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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 15, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Grinder, Carriers, Monologue, Weird

Rob Lowe is a terrific actor who is able to pull a lot of comedy out of mocking his own pretty-boy image. It works because he is able to do the most outrageous things with a completely straight face.

This worked for him during his excellent stint on Parks and Recreation, and it's also working for him in the title role on his new Fox series, The Grinder. In it he plays Dean Sanderson, an actor who starred for eight seasons as "The Grinder" -- an in-your-face lawyer on a television show, where he was always able to get the Real Criminal to confess.

Now the series is over, and Dean comes home to Boise, Idaho, where he moves in with his brother, Stewart ... who really is a lawyer. (By the way, Idahoans from the Boise area pronounce it with an unvoiced S: boy-cee. And those who would say, "but in French the S would be voiced," should remember that in French it would be pronounced with one syllable: bwahz. Like the word "Appalachian," the correct pronunciation is the local one. So it's funny when they say it wrong in the show.)

Stewart Sanderson, played by Fred Savage, didn't really like his brother's tv show, largely because it was so unbelievable.

But Dean believes that his nearly two hundred episodes have given him real experience and insight into the practice of law, and because Dean's and Stewart's dad (played by William Devane) is the managing partner in the law practice, and Dean is clearly his favorite son, the actor is allowed to sit in on all the firm's meetings.

Serious question here, my lawyer friends: Wouldn't it put confidentiality at risk to let a completely unqualified civilian attend meetings where the most secret client information is discussed?

But never mind; Suits is possibly the best legal series ever on television, and that's the whole premise of the show.

The difference is that in Suits, very few people know that Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams) isn't really a lawyer, largely because he really went to law school, has passed the bar exam multiple times (helping other would-be lawyers cheat their way into practice), and is brilliant at the job.

By contrast, on The Grinder, Dean Sanderson did not go to law school, his show was as fake as, say, Perry Mason, and everybody knows that he's not really a lawyer.

He's accepted by many other lawyers because of the Corleone effect. Just as many mobsters learned how they ought to behave by watching The Godfather and emulating either Marlon Brando or Al Pacino, it seems that the lawyers (in Boise, at least) yearn to be as cool as Dean Sanderson was when playing "The Grinder" on TV, and so instead of protesting his presence, they suck up to him shamelessly.

Except one new partner in the firm, Claire Lacoste (Natalie Morales), who not only doesn't like any of Dean Sanderson's ideas, but also doesn't want to sleep with him. To Dean, this is proof that she's a mole, secretly passing the firm's secrets to their rivals.

The show is evenly divided between the office and home, where Stewart's wife, Debbie (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) puts up with Dean's outrageous behavior with aplomb. But Stewart is really worried about Dean's pernicious influence over his children, Lizzie (Hana Hayes) and Ethan (Connor Kalopsis).

Here's what's good about The Grinder:

1. Every actor. They all give convincing performances, and they are all playing their parts absolutely straight -- there's no mugging for the camera, no playing to the joke. They treat their characters as real human beings, which makes them far funnier than anybody on, say, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, where almost everybody performs as if they were on a sketch comedy show.

I must single out Fred Savage, who makes his character's exasperation and patience believable by turns. He's one of the few good child actors who made a strong transition into playing adult roles (others include Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael J. Fox, Jason Bateman, Ricky Schroder, Elijah Wood, and ... and ...)

And speaking of child actors, Connor Kalopsis, playing Ethan, is absolutely real -- and funny. For those who care, Connor Kalopsis -- right now, by age, personality, and talent -- would have made the perfect Ender Wiggin, if someone were interested in filming that story about children with actual children. That can't happen, of course, but I fully expect that Kalopsis will have the chops to make it as a teen actor and as an adult.

2. The writing. I really don't know whom to credit as the show runner (i.e., head writer), because seven people have executive producer credits; but perhaps special notice might be given to Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul because they also have Creator credits. The gags never seem strained, they all arise out of characters and relationships, and they devote at least as much attention to making the family scenes work as the law-practice ones.

Yet with acting and writing going so well, I'm not sure I'm going to be able to keep watching the show, because ...

Well, it's what Johnny Carson used to say: "Buy the premise, buy the bit." And I don't buy the premise. Because it's a sketch-comedy premise, being written and performed by real writers and real actors. All the relationships that work are completely undercut by the unbelievability of the two lawyers allowing son-and-brother Dean even to finish a sentence in meetings that they should never have allowed him to attend in the first place.

And, in true warmed-over SNL tradition, Dean's inane maunderings inevitably lead to something good, in every episode so far.

I also fear Jon Cryer syndrome, from Two and a Half Men, where Cryer's character was never allowed a single triumphant episode, even though he was actually a decent human being. It was like Pretty in Pink, replayed week after week, where the studmuffin defeated Duckie every time.

I dread that outcome for The Grinder because we like Fred Savage's character, while Rob Lowe's character is so slimy and vain that if he is not given a serious comeuppance and a chance to grow as a human being, he is going to become that most deadly thing on a sitcom: boring.

Meanwhile, though, the first couple of episodes have been quite enjoyable, and if the writers can find their way out of their sketch-comedy premise and into a sitcom about characters genuinely growing and changing, there's hope. It happened for Frasier. Why not The Grinder?

*

John McPhee is a New Yorker writer. That can mean one of two things -- knee-jerk pretentious literary far-left rants; or long, deep, thoughtful, well-researched essays that set the standard for journalistic achievement.

McPhee is the latter sort -- a real journalist who doesn't write until he knows what he's talking about. His first assignment for The New Yorker was to do a piece on oranges. His research was so thorough that the resulting essay was so long it had to be cut savagely in order to fit it into the magazine -- and later it became quite a wonderful book, Oranges, back in 1975.

(Did you know that some kinds of oranges go through an orange-colored phase before they're ripe, but turn back to green when they're finally ripe enough to pick? Did you know that citrus seeds might, if planted, spring forth as any citrus fruit -- a lime tree from an orange seed, a grapefruit from a lemon seed? That's why they graft from bearing fruit trees onto strong roots, so they know what they're going to get.)

McPhee's book Uncommon Carriers is a collection of reasonable-length essays tied together very loosely by the theme of commercial freight transportation. Long-haul truckers with owner-operated rigs; UPS package sorting systems; a canal boat on the Illinois River; ore trains serving the Wyoming coalfields; and even a canoe trip up the Merrimack River, duplicating a journey taken (and written about) back in the 1800s by the insufferable beloved Henry David Thoreau.

Each essay is a jewel in itself, especially because McPhee has the common touch -- the gift of being able to converse as an equal with people in any walk of life. He does not condescend to truck drivers, bargemen, lobstermen, or train conductors. Instead, he finds much to respect about all of them, and they, sensing the genuineness of his interest, share with him details of their lives and work that allow us readers to get a strong sense of having worked alongside them.

I listened to Uncommon Carriers in a version read by the author himself, and found that his voice was clear and pleasant, so that listening to this raconteur never palled. Best of all, though not every word or name was pronounced correctly, it was certain that they were all exactly as the author pronounces them.

I found myself, in all cases but one (McPhee apparently worships Thoreau; I do not; nuff said), wishing that I could have gone on listening, to hear the material that I know McPhee left out. But the best writers always leave us wanting more.

*

Jon Macks wrote jokes for Jay Leno throughout his tenure on the Tonight Show, but his memoir Monologue: What Makes America Laugh Before Bed (well narrated by Johnny Heller) is not confined to Tonight or Leno.

Macks seemed to stumble into comedy writing -- a fact that will make many a would-be comedy writer grind his or her teeth. But the truth is, either you have an eye and an ear for what's funny, or you don't, and if you do, your hard-earned success will look easy, even lucky, to those who lack that gift.

The actual crafting of a joke requires relentless and ruthless rewriting, because a funny idea can be wrecked by one wrong or out-of-place word, and because a joke that works in one comic's voice will die miserably when spoken by another, equally talented comic -- unless the joke is rewritten for his or her particular rhythms, accent, style, and personality.

Macks's memoir is not itself a comedy; while he repeats many of the jokes he wrote for politicians and comedians, the heart of the story is his progression through a truly fascinating career. Macks launched himself on the world, not as a joke writer, but as a political consultant, helping manage campaigns -- and write or tweak speeches -- for a lot of politicians.

He was good at his political management career, but he seems to have believed a doctrine I have long propounded: Nobody should pursue the same career for more than ten or fifteen years, because you start to think that's who you are, and then if the career ends, you are lost.

Success in your first career can often trap you, because if you make a good deal of money you start to depend on that income stream. It's very hard to take a step back and start another career, because it will often entail a radical change of lifestyle.

I've known quite a few people who've done it, though. Some because they had to -- their previous job simply evaporated, or health issues required a change -- and some, like Macks, because an opportunity came along to turn a hobby into a career and they jumped at the chance.

The book is brief -- as an audiobook, it clocks in at only four-and-a-half hours, unabridged (a normal-length mystery novel, for instance, is three or four times that length).

It's most valuable for its backstage look at how comedy is made. While The Dick Van Dyke Show gave us the most entertaining version of talk-show comedy writing, Macks's account is more accurate. And when he sums up the influence, importance, and quality of the various late-night monologuists, his thoughts are well worth hearing.

Soon after listening to Monologue and Uncommon Carriers, I listened to another good read-by-the-author book, Felicia Day's wonderful You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost). Day was an intelligent, hardworking, lonely home-schooled child of hippie-wannabe parents, who graduated from college with a straight A average, a prodigious violin talent, and majors in both music and mathematics. And she became a top-level online gamer.

In other words, her picture might easily appear under "geek" in the dictionary -- except that she's way too pretty to fit the cliche.

Despite her two highly demanding college majors, her dream had always been to act, and so she bounded off to Los Angeles, where, with sickening ease, she quickly found her way into a perfectly serviceable career acting in commercials.

I know a lot of struggling actors in Los Angeles who would be profoundly grateful if they could get enough gigs in commercials to live on that income without waiting tables or parking cars.

But, like any other normal human, Day soon took her amazing good fortune for granted and longed to do something more than play bit parts in commercials. Playing Lady Macbeth or Gwendolen Fairfax was still remote from what she was doing for a living.

So she turned for human company to online gaming, and became, in a word, an addict. To the point that she missed auditions in order to log more hours on World of Warcraft, and found herself lying to her women's support group to conceal her addiction.

But with their encouragement and help, Day eventually turned her online gaming experiences into a pioneering web-series, The Guild, back in 2007. This was only eight years ago, but in those days putting original episodes on the Web was weird and impractical. Yet because Day is a wonderful writer and actor, and because she really knew the world of online gaming, The Guild immediately struck a chord with the online gaming community, and it became a hit.

On the Web, in those days, being an online hit didn't automatically translate into money. So after a couple of episodes, Felicia Day turned to crowd-funding before crowd-funding existed. There was no Kickstarter or Indiegogo; she asked for her fans to fund the show through PayPal -- and they came through for her.

Only after she had run the series for a couple of years did real money come through, and now, after the series has ended, she still makes a nice living from an online production company. So her story has a happy ending -- despite crippling depression and severe bouts of writers block along the way.

Day's mix of self-deprecation and brag is always entertaining -- and, like Macks, she demonstrates why only writers can write their own show-biz memoirs. Much younger than Macks, Day has a lot fewer years to tell about, and her future career remains an open book.

But she also goes into way more detail about her formative years, so her book is about a third-again longer than Monologue. Don't worry, though. She's a superb reader -- no, speaker -- of her own writing, and your attention will never flag.

Interestingly, both books do stumble -- just a little -- on the same factor: Both Macks and Day are oblivious to their own far-Left bias. No, they don't shy away from mentioning their political beliefs, and yes, they are both careful not to allow their books to preach. In fact, I'm sure they're both convinced that they were absolutely even-handed. And, like most human beings, they both proved that they could not see how their beliefs slanted their writing.

Macks openly prides himself on the fact that he had friends in both parties and wrote jokes for Republican and Democratic candidates. He is also quite sure that Leno was even-handed in his treatment of the two parties.

The fact is that, with rare exceptions, Republicans are attacked with truly damaging "jokes" by all the late-night monologuists, while Democrats are usually tossed softballs that do little or no harm. Hillary Clinton really is the constant, habitual liar that both Bushes were falsely charged with being -- but how many late-night monologuists lay that damaging label on her, compared to the number of jokes that slandered the Bushes with the name of "liar"?

Even within the pages of Macks's own book, you can see the difference between harsh anti-Republican jokes and barely-teasing jokes about Democrats. To line them up and count how many jokes were told about each team does not begin to convey the difference between the kinds of jokes.

Yet I think Macks is quite sincere in claiming to have been balanced. He knew where his political loyalties lay, so he gave himself huge credit for helping Republicans come up with funny lines, while giving himself a pass on jokes that were slanderous and damaging against Republicans. After all, he was sure that they were "true" and might help lead to a Proper Outcome.

Like Macks, Felicia Day makes no apologies for her ardently liberal upbringing, and it is clear that in all her soul-searching, and despite her demonstrated intellect, she has never applied her considerable powers to questioning or doubting the foundations of her own political beliefs.

Certainly she buys into the common habit of political bigots on both sides, to assume the worst possible motive for the actions of people she disagrees with. She does this only near the end of the book, with her account of "Gamergate," and I have no reason to doubt the facts in her telling of the sequence of events.

She is very, very careful to explain how reluctant she was to get involved in the controversy, and then acted only to defend the place of women in the gaming community. She is absolutely right that there were mouth-frothingly savage attacks on women, and even though she knew the response she'd get, it would have been cowardly for her to remain silent.

Yet after her careful, nuanced account of her own motives in speaking out, she then dealt with everyone on the other side as if they were all hate-filled trolls who said the terrible things she quoted.

The truth is that during Gamergate, there were many conversations online about the role of women in the world of gaming, and many if not most participants were either unaware of the beginning of the story in the abuse of one neanderthal's ex-girlfriend, or didn't think it had anything to do with the conversation they were then engaged in.

Many of them responded to what they saw as completely unwarranted attacks on the "boys club" of computer gaming -- and in their view, Felicia Day's whole online life would doubtless serve as a refutation of the most virulent charges of the Social Justice Warriors.

Yet at one point in the book, Felicia Day explicitly refused to accept the idea that anyone who opposed the Feminist Inquisition's view of the gaming world could possibly have any motive but hatred of women, or that there was any difference between those who defended themselves with rational arguments, and those who made threats and called names.

It is ironic to watch today's Leftists embrace blacklisting, punishing, slandering, and silencing their opponents with even more vigor -- and with less civility and restraint -- than the knee-jerk anti-Communists of the McCarthy era: "Senator McCarthy said that fellow is a Communist, so he must be a Communist, and he can never be allowed to work or speak again."

Today's Thought Police are, to put it plainly, exactly the same kind of people as the 50s blacklisters -- conformists who never question the shibboleths of the community whose values they subscribe to. They speak and act as if all accused persons were equally guilty, and must be served with the maximum sentence.

Felicia Day is hardly alone in her blind, un-self-questioning conformity, just as Ronald Reagan was never alone in his anti-Communism -- and Day is far more charming and talented. From every page of Day's memoir, I came to like and admire her more and more. I still do.

How could I possibly condemn Felicia Day for partaking in the bigotry of her community? Just as I would never dream of condemning, say, Christopher Columbus for taking part in some of the deplorable attitudes and practices considered normal in his time and social class, I do not condemn Felicia Day for a few lines in her excellent book.

When it comes to the Inquisition's true believers, she is, in a word, typical. I don't think she's malicious; I take her account of her own motives at face value -- a courtesy that she might consider applying to those who have civilly-expressed disagreements with her. I've had my share of hate mail and slanderous attacks, most of it emanating from those who share Day's beliefs. But I don't believe in guilt by association, and neither should she.

Felicia Day has lived a fascinating life full of courage, hard work, and astonishing achievement. She has changed the world for the better, and she still has many years of accomplishment ahead of her.

So I heartily recommend You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) no matter what your political views are. Moderates and conservatives are long since used to being treated with disdain or despite by the Left, and Felicia Day is far from being an extreme offender. In fact, the overwhelming message of her book is one of tolerance and open-mindedness, and if she strays from these virtues now and then, we can take it in stride and enjoy all the good gifts she brings to us.


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