Bill Barol

Bill Barol is the author of Thanks For Killing Me, a novel. He blogs at Extra Bonus Super Happy Funtime.

Me, Al Franken and the worst meeting in the history of show business: a true story

I've never publicly shared my story about The Worst Meeting In The History Of Show Business, but this seems like an appropriate time, for reasons I'll get to in a minute. 

In the late '90s I was working as a sitcom writer, and in the spring of 1998 I was between jobs and needed one. My agent lined up a meeting for me with Al Franken, who was then running a show called "Lateline," a behind-the-scenes comedy about a TV news program. Franken wanted to meet me, my agent told me, because I had a news background, having been a writer for Newsweek before I moved to Los Angeles. My recollection is that "Lateline" was produced out of New York; Franken would fly out to Los Angeles to hold a few days' meetings with prospective hires at a hotel in West Hollywood. And so the meeting got set, for breakfast a week or so later. I arrived a little early and found Franken in the hotel restaurant, where he was meeting with another writer. He asked me if I'd mind waiting for a few minutes, so I took a seat in the lobby.

After a few moments the telephone rang at the host's station, which sat in the lobby, a few feet outside the dining room entrance, and about 20 feet from where I was sitting. The host answered the call, listened for a moment, then went inside and came back with Franken. The writer with whom Franken had just met, their meeting now concluded, continued through the lobby and left. Franken picked up the phone. Here's what I heard him say:

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Mind Blowing Movies: Funny Bones, by Bill Barol

Mm200Recently, Boing Boing presented a series of essays about movies that have had a profound effect on our invited essayists. We are extending the series. See all the essays in the Mind Blowing Movies series. -- Mark



Mind Blowing Movies: Funny Bones, by Bill Barol

[Video Link] 1995’s Funny Bones, by the British writer/director Peter Chelsom, is either a comedy about dark things, like betrayal and manslaughter, or a drama about funny people, like a pair of retired vaudevillians who are winding down their days scaring children in the spook house on the Blackpool amusement pier. I’ve seen the movie, conservatively, two dozen times and I still don’t quite know how to describe it. I’ve never shown it to anybody who didn’t turn to me at least once with an incredulous look in their eyes, a look that says: “What the hell is this?”

This is exactly what I love about Funny Bones -- it is sui generis, and impossible to boil down. I can tell you the broad outlines: Failed standup Tommy Fawkes, the son of revered funnyman George Fawkes, flees Las Vegas and returns to the tattered seaside town of Blackpool where he grew up, in search of the indefinable substance that makes people funny. Once there he discovers that he has a half-brother he never knew, and that this odd, shy sibling is the unwilling recipient of the comedy genes, the funny bones, that Tommy so desperately desires. But those few quick strokes really -- you have to believe me -- they really don’t do justice to this odd, dark, deeply funny and witheringly sad story, or to the faded netherworld of fringe show business in which Tommy finds himself, casting frantically about for something to keep him from going under. Nor does it prepare you for an ending in which (I won’t spoil it) Tommy’s life literally dangles from his half-brother’s hands as a rapt, horrified audience looks on. Or for the lump in your throat when the story’s threads of desire, comedy, tragedy, love and hate interlock in one breathtaking final shot.

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Andy Griffith: Before Mayberry, A Movie Monster

Mm200Boing Boing recently presented a series of essays about movies that have had a profound effect on our invited essayists. We are extending the series for several additional days. See all the essays in the Mind Blowing Movies series. -- Mark



Andy Griffith: Before Mayberry, A Movie Monster, by Bill Barol

[Video Link] If for any reason you doubt the power of television, consider the long career of Andy Griffith, who died this week at 86. Griffith had one TV role that was merely successful and one that was almost archetypical. That’s a pretty good run for any actor. But TV didn’t just give to Griffith. It also took away, and it’s here that the medium shows its muscle in a really astounding way. Griffith’s long TV career effectively effaced a film debut that, fifty years later, is so vivid and visceral that it startles with every viewing. The facts that Griffith played a bad guy in his first film role, and that both the performance and the movie, Elia Kazan’s 1957 A Face In The Crowd, are largely overlooked today -- these are testaments to TV’s power to swamp any cultural phenomena that have the poor judgment to get in its way.

Hang on, there’s more. What’s doubly delicious about this is, A Face In The Crowd is a cautionary tale about the power of -- Anyone? Anyone? Yes: Television. Griffith, who came from nightclubs and the stage and had no resume as a dramatic actor in 1957, plays Lonesome Rhodes, a drifter who stumbles into national prominence thanks to the demagogic power of the then-young medium. A grifter and a charmer, Rhodes is sleeping off a hangover in a rural jail when a local radio producer (Patricia Neal, doing that hard-but-vulnerable thing she did so well) sticks a microphone in his face. He has no ambition to be a radio star or anything else, but once he grasps that a guy with a friendly demeanor can wield mass media like a club, and he grasps it very quickly indeed, there’s no stopping him. Rhodes shoots like a star from tiny Pickett, Arkansas to Memphis to New York, from radio to TV, from a singer and storyteller to “a force... a force,” he says with megalomaniac intensity. And from there it’s just a quick hop to politics, with a presidential candidate sucking around for his magic touch, and a madman’s dreams of power behind the throne.

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Adventures in self-publishing: Why I took a year's work and tried my hardest to give it away

Bill-Barol-Book[I am reading Bill's novel now and really enjoying it. Look for a review from me soon -- Mark]

When John F. Kennedy was asked how he became a war hero, he’s supposed to have replied: “It was involuntary. They sank my boat.” That’s how I became a self-published novelist: A large number of New York publishers rejected Thanks for Killing Me, my spiky little crime novel about the aftermath of a con gone wrong. They did so for an exquisitely heterogeneous variety of reasons. One liked the plot but not the characters; another liked the characters but not the plot. A couple thought it moved too fast, and a couple found it too leisurely. About the only consensus was that none of them felt optimistic about their chances of selling a caper novel, and a first novel at that, in a declining publishing market. Being the self-starter that I am, I took these rejections in stride and leapt into action, throwing the manuscript into a drawer and sulking for eighteen months.

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Going up

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Photo by Ged Carroll. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
A recent article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology makes a case that height makes right. That is, it cites four separate studies showing that people who were physically elevated (up on a raised platform, for example) behaved in a more humane and altruistic fashion than those below. As Scientific American notes today, "height is often used as a metaphor for virtue: moral high ground, God on high, looking up to good people, etc." The journal article, by Larry Sanna and associates at the University of North Carolina, suggests that height's value may be more than symbolic. What if, as one of the studies posits, escalators actually elevate good intentions: "Twice as many mall shoppers who had just ridden an up escalator contributed to the Salvation Army than shoppers who had just ridden the down escalator."

That said, escalators aren't all good.

"The Wire" as a Dickens serial

dickensomar.jpgIt's one of those ideas that sounds less nuts the more you think about it: "The Wire" imagined as a 19th-century serialized novel. After all, David Simon's great multi-season drama had all the muckraking moral outrage of Charles Dickens (Google the reviews and try to count the number of times you see the word "Dickensian"), and its shifting viewpoint over five seasons gave it a similar historical sweep and reportorial authority. The real kick of "When It's Not Your Turn," though, is its obsessive attention to detail. You have to admire the dedication of creators Joy Delyria and Sean Michael Robinson, who seemingly cram every arcane bit of the show's rich mythology into a fake lit-crit essay. The illustrations, ostensibly by Baxter "Bubz" Black, just add to the goofy verisimilitude of the thing. It's a fabulous fraud.

Pole dancing for Jesus

It's hard to to top the phrase "pole dancing for Jesus" -- I dare you to even try -- because it satisfies so many absolutely awful contemporary needs in just four words. It's the perfect bogus local-news trend story. (I first saw it on Wonkette, but it was picked up from the Fox affiliate in Houston.) It's an SEO bonanza. And it's an awesome name for the next band you never heard of that's suddenly appearing on "Saturday Night Live" for some reason. The fact that it's an actual thing -- there's a class in it at a dance studio in Spring, TX, a northern suburb of Houston, and the newsbabe somberly assures the anchordude that "you have to bring your church program with you in order to get into the class' -- only makes it better. Or worse. Or something. "Tune in," newsbabe tells anchordude, promising him in this teaser segment that she herself will take a few twirls for Jesus in the nine o'clock hour. "We will," anchordude replies, a glittery mix of prurience and ratings-lust in his eyes. Or is that just good old-fashioned religious fervor? it's getting so hard to tell.

Ten Sexy Ladies

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You might know Joshua Allen from the Twitter, where he posts hilariously (and not often enough) under the handle Fireland. Allen is one of the three or four people who make it seem possible that Twitter can spawn something like art. (Others? Tim Siedell, Adam Lisagor and Christian A. Dumais, the guy behind Drunk Hulk. That's my list. I'm sure you have yours.) Now, just to rub it in, he has a new project: Ten Sexy Ladies, in which he rates "everything ever, on a scale from one to ten sexy ladies." And when Allen says "everything ever," you better believe that's exactly what he means. Here he is on "This Thing of ChapStick":

Come closer, mon petit chou. I have generously applied deodorant that smells like a lumberjack fresh out of a clear mountain stream. I have swished mouthwash until it burned my gums like a sexual fire. I didn't floss because come on, really? But I did shave. Everywhere. And I got in there real good with a Q-tip. I am ready to receive your makeouts. (Rating: Two sexy ladies.)
Allen, who in real life is a writer living in Denver, is so prolifically funny that he makes me feel a little ashamed. The only comfort I can take is that sometimes his ratings are, like, way off. I mean, a mere "One sexy ladies" for pennies, which are so fantastically useful as to stagger the mind, as Allen himself admits?

Got chewed out by the boss? On your way out throw some pennies in the recycling bin. He'll be impressed with your lackadaisical approach to finance. This kid knows something I don't, he'll think later that night as he pays a woman to take a straight razor to his neck hair, slowly, so slowly, the only time he ever really feels anything.
Yeah. That's a Six Sexy Ladies right there. Four, minimum. Certainly no fewer than three.

Note to self: Panda earthquake image not a fake, exactly

Dear Bill: You know that picture of the terrified giant panda clinging to a policeman's leg after the Japan earthquake? The one that, in the terrible early hours of this awful disaster, rocketed all over the Internet, landed on your screen and induced all sorts of anthropomorphic empathy on your part? It's not a fake, exactly; the image is real, but it's five years old, and was taken at a panda research center, and not in Japan but in China, and the guy isn't a policeman, he's a keeper, and it was feeding time, and the panda wasn't terrified but hungry. As you're contemplating the still-unfolding disaster, reserve a little brainpower to ponder on who puts this sort of misinformation out there at a time like this, and why. And try not to let it make you feel worse about this moment in history than you already do.

Do It (Tomorrow)

My name is Bill, and I'm bad at GTD.

doittoday.jpgMany, many factors account for this -- let's call it a character flaw. But the biggest is probably this one: My utter inability (or maybe it's just an unwilingness) to see beyond what's right in front of me. This one failing has knocked the pins right out from under every GTD implementation I've ever looked at, and I've looked at 'em all. You know in the cartoons, when somebody's confused and words start circling his head? That's me with a new GTD app. Projects? Next tasks? Near-term goals? Far-term goals? Why, you're just talking gibberish!

doittomorrow.jpgThis may be why I've embraced Do It (Tomorrow), a dead-simple to-do app for iOS. (Free for the iPhone; a $1.99 universal version adds cloud sync.) Do It (Tomorrow) builds on -- or maybe it takes away from -- the work done by earlier apps like Put Things Off, a simplified sort-of-GTD client that allows you to schedule tasks for today or shove them off indefinitely. The trouble is, even that feels like too much work to someone like me. Here's the uncomplicated beauty of Do It (Tomorrow): It offers two choices: Do it today, or put it off for tomorrow. That's it. In reducing the vista of available time, it allows me to focus on only those things that really need doing right now, or close to it. Do It (Tomorrow) embraces the functioning part of my brain, which can see about 36 hours ahead, and doesn't bother with the rest. It's simple, good-looking and -- for me -- supremely functional.

Skull cups

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"The next time you're in a museum, keep a sharp eye out for skull cups," Gadling advises brightly today, following up on a BBC report about the discovery of three ancient skulls that were carved into drinking cups. And you can bet your life I will, Gadling, because skull cups can be beautiful, like the one above (apparently Chinese, although its provenance is a little murky) but mostly because they are SKULLS carved into CUPS and ancient people DRANK OUT OF THEM, and if that doesn't give you nightmares, take another good look at the less aesthetic and more terrifying model whose picture accompanies the BBC story and remind yourself that once upon a time it was the repository for SOME GUY'S BRAINS.

Make mine hibiscus

I can think of a lot of reasons why New York City rules, and today there's one more: Soda Party! Anton Nocito, the proprietor of Brooklyn's P&H Soda Co., will cater your birthday party, wedding or other event with hand-made sodas from his own artisanal syrups, in ginger, hibiscus, lime and cream flavors. (He offers seasonal specials as well, and plans to add more flavors to the permanent lineup.) Nocito also hosts soda-making/history classes; there's one this week at The Brooklyn Kitchen. The Food Curated blog recently visited with Nocito, a guy who looks like he absolutely loves his work.

P&H Soda Co: Refreshing All Natural Syrups for Soda Lovers from SkeeterNYC on Vimeo.

The sound of a TV through a wall

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Today I want to offer my thanks to a nameless collection of audio nerds. Armed only with DAT recorders and patience, and maybe some Mojo bars and sports drinks, and, I don't know, tents and blankets, I guess, these are the dedicated hobbyists who have provided a company named Urban Apps with the raw materials for a great product called Ambiance, newly arrived for the desktop. (It's also available for iOS, Android and Blackberry.)

Ambiance is, more or less, a slick front end for an audio archive called The Freesound Project, but it adds tons of value. It gives you the capability to download (for free) a large number of high-quality ambient audio clips, arrange them in playlists, and play them back in any order you choose. You can set them to shuffle and loop, and set a timer so the sounds fade away after a given period. The variety of clips on offer is staggering, and goes way beyond the usual waves and showers. As I write this I'm listening to a clip called "Sonoran Desert," which features the dry whisper of wind over sand, bird sounds and -- alarmingly -- what sounds like the rattle of a rattlesnake really freakin' close. This has the vestigial effect on my ancient fight-or-flight response of making me want very badly to choose flight, which is probably the exact opposite of the restful effect the developers were seeking, but never mind. If that isn't your cup of noise you can choose from rural sounds or urban sounds (I love "NYC Rooftop," which perfectly captures the attenuated whoosh of a city street overheard from a high roof). You can pick from sounds of static, sci-fi sounds, the sounds of various kinds of machines, sports, environments and a bunch of more arcane choices, including a clock shop, somebody endlessly clicking a pen, and -- this one I really don't get, because it's the exact sound that almost prompted me to murder my neighbors when I lived in New York -- the sound of a TV playing through a wall. Whatever floats your sonic boat, I guess. The app is beautiful, works great on multiple platforms (it runs on Adobe AIR) and is a dead steal at $9.99. It's a supermarket of sound, right on your desktop.

Bomb-sniffing mice


[Video Link] You know, it's all well and good to talk about how bomb-sniffing mice are the future of security, and sure, it sounds good. But ask yourself: What does the phrase "genetically-selected rodents, optimized by integration with Hi-technology system" mean? I think it means they stuff mice into a plastic shoebox and train them to push a button when they get the whiff of contraband. And all I'm saying is, if I were stuffed into a plastic shoebox at the airport I'd give some serious consideration to pushing the tiny button a few extra times to screw with my tormentors, or maybe just because I was bored. Unless it's a gag. It's gotta be a gag, right? It's a gag. I'm pretty sure it's a gag. (via dvice.)

Also, you're gonna love this buttercream scaloppini

I want to be snippy about this Wall Street Journal trend story. I really do. It encapsulates everything I hate about trend stories: The totally fake, self-justifying notion that Suddenly everybody is {insert trend here}!!!, the lazy reliance on a few East-Side-of-LA hipsters to underpin the thing, the utterly un-self-aware trashing of whatever previous trend the publication has just pivoted away from. I mean, it's all here. It's a Perfect Storm of Trend Story Clichés. (Please note: The use of the phrase "Perfect storm" is itself a big whopping trend story cliché.) But the thing is, and I'm not proud of this, lasagna cupcakes sound totally delicious. Listen to the way a TV writer (well, of course she is) describes the savory snacks: They're "all corners, they're a wall of crust." Have they got you yet? Are you getting hungry yet? No? Then take a look at the semi-pornographic photos of lasagna cupcakes in various stages of preparation. It's like being beaten over the head with cheesy deliciousness. You win, Wall Street Journal Trend Guy. But then I guess we both knew you would.