Ask The A.V. Club - June 20, 2008
Mind Your Ps And Cues
Okay, this might have a really obvious answer, but it's something that's been bugging me for years. A lot of times when a DJ is introducing a song on the radio, they'll keep talking straight through the instrumental part right up until the vocals kick in. For example, if some classic-rock station is playing AC/DC's "Highway To Hell," the guitar will start and the DJ will continue like "And coming up, we've got the call-in for the WXYZ Vacation Giveaway! But first, how about a little ride down the highway to hell?" cutting off right as Bon Scott's vocals begin. The thing is, I've never heard a DJ mess up and talk over the lyrics. It's just so perfectly timed. And while a classic song like that one might be easy, some lesser-known songs would be tougher. So my question is, how do they time it? Is every DJ in the world just so familiar with all the songs ever written that they can get it perfect every time, or do they have something else going on? And as a follow-up question, don't they realize it's fucking annoying to listen to them blabber over the beginnings of songs?Jonathan W. Bershad
Radio brat Noel Murray will be taking you all the way up to the top of the hour:
Jonathan, my father was a disc jockey for many years, and we often had old radio-station copies of LPs around the house, with stickers affixed that listed the instrumental intro time for the songs the labels considered "focus tracks." The last time I was at a radio station, in the mid-'90s, I noted that a lot of those singles and key album tracks were being sent on individual CDs, again with the timing of the instrumental intro noted on the label. I'm sure that even now, in the computerized age, DJ booths are well-supplied with digital clocks and helpful notations about how long they can talk before they start stepping on a song's vocals.
Call me hopelessly nostalgic, but I like it when DJs jabber away over the songs. More often than not these days, local radio sounds like it's being beamed in from a featureless cube, untouched by human hands. The radio I grew up with—especially the kind my Dad was involved with for more than a decade—was all about local personalities talking about local events, in a voice that lent excitement to even the most mediocre Loverboy song. I still have a few homemade cassettes of songs I taped off the radio, and I'm holding onto them more for the brief snippets of DJ voices than for the songs, most of which I've long-since picked up on CD. You can hear your favorite song any time you want. Those DJ intros are here for 17 seconds, then gone forever.
Early Life With David Letterman
So here's my deal: The Daily Show now has an online archive of every post-Kilborn episode, and this just makes me pleased as punch. My question is why other talk shows are slower to offer up their years of top-notch entertainment. Why is it that NBC thinks there is a market for the Wings Season Six DVD set, and yet they withhold any episodes of Late Night With David Letterman? I was born in 1982 but have brothers 10 years my senior, so for much of the 1980s, I spent my afternoons with them watching the previous night's taped Letterman episode, then in the early '90s, watching reruns on A&E.; So why can't I get these episodes now? There are clips here and there on YouTube, but I would suck a hobo's dick to just get a full episode of Letterman in his 1980s glory.
It makes me so sad to watch current episodes of the show, as he is clearly bored with the very format of a talk show. What's a brother got to do to get some old-school Late Night? Is it being withheld because NBC is reluctant to pay Letterman anything after his messy split with the network? That theory doesn't really make sense, since I am sure the board at NBC has changed over many times since 1993, and personal grudges are long departed. I just feel like Letterman did so much to shape my snarky, smartass personality that I should at least have something to show people to explain why I am this way.
By the way: I think Nathan Rabin is just the shit. If the Year In Flops feature could return twice weekly, I would be ever so grateful. I only just noticed that it was him reviewing classic SNL, so I'm so glad I have all of those to delve into.
Your idol Nathan Rabin responds:
Thanks for the kind words. Just yesterday, me and Scott Tobias were giggling girlishly about the unspeakable awesomeness of Letterman's brutally funny comic takedown of The Hills jackass Spencer Pratt (sample question: "Are you a dope in real life, too?) and commenting on how neat it would be if Letterman released a compilation of Late Night interviews with guests he clearly feels are beneath his contempt, like Paris Hilton.
I think a big part of the reason old-school Letterman is so hard to find these days is that talk shows are ephemeral by design. Hosts begin with a monologue referencing current events and celebrity happenings that are quickly lost to the ages, then interview stars of the moment plugging projects that, more often than not, will quickly be forgotten. Is the world really hungering to see, say, Bobcat Goldthwait (whom I happen to think is enormously talented) plug Hot To Trot on The Tonight Show 20 years after the fact? Or Donna Mills jabber on insipidly about whatever the hell it is Donna Mills was once mildly famous for?
Indeed, recent DVD sets from talk-show legends like Tom Snyder and Dick Cavett are often as notable for their time-capsule properties as their entertainment value. Talk-show hosts like Cavett, Snyder, Conan O'Brien, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert have all put DVDs on the market, but they're invariably greatest-hits compilations or theme DVDs grouped around appearances by rock icons, The Beatles, or snarling punk-rock provocateurs.
Where a sitcom can get away with putting out six neat, DVD-friendly episodes in a season, guys like Letterman tape hundreds of shows a year, so a 60-DVD set compiling the entire 1988 season of Late Night With David Letterman is probably not going to happen any time soon. As you suggested, it's also possible that the bad blood between NBC and Letterman, as well as the late-night fixture's legendary prickliness, could play a role in ensuring that the Late Night vaults will not be opened and released to the general public, though I'd dig that as well.
It's also entirely likely that music rights factor into the equation. I suspect that one of the reasons The Daily Show is able to post their entire post-Kilborn archive online is because it almost never featured musical guests. The rights to popular songs can be complicated to untangle and prohibitively expensive, and they've certainly delayed the DVD release of pop-culture staples like SCTV and Saturday Night Live. So there are numerous reasons why Letterman's old shows probably won't be popping up on DVD or online in a legal form anytime soon. That's a shame, but it's also eminently understandable.
I Want My DTV
When I was about 5 or so, I had this videotape I would always watch. It was Disney, and it involved old clips from Disney cartoons and movies being played alongside songs not in the original cartoon. I remember one segment had a clip from Dumbo being played with (what I think was) "Baby Love" by The Supremes. Also, there would be interludes that involved Disney toys in stop-motion animation. My sister remembers this as well, so I'm probably not making it up. Any ideas?Taylor Collins
Noel Murray scoured the VHS bins at the local thrift store:
You had one of the "DTV" series of videotapes (and laserdiscs) that Disney released in the late '80s, collecting the music videos that The Disney Channel sometimes aired to fill space between shows. (They also aired a few all-video specials on The Disney Channel and on NBC, which was partnered with Disney in the days before Disney owned ABC.) In some ways, projects like DTV are typical of the changing Disney philosophy during the era in which Michael Eisner was CEO of the company. When Walt Disney was alive, the studio was known for blazing trails; by the '80s, they were scrambling to keep up with the trends. If the kids like MTV, then why wouldn't they like Chip 'N' Dale cavorting about in old cartoon footage, newly set to a Hall & Oates hit?
If you still have a VCR, those DTV tapes can be found fairly cheaply online, and also at neighborhood garage sales, kids' consignment shops, and the like. But they're not on DVD, and probably never will be. Given that shows like The Wonder Years and WKRP In Cincinnati can't retain their original music because of exorbitant licensing fees, it's unlikely that even a company with pockets as deep as Disney's will pony up for this kind of pop ephemera. So give thanks yet again for YouTube:
A Matter Of Character
I've noticed that the film reviews for The A.V. Club almost always refer to actors and not characters. That is, you'll write "While planning his latest hit, Cusack falls for a hard-hitting reporter (Marisa Tomei) who dismisses him as another greedy corporate opportunist. Meanwhile, Hilary Duff flounces around as a Middle Eastern Britney Spears," rather than using the names of the characters. Sometimes it makes sense to refer to the character when an actor is playing a real person, as in Nathan Rabin's review of Postal, which refers to Osama bin Laden rather than Larry Thomas. The other actors are listed by their real names, though, leading to a perhaps unintentionally (though probably intentionally) hilarious description of a clash between bin Laden and Dave Foley. Is there any reason you guys went with this system instead of the usual character followed by actor in parenthesis? Also, in your Sex And The City review, why does Sarah Jessica Parker get to be "Carrie?" I suppose because it's a pre-existing character and people know who you're talking about, but where's the cutoff? At what point does a character get to be recognized on his/her own terms? For example, I noticed that Keith's review of Batman Begins only references Christian Bale in its plot summary, and not, you know, Batman. Part of me feels dumb for even asking, since I'm sure your response will be that I am way overthinking this. But I also know you guys love overthinking stuff like this too, so I'd like to get your take on it.
Tasha Robinson is so over thinking about this:
People ask this a lot, Zach, to the point where we occasionally wonder if we under-thought our style convention. And we've debated changing it, because it really seems to anger and/or confuse some people. As the site reaches more and more new readers, we keep getting snitty comments to the effect of "Your reviewer did no research on Grosse Pointe Blank at all! The hitman is not named John Cusack, he is played by an actor named John Cusack! He is a very famous actor and you should have heard of him by now!"
Basically, compare these two versions:
— Hitman John Cusack angsts about killing people in Grosse Pointe Blank.
— In Grosse Pointe Blank, hitman Martin Q. Blank (played by John Cusack) angsts about killing people.
What's the least important part of the latter sentence? The character's name, which doesn't tell you anything of note about the movie, what it's about, and whether you want to see it. So why waste the space? When we're trying to write telegraphically, summing up an entire movie in roughly 400 words, we want to waste as few of those words as possible.
But just to make sure I wasn't missing any deeper philosophy, I checked in with A.V. Club founder and former editor-in-chief Stephen Thompson, who now edits the NPR Music website and occasionally pops up on Morning Edition. He had this to say: "I'm pretty sure that predated me, that the previous editors of movie reviews (which have been in The Onion since its creation) thought it was stupid to pretend that anyone cared about the name of the wedding planner in The Wedding Planner. More to the point, it makes reviews sound too much like press releases—it feels weirdly promotional to write 'Jennifer Lopez plays Sally, a wedding planner ' It was sort of an unwritten rule in the beginning, and I quickly decided to enforce it with an iron fist, because it is an awesome rule that (I think) subtly makes every review sound smarter."
As you noted, our preferred style gets a little hairier when dealing with people playing historical characters, and it also doesn't work well with animation. (It's a little harder to make the leap from "John Cusack is a hitman in Grosse Pointe Blank" to "David Cross is a martial artist crane in Kung Fu Panda. Cross kicks Jack Black's butt," since the actors aren't actually there onscreen.) So we stand by the rule of using character names in animated movies and anything involving historical figures. Situations like Sex And The City are hairier still, and we don't really draw the line so much as nudge at it thoughtfully with our toes and then go with whatever we feel works best in the context of a character's pop-culture fame. With Batman Begins, for instance, I'd argue that Batman isn't even a "character" per se; he's a persona Bruce Wayne is putting on, and Bruce Wayne is a character Christian Bale is putting on, and most people know this already, so we don't need to waste more words explaining it. We don't actually have "Assume our readers are smart and don't want us to talk down to them" painted on our walls here, but it's kind of a ongoing guiding philosophy. You're smart people. You'll figure it all out.
Next time: The A.V. Club, pot, and another round of Stumped! Send your questions to email@example.com.