Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Holiday Notes: Shopping, Woody Allen, Huckabee

Were you one of the 247 million Americans who trudged down to the mall over the 4-day Thanksgiving holiday to celebrate our collective good fortune by spending a record $59.1 billion? I wasn’t. Not that I don’t have lots to be thankful for, but I make it a point to abstain from the in-store frenzy. I didn’t even participate in the $1.5 billion Cyber Monday buy-fest. 

Perhaps because for 32 years I had to report on this ultra-patriotic shopping activity I developed a certain disdain for Black Friday, followed by Saturday and Sunday at the shopping center. Coverage of consumers fighting over Xboxes or big screen TVs or Ugg boots was all too predictable. Also predictable was the supposition that strong Thanksgiving weekend sales presaged an overall strong holiday shopping season. Yes, that could happen. But what usually transpired was a lull in spending that picked up only in the last 10 days before Christmas. Meanwhile, newspapers and electronic media wondered who would win the game of chicken between retailers who did not want to reduce prices and hurt their profit margins and consumers who wanted to wait until extreme discounts opened up their tight hold on their wallets. I’ll be very surprised if such stories don’t start appearing in about a week.

Too Awed to Ask: I’m a little behind in my reading, so I finally looked at a NY Times conversation with Robert De Niro printed November 18 in the magazine section. Written by the film critic A.O. Scott, the article highlighted a challenge many journalists confront when interviewing a famous person. Scott wrote, “I confess, however, that it took all my professional discipline to resist squandering the time I spent with De Niro on a recent Saturday afternoon in a slack-jawed fanboy recitation of his greatest hits. Oh, my God, you’re Jake Lamotta! You’re Johnny Boy! Your Travis Bickle! I’m talking to you.”

That paragraph reminded me of my year at Syracuse University earning a master’s degree in newspaper journalism. One of my classmates and best friends, Steve Kreinberg, got a freelance gig as a movie critic on the Syracuse New Times, an alternative lifestyle newspaper launched just two years earlier in 1969 (and still around today). After we laughed our way through Woody Allen’s Bananas in a suburban Syracuse movie theater—there is nothing that makes you feel more Jewish, and alone in the world, than guffawing at Woody Allen shtick when the rest of the audience is sitting cold, stone silent—Steve announced in the parking lot that he landed an interview with Allen the following week in New York City. Though Allen was in the middle of editing Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask, he agreed to meet Steve at his studio.

He drove down to Manhattan. When Steve returned he was uncharacteristically quiet. When the next edition did not run his interview I demanded an explanation. Sheepishly he admitted he lost all professional composure in the presence of the great man. He just kept gushing, “You’re Woody Allen. I love your work.” There’s only so many times he could say that before Woody determined this interview was going nowhere. 

Steve eventually recovered his moxie and went on to become one of the five question writers for the old Hollywood Squares show (the one that featured Paul Lynde in the center square). He was expected to write 50 acceptable questions per day, and yes, celebrities were counseled before each show on topics they would be asked. After Hollywood Squares Steve and his writing partner Andy became staff writers for Archie Bunker’s Place (Carroll O’Connor’s successor show to All in the Family) as well as for Herman’s Head, Saved by the Bell, Head of the Class, Nine to Five and Mork & Mindy

Funny, He Doesn’t Look Jewish: I’m always amused when out of left field a famous person has it revealed that deep in their past a Jewish gene lurks. Think former secretary of state Madeleine Albright (though how an intelligent woman like she could not figure out her parents chose to flee Prague in 1938 because of their Jewish origins is beyond my ken). 

Anyway, I was reading this week’s NY Times magazine when I came across this response from Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, also-ran 2008 Republican presidential primary candidate, Southern Baptist minister and Fox News Channel talk show host. Asked how to celebrate the holidays, Huckabee said, “On Christmas Eve, we go to the service at our church, and when it’s over, we go out for Chinese food.” 

Funny, I didn’t know Huckabee was Jewish (for my non-Jewish readers, ask a Jewish friend why it's funny).