Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Common Idiosyncrasies

What is it about bubble wrap?

I mean, really. What’s the deal? Why is it that we all want to pop it? What is the weird thrill we get from that routine?

I can’t figure it out.

Sure, it’s kinda gratifying to hear the sound. That POP. And maybe there’s something about de-activating each bubble so it will never pop again. But… seriously: what’s the deal?

Has there been a study? I wonder. And wouldn’t it be cool, by the way, if the National Institutes of Health actually put out grant money to find out why we all like to pop bubble wrap? If that ever happened (if the NIH actually invested in the research), I’d take it as a good sign. I’d take it to mean that the national economy had bounced back and there was finally peace in the Middle East.

… It’s been a long time since I thought about writing for television. It's also been a while since Frasier was part of the prime-time line-up. But I had this great idea once…

What if Niles Crane (Frasier’s brother, in case you lost your cliff notes) discovered bubble wrap… And: what if he had no idea that other people liked it, too.

Think of it: Niles Crane with bubble wrap.

Niles Crane not knowing of the common idiosyncrasy.

Can you imagine?

I envision him with a small square of bubble wrap in the side pocket of his newly dry-cleaned Armani blazer.

I see him entering Café Nervosa and becoming quickly giddy after surreptitiously putting his hand in his pocket and doing a quick POP.

“Ooh!” he says, cutting himself short.

Later that same day…

I see him moving about furtively in the kitchen of Frasier’s condo. Daphne is there, and because it’s the 5th season, Niles’ crush is obvious to everyone but her. So, there they are, “doing the dance,” and for whatever reason, Niles’ jacket pocket hits the center island every so often.


“Niles!” Daphne says, responding to the sound, her tone vaguely flirtatious.


“What am I hearing?” she asks then, her smile charming.

Daphne gets that knowing look on her face.

(She’s psychic, you know.)

“Is that… bubble wrap?” she asks, raising her eyebrows seductively.

“What are you talking about?” Niles replies, his face white.

“What’s in your pocket?”

“Oh…. Nothing.”

“Oh!” Daphne says, scolding him in the way he craves. “Don’t say nothing! There’s something there! I think it’s bubble wrap!”

“Bubble wrap?” Niles repeats, his eyes melting (his brain genuinely not comprehending the common popularity of bubble wrap).

“Cough it up now!” she insists.

Daphne then meets Niles’ hand as they extract, together, the small square from his pocket.

“Bubble wrap!” Daphne exclaims. “It’s so much fun to pop it!”

“Yes,” says Niles, looking lovingly at her as they pop some bubbles together.

“Yes,” he says. “It is.”

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Some Things Just Take Time

I smile every time I drive by the Baskin Robbins on Western Avenue.

(Baskin Robbins – renowned for its 31 flavors.)

I don’t smile because I love ice cream (which I do). I don’t smile because I particularly love their ice cream (I actually haven’t tasted it in years). I don’t smile, for that matter, because I’m proud of resisting the urge to turn into their parking lot. (Most often, in fact, when I drive by the local franchise, I’ve just been to the grocery store, so if I were craving ice cream, I would have bought some already.)

I smile because of their new logo.

There’s the B (for Baskin). The straight-edged left side of that letter is blue (the rest is pink).

There’s the R (for Robbins). The straight-edged left side of that letter is pink (the rest is blue).

Combined, the initials make for a two-toned BR, and because of the colors assigned to those letters, the pink part of the B and the pink part of the R create “31.”

And here’s the reason I smile: Baskin Robbins has been around for decades. But it was only in the last year or so that somebody noticed the “31” within these initials.

I can’t help but imagine the pitch meeting, when the marketing people put up the PowerPoint presentation. There it was in pink and blue. Perhaps the most obvious logo ever to appear to mankind.

… So many of us work so hard, believing in what we do. We create product. We market our product as best we can. We find buyers.

As a very small fish in a very large pond, I appreciate driving by Baskin Robbins. I appreciate realizing how long it took for some wise soul to see it. The “31” and the logo that would eventually emerge had been there all along.

I visited my mother last October, and one evening, we were imagining what it would be like to have a substantial amount of spare cash. “If I had some money to spend,” I told her, “I would hire someone to do my marketing.”

My mother’s facial expression became sweetly curious. “You mean the grocery store?” she asked, with a certain trademark innocence.

“Right,” I wanted to reply, with my own trademark sarcasm. “The grocery store... Because if it weren’t for all those pesky trips to Ralphs and Trader Joe’s, I’d undoubtedly have a bestseller under my belt!”

Marketing is a science. The best methods change constantly, and the process takes time. It should neither be underestimated nor taken for granted.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Jimmy Fallon is a Happy Man

While I am not a fan of late-night talk show politics (an especially hot issue these days), I’ve always been a fan of the programming. And my earliest experience on this score was watching The Dick Cavett Show. Now, I’ve got to admit, if I saw a tape of that program today, I would probably be a little put off by the relentlessly bookish tone of the dialogue. But, at the time of my appreciating it – I’m guessing I was ten or so – I loved the repartee between the host and his guests. I just loved it.

I should probably explain (in case it isn’t remarkably obvious) that my parents were always rather lenient regarding my bedtime -- particularly on Fridays and Saturdays. And why shouldn’t they have been? It’s not like I was outside stealing hubcaps or smoking crack. I was inside. I was downstairs. I was watching Dick Cavett, for God’s sake.

But in my junior high years, something changed in me, and that’s when my parents started worrying. That’s when I started watching Johnny Carson. I can’t remember the moment when I switched allegiances, but the lure was strong. Maybe it was the show-biz nature of his program. Maybe it was the lack of outright, intellectual sparring. Maybe it was Johnny’s sexy charm. Regardless of the reason, I had changed teams, and this made my parents curious. One night, my father parlayed that curiosity into joining me for the full ninety minutes of The Tonight Show.

I remember turning to Dad throughout the program, smiling and wondering if he would smile too.

But as he sat there, Dad didn’t emote.

When the show was over, though, he did offer one thought as he stood and walked away. He told me that he really loved Ed McMahon.

Right, Dad, I thought, rolling my eyes.

And just as I knew my father was kidding, I also knew that he was expressing a truth. He didn’t love Ed McMahon. He just envied him. He envied the man who could make such a bankroll simply by laughing at his boss night after night.

Over the years, I continued to watch Johnny (remaining indifferent to Ed). And for many of those years, Johnny was followed by Letterman, whom I also grew to love. Classics, both. Their sardonic, often deadpan approaches defined late-night television for me. The dry delivery, the laid-back take – that was what I had come to expect at the end of my day.

When Johnny left, Dave was still there, so the attitude-torch remained lit. From time to time, I’d check in with Conan or Craig, but I could never embrace their higher registers. I wanted a bass, not a tenor. For me, late-night talk had a formula that worked. Why mess with it?

Enter Jimmy Fallon.

When his show debuted last March, I was curious to see what this SNL alum would do with Conan’s old spot on NBC. So, after Letterman, I switched channels and watched.

During the first week or so, I sensed a discomfort, particularly during the opening monologue. He didn’t seem up to the routine of a typical late-night talk show host. But… I kept watching, and as the weeks and months unfolded, Jimmy Fallon established his own routine.

And now? I am beyond impressed. With less than a year under his talk-show belt, Jimmy Fallon has done something I would never have thought imaginable in all my years of following Dick, Johnny, and Dave. Jimmy Fallon has made late-night talk not just a comic place, but a genuinely happy place.

The minute he steps through those curtains, he is more than comfortable and competent. He is – or seems to be – filled with joy. And that joy then gets spread – to the band (Roots; joyful in their own right); to his announcer, Higgins (Lydia’s non-smoking half); to his studio audience; to his guests; and to folks like me, who are relaxing on couches or in beds across America.

Late-night happy.

A new concept.

I, for one, have never needed it more.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Signs of the Times

I try not to go to that “fear place,” but these days, the indicators of struggle are everywhere. It seems that the majority of apartment buildings on my block have For Rent signs out front. And on nearby commercial streets, there are more than a few empty stores. Other stores – not yet empty – soon will be. The large, brightly-colored notices of liquidation and huge discounts foretell their futures.

Must everything go?

As an independent contractor, I can only hope that the work will keep coming. Sure, I can take some proactive measures, and doing so might help, but there are no guarantees, and that precariousness can be a bit unsettling. Having an income that changes month-to-month isn’t new, of course. I’ve been self-employed, and therefore dependent on the needs of a collection of clients, for ten years. Some months are less lucrative than others, but I’ve always managed. And, until recently, I’ve never felt drawn to the fear place.

But, the unease is in the air. It’s around every corner. It shows up in facial expressions. It underscores overheard dialogues. It is the story behind the unprecedented number of signs placed in yards and windows.

Last Saturday afternoon, I decided to walk to my local triplex to see a 4:00 showing of It’s Complicated. When I called to check on movie times, I was grateful to learn that my neighborhood theatre has remained a place where one can see a matinee for less than ten dollars. And while the current $6.00 rate represents an increase over the $4.50 they charged for matinees six or so months ago, it still felt like a bargain. I’ll admit that the screen is not huge, the sound system is sub-par, and there was no usher to direct me to my pre-assigned seat, but the activity was well worth the price of admission. It helped take my mind off the signs.

Ironically, on my way to the theatre, I saw a For Rent sign that jarred me just a bit more than any I have seen since the downturn started hitting home. The sign was in the window of a small place on Franklin, just a few doors west of the Vermont Avenue intersection. For someone who is unfamiliar with this neighborhood and who hasn’t – as I have – walked past that property on a regular basis for more than fifteen years, the sign probably announces nothing other than the availability of yet another rental residence. But for me, the message was more specific. It told me that the Psychic Advisor has moved.

Seeing the emptiness of an establishment that once featured neon window dressing advertising Tarot Readings, I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the lady who made her living envisioning other people’s futures. Did she not see it coming? Did she look at her palm with a new set of corrective lenses one day and realize, in that moment, that she never, in fact, had much of a wealth line? Or, was she running from litigious former clients whose own futures had not panned out quite as nicely as she predicted they would?

Of course, I could be wrong in painting the picture so negatively. For all I know, she might have cashed in her 401K and moved to Palm Springs. Or maybe she hit some lottery numbers and moved up the hill. Hmm… I’ll have to keep that possibility in mind next time I go on my mansion hike. Maybe I’ll see her neon sign in a bottom floor window of one of those houses that undoubtedly is equipped with no fewer than two elevators. And if I do see it… and if she’s still charging only $10 for a reading, I’ll invest in her powers.

But, I have a feeling I’ll never see her sign again.

(Call me psychic.)