Jim Bartlett's Blog

Posts from January 2013


Funny on the Fly
I've spent most of my adult life as either a radio DJ or a writer or both. Neither of them is a bad way to make a living, especially since they don't require you to work outside in the rain. However: there are a couple of other things I *wish* I could do. One is sports play-by-play. I became a sports fan when I was eight or nine, and I was as interested in the people broadcasting the games as I was in the games themselves. But I also had a stutter (still do, actually, although I can generally keep it in check), and I knew that if I ever became a play-by-play broadcaster, there was going to be a moment when the words wouldn't come out. So I never risked it, although I have done some sports broadcasting that doesn't require the flow of play-by-play.

The other thing I wish I could do is standup comedy. It would be fun to stand on stage and command an audience. But to get good enough to do that requires a lot of hard work, and a willingness to die a thousand terrible deaths in front of audiences who don't think you're funny. I never had the courage to try it, not even once. Related to--and even harder than--standup comedy is improv comedy. It's one thing to write jokes, learn them, and deliver your routine. It's another thing entirely to make up funny stuff on the fly, based on suggestions from the audience. Madison has a couple of thriving improv groups, and they sometimes offer classes for people who would like to try it. I have yet to develop the courage for that, either.

Last weekend, Ann and I saw a couple of improv masters when Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood played the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. You might know them from the old Who's Line Is It Anyway? TV show, although they have been touring together for years, and were at the Overture Center last year. Even though we had an idea what to expect by watching Colin and Brad on TV, we were still absolutely amazed by what they could do onstage, taking the most absurd suggestions and turning them into comedy. One game involved Brad playing a detective interrogating Colin as a man accused of a crime made up of phrases suggested by the audience. The goal was to get Colin to confess to the crime in the exact words of the phrase. Given that he had pickled a zebra and whipped a chocolate bar into a bowl of guacamole in Ashwaubenon at Gertrude's Human Taxidermy, we couldn't imagine how Brad would get him there, but he did, and it was hilarious.

After seeing that, I think I'm even less likely to try an improv class. A man's got to know his limitations, and I know mine. Better to watch and enjoy people who know what they're doing.
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The Land of the Free and the Home of the Pre-Recorded
Forgive me if I am unable to work up even a tiny bit of outrage over the news that Beyoncé lip-synched the National Anthem at President Obama's inauguration ceremony.

When Christina Aguilera famously messed up the anthem before the Packers' Super Bowl win two years ago, I was among those who joked about it, until my wife set me straight. She's performed the anthem in public (with the Sound of Madison chorus) and she says that "The Star-Spangled Banner" is very difficult to sing. "It has a very large range from low notes to high notes, and it has some jumps [from note to note] that are pretty unusual compared to what we're used to hearing." And if you don't agree with that, listen to Aretha Franklin, who says shad no problem with Beyonce's choice to lip-sync: "The weather down there was about 46 or 44 degrees, and for most singers that is just not good singing weather." Another consideration: the National Anthem at the inauguration is a very, very big deal. In a spot like that, nobody wants to risk mid-song microphone failure. It's embarrassing if Kelly Clarkson's microphone goes out during "My Country 'Tis of Thee," but if it happens during the anthem, it's a disaster of historic proporations.

It's not as though Beyoncé is the first person ever to do this. One of the most famous anthem performances of all time was Whitney Houston's before the Super Bowl just days after the Persian Gulf War began. For years, people close to Whitney insisted that she'd sung it live. Last year, however, her musical director finally confirmed that the performance was lip-synched. In a giant stadium, with a delay between the moment the words come out of your mouth and when they come echoing back to you over the PA system, it's easy to lose your place and give less than your best performance. When the whole country, or the whole world, is watching, that's not what you want. Such performances are recorded far more often than most people realize.


And if lip-synching was good enough for everybody who ever appeared on American Bandstand back in the day, it's good enough for anybody now. Beyoncé did what she felt she had to do on Inauguration Day, and I don't have a problem with it.
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Wedding gifts
I took a big bundle of old towels over to the vet clinic the other day, and while I was waiting to drop them off, I noticed that a couple of them were wedding presents we received back in 19-censored-censored. (How many guys can remember that they got towels as a wedding present from somebody, let alone what color they were? I can. I'm quite something, really.) So I had to ask Ann just how many wedding presents we're still using after all this time. We can only think of a few: there's an afghan on the loveseat in the living room and a frying pan in the kitchen that we're pretty sure came from somebody. There's a TV reference book on the shelf in my office that was a quirky gift from some college friends. But that's it.

One of the more useful gifts we received was a slimline dial telephone. We were married at about the time people started buying their own telephones instead of getting them from the phone company, so it was a cutting-edge gift back then. We used it for years and years, if not as our main phone then as an extension, or as a backup when one of our fancier phones gave out. It's still in our bedroom closet, I think. The most useless gift we can remember was really lovely, but useless--a glass deviled-egg plate. Neither one of us ate deviled eggs or could stand to make them, but we moved that deviled-egg plate to several different addresses before we finally decided to get rid of it. (When we discovered a good friend of ours adored deviled eggs, we knew what to do.)

Over the years, whenever we've been invited to weddings, we've usually given cash. We know that people appreciate it; we certainly did when we were just starting a home together. It's more convenient to write a check than to shop for a gift. But nobody's going to look back today and remember that we gave 'em $20, or $50, or whatever it was. Not like I remember the guys who gave us that book back in the year 19-censored-censored.

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Clutter
Each of us knows things that really don't matter to us. For example, I know that Kim Kardashian and rapper Kanye West are having a baby together, despite the fact that Kim is not yet divorced from her basketball-player husband, from whom she separated after some ridiculously short period of time, following a staggeringly expensive wedding. I know that Taylor Swift has split up with her most recent boyfriend. (Even though Taylor's breakup happened just a few days ago, I bet she's already written a song about it. Honestly, she must have released at least a half-dozen songs in the last few years about breaking up with old boyfriends. Maybe her next song should be titled "It's Not You, It's Me.")

I am not particularly interested in gossip about Kim, who is famous for being famous, or about Taylor Swift's love life, even though I like her songs. But in a world with so much media, you can't avoid it. And even if you are one of those people who claims to watch only PBS, you aren't escaping the raging waters of pop culture over there. "Downton Abbey," anyone? If you don't own a TV, you aren't getting away from it, either. Twitter and Facebook require us to engage with all sorts of fluff. And even if you stay off the Internet entirely, there's still probably a copy of People magazine in the waiting room at the dentist's office.

Everybody has this problem of stuff taking up space in our brains that we don't find particularly important. For example, my wife could probably tell you about the knee injury suffered by Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III in the NFL playoff game last Sunday. But I am guessing she would also tell you that her quality of life would not be drastically affected if she'd never heard of Robert Griffin III.

Imagine what we could accomplish if our brains were uncluttered. Maybe I could have figured out how to turn water into gasoline the other day if I hadn't been distracted by some story about Lindsay Lohan. We'll never know.
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