David Letterman: This Thinking Person’s Talk Show Host

Posted on January 5th, 2004 in Commentary,Television by EngineerBoy

When I was a younger man I regularly watched Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. Then, one day, a new show came on after Carson…Late Night with David Letterman. I watched it a few times…it was sort of weird, and the host was a gap-toothed former weatherman from Indiana with a very skewed, strange sense of humor, an acerbic manner, and a very low tolerance for self-important celebrities and BS, which was a very new (and seemingly counter-intuitive) concept for a talk show host.

He did strange things, like drop stuff off of buildings, run over stuff with steamrollers, and he put on a Velcro suit (and used a trampoline to launch himself up and stick to a wall), a suit of suet (and went into an enclosure and let birds feed off of him), and a suit of Alka Seltzer (and was lowered into a tank of water). He did segments from the perspective of his dog Bob, and he strapped cameras to monkeys and let them run loose in the studio. He had the show’s writers and crew members, who were obviously not polished performers, participate in skits and segments with varying (but almost always funny) results. He had weird recurring segments that only became funny after several repetitions, like “Camping with Barry White”, where the R&B legend would be onstage in a mocked-up campsite, and Dave would join him and get sage outdoor advice. It was weird, it was funny, and it was un-Carson-like.

And I found that I began watching Letterman more regularly than Carson. It eventually became obvious that Johnny was winding down, only hosting a few times a week, and although he was one of the greatest talk show hosts of all time, you could tell he had hit the wall and was just going through the motions. Meanwhile Dave was getting funnier, smoother (for Dave), and more creative. It looked like a shoe-in for Dave to take over the Tonight Show, as he was the natural heir to the late-night throne.

Changing of the Guard

At this point Jay Leno had been installed as Johnny’s permanent guest host, and his ratings were good. Jay was (and is) one of the great stand-up comedians, and he seems like one of the few genuinely nice people in show business. When Johnny finally announced his retirement, NBC was faced with a decision — Jay or Dave. As we all know, they picked Jay, so then Dave moved to CBS to go head-to-head with Jay. I followed Dave over to CBS, but I also would check out Jay from time to time, since I was a fan of his stand-up comedy.

And what I found was that Jay usually had a strong opening monologue, and it was usually longer than Dave’s, and often funnier, in a “stand-up comedy” sense. However, Dave’s monologues were usually wittier and more sublime/absurd, as opposed to punchline/rimshot funny. And for me, ultimately, Dave’s sensibilities stood the test of time and also held my attention and my interest.

Golden Globes Fashion Report 2004

Posted on January 2nd, 2004 in Fashion by mynagirl

Click here for the CURRENT YEAR’S Golden Globes Report

This is the 2004 report.

Classy:

Reba McEntire in a beautiful black number, low cut but unfussy
Alicia Silverstone in a boatnecked black sheath with a bit of a cutaway, paired with gorgeous chandelier earrings
Charlize Theron in pale yellow ruffles
The always her own style icon Gwen Stefani in a pale white column with a bow at the waist
The golden Uma Thurman in azure blue satin ruffles
Bill Murray with the close-cropped white beard and a classy suit

Unimpressive:

Mary Louise Parker’s black velvet low cut strapped dress
Renee Zellwegger’s blue and black cocktail dress
Sarah Jessica Parker in a horrific charcoal sequined explosion
Catherine Zeta-Jones in a boring blank tank dress

Yuck:

J-Lo in a persimmon Grecian shift with horrible pale gold lamé (leather?) straps
Megan Mullally’s unflattering tight and unadorned coffee-colored dress
Nicole Kidman’s horrifyingly indescribable skinned mermaid number with freaky gold-headband hair
Sting’s sparse chest hair and pendant necklace (although his wife looked nice)
Johnny Depp’s overly Johnny Depp’ed outfit with the hat, messy hair, and the glasses

American Idol (***)

Posted on January 2nd, 2004 in American Idol by EngineerBoy

“There’s Simon Cowell, who folks wanna disembowel, he opens his mouth, always says something foul, they’re dyin’, wow, wannabes are cryin’ now, he votes ‘em off, time to throw in the towel” — from “Couch Potato” by Weird Al Yankovich

This is the third season of American Idol. Until recently I had been snidely proud of the fact that I had never watched one single episode of any reality TV series. I even averted my eyes in disdain/disgust from commercials for reality shows.

But no longer. Three nights ago, purely out of curiosity, we (well me, but then Mynagirl got interested, too) tuned into the season premiere of American Idol. Then two nights ago we watched the second installment. Then last night we watched the third. Tonight we are lamenting that we have to wait until next week to see more. We’re hooked.

There had only been three shows that had hooked us in recent memory. Alias, 24, and anything related to poker. Now there are four. We put American Idol on a TiVo Season Pass, which is the highest compliment we can pay to a show. Is it Tuesday yet??

Mea Culpa
There are very few occasions when I am this wrong about how much I would like something. For example, I was sure that I would hate the movies Nine to Five and Moulin Rouge, but I loved them. Also, when the TV series Friends was in its fourth or fifth year, I worked with a group of folks who loved it. Loved it. I had never seen an episode, but I could tell from what I knew about the show that there was no way I could ever care about, nor be amused by, the cavorting and canoodling of six young Manhattanites. I was quite disdainful, mocking the show and my cow-orkers inexplicable interest in it to no end. Now I love the show, love the characters, know their life stories, care about what happens to them, and regret mocking my former cow-orkers. Could I be any more sorry?

And now add American Idol to the list. I don’t specifically recall ever making fun of the show to any fans, or mocking anyone for liking it, but I’m sure that I did, and I must say that I apologize. I have always known the shtick of the show…go to different cities and have wannabes try out in a singing contest, bring the finalists together and let the people choose. The finalists are selected by a panel of judges: Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson. The whole thing is taped and the highlights of the tryouts and the finals are televised.

And in watching the first three episodes this season, I’ve discovered what Idol fans have always known, which is that the tryouts are grueling, funny, painful, and inspiring. They condense the highlights of the tryouts of a particular city down to a one hour broadcast, but it’s clear that the process lasts much longer, and that the three judges sit and watch/listen to

New Year’s Evening Out: Soul Circus / Soundtrack at the Mercury Room

Posted on January 2nd, 2004 in Commentary,Houston by mynagirl

So, Mynagirl and Engineerboy head out on the town for New Year’s Eve for a little food and dancing at The Mercury Room. I always fancy a chance to dress up sparkly, and Scott very gamely plays along… plus, Soul Circus was the band at Mercury Room, and they are our absolute favorite live band that we’ve heard in Houston.

The Fashion Report for the evening included a Carmen Marc Valvo dress with two layers of silk chiffon covered by a layer of beaded lace paired with a trusty set of Stuart Weitzmans and some new Christmas earrings, plus a sequined flower in the hair. The dress was actually very comfortable, and molto bene for dancing… quite twirly! Scott wore a Tallia Uomo suit with a DKNY dress shirt and a tone-on-tone Ermenegildo Zegna tie. (Ok, maybe none of you care, but I put this article in the Mynagirl category and I’m pretending I write for W magazine, so there. Author’s prerogative).

After dinner, we navigated to the Mercury Room with what I would consider perfect timing: about 10:15 pm. Not old-person early, but shouldn’t be too packed, right? We take the southern path through downtown, cleverly skipping the carcrawl through clubville and whisking our car straight up to the… uh oh… nonexistent valet stand at the Mercury Room. I guess Merc Room gave it up on NYE because of the crowds, so our clever strategy was completely hosed. Twenty minutes and a complete circuit of the clubgoer-packed streets later (well, it was fascinating people watching) we circle back around to the parking lot with a … cough … $40 parking fee.

Scooching across the misting streets, we (thankfully) got to get right in the door because we’d bought tickets in advance (we weren’t gonna risk missing Soul Circus). The band was already in full swing, playing some great funk tunes already! We went straight for the dance floor: Superstitious, Brick House, very rockin’ stuff. The band confused us a bit by telling us they were called Soundtrack, then announcing themselves as Soul Circus and then Soundtrack again… but we recognized most of the people on the stage and the quality of the music was definitely up to par, so we had no complaints.

The band took their first break pretty quickly after we arrived, and the club became pretty smoke filled and packed after that. One of my favorite things about the Mercury Room (not that we’ve gone to many different nightclubs in Houston — we pretty much found that place and we’ve stayed with a good thing since then) is the mixed crowd: couples in their 40′s and 50′s in from the suburbs, young hipsters, gaggles of gorgeous girls on the prowl, and at least one May/December where the December was in her laaaate 40′s and the May was in his 20′s with a satin shirt open to his navel, no lie (“It’s not sexy to scrub for the customer!”). The DJ music was pretty okay,

The Hustler (****)

Posted on January 1st, 2004 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

Mynagirl and I went to see The Hustler last night on the big screen at the Alamo Drafthouse here in Houston. You can read her review of the Alamo Drafthouse (which we both love) right here:

http://www.cleverdonkey.com/ViewArticle.asp?ID=116&Cat=Houston

I have seen The Hustler many times over the years, but never on the big screen, and Mynagirl had never seen the film before in any format. The print was a touch scratchy in places, but overall it was a wonderful experience. The film is very powerful and moody, shot in black-and-white, and almost all of the scenes are set in dank pool halls, dingy apartments, or dark flop houses. I am no fan of film noir, and moody black-and-white is usually an immediate turn-off for me. In my experience, many directors used the moody *look* of film noir to try to *set* the mood, rather than having the mood flow from the combination of plot, characters, sets, and cinematography. In The Hustler the mood is oppressively gray, but not just because it *looks* gray, but because of the grayness of the characters, their lives, their surroundings, and their actions.

Our protagonist is “Fast” Eddie Felson, an extraordinarily skilled pool hustler who has hit the felt ceiling on his way to the top. You see, Fast Eddie has a lot of skill, but at the beginning of the film he has not yet developed the temperament or intelligence necessary to consistently beat equally skilled players. Now, there are only handful of opponents in Fast Eddie’s class, and one of them is Minnesota Fats, the smooth, suave, un-rattle-able, undisputed best there is. Near the beginning of the film, Fast Eddie and Fats engage in a titanic, marathon contest, which ends just as it begins, with Fats as the best there is, and Eddie as a talented loser.

After reading thus far, you may think that this is a movie about shooting pool. It isn’t. Pool is merely the backdrop, the arena in which the male characters contest their manliness in the way that men do. The Hustler is the story of men who think that the arena is all there is to life. The men in this film have no lives outside the arena…no wives, no children, no jobs, no hobbies, no joy. They either compete at the tables, or bet on the outcome of other men’s competitions. The story of this movie is the story of Fast Eddie slowly learning that there’s more to life than shooting pool.

Fast Eddie is played to perfection by a young Paul Newman. Newman plays Fast Eddie as a charming rogue with a razor-sharp pool game. Fast Eddie wants nothing more or less out of life than to beat Minnesota Fats and be acknowledged as the best there is. When his first shot at Fats fails, Eddie starts a downward spiral, abandoning his longtime manager (and friend), and moving in with a woman with her own set of problems.

That woman is Sarah Packard, played by Piper Laurie. Sarah is an

Alamo Drafthouse Theater (****)

Posted on January 1st, 2004 in Houston by mynagirl

http://www.drafthouse.com

West Oaks Mall
Westheimer & Highway 6
Houston Texas
(281) 556-0204

The Alamo Drafthouse is what I’ve long hoped for in a movie theater: a place where I can go watch a first-run movie and also have a decent meal served to me while I watch. It’s pure heaven. I can’t even describe it. If you haven’t gone, GO! Seriously. I know it’s a schlep if you don’t live over on the West side, but it is WORTH it. I know you may think you know how great it would be to get your meal brought to you during a movie, but until you’ve experienced it, you just can’t know how wonderful it is.

We’ve been twice now, once for a first run flick (Kill Bill, Vol. I) and once for a classic film (The Hustler). Both times have proven that the Alamo knows what they’re doing. Seating opens 45 minutes before the show. The theater room is organized into rows of cushy captain’s chairs with groupings of narrow bar-style tables in front of the chair rows. We’ve gone early so that we can kibitz, order the majority of our food and drink, and then ease into the movie while we’re still eating. The wait staff is great; they explain the setup if you’ve never been, and they do a remarkable job of taking continuing orders / bringing refills after the show’s started without disturbing your enjoyment of the movie. Once the lights are out, orders are handled via paper clipped to the table with a minimum of whispering. They continue service throughout the movie, including bringing you popcorn (made with real butter!) if you’ve got room after eating a whole meal.

Alamo has expanded their concept beyond just movies; I know they do this same great theater and food concept for football (college and professional, I believe) and they have a “Mr. Sinus 3000″ series that invites you to deride a ridiculous film in the company of other jeerers. (On our recent trip the promised make-fun-of show was Crossroads, Britney Spears’s road trip movie). The venue often offers more than just a movie for your admission price; when we went to see The Hustler the evening’s program included a 20-minute book reading from a local author who’d written a book on pool halls and 1960′s bachelor culture. We hadn’t really been expecting this facet to the event, but there were other patrons who’d clearly known that this was part of the whole deal and had bought a signed copy of the book before being seated.

The menu itself is wonderfully expansive while not being excessively foofy: burgers and fries (but the deliciously grilled burgers are served with chipotle mayo) but also veggie pizza, garden burgers, sandwiches on focaccia bread, and inventive salads. There’s also a decent beer and wine selection, a full bar with selections like homemade sangria and Italian sodas, and an extensive dessert and coffee menu. Appetizer choices include chips and queso, stuffed jalapenos, mozzarella sticks, and similar fare.

The entire experience is

Ragazza (**½)

Posted on January 1st, 2004 in Houston,Restaurant Reviews by mynagirl

Ragazza

920 Studemont

Houston TX 77007

713 864 3700

We’ve been meaning to try this place since it originally opened as The Rivendell, but the Rivendell closed down so quickly we never got a chance. The new joint, Ragazza, shows the hallmarks of being a vulturous re-incarnation — the strategy is that you let the other guy pour all the money into the fixtures and furnishings and opening the place, then let him spend but not recover enough money to keep the place open, and you then swoop in and set up your own shop at rock-bottom prices without even having to hire a decorator.

The location is a bit odd and may have contributed to the Rivendell’s tough time of it — it’s in the new strip center at the Southeast corner of Montrose and Washington. The neighborhood is definitely going upscale, with the new townhomes and nice apartment houses, but the décor of the restaurant aims a bit too high for a strip center restaurant… even a nice, new, stucco strip center. Even in non-zoned Houston, where eclectic is the name of the game, a stand-alone structure is usually an easier sell than the corner shop at a non-established retail center next to an eyeglass place.

Although the place looked uninviting from the outside (the wood blinds are drawn against the late afternoon sunshine), once inside, Ragazza’s ambiance was very cozy and welcoming on a quiet Thursday evening after work. The ambiance is sort of James Bond ski lodge: pale yellow walls, exposed stone pillars, and really nice cushy half-moon booths for good conversation. As I mentioned, the place definitely aims for upscale: a baby grand piano is just inside the entrance, and waiter was crisply dressed and quite attentive.

After having eaten and paid for an entire meal there, however, I have to say that Ragazza has the feel like they swooped in to buy the upscale restaurant space but they’re not ready (or they don’t have the funding to be) a restaurant at the level that they or their prices aim to be. Please keep in mind that while I’ve worked in several restaurants throughout my life, they were places like “Goodall’s Country Restaurant” and “Goofy’s”… I’m no real expert on white linen cuisine, although a four-year stint in consulting and the fact that I do like to eat has turned me in to something of an aficionado of eating out. Engineerboy, however, has some experience with the business side of finer dining, and so my case before you is based on both our perceptions and conversation about the meal.

Our meal consisted of:

Italian bread with dipping sauce

Glass of Pinot Grigio (for me)

Shrimp bisque

Mushroom Ravioli with Grilled Shrimp

Meal total, before tip: $57

Sorry, I should be able to tell you we each ordered a different appetizer and main dish, but we didn’t; how boring is that?!

First off, the service was excellent; they’re definitely hitting the mark in that category. But the rest of the meal is where I feel they don’t live up to what

Why I Am A Hermit

Posted on January 1st, 2004 in Commentary,Engineerboy by EngineerBoy
A Hermit, But Not Crabby

A Hermit, But Not Crabby

There are people who really enjoy socializing, there are people who merely tolerate it, and there are those who dislike it. I am in the latter category. It’s not that I dislike people, particularly, it’s just that it takes tremendous effort for me to make small talk and be “sociable”. I’m not socially awkward, or anything, and am pretty personable when I put my mind to it. But that’s the issue…I spend my workdays with my professional face on, and the last thing I want to do with my leisure time is put on my sociable face. I want to relax and be myself. And there is a very small circle of people around whom I’m comfortable doing that, and (more importantly) whom are comfortable around me in that mode.

You see, my basic nature is that I’m a surly, sarcastic curmudgeon. I feel that being myself in “socializing” situations is not appropriate, so I have to sort of tone it down and be a bit more sociable, and this takes effort and concentration, so socializing is not relaxing for me in any way. Now, my family knows me and understands that with them I’m all bark and no bite, and don’t take any of my curmudgeonliness seriously (because it’s not meant seriously).

Alone <> Lonely

Also, when I’m not with my close circle of friends/family, I’m very comfortable with my own company. I *like* solitude. In fact, when I’m not with my inner circle, I prefer to be by myself. I know that there are people who are energized and recharged by spending time with people, but I am the opposite. I find time alone to be soothing and rejuvenating, and time spent with non-close friends and acquaintances to be a draining chore. That’s not a reflection in any way on people in general, and does not indicate that I find the individuals themselves to be draining chores. It’s just that I will invariably prefer to spend my time with my inner circle or alone rather than with someone with whom I am not close.

You see, I have come to the conclusion that my available time is divided between four primary categories – Career, Life Maintenance, Family/Leisure Time, and Social Obligations.

Career – I spend a lot of time on my career, but I am fortunate in that I can bring a fair portion of it home and do not have to be chained to my desk to be effective. And in our house there is a routine that the time after work is sort of unstructured, but most evenings includes the whole family at the dining table working on stuff at a sort of a low-intensity, while also interacting and playing things by ear. So, the work at home doesn’t consist of being locked away working intensely and hoping to not be “disturbed”. After-work time is a bouillabaisse of working, talking, watching

Nino’s Italian Restaurant (***)

Posted on January 1st, 2004 in Houston,Restaurant Reviews by mynagirl

Nino’s Restaurant

2817 West Dallas

Houston, Tx 77019

713 522 5120

 

This year we decided to do the big evening out for New Year’s. Our daughter would be up in Indiana (instead of down here in Houston with us) and so we would be left to our own devices for evening entertainment if we so chose. Lucky for us, our favorite live band was playing at our favorite club and we decided to make a whole evening of it.

Of course, the perfect start to that type of evening has to be the just-right spot to eat. In a place like Houston, there are so many great spots to choose from, even when I limited myself to the spots near the house. I was looking for the exact right combination of ambiance, price, location, and food to fit the evening’s adventures. I knew I was going to go dressy with the outfit but I didn’t want to totally over-kill, money-wise, on dinner: it was just going to be the two of us and neither of us are big enough drinkers to make it worth it to go all-out with the wine-and-after-dinner-ports type feast.

I knew I wanted a known quantity; for a fun evening out I wasn’t interested in breaking new ground. Most important on the list was good food. Next was an intimate ambiance, not too clattery. And of course, not too much of a schlep: close to our house (in the Heights), close to downtown. One of my first thoughts was Vincent’s… we love the rotisserie chicken, it’s so close to the house, and it hit that perfect mid-price point I was looking for. When making the reservation, I switched to Vincent’s next-door brother restaurant, Nino’s, instead — similarly wonderful food (including that famous chicken), but with a more intimate atmosphere.

The New Year’s reservations process was pretty straightforward; we had to give a credit card and confirm on the day. We were also warned to get there on time or risk losing our table and that we’d only have a two-hour window for dinner. All seemed like reasonable rules, given the logistics of the holiday. The staff handled everything smoothly when we arrived: they sat us exactly on time at a great little table in the center of the downstairs floor but nestled near a plant stand so it still felt private. Everything proceeded perfectly from there; our orders were taken precisely and accurately, our drinks brought out fairly quickly, and our appetizers, entrées and desserts perfectly spaced. And the food was fabulous! I had Penne alla Vodka (pasta in a tomato cream sauce with vodka, one of my favorites) and Scott had the Pollo Pasquale (chicken stuffed with sausage and mushrooms, very tasty)!

The very precision of our food delivery, actually, was an amazing feat: going out on New Year’s Eve is pretty much like going out on prom night and Mother’s Day all rolled into one; even a well-oiled restaurant machine can get overwhelmed with large conflagrations of young couples and big family