Seeking your approval: Clever folks, just talking

I first noticed Neal Brennan recently, when he did a terrific stand-up comedy bit, complete with three microphones. I should have noticed him much sooner; this guy co-created "Chappelle's Show," a classic. Now he has a low-key and entertaining weekly show that debuts Monday (Aug. 11); here's the story I sent to papers:


This is TV entertainment at its most basic – five people,
sitting around talking.

It works, if the people are clever enough and the subjects
are right. That’s what “The Approval Matrix” is going for, Neal Brennan said. “I
was looking for areas that are not smart enough for Bill Maher, but too smart
for Chelsea.”

Maher’s shows (“Politically Incorrect” and “Real Time”)
could sometimes get serious; Chelsea Handler’s “Chelsea Lately” could sometimes
get silly. By comparison, the first “Matrix” episode asks if this is really a
new TV golden age; the second discusses the effects of fame.

The people talking do know the subject: In the opener,
there’s TV Guide critic Matt Roush, writer-producer-comedian Whitney Cummings,
comedian Julie Klausner and Willie Geist of “Today.” And hosting is Brennan,
who once gave TV a golden half-hour.

Brennan had dropped out of college to write for TV shows,
good and bad. He did stand-up comedy, met Dave Chappelle and wrote a script
with him. That’s when they talked about a TV series built on cinematic
mini-films. “The ideas had to be funny in the first place,” he said.

They were; “Chappelle’s Show” became a big hit until its
star suddenly retired it. Brennan was caught by surprise; “it took me a couple
years to get back” to stand-up, he said.

He did, with skill. One recent routine saw him rotating
between three microphones – one for full bits, one for “orphan jokes” not part
of a bit and one for personal comments. Somehow, it all worked.

Brennan directed one “Mindy Project” episode and a lot of “Inside
Amy Schumer” ones. And he jumped into the notion of a talk show based on the “Approval
Matrix” feature in New York Magazine.

He booked people he knows (“any comedian is a friend of mine”)
or who seemed logical. Some didn’t prepare, but most were worth hearing. “I
told people, ‘If you can’t be funny, you can be interesting.’”

They were. Five people, sitting around talking, can be kind
of entertaining.

“The Approval Matrix,” 11 p.m. Mondays,
Sundance; reruns at 1:30 a.m.

Opener (Aug. 11) then reruns at 11:15 p.m.
Thursday, Aug. 14, and 1:45 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 16.

Ah, memories: A presidency crumbled on late-night TV

Four decades ago, we had reality-TV times 1,000. Real-life people kept showing up on a late-night talk show, to deny, defend or attack Watergate and its aftermath. Now that will be marked in an interesting PBS special Friday (Aug. 8); here's the story I sent to papers:


In the summer of 1974, Dick Cavett recalled, there was a
universal obsession.

It was “what somebody called ‘getting his Watergate fix’ ….
You couldn’t wait to get the latest news.”

That news kept coming, linking a “third-rate burglary” to
the president; it ranged from bureaucrats to spies. Then it imploded; at 9 p.m.
ET Aug. 8, Richard Nixon said he would resign.

Now, exactly 40 years later (to the minute, on some
stations), PBS has “Dick Cavett’s Watergate.”

Why Cavett? Because his ABC talk show had a steady stream of
Watergate guests. “Johnny (Carson) had the latest big-breasted singer and Merv
(Griffin) had somebody else,” said John Scheinfeld, producer of the special. “What
Dick did (was) had conversations.”

Some were with Watergate principals. “Suddenly,” Scheinfeld
said, “everybody wanted to come on.”

There were many from the Nixon side -- the bigger-than-life
G. Gordon Lidday (“he may be my favorite in the entertainment sense,” Cavett
said), the charming John Mitchell (“very likeable on the show”) and others who
didn’t come close. “Humor was not a great part of the administration,” he said.

And there was the other side – reporters (Bob Woodward and
Carl Bernstein), cynics (Gore Vidal) and more. The president was not amused; the
White House tapes have Nixon – who railed about the Eastern establishment and
Jews -- asking who Cavett is and whether he’s Jewish.  

“I thought it was interesting that Nixon might think I was a
Jew,” said Cavett, a Nebraska native (like Carson) and the grandson of a
Baptist minister. “He wanted to know how many Jews there were at the school his
daughter was going to go to in New York. He had a thing about that.”

The tapes – from a secret recording system Nixon had installed
in the White House – revealed many such personal flaws. “It’s a real talent,
when you’re guilty, to create the best audio record possible of your guilt,”
said Timothy Naftali, former head of the Nixon library. “He left us nearly
4,000 hours.”

What emerges, Scheinfeld said, was an overshadowing paranoia.
A centrist president and a “brilliant man, probably smarter than any four
presidents before and after him,” insisted on denying any connection to the
break-in of Democratic headquarters. The crime was small; the cover-up wasn’t.

Then he resigned and was pardoned by his successor, Gerald
Ford. Cavett said he now agrees with the pardon, as do Woodward and Bernstein
and “almost every right-minded person.”

Naftali disagrees – but admires Ford for making the
decision. “He was courageous. He was absolutely the right guy at the time to
take the stinger out of Watergate and let us all come down.”

“Dick Cavett’s Watergate,” 9 p.m. Friday, PBS
(check local listings)

Yes, comedy can get you fame and cupcakes

There's an odd desperation in the title "Please Like Me." The fact is that Josh Thomas is remarkably likable, a breezy and pleasant chap on a new network that's filled with idealism and optimism. The show starts Friday and reruns often; here's the story I sent to papers:


Fame can be a fine thing, when parceled out modestly.

Josh Thomas found that, shortly after returning to the U.S.
“I’ve only been recognized by a few people,” he said, “but they were good ones–
two attractive homosexuals and someone who gave me a cupcake.”

There will be more attention, when his “Please Like Me”
starts its second season on Pivot.

A year ago, Thomas was the face of Pivot – literally. When
the cable channel started (Aug. 1), his face filled the side of some Los
Angeles buses. Few Americans had heard of him or of Pivot. And now?

The channel, launched with 40 million satellite and
cable homes, has an appealing mix. It has reruns (“Buffy,” “Friday Night
Lights,” “Veronica Mars”), an interactive talk show co-hosted by Meghan McCain
and the kind of documentaries and movies that have scored for Pivot founder,
Jeff Skoll, a producer of “The Help,” “Lincoln,” “Fast Food Nation” and “An
Inconvenient Truth.”

Thomas’ show “made quite a few top-10 lists,”
said Belisa Balaban, Pivot’s original-programming chief. At 27, Thomas remains
a key and quirky symbol of this youthful channel.

Other shows are coming up, Balaban said: Oct. 17 brings the
return of the clever rap-improv “Freestyle Love Supreme” and the debut of a
reality show about “the coolest street in Los Angeles” … In January, Pivot’s
first drama series, “Fortitude,” arrives. For now, however, the focus is on two
amiable half-hours.

“Human Resources” is a reality show about a recycling firm. “What
Pivot stands for and what TerraCycle stands for are really similar,” said Tom Szaky,
who has quickly gone from marijuana-growing experiments (“Canada is a little
more flexible with that”) to recycling in 26 countries.

That’s followed by the return of “Please Like Me,” Thomas’
situation comedy. He said it was made “the same as we did Season One, just with
slightly more money, which is nice.”

In the first year, Pivot simply aired the six-episode season
that Thomas made in Australia (where he’s been a stand-up star since he was
17). That portrayed the stretch when he was trying to be heterosexual and when
his divorced mom attempted suicide. “It’s the light stuff,” Balaban joked, “but
it works.”

This second season finds him with a random life of friends, school
and would-be romance. His bi-polar mother boasts about her gay son; in a
fictional addition, his dad has a young wife and a baby.

That led to a season-opener highlight: When the baby fills
her diaper, Thomas takes her in the shower.

“They have a lot of laws about … not drowning a baby,” he
said. “We had to get the shower cleaned, because the house we filmed in wasn’t
clean enough to have a baby in. We had to get permission from the mum (and) put
the baby in nude underwear …. A baby in nude underwear is sort of creepy,

Not this one. “(Bleeping) adorable baby,” Thomas said. “I
mean, that’s television. No matter how bad my writing is, that’s going to be
popular, that scene.”

“Please Like Me,” 10:30 p.m. ET Fridays, Pivot,
rerunning at 1:30 a.m.

Opener (Aug. 8) reruns often, including 4:30
p.m. ET Aug. 13 and 8 and 11:30 p.m. Aug. 14  

Football and Kiss blend into a loud semi-success

"I tend to hype," Gene Simmons told reporters recently, drawing no disagreement. Hype helped build his Kiss rock band into a powerhouse; now it has turned a losing football team (the Los Angeles Kiss) into one of the attendance leaders of the Arena Football League. A reality show about the team's first year starts Aug. 12; here's the story I sent to papers:


Right now, Paul Stanley is a football boss, with a team (the
Los Angeles Kiss) named after his rock group.

Decades ago, however, he was just another teen, playing
sandlot ball.

“I was always a fairly sturdy, strong kid,” he recalled.
“And I was playing football and somebody tackled me. And when I finally ceased
to be airborne and landed on my stomach and knocked the air out of me, I
decided that a guitar was much safer.”

Good choice. He and Gene Simmons – backed by cascades of showmanship,
make-up and music – propelled Kiss to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That fame
helped them start this Arena Football League expansion team and now “4
and Loud,” a reality show that profiles the team’s first year.

The team itself is legitimate (if not yet a winner), in a
legitimate league. “You want to make sure that it’s real football for real
football fans,” Simmons said.

But surrounding that is the Kiss touch. “The band has always
been about bang for buck,” Stanley said. “The band has always been about giving
people spectacle.”

So the goal, he said, was to add spectacle around the games.
“We wanted BMX bike-riders. We want pyro. We want to envelop you and pummel
you.” That ranges from the uniforms (suggesting Marvel superheroes, he said) to
the women on the sidelines.

“I think a lot of the cheerleaders … have become rather
sexless,” Stanley said. “We wanted … to have not the girl next door; we wanted
to have the girl we wish was next door.”

Still, Stanley admits, the Kiss guys had “a certain naivety.
We came in believing we would win the championship.” They won 3, lost 15 and
finished 12 games out of first place.

The showmanship, however, worked. This is a league that once
teetered near bankruptcy; it cancelled its season in 2009, the year the
previous Los Angeles franchise folded. With an expansion team that followed a
five-year void, Kiss averaged 10,945 fans per game, second only to Tampa Bay. “We
are trying to … open the league’s eyes to what’s possible,” Stanley said.

At least, what’s possible with help from rock stars. Season-ticket
holders ($99 for eight games) got a free Kiss concert; now there’s the reality
show. “We are the Tiger Woods of (arena football),” Simmons said. “Before
Tiger, you didn’t care about golf; now everybody is going to pay attention to
this new thing.”

Well … maybe not everybody. “I tend to hype,” Simmons said.
“So believe half of what I say.”

A few minutes earlier, he also admitted that “I love the
sound of my own voice.” That may qualify him perfectly for reality TV.

“4th and Loud,” debuts 9 p.m. Aug. 12
on AMC, rerunning at 10 p.m. and 1:30 and 4:45 a.m.

Also, reruns late Aug. 13-15 – technically, 4
a.m. Aug. 14, 12:15 a.m. Aug. 15, 1:30 a.m. Aug. 16.

He's had a lifelong love story with horror

OK, now I know I should have saved all my childhood toys and comics. Here's the story I sent to papers about the fascinating creator of "The Strain":


For anyone whose mom threw away his comic books, Guillermo
del Toro is an eternal inspiration.

He has saved everything and keeps adding more. “At some
point, (I) decided to live the way I dreamt of living when I was 10 years old,”
he said.

If he were an ordinary chap, he would be a hoarder. But he’s
an acclaimed filmmaker, with an Oscar nomination (for writing “Pan’s
Labyrinth”) and a cable series (“The Strain”); so he’s a curator.

“He has a museum, a wonderful museum he calls Bleak House
that he curates himself in a private home,” said John Landgraf, programming
chief of the FX networks. “It’s absolutely spectacular.”

Actually, it’s two homes, del Toro says, side-by-side in
suburban Los Angeles, totaling 11,000 square feet. “I’m the curator, the maid,
the butler, the service man.”

Those houses prove that del Toro was well ahead of TV’s
current interest in all things strange or scary. “I think horror … responds to
the pulse of the world,” he said. “And I think we are in a particularly
paranoid, vulnerable form, where we accept horror back in our lives.”

On broadcast TV, CW has pretty vampires and “Supernatural”
and more … ABC’s “Resurrection” was a late-season success … and NBC has had
Friday-night horrors. “Grimm” will be back in the fall, joined by the new “Constantine”
and, later, the return of “Hannibal.”

But it’s on cable -- home of AMC’s “Walking Dead,” HBO’s
“True Blood” and assorted Syfy shows – that horror thrives. FX, which already
had “American Horror Story,” linked  with
del Toro, who co-wrote the “Strain” novels and produces the series. “He is
really a truly original voice … and he absolutely loves and lives this genre,”
Landgraf said.

Carlton Cuse, the “Strain” show-runner, agreed: “Nobody
knows this genre as well as Guillermo.”

Added Sean Astin, a “Strain” co-star: “Guillermo gives the
best hugs of any director I have worked with.”

Don’t expect “Strain” to be huggable. Landgraf figures there’s
been too much of the “romantic vampire myth.” By comparison, he said, the “Strain”
crisis is a virus, taking over the host-human bodies. “These are disgusting,
parasitic, awful, worm-bearing vampires.”

Filming this can be rough at times. “I didn’t want to go
into my basement after watching the pilot,” said Mia Maesto, who plays one of
the two Centers for Disease Control doctors who grasped the threat.

Still, not everyone seems bothered. Ben Hyland, 12, who
plays the son of a CDC doctor, considers it “really cool …. If I had never come
on the show, I would be scared by the simplest things, but now I’m used to
this, so nothing can scare me now.”

That’s been del Toro’s approach. He’s been saving his toys
since he was 4, he said, and keeps adding books and art, in houses that have “secret
passages, secret book shelves that lead into rooms that are themed, …. with
life-size figures of characters I admire. I mean, it’s truly demented.”

“The Strain,” 10 p.m. Sundays, FX; reruns at 11:01
and (after a rerun of the previous episode) 1:03 a.m.

The Aug. 3 episode, the fourth, reruns late Wednesday
and Thursday nights – technically at 2 a.m. Thursday and Friday.

A marathon Aug. 9 has the first four episodes at
10 and 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 and 1:30 p.m.