Puppets, Nature & Trains: The 2009 TCA PBS Summer Press Tour – Feature – Part I

Public broadcasting is always based within the aspect of education but the key of all is to essentially make learning fun. The key is structure and a fresh new face.

Sesame Street The stalwart of years is reaching its 40th anniversary which was marked in the inset of the meeting with a taped introduction from President Obama endorsing the importance this program has had over the years. The initial perception was in making the elements modern without sacrificing imagination. Mr. Snufalpagus as pointed out was created with the inception of never being real until people started believing. The reality is that nature is age appropriate although modeling science is challenging. The angle of parody is also of essential relevance with the new season taking intrinsic looks at “Mad Men” focusing on “being mad”. They also did a piece called “Desperate Houseplants”. The anniversary show will follow Big Bird changing his habitat following the psychology that imbues this character.

Electric Company The yin to Sesame’s yang has always balanced on the vision of the Company. Even from its sizzle reel, the show seems a little more up to date incorporating some elements of hip-hop directly. This integration of more urban culture is reflected in Shock, one of the hosts, who raps his way into the presentation with a beat box straight up like Michael Winslow from “Police Academy”. The key with upping the freshness of EC was how to keep it in the now. The online component which focuses them in a very specific world, they said, was key to incorporating 10 new learning games which uses Shock’s phonetics and beat boxes to help kids learn. Building on this component, Shock is going on a 20-city outreach program aimed at optimizing literacy viability. In this structure there will be less parody and more direction within the process since Shock admits that the new learning has “to key at the You Tube generation”.

Inventing LA: The Chandlers & Their Times The Chandlers had an undeniable impact on Los Angeles culture especially within the publishing industry with their leadership of The Los Angeles Times. This documentary, which premiered at last year’s Santa Barbara Film Festival, offers an insight within the dynasty. Harry Brant Chandler, son of the former LA Times publisher, speaks of his father’s intent in that bringing less-than-optimal people into the fold was like bring in pilots that had no flight training. Harry relates that his father was so focused that he literally didn’t care about his son until he went back to the LA Times to help start the internet division. At a certain point, the reality had to settle in where he had to let himself be pushed aside. The key angle was strengthening the news content of the paper. Gaping holes could be too easily spotted. Recently, the LA Times in his mind, as a result, has abandoned almost all its suburban coverage so now there is very little perception within a print context of what is going on in Pasadena or the San Fernando Valley. At one time, Harry Brant explains, his father was on over 26 directors boards which encompassed a reach much further than the newspaper. In perception, Los Angeles might still be a desert town without the Chandlers. The questions that show perception is the discussion decades ago which included the need for an intrinsic mass transit system which still has not been accomplished.

The Human Spark Alan Alda has always had a soothing presence about him especially where the art of learning is concerned because he seems genuinely respective of the avenues he is exploring. Alda jokes that within his point of learning on “Spark”  he realizes that he “is not human yet” but still admits “I use a knife and fork myself”. Graham [Chedd, the series producer at “Nova”] puts him in the middle of this discussion and creates the basis with the scientists. Alda says he is just in it to have fun but the angle is figuring how that will turn out on screen. The challenge is making it so the scientists can explain to him what they are seeing in a functional form. One example is the human socialization concept and being able to read people’s faces. Alda explains that he was trained in improvisation and you “were taught to relate”. The reality, he says, is that we have found no other animals that relate to each other the way humans do. In addition, the traits of working together as a group towards a common goal and being able to cooperate are also quite rare. Certain emotions like spite and envy are also quite visceral to explore. John Shey, an associate at Stonybrook University who collaborated on the series, relates that “evolution is a conservative process”. He says that Alda is like “a very difficult student”. He admits though that one of the nice benefits within the process is that you have to work alot harder to make your points clearer. He says that “chimps don’t have the same sense of getting pissed off” continuing that it would be different if they put Alan in a cage since he would share his raisins (if he were given some). Chimps, he says, just take what they can get.

Ken Burns’ The National Parks The ultimate documentarian takes his vision into a singular perception of the preservation of beauty from a nature standpoint. Ken Burns begins saying that we have reached a level of existentialism in the United States where the “nature deficit”, he says in reference to Dr. Phil, is a real thing. The worst result you want to have at a national park is no one coming. He hopes in a way, like with his Civil War films, that there will be a renewal of interest. People from all over the world come to see the national parks here in the US because we, as a culture, created the model. For him personally concerning this subject matter, he says that “my nerves are so close to the surface”. He first started shooting this new film in the spring of 2003. A moment of clarity for him though dates back to 1959. His mother at that time was dying of cancer and his father was not really around for him. His dad never played catch with him. However during that time this father took his son on a drive through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and sang a song which he remembers to this day. Burns quotes John Mayer in saying that he “surrendered myself to this beauty”.

Dinosaur Train This new perception from Henson Studios spearheaded by Lisa Henson works on the auspice of combining elements of biology with sociology. Lisa admits that it is a changing subject emphasized by the challenge of not using superlatives. She reminisces about when she was a child and “Sesame Street” launched. The selling point quality of The Muppets was encompassed in their creation. Letters today within the structure, she explains, are sold with a gotcha quality. She explains that her father (Jim Henson) always stayed away from the “birthday party mentality”. She also proudly states that Henson never gave up, citing his groundbreaking progression in learning stop motion animation and incorporating the Moog synthesizer to make certain sounds for The Muppets and other productions.

The new form currently coming into play on the market is currently 3D. “Dinosaur Train” is envisioned through 3D animation. Jim Henson himself was working at it up until 1990 and the R&D angle has been in play for close to 20 years. As a company, they have just started their first steps into this world. When she was growing up, their family had no limit on the TV they were allowed to watch. She used to memorize alot of the “Looney Tunes” she would see but her parents weren’t so much into animation at that time. Her perception was of their necessity in putting together TV pieces and getting them up live. Her parents had 5 children and they were all drawn into the business since much of their childhood involved being around The Workshop. One of the earliest pictures of Lisa is her in a basket while her parents’ backs are to her performing their puppets.

Masterpiece Contemporary: Hamlet David Tennant, presently leaving BBC’s “Doctor Who” takes on the perception of the Bard with the irrefutable Sir Patrick Stewart playing his father. Tennant says that it is difficult to be objective about such an iconic figure. There is a weight, he says, where every line is in quotations and you try not to be weighed down by it. However, he says, it is an iconic role he has always fantasized about. He says that the challenge is trying to keep things behind you.

Endgame This production takes the real life drama of Michael Young who broached African politics in a corporate strategy which angled into the dangerous elements of apartheid. Jonny Lee Miller who plays Young says that the main angle of the talks back in those days is that no one knew they were going on as they were held in secret in the English countryside. The visceral attraction to the piece, he says, is that one remembers the events but with no conception of how they came about. The real Michael Young, sitting right beside him, says with genuine sarcasm that “you realize how easy it would be to do if you had templates to follow” in terms of the talks. Now the format is being used in Northern Ireland and the Middle East in peace talks indicating those certain conceptions of time.

American Masters: Joan Baez The key of representing this woman is her interrelation of the events she was witness to. Baez relates the first time she went to the Newport Music Festival. She says she “felt like dying and scared” but admits that it was very well received which motivated her to come back for a number of years. She remembers flying over Woodstock with her mother and Janis Joplin as the storms were looming but explains she was not aware of the impact it would have later. In terms of her politics in relation to the day, Baez says they have not changed especially in regards to her mentality to non-violent acts for social change. She knew early enough with politics not to expect too much but admits that “we didn’t give ourselves enough credit for what got done” which also applied to Vietnam. She says that “Nixon did not make that decision…we forced him to”. She does says that she has made a familial change in an attempt to spend more time with her family then she did in the 70s and 80s despite the fact that she still does 60 to 80 dates a year. The key to this longetivity she says is “honest reinventing” and “doing it with integrity”. In regards to her singing voice, she admits “I became mortal!” adding “What a nuisance!” She says that her voice is now lower in pitch and states that she will never have that high vibrato voice again that she enjoyed for so many years. As far as current voices that move her, Jonas Kaufman, a tenor, was the last person she truly listened to and remember liking.

And the melody continues…

Puppets, Sharks & Regular People: The 2009 TCA Cable Summer Press Tour – Feature – Part I

The essence of cable is based between the aspects of reality, scripted essence and the angle of creative paradoxes. The key is pushing the envelopes in more ways the one and not creating the aspect of nitch as much as the angle of the now. The Cable Portion of the Summer 2009 TCA Summer Press Tour speaks to the angle of the voice versus the perception of the idea.

AMC/Mad Men Cocktail Party Entering in off the terrace into the grasp of sunset, the essence of the smoothness continues to build. Sitting on a posh chair swishing around a Manhattan inundated with a cherry as the scotch continues to flow, Christina Hendricks who plays Joan, the sly and in-control office manager on the series, twirls the men with equal precision around her finger working the terrace in a form fitting green dress, both retro and modern. Most of the cast seem to highlight much of their personas from wardrobe which was obviously highlighted from the costume department for this event. Jon Hamm positioned by the door was holding a gaggle of people rapt within his tales as the bar continued pouring. While traversing the party in the company of a younger and compelling 22 year old woman, the interaction came to  Rich Sommer, who plays Harry Crane, a rising star within the Madison Avenue office who always tries to find the balance but also the edge of the moral code prevalent in his work. The actor and his wife moved from New York when he got the gig and have been here for the compelling three years since. Our discussion turned to theater in NY which he has not done yet but would be interesting for him during the haitus. He reflected that it is in fact 7 months between shooting of the seasons to adhere to AMC’s specific airing schedule so there is much time down. As the cigarette smoke drifted in silky rhythm as cast member looking off the Roman essence of the terrace into the sunset, the characteristic element of the Emmy Award winning drama lushily made itself known.

TV Land The early morning essence of the shows began in earnest as the introductions began in earnest. Joan Rivers took the podium with gusto talking about her new series “How Did You Get So Rich”. When Rivers gets going, she is like a freight train with a lot of blue stops along the way. She spoke of Dustin Hoffman who lives next door to Barbara Streisand. His dog gets massages. She says why do you have to get any more relaxed when you can already lick your own balls? The people she interviews on her new show don’t promote envy because most of them came from nothing. However some of the objects they buy sometimes seem to defy description. She says that one guy opened his safe filled with money and she had an orgasm which she peppers with the follow up that it was the first time she had one since Melissa was born. She chuckles and even admits that this early morning joke might have crossed the line. She also enters her thought on the looming Jay Leno Show at 10pm since she herself used to have her own late night show. Her opinion is that people will get bored more easily and go to bed earlier. The crops will all be greener. The woman doesn’t pull the punches for sure.

Nickelodeon With the success of “The Penguins Of Madagacar”, the pursuit of the intention of more animation seems like a natural fit. With his long standing success as head of multiple studios, Michael Eisner would be one to know the landscape. With his new stop motion show “Glenn Martin DDS”, the irony is a bit closer. Unlike “Happy Days” which he shepherded in the 70s, this new show is more about a modern family being torn apart. Eisner says that the show is both “opposite and the same”. It is about family but this is not the 50s. Eisner explains that this outlay is no different from what he has done in his whole career. At Disney, it was a matter of more people in the process. He remembers when he came up with “Happy Days” when he was snowbound at Newark Airport. He further represents that the aspect of “Beverly Hills Cop” came about when he was stopped in Beverly Hills coming from Paramount. The “puppet animation”, as he puts it, is a natural extension. When he was at ABC in the 60s, he gave the go-ahead for the “Frosty” special, followed soon after by “Rudolph”. The laugh tracks present in “Martin DDS” are derived from his enjoyment of the laugh tracks on “The Jetsons”. He believes this new show will bring stop motion back to the forefront (which of course is a tall order). He reflects that with “Barney Miller”, he had trouble getting it on the air. “Cheers” had a brisk to it which also could be considered difficult. But all of these shows, in his mind, had an aspect of social commentary. By comparison, at Disney, he said they had the aspect that “the family that plays together stays together”. Star Kevin Nealon, formerly of SNL, says that his favorite shows were “Gilligan’s Island” and “Wild Wild West”. He sarcastically remarks that they were looking for a “voice” and he had one but it was difficult since he was being offered so many shows at the time.

Comedy Central Making a show with less than socially correct puppets has always been a mine for comedy. It is just a matter of hitting the right marks. Jeff Dunham has been working and doing his schtick as a ventriloquist for years. His routine with his crochety old compatriot Walter works precisely for the fact that the marionette can say things that he simply can’t. Dunham says he wants to give a real edge to the show. One of the first things that came to his mind was to have his Middle Eastern puppet Ahkmed do a sketch at the airport. The aspect that still fascinates him is that people still forget that the dolls are not real. His associates, when making the pieces, simply tell the interviewees to “pay no attention to Jeff”. Walter, his most famous creation, is inspired by one of his friend’s fathers from college. He says that when you would carry on a conversation with him and stare him straight in the eye, the man would seem frightened. Combine that, he says, with aspects of Bette Davis’ last appearance on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” where the actress simply said whatever she wanted. At this point, he brings out Walter, who simply says that “we have peaked” and that it feels “like it was in Chris Brown’s car”. Walter then proceeds to offer different headlines that go along with his pessimistic demise of this said show including “Dunham Show Dolls Out Cheap Laughs”, “Dunham Show Funny as Fucking Wood” and “Dunham Show Needs Helping Hands” (which elicits some groans from the background). Dunham goes onto say that they will be introducing a new character called Melvin The Superhero who doesn’t have any powers to speak of. He does admit that if he has a couple drinks, Walter is the character that will come out as it did on the second taping on one of his DVDs. He did a tequila shot just with a friend before the show and it hit him a little harder than he would have expected. Walter materialized in vigor. In terms of ventriloquism, as an art form, he does say that it is a dying art. He speaks of the annual ventriloquist convention which draws about 400 attendees, 8 of which work professionally. Of course the stigma tends to be always there.

History Channel With a show addressing social consciousness, the trick is not to make it too preachy in the overall scheme of its progression. With the new show “The People Speak”, the History Channel is attempting to highlight some very real perceptions of how ordinary people make a different. Matt Damon and Chris Moore who were involved with “Project Greenlight” believed in the project enough to propel it. Damon speaks that “People” shows how everyday citizens change the course of history calling it, for him, “a very empowering experience”. The aspect that drew him was simply the material. He says people have a relationship with the book and that it relays itself perfectly into this format. He admits that he put money to the piece but that the main thrust of the “locomotive” was done by the other involved parties. He says that the History Channel was the exact right outlet because he says, it has “exploded” buoyed by the fact that “there is an appetite for history” and that “people in general seem to be more interested in politics now”. He admits that in many big Hollywood films that there is a lot of waste but that “different films have different catering budgets”. He brings the focus back to “People” saying that “things have not worked out well for any citizens who have conceded to the bandwagon”. The real work is about “being pushed by regular people”

Chris Moore, long a collaborator with Damon, says ultimately what it comes down to, in terms of motivating a show like this, is manpower. On projects like this, people come on to help because they want to do it, not because of a paycheck. The whole design of this series, he adds, is to go into the schools and connect with the kids. He entices that Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam did a cover of “No More War”, Bob Dylan did Woody Guthrie and John Legend did a slave spiritual along with “What’s Going On” which gives the program pop culture as well as historical relevance. Howard Zinn, who wrote the book on which the series is based, notes the question of how many people who struggle for an 8-hour day. When people in schools sometimes speak of “the history collective” as he puts it, one tends to get a lecture on the masters of the freedom trail. The point, Zinn says, is “to teach qualitatively and not quantatively, to not just celebrate but to make people think” because “all citizens have the power of demanding”.

National Geographic Looking into the teeth of a Great White Shark might be a compelling moment even for the star of “The Fast & The Furious” franchise. Paul Walker, long an avid surfer with a love of the ocean (his black muscle car outside is strapped for his surfboard), was invited along for the ride by one of his friends who offered him the job as a deckhand to take the unprecedented task of bringing one of the massive sharks onboard. Paul, whom this reporter has met many times over the years, smiles saying that Jacques Cousteau is his idol. He mentions that he is on the board of the Billfish Foundation and when he got a call from exec producer Chris McKay on 4 days notice, he jumped at the chance to see the “awesomeness” of this animal up close although he admits “it hurt my surfing career”. McKay says that the progression in the field of microbiology allows these kind of studies to be part of the science agenda specifically in many ways in how it relates to astrobiology. The shark they captured nicknamed “Bruce” in an ode to the “Jaws” movies ate the outboard and props so it wasn’t the easiest capture.

Another more terran series in poise at Nat Geo is “Rescue Ink Unleashed” which follows the plight of some very tough guys (Eric, Joe Panz, Big Ant and Johnny O) who fight for the plight of abused and abandoned animals. They come in when the cops have done their part and things must be taken a step further. Joe speaks for the group saying that they stay on point until the situation gets resolved. The question becomes, if they show up, does it make a difference? His response is that they get the animal out of a bad situation. After they do the rescue, the vet gets involved and once it is determined there is no agression, the animals are placed into a better home. Otherwise, they come to the Ink Sanctuary called “The Clubhouse”. The process by which the cases are investigated is that a call goes to their girl Mary at the office. They then send in their guy, a former homicide investigator, that dispatches them to the situation if it warrants their attention. Then business is taken care of.

ESPN Having pop culture and media savvy filmmakers highlight what their sport icons mean to them makes for very interesting voices in a saturated market. “30 for 30” takes this approach by bringing some of these people together to create this kind of mosaic. For example, Ice Cube, filmmaker, actor and music star, takes on the iconography of the Los Angeles Raiders and what they meant to him. He says that his story is really the parallel between the Raiders image and what it did to the city of LA. He relates the fact that NWA (the rap group he was part of) took on part of that persona. He admits that Los Angeles, by rote, is owned by the Dodgers and the Lakers. The Raiders, as he puts it, were “the bad cousins that come to visit you”. He experienced that culture by being knee deep in that era of gansgta rap. It is at this point that, he says, the LA Kings hockey team changed their colors. Cube believes that this story is one that hasn’t been explored (and truly he is the person suited to bring it to light). He does this by interviewing many of the people interrelated at different points in this perspective from Eric Dickerson to Ice T to Marcus Allen to John Singleton. His piece he relates is more indicative of the community itself. Cube also opinionates himself on the lack of a current NFL franchise in the LA area saying “Los Angeles does not support NFL franchises unless they win” citing the Clippers as an example.

John Singleton, who worked with Cube on his seminal work “Boyz In The Hood”, thought that these stories across the board needed to be told not as they were in the media but by these respective filmmakers. The key here is to create a filter with something different. Fellow director Peter Berg, best known for action films “The Rundown” and “Hancock”, speaks of his segment on hockey player Wayne Gretsky whom he describes as a “very humble and shy person who was interested [in the idea] but not chomping at the bit”. He says he was most surprised to see the man becoming more enthusiastic as he came closer to the emotions. Berg speaks of being a Canadian and remembering how horrible the LA Kings were before Gretsky. He said that growing up in Edmonton Alberta where the athlete was originally based was an exercise in identity since the whole thought of the city was wrapped around this one individual. When Gretsky left for LA, it almost became a national issue which is what intrigued him about the story.

BBC The perception of British programming is the balance between the aspect of drama and the conceptual ideals that sometimes are able to traverse oceans. A good example is the passing of the baton for a show like “Dr. Who” which has enjoyed an exceptionally good run with its star David Tennant whom they are phasing out at the top of his popularity to maintain the brand. Creator/writer Russell Davies says that he and David were lucky to have worked together since they did “Casanova” originally for the BBC where he saw the essence of the Doctor. Davies says that there was a humor and comedy whereas most other actors who had taken on the part were playing it so seriously. He adds that there will be no massive distances between the doctors because it all has to do with experiences. One can’t depend on character hooks too much. The doctor maybe an alien and a timelord but ultimately for the most part he is human. That is the key.

Tennant, for his part, relates that, in view of his recent Comic Con experience, he admits that the doctor likes being “this doctor”. He says that the character, as well as himself, is reaching against the “dying of the light” where “the bell is tolling for him and he doesn’t want to go quietly”. Tennant agrees that it is exciting handing over the show in good health but that keeping it on with him, in the long term, was uncertain. With a future including two films and “Hamlet” for the BBC, his plate is hardly empty.

“Occupation”, another BBC series [this one shot in Morocco] takes into the strike zone the aspect of the war in the Middle East from the British perspective. Pete Bowker, the writer, says that the way the characters approach the war is key. Having a pint or a coffee becomes a major event. He relates a moment when a soldier told him that the only way his family would let him become a nurse is if he did it in the army. Another anecote came from another soldier telling him how they would clear a building. The humor came from the aspect of sticking your head around the corner and seeing if someone blows it off.

“Being Human”, by comparison, takes a middle ground between the two series, because of its inherent supernatural elements. Toby Whithouse, creator of the series, emphasizes the fact that, in reality, we don’t live in a genre. A person can have a normal conversation but it doesn’t mean that something tragic isn’t going on. In a matter of perspective, sometimes the relativity gives you more free range to work in because you can tell a massive and a personal story at the same time which allows you to look at the community in a distinctly different way. He says the stablizing factor is to maintain order in the house which he jokingly says he does by constantly making tea.