and gave that, “Yep,” smile even though none of it really matched our own lives.
I laughed about as hard as I have ever laughed at a show and I walked away feeling transformed somehow. I don’t know how a show can do much more than that.
Going to see the Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals play with our daughters, Elizabeth and Katie.
Until a week ago, this was going to be “Watching the Netflix version of Bruce Springsteen on Broadway with Elizabeth.” I actually saw Springsteen perform on Broadway twice, once with one of my best friends in the world Brian, and once with Margo (and Oakland A’s general manager David Forst, though that wasn’t planned).
But it meant even more somehow to watch it with Elizabeth on television. It is strange how Elizabeth, just as she’s about ready to head off for college, becomes more and more like me. She suddenly became a big sports fan. She suddenly showed interest in journalism (despite my constant warnings). She suddenly loved Springsteen. I have no idea how any of this happened, but watching Springsteen sing his heart out and tell his stories and seeing the impact this had on Elizabeth, well, I didn’t think anything would surpass that.
Then, last week, on a lark, we decided to take her and her younger sister Katie up to Raleigh to see an NHL game. My thought was that it was a huge gap in their childhoods having never been to a hockey game. It was a huge gap in my childhood too; I never went to a hockey game as a kid. That has bummed me out ever since because while I like hockey a lot I wonder if I can ever love it because I never really saw it through the eyes of a kid.
Then we went to see the Canes and Capitals and, though I thought it would be fun for them, it was a hundred times better than I expected. The girls fell in love with the sport instantly. I mean INSTANTLY. It’s a funny thing about hockey — people who don’t know the sport are often intimidated by it. I was. All those rules. Offsides feels confusing. Icing feels confusing. The players shuffle in and out so quickly. The penalties can seem random. The puck can be hard to follow.
But the truth is that you don’t need to know ANY of that stuff to fall in love with hockey. The game moves so fast. The puck moves so fast. And the basic idea — trying to get a puck into a tiny net that is blocked by a giant goalie wearing giant pads — is so mind-twisting you don’t need to know anything else. How is it even possible?
When a hockey goal is scored, like when a soccer goal is scored, there’s no feeling quite like that. We happened to go to a game where 10 goals were scored. We happened to go to a game where Alex Ovechkin, maybe the greatest goal scorer ever, banged in a power-play goal. We happened to go to a game the Canes won, and that meant they did their funny and thrilling storm surge celebration, and the place felt electric, and the girls begged for their own Hurricanes jerseys, and they have not stopped babbling about their love of hockey ever since.
So maybe I can become a hockey fan after all, seeing it through their eyes.
The Holiday PosCast
I have no idea how my life has been so lucky. But it has. In 2017, Mike Schur and I decided to have a holiday draft of holiday songs with some of our friends. The list that first year included then Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy, NPR’s pop culture correspondent Linda Holmes, television critic Alan Sepinwall and then show runner for The Tonight Show Mike DiCenzo.
It was a ridiculous and stupid draft, in large part because Brandon McCarthy with his first pick took “Christmas Eve / Sarjevo,” by Trans-Siberian Orchestra. This year, through my buddy Brian, we were able to send Brandon and his wife Amanda to a TSO concert. His review is on the latest PosCast and it it worth hearing.
Then, last year, we decided to do the draft all over again, this time adding the brilliant Nick Offerman to the roster. We drafted holiday characters.
It was a ridiculous and stupid draft, in large part because Sepinwall drafted Phil Connors from “Groundhog Day,” on the basis that by “holiday characters,” we had not limited him to the December holidays. This led him to the conclusion that Phil Connors — the Bill Murray character — was a perfectly legal and clever pick. He has not been nor ever will be forgiven for that or being a Yankees fan.
This year, we added the brilliant comedy writer Megan Amram to the group, and we drafted Holiday foods, and it is undoubtedly the most ridiculous and stupidest draft we have done yet. As Mike says, the one certainty about the PosCast is that it will get progressively dumber with every episode we do. It is both a scientific inevitability and a promise.
We had a bet, by the way, on this year’s draft. I put up a poll, and we all agreed to give money to charity of the winner. I’m proud now to announce those results.*
*Warning: These picks will make absolutely no sense at all if you have not listened to the PosCast. At the same time, these picks will make absolutely no sense at all if you have listened to the PosCast.
First place: Nick Offerman (stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn my way — special Offerman recipe), 28.1%
Nick’s charity is Would Works, a wonderful non-profit in Los Angeles that creates and sells wood products hand crafted by people in financial need. It’s awesome. Please join us in donating.
Second place: Alan Sepinwall (Potato latkes, brisket, chocolate chip cookies for Santa), 25.2%
Third place: Linda Holmes (sugar cookie, piecrust cookie which is apparently different, warm apple cider with booze), 12.9%
Fourth place: Brandy McCarthy (Duck á l’orange, Soylent Meal Replacement Shake, one black decaf cup of coffeee), 12.4%.
Fifth place: Mike DiCenzo (Pumpkin pie, gravy, peanut butter blossom cookies with Hershey’s kiss on top), 9.0%
Sixth place: Nobody (with winnings going to me), 6.2%
Seventh place: Megan Amram (Hot cranberry sauce, cold water (so refreshing), Hanukkah gelt), 3.7%
Eighth place: Michael Schur (Peppermint bark, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, eggnog).
Seeing these picks all in one place is a good reminds of just how spectacularly stupid this year’s draft was. What a joy to be part of it.
Gary Gulman’s “The Great Depresh.”
I fell in love with Gary’s comedy the first time I heard it. We became friends years later, just after he went through the most devastating time of his life, a period of time when his depression was so debilitating that he couldn’t even read a book. He couldn’t get out of bed. His wife and family and friends wondered if he would ever make it out.
Gary did with this what great artists do — he wrote and wrote, delved as deep into himself and into the pain as he could go, and somehow turned it into a brilliant comedy show. The Great Depresh, which is streaming on HBO, is almost indescribable in that it is about pain and yet it is healing, it is about sadness and yet it’s impossibly exuberant, it is about feeling dead inside and yet it’s about all about the jubilation of life.
I think Gary is happy now to go on to the next thing. He’s got a whole new show that’s entirely different. I know it was hard on him, living and reliving his worst moments so that he could create this show. He is, at heart, someone who loves finding those funny things that the rest of us miss. He wants to let his mind go to those hysterical places so he can think up the best things about the old DiscMan (No. 1: Shuffle!) or ponder the mysteries of why grape and grapefruit have such similar names.
But we are all so much richer for him having made The Great Depresh. It’s about depression. And it will make you happy.