Collected Works of George Carlin (R.I.P.)

Rather than post links to tribute articles on George Carlin, who died Sunday at age 71, I thought that perhaps it would be better to post several of his performances--since his legacy is so completely wrapped up in his presence as a stand-up comic and in his unique style and comic delivery.

This first piece will be a bit disorienting to those that only know Carlin as the bearded hipster that he was for most of his career. Here, a clean-shaven Carlin--in suit and tie!--makes a 1966 appearance on the Johnny Carson "Tonight Show." Featured is his "hippy dippy weatherman" character that was his best-known comedy bit in the years (early to mid-1960s) before his comedy became more counterculture and controversial in nature.

This piece from 1967 is apparently an excerpt from one of Carlin's record albums, and it is another good example of how anodyne Carlin's humor was prior to the late-1960s. It's a parody of a newscast in which Carlin does all the voices, for broadcasters with names like Al Sleet (weatherman) and Biff Burns (sports). (It's also a good example of how comics recycle material, as this piece includes the same joke about ICBMs as in the previous Carson show clip.)

Here's another Carlin segment from the "Tonight Show," this time from 1972 and featuring a more familiar-looking George, who welcomes Johnny to L.A. after Carson's recent transfer of his show to the west coast from N.Y.C. The highlight of this clip is Carlin's "hair" poem, in which he lampoons square late-1960s/early-1970s attitudes about long hair (if you want to skip right to it is at about the 5:30 mark).

Carlin's most enduring contribution to American comedy (as some commentators--including Jerry Seinfeld--are noting in tribute) was probably his "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" (although Seinfeld claims not to have ever liked it much). Nonetheless, it remains a groundbreaking bit, and this 1978 clip features some riffs on it.

Finally, I can't resist posting just one link to a Carlin tribute, as it's a good one written by Richard Zoglin, whose recent book "Comedy on the Edge: How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America" discusses Carlin's influence.


Appreciations of Journalist Tim Russert (1950-2008)

On Friday afternoon, when I saw the headline "Tim Russert dies at 58" on the website MetaFilter I thought it was facetious. I quickly found out that I was sadly wrong.

Russert, considered by many within politics and the media to be the "king of Washington" due to his vast political knowledge and analytical skills, was the longtime host of NBC's "Meet the Press." At 17 years the longest-tenured host in the sixty-year history of television's longest-running program, Russert (a spokesman for N.Y. Senator Daniel Moynihan and N.Y. Governor Mario Cuomo before entering journalism) was a respected and, by some politicians, feared political journalist. He was one of those figures in broadcasting that seemed like he had always been there and seemed like he always would be. And now he's not.

The encomiums to Russert have been flowing over the weekend. Here are some of the best ones that I've found around the web:

As Russert was considered a master of the nexus of politics and television, the Washington Post offers tributes from its premiere political columnist, David Broder, and its premiere TV columnist, Tom Shales.

Time Magazine offers a pair of tributes also, from political correspondent (and close Russert friend) Joe Klein and from reporter Richard Stengel.

The New York Times has a column by conservative commentator William Kristol, a piece by political reporter Adam Nagourney about Russert's pre-journalism career as a N.Y. Democratic political operative, a round up of what political blogs have been saying about Russert, and a detailed running commentary on the news and reactions of Russert's death from Friday on its Caucus blog.

Finally, two video clips from NBC--the first one is the opening minutes of Sunday morning's episode of "Meet the Press," moderated by Tom Brokaw (who emotionally gave the first on-air announcement of Russert's death on NBC on Friday), and featuring several panel members who worked closely with Russert; the second one is a "Today" show interview from this morning with Russert's son Luke.


Apple's iPhone 3G and the Unified Mobile Device

Yesterday Apple unveiled its next-generation iPhone (dubbed the iPhone 3G, after the faster 3G cellular network that will replace the slower EDGE network used for the original iPhone). The device represents a substantial improvement over last summer's original iPhone, not only in the upgrade to 3G but also in the addition of GPS capability, the ability for third-party applications, and, significantly, in a much lower price tag--at $199 for an 8 gb model, half the price of the original edition.

Speculation has become rampant already that this new and improved iPhone will continue to be a category killer, and in even more categories. The iPhone is now: a digital music player; a portable video player; a camera and digital photo display; a mobile web browser; a portable GPS unit; a personal digital assistant (PDA); and, oh yeah, a mobile telephone. The fact that the phone capability can seem (even if jokingly) like an afterthought, yet remains the foundation of the device, is a sign of how powerful the concept of a unified mobile device might end up being.

The linchpin of this new iPhone and its promise as such a unified device is its shockingly low $199 price tag. When you consider that separately an iPod Nano costs $149, a PDA can cost a couple hundred, a digital camera another $150-200, and a portable GPS unit around $200, you begin to sense just how revolutionary such a unified device could be--and how powerful will be the company that provides that device. Apple is seeking to be that company.

In addition to all of the things such a device could be are all of the things such a device could allow one to do. There are already predictions that the 3G iPhone might make portable GPS devices obsolete. Services such as Loopt and Facebook will be able to utilize the iPhone's GPS capability in new and interesting ways. The concept of mobile social networking has begun to gain some traction, and the iPhone is seen to be instrumental in its realization.

The long and short of the new iPhone is that regardless of whether or not one actually has an iPhone per se, all of us will probably eventually have one unified mobile device that fulfills all of the functions enumerated above. And just as the web in general revolutionized what can be done with a computer, so will this kind of device revolutionize what can be done while mobile.


Appreciations of Sportscaster Jim McKay (1921-2008)

ABC Sports met its death a couple of years ago (as the MediaLog remarked upon at the time). Now, the man who personified ABC Sports more than any other, Jim McKay, has also met his death at age 86.

For a couple of generations of viewers, McKay was the voice and face of ABC's pioneering Olympics coverage. The high point of McKay's Olympic hosting career (even if it was a low point for the Olympic movement itself) was the tragic massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Games in Munich, where McKay uttered the immortal words "They're all gone." He was probably equally well-known as the host of ABC's "Wide World of Sports" from its inception in 1961 until its end in 1998--his was the voice that intoned about "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat." He was instrumental (second in importance only to Roone Arledge probably) in the longtime success of ABC Sports.

Appreciations of McKay and his contributions to TV sports that have appeared in the past few days include a blog post by Time Magazine TV critic James Poniewozik in which he comments upon having fond memories of watching McKay's Olympic coverage as a child--sentiments I share; USA Today sports television columnist Michael Hiestand trying to explain to today's kids why McKay was so important to TV sports; and on-air tributes from ESPN by fellow sportscasters Keith Jackson, Brent Musberger, and Don Ohlmeyer.

More meaty material on the career and legacy of McKay include an oral history interview with McKay at the Archive of American Television, a wonderful resource for anyone interested in any aspect of television history; the entry for McKay at the Museum of Broadcast Communication's online Encyclopedia of Television; and the Wikipedia entry on McKay. For a little more information on the history and demise of ABC Sports, see this earlier MediaLog post.


The New Netflix Box and the Allure of Instant Movie Streaming

Edward Baig, USA Today's tech columnist, today reviews the new Netflix set top streaming video box the web DVD rental firm will soon be offering through manufacturer Roku. As Baig says, the box has some deficiencies but is already attractive enough to interest diehard Netflix subscribers (such as the MediaLog!).

Pros: pretty darn good streaming quality (although not yet in HD), relative ease of use for the interface (although selections must still be queued up on the website using a browser on a PC), mostly problem-free WiFi capability, no additional charge for streaming movies and TV shows (beyond the box's $100 cost and the monthly Netflix subscription fee). Cons: minor technical glitches (which will probably decrease and will never completely disappear), absence of cool DVD extras that most fans have come to expect, and, for now, a limited (and, according to Baig, "eclectic") selection of available movies and TV shows (which, for now, does not include new releases at the same time they're put out on disc).

I think the "for now" part regarding the lack of DVD extras and limited selection is key. This is without question the direction that Netflix is looking at moving their business model towards, and it is arguably the way that the entire home video industry and viewing experience is going to go as well. Just as they were with the general dissemination of DVDs, Netflix looks to be prescient again in terms of making movies and TV shows available through a streaming set-top box and anticipating that this is how viewers are going to want to access and experience them. The selection of movies available through the Netflix box (which are the same ones available for its "Watch Now" feature on computers) is only going to increase. Distributors, once they realize that this is the way the industry is going (which, granted, could take a while with them), will beg to strike deals of some kind for new releases. And where the movies go, the DVD extras will follow.


The MediaLog History of Presidential Political Ads: 1952

Following last night's clinching of the Democratic presidential nomination by Barack Obama, the MediaLog introduces the MediaLog History of Presidential Political Ads, a regular series of video posts highlighting political ads from presidential campaigns since the dawn of television. Through periodic postings over the summer and fall the series will progress from what is considered to be the first "TV election" in 1952 right up to the present contest in 2008.

In 1952, many areas of the country did not yet even get TV signals, and the TV industry had just emerged from a station freeze (imposed by the FCC to sort out TV frequencies) that had lasted since 1948. NBC and CBS were the powerhouse TV networks (as they had been in radio) and ABC was a noncompetitive also-ran, at the time smaller and less influential than even the DuMont television network (which would cease operations in 1955). Television production was still centered for the most part in New York, and emphasized live dramatic anthology programs, public affairs and panel programs, and vaudeville-based variety shows. The top shows in '52 were "I Love Lucy," "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts," and "Texaco Star Theater" with Milton Berle.

Nonetheless, presidential aspirants were beginning to appreciate the promotional potential of television. Of course, their use of television in 1952 conformed to the conventions and limitations, as well as the quirks and idiosyncrasies, of television of the era, as the following two videos demonstrate. The Republican nominee in '52 was Dwight Eisenhower, who traded on (and won the presidency based on) his stellar reputation as the Allied commander in Europe in World War II. Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, who reluctantly entered the race at the behest of outgoing president Harry Truman, was the Democratic nominee.

This ad by the Eisenhower campaign is a charming example of many of the characteristics of 1950s TV advertising: whimsical animation, a light and catchy jingle, the beginnings of slick and concise branding of a product (which here just happens to be a presidential candidate). The ad mixes the jovial "Ike" persona that became Eisenhower's political "brand" and which he exploited at least as much as his military credentials with a stiltedness that marked the political use of a still-nascent medium--evidenced by Eisenhower's awkward entreaty for "good Americans" to "come to the aid of their country":

If the above Eisenhower ad is an exemplar of 1950s advertising techniques, the following Stevenson ad is a catalog of surrealistic elements that are astounding to witness today. Eschewing the kind of techniques utilized in the Eisenhower ad, this spot instead consists of single medium-zooming-to-close-up shot of a woman singing a bizarre campaign song to the tune of the Christmas carol "O Tannenbaum." The strange choice of music, the song's ridiculous rhymes for "Stevenson," and the unsophisticated visuals mark the ad as a true oddity of political advertising--but also as an indicator of how primitive presidential political advertising still was in the early-1950s:

Video source: YouTube.


Book Review: "The Cool Fire" (1976) by Bob Shanks

The MediaLog has an affinity for books that when they were originally written and published were meant to be up-to-date overviews of their respective media industries (i.e. TV or film), but when read now are woefully and sometimes comically out of date. Of course, the reason why such books are interesting now is because they provide an excellent historical "snapshot" of the industry as of the time they were written. I've been a fan for a long time of books like Levinson and Link's "Stay Tuned" (1981) and Mayer's "About Television" (1972), both of which fit into this category. "The Cool Fire" (subtitled "How to Make It in Television") by Bob Shanks, from 1976, also fits firmly within this tradition.

Shanks was at the time an executive at ABC, in charge of, among other things, the network's late-night "Wide World of Entertainment" series. He'd had a lengthy career dating back to the 1950s, starting as a bit part actor (he jestingly recounts having been killed on several different shows) and progressing through stints as a talent booker on the Jack Paar "Tonight Show," a producer on the "Merv Griffin Show," and an independent television producer. His take on the television industry circa the mid-seventies is informed by this varied experience and the book (indicated by the subtitle) takes the shape of an advisory tome for those interested in television careers.

Whether or not the book serves (or more accurately, served) as an adequate such advisory I cannot say, but it is fascinating to read now to see the nature of the advice Shanks gives and more so in the different areas of television industry operations he covers. Remember, this was a time when the three broadcast networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) were at the peak of their power and influence and reigned nearly unchallenged in their purchase on the attention of American audiences. Fox and the other smaller broadcast networks were still a pipe dream. Television syndication was fledgling compared to what it is today. This was a pre-home video, pre-cable, pre-internet and pre-video gaming era. The expectations were vastly different than what they are now. Shanks mentions several times in the book that for a TV series to survive cancellation it needs to post ratings of at least a 30 share--ratings that even the top programs today would kill for! Interesting too is Shanks' take on how to navigate the network bureaucracies in order to get programs sold, and he offers several examples from his own career, regarding now-quaint shows such as "Great American Homes" (a syndicated effort hosted by E.G. Marshall) and "Great American Dream Machine" (a magazine-format show aired on PBS). (Not all the shows Shanks produced had the word "great" in their titles.)

Equally interesting, because they are the most obsolete, are the chapters on the production process and on technical issues related to TV production. Shanks takes the reader step by step through the TV production process, here incorporating examples mostly from his experience producing the Griffin show. Detailed descriptions of TV equipment in all phases of production are provided, even to the extent of suggesting which models of cameras, etc., are the best. The result, as with the book in general (as, indeed, with most of the books in this category as mentioned above), resembles that of a prehistoric insect trapped in amber: a look at how the TV industry operated at a very specific moment in time, available for us now to examine and utilize in understanding American television history.