Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The call of 'D'oh!'


Wednesday November 30, 2005

The call of 'D'oh!'
* Writers become downright animated for 'The Simpsons' guest spots.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

TOM WOLFE is screaming. He screams softly, this Southern gentleman, his trademark white suit unwrinkled, his spats unwavering even as a giant granite boulder hurtles down upon him. It looks to be the end of the pioneering New Journalism author of "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."

"Aaaaaaaahh! Wait, no, that wasn't good, let me start over."

"How did you scream last time a boulder was hurtling toward you?" asks Carolyn Omine, executive producer of "The Simpsons."

"Why don't you try, 'Aaaaahhhh, my suit!' " suggests a rail-thin, nerdy-looking writer, from the front of the Fox recording studio.

"Ahhhhh, my suit! It's gabardine!" wails Wolfe, toward the microphone. "Well, but cops wear gabardine."

Slowly, Wolfe transforms. Even now, this episode's director, Mark Kirkland, is circling Wolfe, snapping pictures. Soon, a team of animators will render Wolfe bug-eyed and yellow-skinned. A year from now he'll appear on television alongside Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie and the bartender Moe in an episode of "The Simpsons" parodying highfalutin literary culture.

"We started with the idea of Moe as Charles Bukowski," explains Matt Warburton, who wrote the episode. "We brought Lisa in as the person who discovers in scuzzy, barfly Moe something that we've never seen before: a poet." Antics ensue, with Wolfe and fellow guest stars Gore Vidal, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen voicing themselves. All were thrilled to participate.

"This is the only show of any sort that I watch on television," Wolfe says, sitting in the greenroom after recording. The immaculately dressed author is surrounded by a group of scruffy Harvard-educated "Simpsons" writers, hanging on his every word. "My son, Tommy, who's now 20, one of his first words was [Homer's trademark exclamation] 'D'oh!' And now any conversation he has with anybody, he'll reference 'The Simpsons.' "

The writers laugh knowingly. This isn't uncommon. The show is in the "Guinness Book of World Records" for the most guest voices of any animated series, and invitees are often begged to participate by their children or younger friends who see it as akin to nabbing the Nobel Prize. Past guests include actors (Kirk Douglas, Drew Barrymore), musicians (U2, the Who) athletes (Andre Agassi, Magic Johnson), politicians (Tony Blair) and even the most reclusive of writers (Thomas Pynchon lent his voice twice, and faxed in a list of jokes beforehand).

"The fastest 'yes' I ever received was Elizabeth Taylor," says Bonnie Pietila, the producer in charge of casting. "I hung up the phone after leaving a message and she called back five minutes later." Some celebrities are so eager to appear on the show "that they have a representative call us on a monthly basis," Pietila says. "But we only have 22 episodes each season." Al Gore is one of the few to have turned "The Simpsons" down.

On a stiflingly hot Monday afternoon, Franzen and Chabon drive onto the Fox lot together. They convene with producers in the greenroom and sit on couches surrounding a wide swath of sandwich makings, jumbo cookies and fruit that nobody ever seems to touch.

"My kids and my father are very excited," Chabon says. He's not kidding. Reached later by phone, his father, Robert Chabon, said that he always expected Michael to win a Pulitzer (which he did in 2001 for "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay"). "And I still think he's going to win the National Book Award," said the Kansas City, Kan., pediatrician. "But him being on 'The Simpsons' is beyond my wildest dreams. You envision certain successes for your children, but this kind of success -- I never envisioned."

Sometimes the show seems to be instigated by a vast conspiracy of children. "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening strolls into the greenroom and once again tells Chabon that his kids are big Chabon fans. "That's great," Chabon says, grinning. "My kids were very excited when I told them that Matt Groening's kids know who their father is."

The script calls for Chabon and Franzen to brawl during a dispute about their literary influences, and standing next to each other in the recording room, the friends ready themselves for a fight. Franzen complains loudly that he has fewer lines than Chabon -- "Only 38 words!" -- to which Chabon responds, "I see there's a little counting going on in the Franzenian corner."

Dan Castellaneta, the voice of many "Simpsons" characters, including Homer, Barney, Krusty the Clown and Groundskeeper Willie, sits on a swivel chair nearby, wearing sunglasses and smiling at the amateurs. Then Groening arrives, a red light glows and recording begins.

Franzen need not have worried about counting words. The session's Emmy-worthy performances are wordless strings of yelps and grunts. After reading and rereading their lines, the writers take turns making fight noises like "urrrrrg!" and "ugh!" and "ouch!" Chabon throws his whole body into it, lunging at the microphone, while Franzen keeps a dry, acerbic cool. Omine, the producer, reads them their cues, and writers sitting around the room toss out ideas as they occur.

Franzen: "Gaa! Dajjjmit! Ach! Rrrr!"

Writer: "How about, 'Nooo! My prescription-less glasses, the ones I wear to look smart!' "

Franzen: "My trademark glasses!"

Omine: "Let's continue with Jonathan, because you have to whack Michael with a chair. Some more pain sounds, please."

Writer: "How about saying, 'You fight like Anne Rice!' "

Eventually, it's time to encounter that same runaway granite chunk that flattened Tom Wolfe. Franzen's scream has a hint of falsetto; Chabon writhes as he lets out an anguished moan.

It's over in less than an hour; but echoes of those recordings will stick with you, says Amy Tan, author of the 1990 book "The Joy Luck Club," who voiced herself on the show five years ago. "Among a certain group of mostly younger people, I'm like a movie star of cartoons," she says. "People who are not impressed with anything else are very impressed that I was in 'The Simpsons.' I don't know what the equivalent would be. Like I was playing with the Rolling Stones or something. It's as though I actually know Homer and Marge and the kids."

Being on the show doesn't improve a writer's salability, says Sandra Dijkstra, Tan's literary agent. "I don't think it does anything for their careers. My impression is that it's simply fun. 'The Simpsons' is countercultural and subversive and it makes important statements about America today. Good writers want to be subversive, and they want to be on 'The Simpsons.' "

If there were a trophy for hipsterism, it might well be in the shape of Homer's head. The series that Time magazine dubbed "the best show in the history of television" has for 17 years spawned conversations on playgrounds and at cocktail parties. It's the focus of university classes and doctoral theses. And it long ago infiltrated the lingo of today's high school kids, who don't know a Simpson-less world. ("D'oh!" was included in the 2001 Oxford Dictionary.)

But despite its cultural saturation, Gore Vidal hasn't watched the show. "I live in Italy," he says, walking with a cane toward a lone chair in the recording studio. "I don't see much American TV."

Vidal puffs out his chest and begins, imbuing his lines with the solemn dignity of a Shakespearean actor. Each syllable receives its share of attention. Groening watches intently from a couch, smiling. Vidal doesn't sound like a Simpson. He sounds like Gore Vidal.

It's a wrap. Vidal says that he "can't wait" to see the episode and that transforming into a yellow-skinned character is a return of sorts: "After all, I had jaundice as a kid." On the way out, he segues into a favorite topic and tells the producers, "There's a White House plan to destabilize California like they've destabilized Iraq or Iran." Then he leaves the studio. Alive. Vidal is the only one of these authors to escape a cartoon death.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Haggard and Strangers are now just a quick click away


Saturday November 12, 2005

Haggard and Strangers are now just a quick click away

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Merle Haggard and the Strangers will play today in the front room of the country singer's Northern California home. For 15 bucks, you're invited.

To watch via your computer, that is. "We'll webcast and let the world decide whether or not they like it," said Haggard, who has dubbed the series of six Saturday afternoon shows "Merle Haggard on the Sabbath."

"We're doing something that's never really been done with my kind of music.

"I've always wanted to do this, ever since I was a child and I heard Bob Wills on a noonday broadcast," Haggard said.

With technology now available to stream video over the Web, he said that he will use it to create the same kind of soundscape and relaxed environment he remembers from the radio days of his youth.

"There will be a lot less wham-bang. It's more about circling up in the front room and playing music like folks used to do before it became so commercial," Haggard said. "We're trying to give it to you as raw as we can."

Each show will be a mixture of taped and live sets, interspersed with bits such as a "Martha Stewart-type segment where my wife will get her favorite recipe and show you how it's cooked," Haggard said.

"My band will be my helpers in presenting the show, and we'll each have microphones, and we'll discuss whatever topic comes to mind," he said. "On shows, after the first one, we'll have the capability of going to the phones and e-mail, and taking requests."

The show, at, will stream at 3 p.m. Saturdays through Dec. 17. If it's successful, Haggard intends to expand the run, perhaps indefinitely, in which case he and his family may even move out of the home and turn it into a full-time Internet stage.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Nomination for Jolie-Pitt pairing


Friday November 11, 2005

Nomination for Jolie-Pitt pairing

By Steven Barrie-Anthony

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are up for a People's Choice award celebrating their on-screen chemistry in "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," CBS announced Thursday. Both actors were also nominated for individual titles: favorite leading man and favorite female movie star.

Winners, decided by popular vote (weigh in at will be announced Jan. 10 at the 32nd annual People's Choice Awards, held at the Shrine Auditorium and broadcast on CBS. The show will be hosted by Craig Ferguson.

Other nominees include Jennifer Garner (favorite female action star), Usher (favorite male performer), "The Simpsons" (favorite TV comedy), and Ellen DeGeneres (favorite funny female star).

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Koontz talk brings claims of racism

Thursday November 10, 2005

Koontz talk brings claims of racism
* Author defends his 'Mr. Teriyaki' anecdote as merely humor.



  Koontz debate -- An article in Thursday's Calendar Weekend
section about comments made by author Dean Koontz at an Irvine
convention incorrectly implied that an official group of writers had
voiced concerns about perceived racism in Koontz's remarks. The
writers who have expressed concern are not connected by any group
affiliation with either the Men of Mystery or the Literary Guild of
Orange County, two groups mentioned in the article.


By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

BESTSELLING thriller writer Dean Koontz had told the anecdote dozens of times before: The author wanted his name removed from a film version of one of his books, so he sent a series of letters to the head of the Japanese company that owned the movie studio, mentioning World War II, the Bataan Death March and Godzilla.

For years, people would laugh at the story.

But after Koontz retold the anecdote on Saturday to a gathering of mystery writers and fans in Irvine -- during which he referred to the studio executive as "Mr. Teriyaki" -- and now the mystery writers group is speaking out against what it perceived as Koontz's blatant racism, and a widespread debate has emerged on Southern California literary blogs about where humor ends and racism begins.

"What if the CEO was black?" wrote author Lee Goldberg, who was present at the event, on his blog. "Would Koontz have addressed his letters to Mr. Fried Chicken and joked about the good old days of slavery and racial discrimination? Or if the CEO was a Jew? Would he have called him Mr. Matzoball and reminded him of the Holocaust? I was astonished that people were laughing when they should have shunned him with silence."

Others disagreed. "My writing peers need to spend more time writing and less time defending the free world from the menace of Dean Koontz," J.A. Konrath wrote in an e-mail to The Times. "Dean didn't blow up a nursing home -- he simply recounted a humorous anecdote."

Koontz blames the brouhaha on "some sort of an agenda," and writers who attended the speech were divided over whether the comments constituted racism.

He was unaware of any concerns, Koontz said, because many in the audience laughed and applauded during his speech. Bloggers started posting opinions on Sunday, and Koontz said that he and his publisher, Bantam Dell, began receiving feedback "from people who weren't even there, people who were calling me names."

Koontz phoned Goldberg and other writers but was dissatisfied with the conversations.

"I was a poor kid with a Jewish grandmother and a great-grandmother who was black," Koontz said. "I grew up in a dirt-poor family. I'm used to the abuse that you take. I don't dish it out, I never have, and this is just appalling to me. I guess I'll be smeared with this for the rest of my life. I'm not outraged, I'm not spooked, it's just -- my sadness is so deep."

"I'll stand by the letters" to the Japanese executive, he said. "They're George Carlin-esque. There's some political incorrectness in it, but nothing mean."

At the event, Koontz began reciting each letter with the now controversial salutation, "Dear Mr. Teriyaki."

"My letter of 10 November has not been answered," one read. "As I am certain you are an honorable and courteous man, I would assume your silence results from the mistaken belief that World War II is still in progress and that the citizens of your country and mine are forbidden to communicate. Enclosed is a copy of the front page of the New York Times from 1945, with the headline, 'Japan Surrenders.' "

Another suggested to the Japanese executive, "We could have a few sake and reminisce about the Bataan Death March."

The line between racism and socially accepted parody is often easier to discern in hindsight, said Brian Lickel, a USC social psychologist.

"We all want to divide the world into good and bad, and I think we struggle with the same thing with racism. The reality is that there's a continuum, a lot of gray. Perhaps what happened is that from his point of view, he's giving a speech and he looks out and people in the crowd are laughing, people aren't storming out. So he has always assumed that this anecdote is all golden, whereas the reality is that before this outcry, plenty of people were likely disturbed by it."

Koontz's publisher stands by the author, as does the organizer of the event.

"It was not racist," said Joan Hansen, founder and chairwoman of the Men of Mystery event that benefits the Literary Guild of Orange County. "He first asked politely that his name be removed from the movie, and never heard back. So he wanted to do something to get their attention. His point was, the war is over, we can be friends."

Amid scandal, Libby's '03 novel is suddenly hot


Thursday November 10, 2005

Amid scandal, Libby's '03 novel is suddenly hot

By Steven Barrie-Anthony

Following widespread interest by booksellers and consumers in I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's 2003 novel, "The Apprentice," publisher Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's has decided to reprint 25,000 copies of the paperback. The book will ship to bookstores by Nov. 18, John Karle, St. Martin's associate director of publicity, said Wednesday.

"Originally we had not intended to reprint the book, but there has recently been a lot of interest in the book both from the media and from our accounts," Karle said.

The spike in the book's popularity is tied to the recent indictment of Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, on charges of obstructing justice, making false statements and perjury as related to the Valerie Plame CIA leak investigation. After the indictment, Libby's then out-of-print novel was offered on EBay for a sum of $2,400, according to Publisher's Weekly.

"The Apprentice" takes place in Japan in 1903, when a group of strangers seeks refuge from harsh weather in a remote mountain inn.

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Toyota pulls its ads off 'Nip/Tuck' series


Wednesday November 09, 2005

Toyota pulls its ads off 'Nip/Tuck' series
* The move follows a letter-writing campaign by a parents watchdog group decrying the FX drama's raw content.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Toyota Motor Corp. has pulled all advertising from the FX drama "Nip/Tuck" in part over concerns about the show's content, according to a Nov. 1 letter from the automaker addressed to the television decency advocacy group Parents Television Council.

The move follows a letter-writing campaign by the L.A.-based PTC informing "Nip/Tuck" advertisers of the graphic depictions of sex and violence on the show and asking them to rescind their sponsorships, said Tim Winter, the group's executive director.

"We applaud Toyota for their decision," Winter said. "We understand their need to reach young audiences and their desire for edgy programming.... Protecting children from graphic sex and violence in the media is a shared responsibility. Parents are the front line, but advertisers need to be responsible also."

The PTC has contacted hundreds of "Nip/Tuck" advertisers since the show first aired in 2003, said Winter, "and dozens have responded by no longer sponsoring shows or letting us know that they won't continue their sponsorship in the future."

Having advertisers walk away is nothing new for the surgery-heavy show. Last year, Ben & Jerry's and Gateway Inc. were among firms that pulled ads from the show, although reasons for their decisions were not publicly given. Other advertisers sometimes pulled out of specific episodes, such as one that included underage drinking.

Toyota spokeswoman Nancy Hubbell said the carmaker's decision was based on several factors, including content. She described the move as part of a broader reevaluation of where and how Toyota advertises.

John Solberg, vice president of public relations for FX, declined to comment on Toyota's decision, saying the network does not discuss individual advertisers.

"The show is sold out for the season at one of the highest advertiser rates in all of cable," Solberg said. He said that the show's first seven episodes averaged 2.8 million viewers in the highly valued 18-49 age bracket.

Times staff writer Scott Martelle contributed to this report.

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Cruise drops sister as his PR agent


Tuesday November 08, 2005

Cruise drops sister as his PR agent

By Steven Barrie-Anthony

Tom Cruise announced Monday that he had hired veteran Hollywood publicist Paul Bloch of Rogers & Cowan public relations to manage his image. Lee Anne DeVette, Cruise's sister and publicist since 2004, will manage his philanthropic activities.

This last year the once-media shy actor publicly clashed with Brooke Shields over her use of psychiatric medication to treat her postpartum depression and leapt onto Oprah's couch while proclaiming his love for Katie Holmes. Cruise also became more vocal about his religion, Scientology (DeVette is a fellow Scientologist).

On Monday, Bloch said he had "no thoughts" on those events. "I think Tom has handled himself magnificently, and I think Lee Anne has handled it magnificently, and I'm so pleased they brought us on," he said.

Whether or not Bloch will handle any Scientology-related publicity is unclear. "I'm sure we'll have some involvement with them," he said. "But all we have been advised so far is that we are dealing strictly with the entertainment side."

Cruise praised his sister for doing "a wonderful job" as his publicist but added in a prepared statement that she had long expressed an interest in overseeing his philanthropy. "With our current plans to increase those endeavors ... this seemed the appropriate time to make that segue, and to bring Rogers & Cowan on board to handle mine and the company's entertainment related publicity needs."

Monday, November 7, 2005

Finding those deeper connections


Monday November 07, 2005

Finding those deeper connections

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

It was 1972 and David Lynch was encountering in full measure this fickle and disappointing world. The filmmaker who would go on to direct "Blue Velvet" and "Lost Highway" was making $50 a week delivering the Wall Street Journal, with moviemaking as a sideline. He was angry much of the time and didn't know why.

Then he heard the maxim "True happiness doesn't lie out there somewhere. It lies within yourself." He searched for a way to access unadulterated bliss and stumbled upon Transcendental Meditation, a practice based in an ancient Indian tradition that the Beatles and Mia Farrow made famous when they embraced it in the 1960s.

Lynch has meditated every day since, and this weekend, he was at UC Irvine, encouraging students to find strength within themselves and "experience the unity of existence."

But among a rapt audience of nearly 1,000 on Saturday, not everyone was there to learn about meditation. One would-be screenwriter approached the microphone to say, "I just have a yes-or-no question: Can you read my script?" Later, a film student asked Lynch for advice about getting into the business.

"My advice is to stay true to yourself, to let your voice ring out," Lynch said. "And -- not to push for Transcendental Meditation -- but to me, that word 'transcendental' is very important. Start diving within, enliven your bliss consciousness. You'll glow. All your friends will be very happy with you. Everyone will want to sit next to you and give you money."

When Lynch giggled, the hall exploded in laughter.

The nationwide tour has drawn huge crowds of college students; on Saturday, organizers opened up two spillover auditoriums where UCI students and others watched Lynch speak on video monitors.

Students are more than simply interested in rubbing shoulders with a famous movie director, says Manuel Gomez, the UC Irvine vice chancellor who invited Lynch to campus. "There has recently been a growing thirst among many young people for a deeper connection to their lives and to the world around them."

The theory of the underlying unity of all things, expressed in different forms in many mystical traditions, has been criticized by some postmodern thinkers as devaluing the vast expanse of human differences; on Saturday, that debate played out before the crowd.

"I find this to be problematic," one student said to Lynch. "The world is diverse, and I don't find that to be a bad thing."

"Oh, but it's beautiful, diversity and unity," Lynch said. "When you raise your consciousness, you experience diversity much more."

"It sounds like you're selfish, like this is more and more about the individual," countered the student.

After the event, Lynch signed autographs, and John Hagelin, a quantum physicist and proponent of TM who also spoke, chatted about science and enlightenment. A group of graduate students debriefed. They were hoping TM could help reduce their stress levels.

"We've got hives on our hives," said Dan Lench, a doctoral student in civil engineering. "After watching this, I still don't know how to do the meditation. I just hope that when I ... visit their website, I'll be able to learn something more specific."