Monday, April 15, 2024

TV Quote of the Day (‘30 Rock,’ With ‘Country Jenna’ Foreshadowing ‘Country Carter’)

Jenna Maroney [played by Jane Krakowski]: “Did you hear what happened? I am so upset.”

Liz Lemon [played by Tina Fey]:Oh, no. Okay, let me explain...”

Jenna: “I came in here to shoot these tennis promos, and they had blue gels on the lights. You know that makes my teeth look see-through. You weren't here to do your job, Liz.”

Liz: “Okay, well, Josh quit.”

Jenna: “Who? Jack's counting on Country Jenna to save the show, but I just want to understand what it is that's distracting you from the one thing you've been told to do.”

Liz: “Really? You wanna know what I've been doing?”

Jenna: “Yes, Liz. Enlighten me.”

Liz: “Jack is hiring a new cast member.”

Jenna [Screaming at the top of her lungs]: “If it is a blonde woman, I will kill myself!” — 30 Rock, Season 4, Episode 1, “Season 4,” original air date Oct. 15, 2009, teleplay by Tina Fey, directed by Don Scardino

Quote of the Day (James Kaplan, on How ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Was Unlike Anything on TV Before)

“The show [Curb Your Enthusiasm] wasn't quite like anything that had been on TV before. The real-life details (there were deadpan talking-head interviews with [Jerry] Seinfeld, [Richard] Lewis, Jason Alexander, and Rick Newman, the founder of Catch a Rising Star), the handheld camera (an acknowledged presence in several scenes), and the improvised dialogue made the show much closer to the bone than Seinfeld. Seinfeld was scherzo, its fun stemming from the constantly shifting play among its troupe of four. [Larry] David's new form was simpler and starker. There was a basic triangle: Larry; Jeff, his manager, who helps get him into trouble (usually in the form of telling lies and keeping secrets Larry being spectacularly bad at the latter); and Cheryl, his wife, who calls him to account.”— American novelist, journalist, and biographer James Kaplan, “Angry Middle-Aged Man,” The New Yorker, Jan. 19, 2004

I came across this quote and the larger article from which it comes a couple of days after the series finale of Curb Your Enthusiasm. I bet that James Kaplan never thought that the subject of his profile, Larry David, expected his show to conclude a full two decades later.

The factors that Kaplan points out did make the show unusual, and, indeed, account for much of the devoted audience it built over the years. 

But, I would argue, David’s series only follows in the footsteps of Garry Shandling’s talk-show parody, The Larry Sanders Show, in what I have heard called a “neuroticon.”

This mini-genre follows, documentary-style, a prominent figure in TV comedy—or, rather, his highly exaggerated alter ego—through his self-absorbed, often self-defeating, private life—or, as Kaplan puts it, “routinely managing to annoy or infuriate everyone around him.”

That protagonist interacts with equally exaggerated versions of real-life celebrities who frequently are the star’s friends. The main character eventually irritates his long-suffering wife enough that she grows tired of his antics and divorces him.

Given the public attention and affluence that have come to David over the last 35 years, it was a surprise for me to read, in Kaplan’s profile, that, before Seinfeld was picked up, David was “a standup comic in trouble...middle-aged, single, living in a building with subsidized housing for artists on the West Side of Manhattan, and just scraping up.”

Every time he took the stage as a stand-up comedian, David told Kaplan, he was “taking my life in my hands…Every time I went up, I thought I was putting my life on the line.”

It didn’t get any better with the pitch that David and friend Jerry Seinfeld made to NBC executives for what became Seinfeld. Whatever these suits were feeling about the proposed star, “they would have gotten rid of me without even thinking about it,” David remembered.

Believe it or not, in a viewing habit similar to The Larry Sanders Show, I only began to watch David’s HBO sitcom after it had concluded filming. Now, I am finding out what I missed over 12 seasons and nearly a quarter-century—and, through streaming, have gotten a close relative to do likewise.

Many longtime viewers will cherish moments from this comedy of cringe for a long, long time from now, as Abby Alten Schwartz explains in this February article from The Huffington Post.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Marilynne Robinson, on the Bible’s ‘Interest in the Human’)

“The remarkable realism of the Bible, the voices it captures, the characterization it achieves, are products of an interest in the human that has no parallel in ancient literature. The Lord stands back, so to speak. The text does not blur the unlikeness of the mortal and the divine by giving us demigods.” —American novelist-essayist Marilynne Robinson, Reading Genesis (2024)

The image accompanying this post, Abraham and Isaac (also known as The Sacrifice of Isaac), was created by the Venetian painter Titian (ca. 1488-1576).

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Quote of the Day (William Cowper, on the Perils of ‘The Castaway’)

“No voice divine the storm allay'd,
         No light propitious shone;
When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
         We perish'd, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm'd in deeper gulfs than he.”—English poet William Cowper (1731–1800), “The Castaway” (1799)
I know what you’re thinking: that picture sure doesn’t look like any William I know. And you are right.
A week ago, after not encountering it since it first played in theaters, I watched the 1990s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, directed by Ang Lee.
It includes this scene with Kate Winslet, in one of her earliest screen roles, as Marianne Dashwood—who, in a display of her sensitive, romantic, at times overwrought, temperament, reads from this Cowper poem—an embodiment of her emotional crisis of the moment. (Austen, it turns out, greatly admired Cowper's work.)

Friday, April 12, 2024

This Day in TV History (Georgia Engel, Ted’s Sweet-Voiced Wife on ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ Dies)


Apr. 12, 2019— Georgia Engel, an actress who achieved the greatest fame of her five-decade career in her mid-20s, as wide-eyed, sweet-voiced innocent Georgette on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, died at age 70 in Princeton, NJ.

The cause of death was undetermined, because Ms. Engel, a Christian Scientist, had not sought medical for any ailment.

I have had a longstanding fascination in Ms. Engel, and not just because she became a delightful addition to The Mary Tyler Moore Show in its third season.

I find that one takes an extra interest in a well-known person if a relative has encountered that person somewhere. It gives you a sense, though sometimes illusory, that you might know more about this individual than the public does.

That was the case with me, as a favorite uncle of mine, a doorman in Ms. Engel’s New York apartment building, told me once, with a smile, that she was like her character on the great sitcom: “just as nice…and just as dumb.”

For a long time, I accepted that judgment unquestioningly. Now, I am not only uncertain that Ms. Engel was like this, but I tend to doubt it. The dumb part, that is.

It’s not just because actors are often more complicated than the rest of us—able to play multiple character types—but also because many people mistakenly think that individuals with soft, often childlike voices are not smart.

It took a while, but by early adulthood I had learned from familiarity with people with these voices that this was a gross misreading of their brain power.

Ms. Engel’s high-pitched voice was not a trick, the way that Melissa Rauch’s was when playing Bernadette on The Big Bang Theory. It was hers, and it often led to being stereotyped as a dumb blonde.

But those who thought that way in Hollywood did her an injustice. As paradoxical as it may seem, it takes intelligence to play naivete convincingly. In this respect, Ms. Engel was following the path taken by the Oscar-winning Judy Holliday in films like Adam’s Rib and Born Yesterday.

When Ms. Engel joined the cast of MTM, she ended up filling voids left by Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman when they departed for the spinoffs Rhoda and Phyllis, respectively. She provided a perspective outside the walls of WJM that went missing without Rhoda and Phyllis.

Georgette’s presence as the girlfriend (and later, wife) of Ted Baxter allowed viewers to see the stentorian anchorman not merely as egotistical, but as needy and vulnerable—more human, in other words. 

As Alexis Gunderson's fine tribute to the character (and actress) from Paste back in February 2022 notes, her "apparent obliviousness to the rotten parts of life ends up being her superpower."

Moreover, dedication, self-discipline, and adaptability enabled Ms. Engel to maintain a viable long-term career long after MTM ended its seven-season run in 1977. 

I was thrilled, decades later, to see her appearances on Everybody Loves Raymond, and New York-area theater fans grew to cherish her in musicals like The Drowsy Chaperone and Half Time.

Quote of the Day (Jane Austen, on a Great Benefit of Chaperoning Youths)

“By the bye, as I must leave off being young, I find many douceurs in being a sort of chaperon, for I am put on the sofa near the fire and can drink as much wine as I like.”—English novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817), letter of Nov. 6, 1813, in Letters of Jane Austen, edited by Edward Hugessen Knatchbull-Hugessen (Brabourne Edition)

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Quote of the Day (Laura McKowen, on How ‘Anything is Possible Right Now’)

“Nothing in the future exists yet. But anything is possible right now. Including the thing you think you cannot do.”— American memoirist Laura McKowen, We Are the Luckiest: The Surprising Magic of a Sober Life (2020)