So You Want to Be on a Competition Reality Show?

An actual Madagascar hissing cockroach. In case you've been wondering.
An actual Madagascar hissing cockroach. In case you’ve been wondering.

If you’ve ever watched a reality show contestant choke down a Madagascar hissing cockroach smoothie or bungee-jump off a bridge, and thought, “I can do that,” maybe you’ve considered applying. ‘Cause it looks so easy, right? Sure, from the safe, plushy tentacles of your sofa. But you’ll need more than good hair and an inspirational backstory to succeed at these modern versions of Lord of The Flies. Before you create your Survivor audition video, choose your partner for The Amazing Race, and make an appointment for full-body waxing, consider these other things you ought to do as well: Continue reading

Fear Factor Is Back. Will PETA Be Watching?

Well, pass the remote and deep-fry me a Madagascar hissing cockroach. To honor the return of the “new” Fear Factor to NBC (which looks just like the “old” Fear Factor), I’ve updated one of my favorite posts. Enjoy. And kids, don’t try this at home.

What makes an animal?

Consider the Madagascar hissing cockroach. Or…maybe not. Gromphadorhina portentosa is not exactly the Brad Pitt of the insect world. If I lived in Madagascar I’d be laying in a good supply of Raid.

But somehow PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has overlooked the fact that scores of obviously live and kicking Madagascar hissing cockroaches are allowed to be crunched to their doom by obviously insane Fear Factor contestants every year, who seem to be willing to eat or do anything for the prospect of being on TV and going home with $50,000 (and probably some form of exotic parasitic disease).

Yet during Fear Factor’s original run, PETA nailed a Virginia Beach nightclub that allowed contestants to swallow live goldfish.

I don’t know. Is it the “cute” factor? Must a creature pass some sort of beauty-pageant litmus test in order to be taken under PETA’s wing? Spotted owl? Cute. Baby harp seal? Awww. Madagascar hissing cockroach? Pass. Get some plastic surgery, dude, then send in that head shot again, okay?

Possibly the omission is because PETA has too much on their plates. What with getting all huffy demanding that a town near me change its name from “Fishkill” to something less violent toward our finny friends (Someone didn’t do their research: “kill” is Old Dutch for “brook,” folks. Every other town around here is named Something-kill) to killing dozens of trees with mailings warning me of the evils of animal product testing, they’ve got quite a lot to do.

But hissing cockroaches aside, they’ve missed something really, really huge.

Windows kill an estimated 1 billion birds each year.

That’s right. Windows. (That’s why I use a Mac)

But seriously, according to ornithologist Daniel Klem, who was interviewed by NPR’s John Nielsen on Morning Edition, “It’s a very common phenomenon. Birds are deceived. They just don’t see glass as a barrier and this is a problem for them.”

I’d say dying a horrible death by ramming your tiny little body head first into a solid pane of glass could be a bit of a problem.

But just to prove his hypothesis, Klem went into a forest and hung some windows off the branches of trees. Then he watched as an “appalling” number of collisions occurred. From an eight-foot perch, many of the birds smacked splat into the windows and died.

Cripes, he could have saved his research money (and many unnecessary avian deaths) and come over to my house to watch the dingbat birds doing the same thing here.

We had a feeder over our front stairs for four months. The same birds kept coming around. They’d become smart enough to get the seed out of the feeder, and to know where to find the spillage when it’s empty. Then, when it’s obvious we’re not going to refill for a few days (we’re afraid of them getting too plump to escape from the neighborhood cats) they stop coming. When we refill the feeder, somehow they figure out that it’s safe to come back. You’d think they’d have a good bead on the landscape by now, but no, there’s that THUNK again.

Window, dipstick.

Tiny pinfeathers are sticking to the panes.

And there’s your research.

PETA seems to be ignoring this. A quick search of their web site revealed that their only beef against birds and windows is the recommendation that when you cage a large bird (and remember, there are no such things as “caged” birds, all birds are wild animals and deserve to be free), don’t use a cage with glass sides or mirrors for the very same reason that birds can’t see it and will fly headfirst into it and knock themselves silly.

However, another site (birdsandbuildings.org) suggests putting a flexible screen outside your window (they claim decals don’t work) or using “fritted or patterned” glass. The problem is that humans have found these alternatives objectionable in their homes, as it interferes with the clarity of their views.

I mean, which would you rather have, a semi-obstructed view or billions of kamikaze birds going splat against your panes?

If a creature is that stupid, I’d rather spend my resources trying to save the Madagascar hissing cockroach. I could go on Fear Factor, eat a bunch of them, and put the $50,000 toward modifying their DNA to make them look like bunnies.

(Note: no animals were harmed in the making of this post.)

Invisible TV Characters

Okay, this I know is a departure from my usual writing- and book-related posts, but I needed to have some fun today. Plus, I’ve been studying up on the craft (yes, you cynics out there, it is a craft) of writing for television. What especially amused me was the device of leaving a much-referenced character off-screen. Here are a few of my favorites. I’m sure you can come up with more. Aren’t you glad I do this so you won’t have to?

All in the Family:

• Norm’s wife, Vera “appears” but once in the whole run of Cheers…just to get a pie in the face before we can catch a glimpse of it. (Although at various times, we see her legs or a hand waving.)

• Niles Crane’s anorexic wife is the butt of many jokes in Frasier, yet we never see or hear her. My favorite line: “Maris, Lycra is supposed to blouse.”

• Mary Tyler Moore’s landlady, Phyllis Lindstrom, had a Scandinavian dermatologist husband, Lars, who lived (and died) completely off camera. Upon his death, Phyllis and daughter Bess moved out of Minneapolis and got their own spinoff.

• Megan Mullally’s bitchy, substance-abusing Karen in Will and Grace had a long-suffering husband who never appeared.

• Howard Wolowitz’s foghorn-voiced mother is just that: a voice screaming at her son from offstage in The Big Bang Theory. Contrary to popular rumor, the voice is not that of the actress who plays Howard’s girlfriend, Bernadette. Good impression, though.

• Remember Peter Falk’s Columbo? He’d often refer to “Mrs. Columbo,” who was never seen.

Who’s the Boss:

• John Forsythe, who died in 2010, played Charlie, the voice on the speakerphone that summoned the Angels to do his bidding.

• “Mork, calling Orson. Come in, Orson…” We never meet the disembodied voice to which Robin Williams’ Mork (in Mork and Mindy) reported at the end of each episode.

• Remember Third Rock from the Sun? John Lithgow and company reported to Big Giant Head, a disembodied entity who transmitted messages through French Stewart’s character, Harry. BGH eventually came to Earth in human form played by an over-the-top William Shatner. (This technically does not count as a completely invisible character, but it’s fun.)

Friends and Neighbors:

• Ugly Naked Guy was a frequent object of fascination on Friends. Until Ross moved into his apartment, Monica and company could watch UNG light candles, make Thanksgiving, and generally enjoy his naked self from her window. But, we never saw him. Or his Ugly Naked Girlfriend, who made a cameo “appearance.”

• Technically, neighbor Wilson did appear in Home Improvement. The gag was that no matter what he was doing, we never got to see his entire face.

• Bob Sacamano, Kramer’s oddball friend, was a frequently referenced character on Seinfeld who never appeared. On one episode, when Jerry and Kramer switch apartments, Jerry begins taking on Kramer-like attributes and even begins telling Bob Sacamano stories.

Did I miss anyone?

Terra Nova: Nothing “Nova” About It

I’d seen the previews for Terra Nova on Fox months before it actually appeared.  Cleverly, their marketing people had positioned this as Jurassic Park meets Lost.

But for me, the actual show did not live up to the hype. The setup was kind of interesting, if not a little politically correct: a home planet we had ruined, 150 years in the future, by overpopulation and pollution, where signs on the street flashed with directions on how to breathe, where children were only allowed two to a family and had never seen clouds or the moon except in picture books.

Then, after some heavy-handed drama that went on too long, we follow our main characters, the Shannon family, as they enter Terra Nova. This is a new, old world originally found, or so goes the tale, through a crack in the space-time continuum. Terra Nova has dinosaurs, big, scary insects, and it’s run by the rather pompous, arrogant Nathaniel Taylor, played by Stephen Lang from Avatar. His character reminded me of a cross between J. Peterman from Seinfeld and “The Most Interesting Man in the World” from the Dos Equis beer commercials. Every time he appeared on screen I kept hearing, “Stay thirsty, my friends.”

In short, the dialogue was ponderous, the characters and situations clichéd, the plot predictable. One of the few moments that hinted at something freakish about Terra Nova, discovered by a band of teenagers who (surprise) took a road trip beyond the colony’s gates and got into trouble, was wasted by having several characters continually point it out. We get it. It’s weird. Stop telling me it’s weird. Have they ever heard of dramatic tension? Seeding a few clues here and there, and leaving it to the viewer to wonder, and keep tuning in?

Sorry. I’m tuning out. I’d rather watch Jurassic Park again.

Some Popular Wisdom Charlie Sheen Should Consider

When a celebrity flames out-and this was damned impressive as far as flameouts go-why does the star in question (or in rehab) so often blame everyone but himself for his misbehavior? Even more disturbing, the character Charlie Sheen plays on Two and a Half Men is basically Charlie Sheen without the ex-wife, the kids, or the consequences of his actions. As I thought about him, and the crap he keeps pulling (the women he threatened, the drugs, the drinking, the egomania), cliché by cliché kept popping into my head. You know, that common wisdom people tell you when you screw up. So here are a few things Sheen may want to consider the next time he schedules an interview with TMZ:

1. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Seriously. Calling his producer a charlatan, a troll, and a turd, and worse? The man who made Sheen’s drug-, booze- and porn star-infested lifestyle possible? Save it for the tell-all. And please, please, hire this woman to write it.

2. People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. During his tantrums, where he repeatedly provoked producer Chuck Lorre by using his Hebrew name, Sheen apparently forgot that his real name is Carlos Estevez. But when anyone brings this up, he claims they are anti-Latino. He denies his own roots in the quest for the almighty dollar, and then calls other people anti-Latino? Okay, put that on the list for things to talk over with Dr. Drew.

3. Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today. That means rehab, buddy. And not the drive-through variety or the kind he can do in the comfort of his own home with his Little Therapist Nanosecond Addiction-Cure Kit. Sheen’s case is more serious than that.

4. Little pitchers have big ears. Like it or not, he has kids. If he’s going to do blow with hookers and porn stars, don’t bring the kids to the same hotel.

5. Money doesn’t grow on trees. Or perhaps in that strange, little world inside his head, it does.

6. Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt. This one speaks for itself, don’t you think, Mr. Bayonet Arms? And if he’s so pissed about the media getting it wrong and maligning him, pull a Sarah Palin and STOP talking to them!

7. Don’t get caught with your pants down. See number six.

8. A fool and his money are soon parted. So are fools and their contracts.

9. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. If you have any doubt, consider this statement, from his rant on Alex Jones’ radio show: “I got magic and I got poetry at my fingertips and I’m, y’ know, most of the time – and this includes naps – I am an F-18, bro, and I will destroy you in the air and I will deploy my ordnance to the ground.” Either he’s practicing for his next career as a rapper, or he’s on a serious power trip. Hey, it’s called Two and a Half Men, not One Guy With a Bunch of Supporting Characters. Who, by the way, helped make Sheen very rich. Do you see Jon Cryer or Conchata Ferrell out there having tantrums or rapping on the radio? No.

Here’s a few more clichés for Charlie Sheen: Hasta la vista, baby. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. No soup for you. Next!

10 Guilty Pleasures

What I love about guilty pleasures is the way they humanize us. Could you even imagine that your firebrand English Lit professor reads romance novels like popcorn? Or that your macho, beer-guzzling neighbor melts while watching Disney princess movies with his little girl? In fiction as in life, these traits define a character. They can help your reader fall in love with a protagonist or empathize with a villain. Remember the nasty, obsessive-compulsive writer Jack Nicholson played in As Good As It Gets? That first scene of him stuffing his neighbor’s dog down the trash chute should have sealed our opinions of him. But then we find out he not only writes romance novels, but hand-feeds that same little dog bacon later in the film. This helps transform him from a cardboard character into a complex and much more interesting one worthy of our empathy. A well-placed guilty pleasure in your characters’ lives could do the same. Here are a few of mine:

1. The Wedding Singer. There are very few Adam Sandler films I like, but I could watch this one over and over. And I have. It’s a cheeseball poke in the 80s’ eye, but I love it. Adam Sandler is sweet and funny as a heartbroken, struggling musician. Drew Barrymore is adorable as the naïve waitress he courts. All of this and a cameo by Billy Idol, too! Aw, now I want to watch it again.

2. Lindt white chocolate truffles. Yes, they’re overpriced and not very good for me, but so smooth and creamy it’s like velvet on your tongue. I have to buy them individually, or I’d down the whole bag.

3. Awards Shows. Oh, make some popcorn and get cozy as the glitterfied and glamorous take to the red carpet! I know some people vilify them as self-congratulatory puffery, but the puffery is why I watch. Some eight-year-old girl inside me is squealing, “Look at all the pretty dresses!”

4. Miss America. This is sort of in the same category as awards shows, as it catches my eight-year-old self in its glitter zone. Beauty pageants, unlike awards shows, have a special cheeseball factor: the interviews. Bliss!

5. Lady Gaga. Finally, a vocalist comes along who understands marketing and branding herself as well as Madonna. The kooky get-ups, the wild videos…and she can sing, too.

6. Legally Blonde. Reese Witherspoon goes to Harvard! So fun!

7. Gilmore Girls. A little saccharine, you might say? But I think this show is brilliant. It’s got quirky characters and great lines, amusingly obscure cultural references, and it’s a kind of comfort food for me. I have the first few seasons on DVD, and the night before my mother-in-law had a radical mastectomy, I chained-watched episodes until I could no longer keep my eyes open. I still watch, nearly every weekday, while I’m on the treadmill.

8. Family Guy/South Park. If either of my parents caught me viewing these shows, they might question the astronomical checks they wrote for my college education. But some days, you just need to laugh your ass off like no one’s watching.

9. Bugs Bunny cartoons. Tell me this isn’t one of yours, too. I double-dog dare you.

10. The Ten Commandments. I loved Ben-Hur, but at the risk of getting bombarded with mail accusing me of heresy, The Ten Commandments is probably one of the most mock-worthy movies ever made. Where to start? The overacting? The ponderous, pompous score? Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price as Egyptians? Or the memorably cheesy lines that make this movie the Greatest Drinking Game Ever Told? (Don’t blame me. Seriously, I went to a Ten Commandments party where people downed a shot for each iconic, but stupid, line.) I still love to watch it.

Okay, now that I’ve embarrassed myself in front of everyone and invited public scorn, it’s your turn. What are some of your guilty pleasures? Why do you like them?

Sling A Little Slang

I’ve always loved listening to the music of language, especially those words and phrases outside the tidy boundaries of Merriam-Webster. Somewhere in the Exurban Dictionary of my brain, I filed them away, the associated gray matter swelling with each new person I met and each new place I visited. Here are some of my favorite slang expressions:

1. Slide it, Earl
I first heard this from an old boyfriend who came from the pseudo-Appalachia of way-upstate New York. He said it when someone-usually someone behind the wheel of a pickup with a gun rack on the back window and a dog riding in the cab-was driving too slowly for his taste. He didn’t outright say he’d invented the phrase, but strongly led me to believe so. (Hey, I was young and gullible.) Not only had I adopted the phrase, but after he disappeared from my life, other future boyfriends picked it up from me like a nasty, embarrassing rash. Which annoyed me. What annoyed me even more? While watching an old episode of Match Game on the Game Show Network recently, Gene Rayburn gestured to the manually-operated bonus round answer board and said, “Slide it, Earl!” Feh! I’ve been HAD.

2. Half a bubble off plumb
Ah, this has a beautiful sound, just kind of rolls off the tongue, which is the best thing about great slang. This is a wonderful phrase for someone or something that isn’t quite right, albeit probably in a good way. As in, “My aunt’s half a bubble off plumb, but that quirkiness is probably what I love most about her.”

3. Sea change.
This came to me via an uncle, who was actually not an uncle but one of those friends of the family my parents insisted we call “uncle.” We were having a political discussion and he said something like, “To get that kind of legislation passed, we’ll have to see a real sea change in Congress.” He couldn’t believe I’d never heard the term before. Apparently, according to his explanation, people in the pre-aviation days, seeking relief from a broken heart, consumptive illness or other assorted shattered dreams, would board an ocean liner for Europe, hoping their bad humors would dissolve in the Atlantic. Hence, sea change. Or it could have been from Shakespeare. To-MAY-to, To-MAH-to.

4. PITA
Early in my advertising career, a colleague coached me on how to quote jobs. We were working on one for a particularly obnoxious, petty nickel-and-dimer (speaking of slang). “And then, of course,” she said, “We add the five percent PITA tax.” As in “pain in the ass.” When I went client side, I was particularly conscious of not needing this tax added to my jobs.

5. Buzzkill
Another word I love for the sound. I can just hear a mosquito being vaporized in a lamp. Which is also, for the mosquito, anyway, a real buzzkill.

6. Grok
I love this word, as it encompasses so many activities at once. Coined by Robert Heinlein in his 1961 sci-fi classic, Stranger in a Strange Land, it means understanding something all in one gulp. Or, from the novel:

Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed-to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science-and it means as little to us (because of our Earthly assumptions) as color means to a blind man.

Unfortunately, this word is slipping out of favor and, at times, is being replaced with the unctuous, camera-ready “aha moment.”

7. Frack (original series), Frak (reimagined series)
One of my favorite words ever coined, this was a Battlestar Galactica writer’s way of getting away with a juicy expletive on television networks that frowned upon juicy expletives. Frak is currently bobbling into over- and mis-use. Please help me save “frak” by using it as judiciously as you would any other f-bomb. Thanks. And thank you to the environmentalists of New York State, for another definition of this slang term: “Frack” is short for hydrofracking, or hydrofracturing, a potentially water-table-contaminating way of fracturing sedimentary rock to extract natural gas. To which many of my fellow New Yorkers respond, “No fracking way.”

8. Spiffanilla
I think I made this up. Means, roughly, “awesome.” Please feel free to correct me if, say, an old boyfriend copped it from a game show.

What are your favorite slang words or expressions?

(Thank you, Plinky people, for today’s prompt, “What’s your favorite slang word?”)