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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 5, 2014

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


@midnight, Wil Wheaton, John Oliver

The summary of the Comedy Central game show @midnight says it is hosted by "legendary talk show host, Chris Hardwick."

There are only three legendary talk show hosts: Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson. And until I happened upon @midnight while flipping through the channels a few weeks ago, I had never heard his name.

Well, that's probably my loss, because he's at least as charming as Daniel Tosh, without Tosh's calculated puppydog manner.

Here's how the show works. @midnight, like Tosh.0, mines the internet for absurd clips and pix and vids. Unlike Tosh.0, the goal is only occasionally to shock, horrify, or gross us out.

Instead, a panel of three comedians (either standups or actors in comedy shows) pretend to improvise responses to the webclips they are shown. For this they are awarded points -- which mean very nearly nothing.

Near the end, the low-scoring comedian is removed from the competition (i.e., a red light beams down on him or her), and the remaining two face a sudden-death caption contest FTW -- "for the win."

They are shown a pic or vid and must compose what one character is saying (or some other caption). Hardwick reads both captions, so we don't know who wrote which. (The comedians try to keep their faces deadpan -- and they usually succeed, since I guess wrong as often as right.)

The audience response is apparently measured in some way, and the winner is told, "You win the internet!"

Here's why the show works well:

1. The captions and hashtags and other such "improv" bits are quite often funny. And I don't really care whether they are really improvised every time, or if they're written ahead of time, because it doesn't matter. Nothing is at stake. They merely use the form of a game show as an excuse for jokes.

2. Chris Hardwick. He really is a good host, a charming emcee, and often quite funny in his own right.

And, before anybody writes in about it, yes, I was indeed watching the episode where my name came up. Somebody made a crude joke about Ender's Game, and, because of slanders put about by some on the extreme Left, Hardwick felt it necessary to call out my name, accompanied by a wish that in some contexts might be regarded as suggesting that I might "get lucky," but which seemed not to have that intent.

Here's why I was more delighted than offended. First, Hardwick merely believed lies told by others. In the grand list of Lies Told By The Left, lies about me rank way below "burning oil causes global warming" and "Benghazi is old news" and "the IRS treats everyone equally" and "ObamaCare is working."

I hardly hold Hardwick responsible for mindlessly believing lies that millions of others mindlessly swallow.

No, what struck me most about his hearing the title Ender's Game and then invoking my name is: Hardwick heard the title of a recent movie and he thought of the name of the author of the book it was purportedly based on. Even if it was to (cheerfully) vilify me, it raised him high in my estimation. This was a television show, other than Jeopardy, in which someone proved he knew books existed and expected his audience to know it, too.

So I am proud of that mention. But I TiVo the show and watch it, not in hopes that I'll be mentioned again, but because it's really funny and I like watching Hardwick, even when his guests are less than likable.

This past week, I became aware of the existence of Wil Wheaton for the first time in my life. I was browsing IndieGoGo, a crowdfunding website, and learned that there is a YouTube series called TableTop -- in which celebrities play actual board games. By watching, you can (a) learn how a game is played and (b) decide if it's fun enough that you want to get people together to play the game with you.

The IndieGoGo campaign was raising money for another season of TableTop, and I contributed, in part because one of the premiums was a new set of cards for the game Cards Against Humanity. This is a game that my family and I love, and which we recommend to no one else because in the bad taste category, it ranks as way tastelesser than Tosh.0, and that must eat at Daniel Tosh's heart.

I watched an actual episode of TableTop, where they were playing a slightly appalling but also rather clever game from Japan in which you're a tycoon staffing your mansion with various maids. A meat market, in other words. But the game looked fun, and I bought it to play with my family at the beach this summer.

Either we'll enjoy the game, or we'll make merciless fun of it while playing, and so we'll have a great time either way. But I only knew of its existence because of TableTop.

And TableTop was created by Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day. The episode I saw did not have Wil Wheaton in it. But he was spoken of as if his participation in the show was a Big Deal.

Naturally, I have since looked up Wil Wheaton, and found that as a lad he played "Wesley Crusher" on Star Trek: The Next Generation -- which I almost never watched.

He has also played himself on The Big Bang Theory, but I stopped watching that show when, like all other Chuck Lorre comedies, it stopped being clever and degenerated into relentlessly unfunny sex farce. Apparently Wheaton started appearing on the show after I left.

The thing I'm apparently supposed to know about Wil Wheaton is that he grew up to be proud of being famous among sci-fi geeks -- not the readers of science fiction books, but devotees and worshippers of second-rate sci-fi films and television shows (which, along with "third-rate," describes almost all of them).

But TableTop was such a brilliant idea that when I happened upon the SyFy channel show The Wil Wheaton Project, I was curious enough to watch.

Here's what I enjoyed: Wheaton really is, personally, just a little awkward, which is endearing in an actor. His tie was a little short. His pants were slung a little too low for his suitcoat or his body shape. And he seemed absolutely sincere in his enjoyment of his own place in the world of sci-fi geekdom.

The Wil Wheaton Project is a weekly response to whatever is going on in the world of sci-fi and fantasy film and television. And it is far from worshipful. Even shows that are clearly fan favorites get mocked.

In the first episode, Chris Hardwick even showed up to offer a commentary on The Wil Wheaton Project's first episode -- including showing a clip of what happened fifteen seconds before the clip was shown. A funny idea -- and one that worked perfectly because they did it, and then they dropped the bit before it stopped being funny.

As with @midnight, this would be a miserable failure if we didn't like the host -- but Wil Wheaton is completely likable.

And he's never made any obscene suggestions that include my name as the object of the sentence.

Of course, this is because I'm a book writer, and I will be shocked if The Wil Wheaton Project ever has a book writer on it, unless his or her book is currently coming out as a movie or television show.

In other words, I wouldn't be surprised if George R.R. Martin were brought on as a guest, because Game of Thrones is the best fantasy film ever made, and Martin actually has something to do with the scripts that adapt his novels, and besides, I know George well enough to know he's as funny and entertaining as anybody who ever did comedy on @midnight.

Most novelists are so astonishingly dull that you should be grateful that talk shows stopped inviting them as guests when Johnny Carson cut The Tonight Show down to one hour. Fiction authors are only good guests when the TV audience is desperately trying to sleep.

After all, what can a fiction writer say except, "I made up this story, see" and "Yeah, I sit and type for hours at a time, and then I either drink or I don't."

Oh, wait -- Dave Barry appeared on Letterman once, I recall. But he was so amused at himself that he was actively annoying rather than entertaining, so Johnny Carson was proven right in his decision to eliminate authors from late-night television.

It's worth recalling that Tom Snyder was brilliant to invite Harlan Ellison onto The Tomorrow Show several times back in the 1970s. But that worked because Snyder allowed Ellison to be smart and funny and mean, and both of them spoke as if they thought their audience knew how to read and occasionally did it on purpose.

Those days are over.

So no, I don't expect Wheaton to have sci-fi authors on his program. But I'm fine with that, because the things he and his writers and producers do to clips and teasers are really funny. At least in the first episode. And since that's all that exists at this moment, I know of nothing to contradict this positive review.

*

HBO is proud to be the place where everybody can use the F-word without bleeping. I don't know if it's in John Oliver's contract to use it frequently on his show Last Week Tonight, but if it is, he is in perfect compliance.

Yet, along with the rest of America, I have been coarsened enough in my tastes and expectations that I don't notice it so much anymore. That is, I'm aware, but it's like getting a bit of gristle in ground beef. You don't toss out the burger, you just swallow hard and move on.

Since John Oliver -- a Brit by accent, a nine-year-old by enthusiasm -- is a Daily Show trainee, my expectations were low. Every now and then, as I flip through the channels, I pause on Jon Stewart long enough to hear him say something smug, Leftist, and stupid. I wait for the trifecta; and I rarely have to linger for more than a few seconds for him to accomplish all three.

John Oliver is, of course, relentlessly Leftist in his views -- how could he have thriven on The Daily Show were that not so? -- but to my surprise, his delight trumps smugness. His attitude is not superior, it's eager.

And now and then, unlike the other HBO politico Bill Maher, John Oliver actually makes fun of the Beloved Leader, his cronies, his policies, and/or his lies.

Best of all, not since the heyday of Dennis Miller have we had a political comic so gifted in the over-the-top rant. In fact, John Oliver's recent diatribe on net neutrality is a masterpiece of rhetorical flippery.

Having explained why violating net neutrality benefits nobody except low-customer-satisfaction cable services like Time-Warner and ComCast, he then called on his audience to speak out during the FCC's public-comment period.

But that's not how he phrased it. Instead, he pretended to address himself to comment trolls -- the people who add vicious, stupid, irrelevant, personal attacks on everything that appears on the Web.

So what seemed to be an effort to mobilize support for keeping net neutrality was actually a hilariously savage attack on stupid and tasteless online comment-writers.

That's what's funny. What's useful is that John Oliver also explains net neutrality better than anyone else I've heard on TV. So take thirteen minutes and watch the whole net neutrality sequence . (You have to move down about three screens to get to the Play All button.)

The pertinent section ends with "Fly, my pretties." But it goes on to a report about the recent election in India -- and a riff on the confusing screen display on Indian television.

Keep watching, and you can see John Oliver riff on the internet's "unforgiving memory" -- really funny. "A question to ask yourself when drafting a law is: Might child pornographers like this? If so, think again."

And he goes on to point out the futility of trying to sue for privacy. Then he calls for everyone to release their own worst picture with the hashtag #mutuallyassuredhumiliation. He demonstrates with photos of himself.

Of course, he's not always smart. For instance, when he goes on a rant about the monopolistic practices of Time-Warner and ComCast, he's very funny -- but he's overlooking the fact that when cable first entered American cities, it was almost always as a regulated monopoly -- that is, a cable company agreed to lay all that expensive cable in exchange for the city guaranteeing that it would have no competition.

In other words, the only reason most cities have cable at all is because the government granted a monopoly. So it's not the result of a conspiracy that ComCast and Time-Warner never compete head-to-head in the same city. It's just a matter of history.

To expect a new-based comedy show to have a knowledge of history or to be completely fair is unrealistic. Last Week Tonight comes closer than most. And, unlike most, it is also funny.

*

North Carolina's statewide public television channel, UNCTV, is "forward funded." What this means is that all of the funds donated or granted during fiscal year 2014 will be used to pay all the expenses during fiscal year 2015.

So the budget is based, not on funds they hope to raise during the coming year, but on funds they already have from last year's fund-raising. It might look to the casual observer that they have a lot of cash just sitting around. But that "sitting cash" is actually the entire next year's budget.

Unlike most Americans -- and most businesses -- UNCTV doesn't spend a penny that it doesn't already have.

But that means that as fiscal year 2014 ends on 30 June -- the end of this month -- any donations they have not received cannot be figured into the budget for the coming year.

Because of sharp budget cuts in the past, UNCTV has already reduced its staff to the bone -- practically everyone is doing work that other stations would hire two or three people to do. So if the funds don't come in, the only thing left to cut is programming.

This summer, we're going to have a chance to see programs paid for out of donations from fiscal year 2013 -- and it's an amazing list.

At the most recent meeting of the UNCTV Board of Trustees, I saw previews of several upcoming shows that look to be well worth watching -- or recording, so you don't miss them while you're on vacation.

The most obvious program is A Capitol Fourth -- a musical extravaganza set in various venues in Washington DC, beginning at 8:00 p.m. on the Fourth of July, and rebroadcast at 9:30.

Starting on the first of July, and running at 9:00 p.m. every Tuesday through the 22nd, is a series called History Detectives. Judging from the clip I saw, it's a fascinating use of logic and experiment to try to solve mysteries from the past, or figure out why things happened as they did.

For instance, the explosion of a Mississippi riverboat seemed inexplicable, until -- in a move reminiscent of Robert Feynman's demonstration of the brittleness of the space shuttle's O-ring material during hearings about the Challenger explosion -- an engineer demonstrates just how the rocking of the steamboat during flood season caused a portion of each of the four boilers to overheat -- and then explode when water washed back over the superheated metal.

Then, for those who like nature television, there's My Wild Affair (Wednesdays from 16 July through 6 August, at 8:00 p.m.), which tells of humans who live among or try to rescue wild animals. I was fascinated at the effort to save an orphaned baby elephant, the youngest that humans ever tried to raise. Will cow's milk even work nutritionally for elephants? And how do you get enough of it to keep the huge baby alive?

For fans of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot mysteries, a series that has been running on PBS's Masterpiece since 1989, featuring David Suchet in the title role. The two episodes this summer, on 27 July and 3 August (at 9:00 p.m.), will complete the series.

Unless Agatha Christie delivers us more Poirot stories from beyond the grave.

There's also a return of Shaun Evans as a young Constable Endeavour Morse -- before he grew up to be Inspector Morse. Apparently the first series of Morse prequels was a success back in 2012, and from the preview I saw, both the writing and the acting are a complete delight.

The four new episodes of Endeavour will air on Sundays from 29 June to 20 July, 9:00-10:30 p.m. It's a show I definitely intend to watch.

On the 24th of June, UNCTV will air Freedom Summer, a well-made documentary about the dangerous -- and in some cases fatal -- effort to register black voters in Mississippi back in the 1960s.

And even though I lived in Brazil for a couple of years back in the early 1970s, Brazil with Michael Palin takes us to places in Brazil where I never had a chance to go. Mormon missionaries stay within their mission boundaries, which meant that I never left the state of São Paulo.

So visits to the north and south of the country are as new to me as to people who've never been to Brazil -- except that I can understand the snippets of Portuguese we overhear. And with the Brazil Olympics coming up in 2016, a good number of Americans might want to know something about Brazilian culture and climate.

Personally, I don't care a whit about the Olympics; when Atlanta hosted the event, I made it a point to stay out of Georgia for the duration. I will follow the same policy in 2016 -- I have no desire to revisit Brazil during the hypercrowding of Olympics season.

As with most sports events, the best seat in the house is the recliner perched in front of your own television.

Still, I love Brazil and haven't been back in thirty years, so I'm looking forward to revisiting it through this show.

You can see previews of these and other shows by visiting UNCTV.org. And it's not just about those expensive PBS programs, either (which UNCTV has to pay for out of our donations!).

Some of the best shows were produced by UNCTV itself.

There's Legislative Week in Review, which is what it sounds like -- a look at what's going on in the state legislature. But these are issues that will matter to all of us in North Carolina -- and UNCTV has conversations with key legislators so we can understand the issues and the laws that are being made. You can watch whole episodes at http://www.unctv.org/content/legweek/ .

I think we'll all be intrigued by the ELF (Electric, Light, Fun), a North Carolina-invented solar/pedal-powered vehicle that looks like a promising way to get around without using anything but sunlight and your own two legs.

And UNCTV has produced its first online-only series, documentaries entitled Beat Making Lab, in which a couple of North Carolina professors help teenagers learn how to sample ambient sounds, as well as deliberately created music, and then put them together electronically.

The process and the result are quite wonderful. Some of the most recent episodes are called North Carolina Mashup; it's cool to see (and hear) how sounds are collected all around us and put together into good rhythms and music. Just google "Youtube Beat Making Lab NC mashup."

These same hosts -- Stephen Levitin and Pierce Freelon -- have taken this project to other countries, from Ethiopia to Senegal, Panama to Fiji, and all the results are wonderful. Episodes are brief, always entertaining, and sometimes inspiring.

Visit UNCTV.org ... and make sure you click on the Donate button. Preferably before the end of the month. Even ten bucks will help -- if enough people donate.

Even if all you watch is Downton Abbey, remember that UNCTV has to pay a considerable amount to bring that great series to viewers in our state. Consider that your donation is a ticket to see that show -- for you, your family, and your neighbors as well.


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