e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


worth a second look

Four years after its initial run, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" is a blip on the proverbial pop culture radar. A famous flop. One and done...one season that is. A much hyped, self-serious dramedy overshadowed by Tiny Fey's "Thirty Rock," which premiered the same season.

Like Fey's successful sitcom, "Studio 60" is about the staff of a sketch comedy show that draws so heavily on "Saturday Night Live" lore that you can barely call the show-within-a-show fictional. "Studio 60" came from the same creative team as "The West Wing." Most notably, both shows were created by the writer Aaron Sorkin, who has always had a brilliant ear for smart dialogue. Sorkin loves to stage smart, earnest, liberals talking with one another. This talent served "The West Wing"--about the hard-working, erudite, overeducated, progressive people who run the free world--very well and the show was a hit. "Studio 60"--about the hard-working, erudite, overeducated, progressive people who run a comedy show--had less gravitas (in the minds of many) than a show about a fictional president and thus bombed.

In 2006, audiences went for the slapsticky, self-reflexive of "Thirty Rock" while rejecting "Studio 60," preferring self-aware over self-righteous. Sorkin also wrote the film "A Few Good Men." He likes to have his characters give speeches (remember Jack Nicholson telling Tom Cruise about how the Marines do the jobs that the elite don't like to talk about at cocktail parties?) and have Big Emotional Moments ("you can't handle the truth!"). Seemed kinda silly to watch a guy writing goofy jokes think he's the savior of the western world.

But here's the thing. I'm crazy about the show. For the first time since it aired, I'm rewatching the program (thanks, netflix) and getting a lot out of the dialogue and the great relationships. I like shows about people who are really smart and really hard working. Sorry. The show centers of the writers, performers, and producers of the show but also the network brass. Everybody has loads of wit. Their conversations are hilarious but also reveal that they aren't ashamed of their knowledge. Okay, they (like the show itself) can occasionally be a tad pretentious. But funny and smart? Great combination. And like "The West Wing," loyalty is a big theme. Matt Albie (Chandler from "Friends") and Danny Tripp (Josh from "The West Wing") have this intense, admirable friendship.

I'm liberal and have loved "Saturday Night Live" since middle school, so Aaron Sorkin pretty much wrote this show for me. I can see why its appeal is limited. But as I rewatch, I can't get over how damn compelling the show is. Wes Mendell having his nervous breakdown on live tv, ranting ("Network" style) about the dumbing down of the U.S. media. Comedienne Harriet Hays reconciling her conservative Christianity with her work on a show that loves to knock conservative Christians down a peg or two. Tom Jeter--the goofy star of the show-within-a-show--who refuses to use his war hero brother to get out of a speeding ticket. Lots of great moments. But I'm not surprised it didn't last. A real case of television for one.



Workshopping has gotten off to a strong start in the Advanced Creative Writing course I'm teaching this summer. For the first time, I'm having students post works-in-progress to C-Tools (instead of bringing in hard copies to distribute). So far I like the switch, aside from several students who posted files in formats I've never even heard of and which my computer could not read. Glitches come with the territory, I suppose. Passing out hard copies kind of slowed things down and tended to cause all kinds of confusion, especially when three or four pieces were circulating. On C-Tools, I created a folder for each class period ("Poems for May 13," etc.) so a student can just upload a piece to the appopriate folder and everybody else can access it there. I'm probably like five years late on this move. Oh well.

"Secret Code"

Go here to listen to a new song by The Dirtbombs. A catchy summertime tune. I hope they release song in some kind of physical form, or make it available on i-tunes.


catching up

Sitting in office hours. I just got out of my first three-hour class of the day. One more to go. Today opens the first summer term and for the second consecutive summer I've got two classes: a section of first-year comp and a section of advanced creative writing. A lot of contact hours, but the time passes quickly on most days. I hate, hate, hate the "get writing out of the way" mindset which leads some students to summer sections of comp, but I'm excited about the projects I'm asking students to do.

Last night I wrote a poem. Tonight we'll workshop the piece in my creative writing class--a kind of practice round, and proof to my students that I'll put my own work out there just like I'm asking them to do. For the first time I'm using C-Tools as our space for distributing poems and stories for workshopping. Hope it's a glitch-free experience. The poem's about the Great Migraine of 09. I had a relatively small headache yesterday (bad enough that I had to break out the tramadol, but it went away quickly). Can't help but fret a little bit, as we near the anniversary of GM09's onset. Stay away, stay away, stay away.

Speaking of writing, I've started to write a piece (more or less a "narrative essay") about my Grandpa D (see previous post with excerpt of a wartime letter of his). Trying to write about his personality while also writing about some of the letters he wrote during the war. I'm excited enough about the piece that I think I'm committed to regular writing even during the intensive summer term. Hopefully I'll workshop the piece with my students in a few weeks too.

Good weekend. Another Cinco de Mayo party. Pinata was a success (i.e., I didn't get seriously inujured). Improvised "fried ice cream" cake was a success. Next year I think we'll skip the quesadillas, as I spent the first half of the party making the blasted things. Going to stick to stuff that's ready to roll out before the party gets started. Great time, though, despite the cold and the rain.

Still waiting on final word from the Fulbright people. I sent in my materials ELEVEN MONTHS AGO. Latest communication (two weeks ago) alerted me that I have "finalist" status and should block off dates of orientation in Washington DC in case I'm selected. It would be nice to know whether or not I'm leaving the country in a few months! Come on. I have no patience.

Alright, off to prep for CW class and maybe grab a veggie sub from the U.C.


dinner and a movie

March 20, 1946
Island of Leyte, Philippines
from a letter from Bill to Margaret DeGenaro

My grandpa wrote this after four years in the Army, sitting on a beach in the Philippines about six months after the war ended. Along with thousands of other soldiers, he was waiting--"21 of us in a ten-man tent"--for space to become available on a transport. Note: grandma and grandpa grew up speaking a dialect that usually left off the last syllable of Italian words..."pasta fasool," "raggaz," etc.
I got a hold of a package of spaggets, tomatoes, and some sort of meat. I mixed the tomatoes and meat in my mess gear and let it boil down for about 20 minutes. We picked up a gal. can and in it I cooked the spagget. I didn’t know if its because I haven’t ate any for some time but it sure tasted good. Not only my self but the other fellows agreed. You really would of got a laugh seeing me around the fire stirring and tasting the spaggets to get them just right. That going to be your job soon. Tonight Roy Rogers is on and I'll see my last movie on these islands. Stevie should be seeing it with me.


weekend wrap-up

On Friday evening I commented that I felt like hibernating. Not sleeping, hibernating. As in going into a cave and just enjoying the quiet darkness. Must have something to do with the end of a long semester. Or maybe I'm getting anti-social. Nicole and I went to Anna and Mazin's for a nice, lowkey picnic that night. We ate delicious kabobs, walked to the back of the pasture to check on the bees, laughed at miscelaneous facebook pictures with the kids, and ended up borrowing Mazin's tiller.

Saturday ended up being the lazy day I needed. Watched a few episodes of "Mad Men" (I'm late getting on the wagon--about midway through Season 1 right now). I love the dialogue. For me, that's the element of the show that really captures that these guys are 1) smooth, and 2) trying really hard to BE smooth. Their words seem forced, but only because the characters are men who choose words carefully. In case you somehow don't know the show's premise, "Mad Men" centers on an advertising firm in 1960 Manhattan and takes a sometimes funny and sometimes depressing look at the "isms" of the Baby Boom era. At times the show underlines the period details a little bit too heavy handedly (though, to be fair, I think that's the show's aesthetic): look at how much they smoke, look at all the red meat and liquor, look how sexist they all are.

Nicole and I crossed the bridge to Canada and cruised around Windsor, then crossed back into Michigan, ate in Mexicantown, and picked upa few things for our Cinco de Mayo party next weekend. It had stormed so I had a great excuse for not using the tiller I had borrowed. Thank God for lazy days.

This morning we got up early to go to our Peace and Justice meeting at church, then went to Mass. Nicole opted for a nap while I read the Free Press and did the crossword while listening to the Tigers kick some ass. Cleaned the basement, and then made a big salad with mint, lemon balm, and fresh parsley. Tomorrow, back to writing and syllabus writing (summer 1 starts in a week!), but for now, lovin' the weekend.