Paula Abdul's back to dance, after some detours


"So You Think You Can Dance" is clearly the best reality show on TV, sparked by skilled contestants, clever choreography and judges who care about what they're doing. Now Paula Abdul has joined the judging panel; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Let's forget any
talk about aptitude tests and vocational guidance. Paula Abdul made
her decision early.

“I was 4 years
old,” she said, “when I ... stood up and proclaimed that I'm
going to be an entertainer.”

Then she became one,
with a slight hitch:

Many people know
Abdul strictly from music. She was “a true MTV-era success story,”
the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Fireside, 2005)
said, with six No. 1 singles; later, she was an “American Idol”
judge during its eight peak years.

Still, that was a
detour from her main goal. “I fell in love with dancing,” she
said; now she's back in that world, as a “So You Think You Can
Dance” judge.

That first career
decision, at age 4, came after she saw Gene Kelly in “Singing in
the Rain,” she said. Her parents went along. (It was a Jewish
family in California; her mom was a Canadian-born pianist, her dad
was a Syrian-born owner of a sand-and-gravel business.) At 7, her
lessons started.

“I did training in
some ballet and tap and jazz and mondern and musical theater,”
Abdul said. “(I) fell in love with it and I just knew from an early
age that I would be a choreographer.”

She soon got her
chance. A former high school cheerleading captain, she became a Laker
Girl at 18, was in charge at 19 and was hired to choreograph the
Jacksons at 20.

Then she became “the
youngest to ever receive an Emmy for choreography,” she said. That
was at 27 (for “The Tracey Ullman show”) and 28 (for the American
Music Awards).

By then, however,
she had branched out. Urged by Janet Jackson, Abdul started doing her
own music. “I may not be the best dancer and I'm not the best
singer,” she admitted in “I Want My MTV” (Dutton, 2011), “but
I do know how to be a brilliant performer.”

And she was working
with the best. Her early videos were directed by David Fincher, who
would later get Oscar nominations for “Benjamin Button” and
“Social Network.”

The package worked,
the Rolling Stone encyclopedia says. There were “catchy hooks,
perky bubblegum-fun arrangements and glossy videos that displayed
Abdul's true strengths – her stylish, high-energy dance technique
and plucky girl-next-door charm.”

The first album sold
seven million copies and had four No. 1 singles; the second had the
other two. Abdul's career declined by the time she turned 30 ... then
was revived by “Idol” a decade later.

At first, Abdul
seemed all wrong for a show that included Simon Cowell's harsh
comments. In “I Don't Mean to be Rude, But ...” (Broadway Books,
2003), he describes her almost quitting several rimes. Once, he says,
“I found her backstage, crying her eyes out.”

But she adjusted to
her role as the nice one and viewers became fond of her, even during
moments when her comments seemed spacy. It was only after the “Idol”
years that she returned to dance.

Abdul had her own
short-run CBS show (“Live to Dance”) in 2011, guested a few times
on “So You Think You Can Dance” and then did a season of its
Australian show.

Now she's a regular
in the American version, just as it tries a new format: After
auditions, dancers will be split into “street” and “stage”
teams, led by tWitch and Travis Wall.

“There's going to
be a competitive edge that we haven't seen,” Abdul said, with
viewers “seeing these young dancer and the tremendous athleticisim
and ... tenacity and drive.”

And yes, she might
occasionally try some moves. “When it comes to dancing, I can't
contain myself.”

-- “So You Think
You Can Dance,” 8-10 p.m. Mondays, Fox

-- Auditions –
with Nigel Lythgoe, Paula Abdul and Jason Derulo judging – continue
through June 22. Then a Las Vegas round will select teams -- “Street”
(coached by tWitch) and “Stage” (Travis Wall)

 

The Steves: Opposite (or not) guys changed the world


Yes, it's good to change the world and make a fortune. It's also good to do it early and then savor life. That seems to be where Steve Wozniak is now; he resurfaces Monday, as one of the experts in a fascinating cable documentary; here's the story I sent to papers:

 

By Mike Hughes

True creativity, we
often hear, comes in mismatched pairs.

Lennon and
McCartney? Jagger and Richards? Holmes and Watson? June Carter and
Johnny Cash? They were very different from each other in all the
right ways.

Now the opening
night of cable's “American Genius” seems to introduce two more
such duos – at 10 p.m. the Wrights (Orville and Wilbur), who flew;
at 9, the Steves (Jobs and Wozniak), who computed.

These were total
opposites – or were they? “We were very similar in values ....
Our goals were always the same,” Wozniak insisted, by phone.

In image, they were
opposite extremes. Jobs was lean, handsome, charismatic and
articulate; he was also, people said, abrasitve. Wozniak was the
chubbier guy, working out the computer details. “I could not
possibly have run a business the way he did,” he said.

Or theorized. “Steve
Jobs was a way-future, forward thinker (with) almost a
science-fiction way of seeing things .... I was not so much a
theoretical scientist as a practical one.”

Still, he said, the
similarities were there. “We had a five-year history together”
before creating Apple. They shared similar tastes in music, in
philosophy, in a belief that businesses could do good deeds.

And they had an
obsession with computers, Wozniak said. “Even though it cost as
much as a house, I was going to ... own my own computer .... I didn't
want it for the purposes it's used for today. I just wanted it
because I was a computer geek. I could write programs and ... impress
my friends.”

This was a field in
which big things can happen by accident; just ask Biz Stone, the
Twitter co-founder. “We were just doing something goofy and fun,”
he said. “And we thought, 'Wouldn't it be neat if we could figure
out what our friends were up to without even asking them?”

This sort of
free-form thinking is crucial, said Bill Nye (of “science guy”
fame). “What keeps the U.S. in the game is innovation. All these
guys innovate; they create new things.”

And sometimes they
get it very wrong. Wozniak points to the work he and Jobs did on the
early Macintosh. “Every decision to make it tiny also made it (less
powerful).” While the overall computer market was increasing
tenfold, Mac sales were stagnant.

But after Jobs
returned to lead Apple in 1997, a dozen years after he'd been fired,
he led a comeback that continued after his death (of cancer, at 56)
in 2011.

By then, Wozniak had
moved on to other things. “I always wanted to be two things – an
engineer and a teacher,” he said. “So I went back and I taught
5th- and 9th -graders, and I taught teachers
for eight years, full time .... My wife has been a teacher for 14
years, and it's a big part of my life.”

He's also started
music festivals, competed on “Dancing With the Stars,” moved to
New Zealand and more. “I have a life philosophy that you should
always include an element of fun.”

And the fun is
easier when you've already surpassed your dreams.

“We didn't think
we'd ever have a computer that had enough memory to hold a song,”
Wozniak said.

Now computers
(almost) hold the world, as molded by some semi-matched American
geniuses.

-- “American
Genius,” 9 and 10 p.m. Mondays, National Geographic, repeating at
midnight and 1 a.m.

-- Opener, June 1,
has computers (Steve Jobs vs. Bill Gates) at 9 and airplanes (Wright
Brothers vs. Glenn Curtiss) at 10.

-- Those will rerun
at 7 and 8 p.m. June 8, leading into looks at radio (Philo Farnsworth
and David Sarnoff) at 9 p.m. and newspapers (Joseph Pulitzer and
William Randolph Hearst) at 10.

 

Good hearts, funny minds and red noses


Almost forever, it seems, I've been a fan of everything Richard Curtis does. I loved the broad comedy of his Rowan Atkinson TV shows and the subtle sweetness of his movies, from "Love Actually" to the undernoticed "Pirate Radio."

What I didn't realize, however, is that for more than half his life, Curtis has also led massive charity efforts, mostly in England and now -- with "Red Nose Day" May 21 on NBC -- in the U.S. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Back in 1985,
Richard Curtis launched a simple notion: Get laughs, get donations,
make a difference.

“It's massively
tempting,” he said, “when you think, 'If I can do this, I'll
raise $1,000 .... That's 250 malaria nets.' I can never get that out
of my mind.”

So he's stuck with
it, spanning three decades and two continents. In England, “Comic
Relief” and related events have raised more than a billion pounds
($1.5 billion-plus) for charities; the U.S. has had three “Idol
Gives Back” specials on Fox and on Thursday has its first “Red
Nose Day” on NBC.

Those “American
Idol” specials were, logically enough, packed with music. But “Red
Nose Day” (8-11 p.m. on NBC) will stick to the British formula,
Curtis said -- offbeat humor, mixed with occasional mini-films,
raising money for a dozen kid-oriented charities in the U.S. and
abroad. “I'm hoping people will get a lot of laughs, as well as
emotional moments.”

Jack Black,
surprisingly, was assigned to the emotions, not the laughs. Visiting
Uganda, Black said, he was moved by a boy's song. “He's a really
bright kid. And he's a survivor in a way that I can't imagine.”

For Black, this was
an alternate world. He grew up comfortably in California, the son of
two satellite engineers. “When you've had as charmed and lucky a
life as I've had, you're looking for opportunities to give back. And
I don't know anyone who's as good at it as Richard.”

On one hand, Curtis
is the classic, upper-crust Englishman, a well-spoken Oxford grad.
Still, he's also global. His dad (a Czech refugee) and mom were
Australian, but Curtis was born in New Zealand and spent parts of his
childhood in Sweden and the Philippines, before settling in England.

He met Rowan
Atkinson at Oxford and wrote two TV series -- “Blackadder” and
“Mr. Bean” -- for him. Movies followed; Curtis does adaptations
(“The War Horse,” “Bridget Jones's Diary”), but mostly writes
originals: “Love, Actually,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,”
“Notting Hill,” “Pirate Radio.”

And ever since
visiting drought-ridden Africa 30 years ago, he's kept returning to
charity efforts. “Tiny bits of money can make a huge amount of
difference ... I do hugely believe in the effect that the generosity
of one human to another can make.”

Besides, this is fun
duty: Linking with Funny Or Die (Will Ferrell's Internet site), he's
been working on odd parody films for the NBC special.

“We've just been
shooting with Reese Witherspoon, Zac Efron, Liam Neeson and Richard
Gere,” Curtis said by phone last week. And there's “quite a big
sketch ... with the cast of 'Game of Thrones' as you've never seen
them before.”

There will be big
laughter, he promised -- and maybe donations. “If you'd hunt around
the back of your couches and find something: $4 for a malaria net can
change a life.”

-- “Red Nose Day,”
8-11 p.m. Thursday, NBC

 

Music and memories will soar Sunday with Estefan


Each year, on the eve of Memorial Day, PBS offers a passionate blend of music and memroes. This year's concert (Sunday, May 24) will add extra moment, when Gloria Estefan -- whose dad fought in Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs -- sings "Coming Out of the Dark." Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For Gloria Estefan,
these two things – music and the military – have entwined.

Her first recordings
were tapes she sent to her father in Vietnam. “I always remember my
dad in uniform,” she said.

On Sunday, she'll be
in PBS' annual Memorial Day eve concert, singing her biggest hit,
“Coming Out of the Dark.” It's the song she co-wrote while
recovering from critical bus-crash injuries.

“The words just
passed through me,” Estefan, 57, recalled. “It just came together
all at once.”

On Sunday, the song
will reflect the soldiers – including her dad – who came out of
wartime darkness.

Both of her parents
loved music and sang, Estefan said, but not professionally. Her mom
was a teacher; her dad, the son of a military officer, worked in the
security force for Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. After the
revolution, Batista supporters fled; Gloria was 2 when her family
reached the U.S., not quite 4 when her dad was captured in the Bay of
Pigs operation.

Her mom claimed he
was gone on a project, but Estefan understood the truth. “I was
very precocious and I knew what had happened .... I think we were
trying to fool each other.”

He returned when a
prisoner deal was struck, but soon joined the Army. That's when she
started sending the tapes. “I was very shy, but he always wanted me
to sing.”

Music was a way of
dealing with the pain, she said. “I would go to my room and sing
and cry.”

Shortly after he
returned, the signs of multiple sclerosis – possibly spurred by
Agent Orange chemicals in Vietnam, she feels -- began to appear. “My
father had always been a strong man. It was hard for him to face the
deterioration.”

That lasted 13
years, almost five of them in a Veterans Administration hospital,
before his death at 47. “I've always thought warm things about the
VA,” she said. “I would visit therte almost every day.”

Her own career
soared after Emilio Estefan, now her husband, talked her into singing
with his band. They would go on to merge Cuban traditions, a modern
dance beat and adult-contemporary ballads.

The result, Anthony
DeStefano wrote in “Gloria Estefan” (1997, Signet) “redefined
the meaning of success (for) millions of new, aspiring immigrants.”

On the Billboard
charts, she's had three No. 1 singles, seven more in the top 10, and
five top-10 albums. She's won three Grammys and sung at the Olympics,
two Super Bowls and the White House.

That career almost
ended with the 1990 bus crash. Estefan says she didn't sing for
months and reluctantly accompanied her husband to the studio. “He
pulled out this shriveled piece of paper that said, 'Coming out of
the dark.'”

The phrase had
struck him when the sun poured into a helicopter, on a ride to a New
York hospital. The song – written by Emilio and Gloria Estefan and
Jon Secada – would revive her career.

Now she'll sings it
on the Capitol lawn. “It's going to be a different version, for a
67-piece orchestra .... It's a really beautiful version.”

It will be
emotional, she said, but she's used to mega-crowds. “Sometimes,
it's harder to sing in front of 10 people.” Or to sing into a
tape-recorder, with your dad half-the-world away.

-- “National
Memorial Day Concert”

-- 8 p.m. Sunday
(Memorial Day eve), PBS; most stations will rerun it at 9:30

-- Music from
Estefan, “Voice”-winner Tessanne Chin and Tony-winner Laura
Benanti, plus Jason Dolley and classical singers Katherine Jenkins
and Russell Watson.

 

Welcome to "Welcome to Sweden," a fun trip


From its first minutes, there's a gentle charm and wit to "Welcome to Sweden." Based loosely -- very loosely -- on Greg Poehler's real life, it shows an amiable chap, moving to his wife's homeland. The second season will reach NBC in July, but this one really should be savored from the start. The first season begins DVD sales Tuesday (May 19); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

In a logical world,
Greg Poehler might be an American comedy star, like his sister. Or a
lawyer like ... well, like he was for a while.

Instead, he's a
Swedish comedy star, with brief incursions into the U.S. Now the
first season of his amiable “Welcome to Sweden” starts DVD sales,
shortly before the second season reaches NBC.

Poehler, 40, became
a Swedish citizen this year, but grants that he'll “always be an
outsider.” That's good, because it's a key source of some of his
humor.

In “Welcome,” he
plays a likable American transplant, almost fitting in. “So much is
done in English here,” Poehler said, by phone from Sweden. “Then
all of a sudden, everyone will switch to Swedish.”

All he can do is
shrug and take it in stride ... which is the Swedish way.

“They have a great
sense of enjoying life,” said Illeana Douglas, who plays his mom.
“It seemed like every night, there was a party celebrating
something.”

That still leaves
the question of why he didn't do American comedy. It goes back to his
sister's career:

They grew up in
Burlington, a Massachusetts town of 25,000, with both parents
teaching in high school. Amy, three yeaers older, studied comedy with
Second City and improvOlympics, in Chicago.

That's where he saw
her in a show. “Here were a bunch of waiters and receptionists, and
they were hilarious. I thought, 'Hey, if they're that good.I wouldn't
have a chance.'”

As it happened,
these were more than casual wannabes; the novice performers that
night included Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Amy Poehler and more. “They
were comedy royalty,” he now realizes.

He abandoned any
comedy notions and took a standard route -- Boston College, Fordham
Law School, a New York job. There he met his now-wife, another
lawyer, and agreed to move to her homeland.

In the show, he
heads to Sweden with no job, no future and no idea what her parents
or country are like. In truth, he'd already visited there five or six
times, liked it and could still do law work.

And in the show,
towering Swedes keep commenting on how short he is. That started when
Josephine Bornebusch and Lena Olin (each 5-foot-10) were cast as his
wife and mother-in-law, with Claes Mansson (“a real giant”) as
his father-in-law.

In truth, Poehler
says, he's a perfectly normal 5-11. “When they meet me, people say
they're surprised by how tall I am. It's sort of the reverse Tom
Cruise effect.”

Poehler had been in
Sweden for years before taking his first stab at stand-up comedy.
Soon, he was making TV appearances and writing his comedy pilot for
Swedish TV.

When his sister read
it, she decided to produce it and briefly play a perverse version of
herself. Soon, others – Will Ferrell, Aubrey Plaza, Gene Simmons,
Malin Akerman – were also playing themselves.

But the most
important casting – by Swedish standards – was Patrick Duffy as
his dad. “'Dallas' is very big there,” Douglas said. “It was
(art-film master) Ingmar Bergman's favorite show.”

She and Duffy did
two episodes in the first, 10-episode season, and will do about the
same in the second. They were happy times, she said, with constant
pauses for snacks. “I loved it .... If we didn't have this show, I
think I'd be performing in Greg's basement.”

There's no danger of
that for now. As the first season goes on sale, NBC prepares to run
the second one this summer. In a roundabout way, Greg Poehler is
becoming an American comedy star.

-- “Welcome to
Sweden”

-- DVD of the first
season goes on sale Tuesday (May 19); EntertainmentOne, $34.98.

-- Second season,
also 10 episodes, will be 8 and 8:30 p.m. Sundays, NBC, starting July
19