Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 15, 2010
Every Day Is Special
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Joan Rivers, Lucy's Cookies, SYTYCD
I remember when Phyllis Diller first made a splash -- it was so exciting that an ordinary
housewife, who used to keep the other women in the laundromat laughing, was able to turn it
into a career. We all knew of her fictional husband, Fang, and repeated her endless jokes about
how ugly she was (though most of her "ugliness" was self-inflicted, with her wild hairdo and
Then, after I was married, along came Roseanne Barr. It was so exciting that an ordinary
housewife ... oh, wait. Same thing, with a slightly different flavor. But we did love her droll
self-deprecating wit, until she got so full of herself and so politically correct that she stopped
Joan Rivers has never stopped being funny. And she wasn't an ordinary housewife. Instead,
she was a kid who worked hard to become a serious stage actress -- comedy was just the
parttime job she did in order to pay the bills.
By the time Rivers appeared on Johnny Carson for the first time, she had already been around
the block. In fact, she had been on the Tonight Show before, when Jack Paar was the host. But
Paar didn't seem to understand that when comedians are "interviewed," it's just a continuation of
their standup routine. When Rivers continued cracking jokes during the interview, Paar became
furious and afterward told his staff never to bring her back -- "she lies," he said.
Well, Carson didn't think she was lying, he thought she was funny, and he backed up his
opinion. Not only did he give her extraordinary praise, he also made her his permanent guest-host. And she was terrific at it -- sometimes her shows got better ratings than some of his.
Carson didn't mind. She was his protegee.
Until Fox came to her and made her an offer she couldn't refuse, to do a talk show of her own
that would compete head to head with Carson's. Carson had faced competition before -- and
remained cordial with the hosts. But Rivers was a different case. For one thing, she didn't tell
him about the deal until after it was signed, so he didn't even have a chance to counter-offer or
advise her against it. To Carson, it was a slap in the face from someone to whom he had done
nothing but good, and he never forgave her. They never spoke again.
Worse yet, Rivers's talk show on Fox was a personal disaster. Her ratings were surprisingly
good -- on a startup network she was getting a strong audience share. But it was a constant war
between her and her producer husband Edgar on one side and Fox President Barry Diller and his
boys on the other, until finally they forced Edgar off the show -- and then Joan herself. Her
replacement, Arsenio Hall, apparently pleased Fox more -- though he never got ratings as high
as hers had been.
Then Edgar, apparently blaming himself for the fiasco, committed suicide -- which is when
Joan, in the midst of her grief, discovered that Edgar hadn't been much of a businessman and she
didn't have any money.
So there she was, broke, widowed, unemployed, with Carson's stamp of disapproval on her --
can you say "never work in this town again"? That's about where her life story was back in
1987, when my wife and I read and enjoyed her memoir Enter Talking.
Then we sort of lost track of her. All we knew was that she and her sour-faced daughter Melissa
did the Red Carpet show before the Academy Awards, and that she had a lot of plastic surgery
and wrote a book about it.
Then, a couple of years ago, Joan and Melissa Rivers were on Donald Trump's The Apprentice.
I watched only one episode, but that was enough to let me see that Melissa wasn't just coasting
on Mommy's reputation -- she was a strong producer that got things done and done right.
Unfortunately, that provoked resentment, which got her sabotaged by the other contestants and
booted from the show. But Joan hung in there and got a bit of vicarious revenge -- by winning
the whole season.
That's all I knew of the twenty-five years of Joan Rivers's life since Enter Talking. Until the
documentary movie Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work finally reached Greensboro and my wife and
I went to see it.
The film shows us pretty much everything that happened during the year Joan Rivers turned
75. She opened a play that she wrote and starred in, won The Apprentice, and worked and
traveled on a schedule that would kill me. But the events aren't as important as the woman
We see her vulnerability. Her old dream of being a serious actress was set aside but not
forgotten. When her play gets snotty reviews in London, she decides not to open it in New York
at all -- though, because her fans don't care about reviews, she would certainly have made a lot
of money from it. Why not do it, then? Because it hurt too much to be panned as an actress.
Instead, she does everything that she's offered that promises to make money. She has a staff to
support and a lifestyle to maintain -- and as long as people will pay her to come and be funny,
why should she stop?
And she's funny. Not, however, in the way you might expect. You see, most of us know her
only from her television appearances, where she says outrageous things but keeps the language
more or less clean.
In her stage act, she works blue. Shockingly blue. Saying things that can curl your hair. But
still, always, funny.
When she's off camera, her speech is often a little slurred -- whether by age or the deformations
of plastic surgery or mere weariness, it's hard to guess. But on stage every word is crisp.
One of the highlights of the show is when she gets heckled for having made a deaf-child joke by
a man with a deaf son. This is the sort of thing that can absolutely kill a comedian's
performance -- the audience is embarrassed, and from then on nothing is funny. But Joan
Rivers doesn't take heckling lying down. To watch her yell at the man, turning the moment into
a powerful defense of comedy in the face of tragedy, is downright inspiring.
By the end of the movie, I loved her all over again. I wouldn't take my mother or my sisters to
see her live act -- or this movie. I wouldn't be happy if my wife started talking like her. But my
wife and I loved hearing her talk, even when she was offensive, because the sheer bravura of
each performance, of each day of her life, is invigorating to behold.
And she's funny.
I wouldn't trade lives with her, that's for sure. But I hope I learned something about courage and
hard work from seeing Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.
At a Barnes & Noble in Roanoke, I bought a small package of Lucy's chocolate chip cookies.
They are gluten-free -- and they also contain no milk, eggs, peanuts, or tree nuts. Since the
things the cookies don't contain is practically a recipe for a pretty good cookie, I had to see if
they were actually any good, or just one more punishment inflicted on the allergic.
They're too crisp at first -- not hard as a rock, but crumbly and dry. I usually like moist
cookies, but to my surprise, within a couple of chews they turned out to be delicious after all. I
ate the whole package.
wouldn't reject them at a party or as a movie snack. People with allergies really do have a
To find out more -- including an account of why Dr. Lucy started making up hypo-allergenic
foods -- visit www.drlucys.com.
So You Think You Can Dance ended its seventh season with a very credible winner -- though
in truth all three finalists proved their talent, artistry, and mettle and I hope to see them all dance
This season, the show tried several new things. The biggest change was bringing in all-stars --
graduates of previous seasons of SYTYCD -- to partner with the ten competitors
In previous years, twenty competitors were paired off boy-girl, and one dancer of each sex was
eliminated every week. The problem was that the pairings were not always equal, and
sometimes a very strong dancer's performances were hurt or limited by the weaknesses of her
But this time, none of the dancers was regularly paired with any of the other competitors.
Instead, they were always matched up with partners who had proven themselves again and again.
So besides the pleasure of seeing some of the best dancers from previous seasons again, we got a
competition in which each dancer rose or fell on the basis of their own talent and work.
The changes in the judges' lineup; the injuries that took some of the best dancers out of the
competition too soon; the saga of runners-up Kent and Robert and their growth curve as they
became truly astonishing dancers; the moments of great choreography (and the sniping of the
judges when a choreographer didn't meet their expectations) -- all made for a highly
entertaining season, even though some of my favorites from the auditions didn't make it onto the
It's nice to see a show with a proven formula take the risk of changing it in the hope of
improvement. I consider these experiments a success.
Even the camera work has improved. In previous seasons, the camera got too busy, moving
around and doing closeups so often that we couldn't actually see the dancing. That has been
calmed down, and the camera operators and producers seem to understand now that we want to
let the dancers dance -- we don't need to have the cameras dancing, too.
Only one major change is still needed -- the irritating lights that shine directly at the audience.
Apparently the producers haven't learned the fundamentals of optics -- when a light is shining
directly at you, it makes it nearly impossible to see the dancers between you and the lights.
Either you're too blind to see them or they're too silhouetted to be more than shadows.
It's those lights that will keep me from going to a live performance of the SYTYCD touring
company ever again. And it's annoying how many moments of great dancing are killed by the
bad, distracting lighting design. Dance is a visual art. Light shows are also a visual art. Light
shows, however, do not remotely compare to the power and beauty of dance. And I, for one,
would be grateful if they would stop letting untalented lightshow designers keep blocking us
from enjoying the dancing.
Every Day Is Special
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Thursday, Aug. 19 -- Young Genius Day
The inventor of television, Philo Farnsworth, was born on this day in 1906.
He thought of the basic idea of television while he was still in high school in
Utah (he was a Mormon), and by the age of 21 he had transmitted his first
image -- a dollar sign.
Ogden Nash, born this day in 1902, was best known for the twisted of his
humorous poetry. But he had a more reflective side as well, as shown in his
poem "The Middle":
When I remember bygone days
I think how evening follows morn;
So many I loved were not yet dead,
So many I love were not yet born.
Friday, Aug. 20 -- Chthulu Day
H.P. Lovecraft, the quintessential writer of the branch of horror called "weird
fiction," was born on this day in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island. He lived a
lonely, difficult life, but the "Chthulu Mythos" that formed the metaphysical
background of most of his horror writing has influenced many other writers,
both during his lifetime and since.
I have friends who are devoted to Lovecraft, but I'm afraid I've never seen the
appeal of his fiction. Everything seems overwrought and overwritten. Most of
his disciples seem to be better writers than he was. But he started something
that outlived him, which is more than most artists accomplish.
Edgar Guest, once the most popular poet in America, was born on this day
in 1881, in Birmingham, England, and he lived till 1959. At the age of ten he
moved with his family to Detroit; he became a naturalized citizen of the U.S. in
Usually writing in a country dialect, Guest's poetry appeared in newspapers
everywhere. The opening of his most famous poem, "Home," was universally
It takes a heap o' livin' in a house t' make it home,
A heap o' sun an' shadder, an' ye sometimes have t' roam
Afore ye really 'preciate the things ye lef' behind,
An' hunger fer 'em somehow, with 'em allus on yer mind.
But the part of the poem that made it so powerful to so many readers was
Ye've got t' weep t' make it home, ye've got t' sit an' sigh
An' watch beside a loved one's bed, an' know that Death is nigh;
An' in the stillness o' the night t' see Death's angel come,
An' close the eyes o' her that smiled,
An' leave her sweet voice dumb.
His verse was meant to seem artless, but in fact his poems scanned perfectly,
and while some called the sentiments banal, perhaps it was his critics who had
lost touch with some of the reasons poetry is valued in the first place.
Saturday, Aug. 21 -- First Kill All the Lawyers Day
The American Bar Association was founded on this day in 1878. It has since
become a tool of the far left in American politics, and now uses the prestige
acquired during its more neutral formative years to press for the appointment
of judges who are far, far to the left of the American people. It does this simply
by rating leftist judges higher than conservative ones on ideological grounds
alone (though in all likelihood the lawyers doing the rating are sure that
judicial conservatism is a sign of lesser capacity); the result is that the ABA
bears much of the responsibility for our current Reign of Judicial Dictators,
who make up new legislation and impose it on the American people without
regard for democratic or constitutional process.
Hawaii Admission Day. In 1959 President Eisenhower signed the
proclamation admitting Hawaii to the Union. The statehood bill had passed the
previous March but with a stipulation that it should be approved by a vote of
Hawaii's residents. The referendum passed by a huge margin in June.
The Lincoln-Douglas Debates began on this day in 1858. (The last was held
October 15th.) At Ottawa, Illinois, Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democrat
Stephen A. Douglas began a series of debates, as Lincoln vied for Douglas's
U.S. Senate seat. The seven spirited public debates often wrestled with the
question of slavery in U.S. territories, and their arguments were widely printed
throughout the country. Although Douglas won reelection, Lincoln's eloquence
gained him the acclaim that led to his being chosen as the Republican Party's
candidate for President in the 1860 elections. In 1860 Lincoln defeated
Douglas and two other candidates to become President.
Sunday, Aug. 22 -- Tabernacle Choir Day
On this day in 1847, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir gave its first public
performance -- though the famous building that would give the choir its name
had not yet been built. The choir's radio program "Music and the Spoken
Word" is the longest continuously running radio program in history, having
begun on July 15th, 1929, and continuing today.
Monday, Aug. 23 -- Executing the Innocent Day
In 1927, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were electrocuted at the
Charlestown, Mass., prison. Convicted of a shoe factory payroll robbery during
which a guard had been killed, Sacco and Vanzetti maintained their innocence
to the end. Six years of appeals marked this American cause celebre, during
which substantial evidence was presented to show that both men were
elsewhere at the time of the crime. On the 50th anniversary of their execution,
Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis proclaimed Aug 23, 1977, a
memorial day, noting that the 1921 trial had been "permeated by prejudice"
against the two men because they were immigrants.
Tuesday, Aug. 24 -- Vesuvius Day
Mount Vesuvius, near the modern city of Naples in southern Italy, erupted on
this day in 79 a.d., burying the cities of Pompeii, Stabiae, and Herculaneum
under a thick layer of hot ash. Many of those trying to escape were buried
alive, and over the centuries their bodies were replaced with mineral deposits
that turned them into sculptures of desperation. The ash also preserved
countless transient artifacts of Roman daily life, from tools and utensils to
graffiti, that would otherwise have been lost; the tragedy of that day became
the treasure trove of later archaeologists and historians.
On this day in 2006, Pluto was demoted from "planet" to "dwarf planet," which,
as far as we can tell, caused no changes whatsoever in Pluto itself or its orbit.
This is also Mike Huckabee's birthday. If America has any luck at all, he will
never be elected President and therefore this day will never be remembered as
the birthday of the only president even more contemptible than Clinton.
Wednesday, Aug. 25 -- Over the Rainbow Day
The movie The Wizard of Oz was released on this day in 1939. It was
nominated for six Academy Awards and won two of them -- Best Original
Music Score and Best Song, "Over the Rainbow."
Leonard Bernstein's birthday in 1918. One of the greatest orchestra
conductors in American history, Bernstein first conducted the New York
Philharmonic Orchestra at age 25. He also composed musicals, including West
Side Story, Candide, and On the Town.