Maybe We Should Just All Stick to Salads

Boston has been abuzz lately with the sounds of absolutely nobody caring about how Legal Sea Foods advertises its restaurants.

The seafood chain began a campaign in January with ads on Boston cabs featuring its “fresh fish” – fresh like the prince of Bel-Air. The fish said things like, “The cab driver has a face like a halibut.” Nobody particularly noticed.  Including the cab drivers.

Then in May they debuted the same campaign on the sides of Green Line trains. Now the fish said things like, “This conductor has a face like a halibut.” Nobody particularly noticed. Except some conductors.

Stephan G. MacDougall, president of the Boston Carmen’s Union, … fielded 40 phone calls from Green Line workers incensed by the ads.

“To say they are angered and offended is to put it lightly,” MacDougall said. “I will tell you this: If they don’t come down, we will not drive those trains.”

Boston Globe, 7 June 2008

With this, a few people began to care. They do have a point: it is offensive and insulting. Even things said as a joke can be offensive. Did we learn nothing from Mean Girls, in which Tina Fey cautions the high school girls, “You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores – it just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores?”  Don’t tell me I’m the only one who watched that movie.

Complaining, however, was the worst move the Carmen’s Union (Local 589) could have made.  They have a right to take offense, but it’s rather akin to arguing with the homeless guy about whether or not your drugs smell.  Trust me.  Nobody ever beat me up in middle school, and I was the guy who wore a vest to school every day.  Ignoring the bullies must have worked at least a little.  (Except that kid who tried picking on me on the last day of school – he ended up mopping hallways for the first week of summer while I was in Disney World.  Seriously.)

Legal Sea Foods CEO Roger Berkowitz threw fuel into the fire the next week, with an “apology” on the radio:

“We should have never, ever said, ‘This conductor has a face like a halibut,’ when the truth is, most conductors don’t look anything at all like halibuts,” Berkowitz says in the new radio advertisement, produced by the New York ad agency DeVito/Verdi. “Some look more like groupers or flounders. I’ve even seen a few who closely resemble catfish. And there’s one conductor on the Green Line that looks remarkably like a hammerhead shark. So we feel very badly about this mischaracterization, and we won’t let it happen again.”

Boston Globe, 12 June 2008

Somewhere in Boston 40 Green Line conductors were out purchasing soapboxes, and 350,000 Boston Globe subscribers were thinking about whether or not Legal Sea Foods was funny – and as a follow-up question whether they felt like some halibut for dinner.

Then Legal threw on the last log:

Initially, the MBTA said two of the five ads had to come down, but, without cause or warning, we found a third ad subsequently had been taken down.

This might lead a company to question whether its First Amendment rights have been violated. Nevertheless, we have bigger fish to fry, and hope that the conductors can accept the ads in the spirit they were created. I doubt any are truly offended. And if so, a halibut dinner is on us.

– Ida Faber, Marketing director for Legal Sea Foods.  Printed as a letter to the editor of the Boston Globe, 19 June, 2008

Let’s stop right there.  We’re already poised on the brink of raising a generation of illiterate txt spkrs (isn’t that the best editorial ever, by the way?) so let’s clarify something.  The first amendment makes no guarantee whatsoever about who can advertise on the T or what those ads can say.

While Legal Sea Foods has a constitutional right to shout at the top of their voice that conductors look like fish, no advertising venue in the country has a constitutional obligation to print it.  As Aaron Sorkin says, “You want free speech?  Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”

Of course, the real purpose of the statement was to keep the dialog going.  When it failed, giant ads appeared a few days later announcing that Legal really had sent gift certificates for free dinners to the Carmen’s Union for any conductor who wanted them.

We can only hope this wraps up a publicity battle that was fought absolutely nowhere but the pages of a newspaper, and sufficiently drives up Legal’s sales revenues for the month of June.  And the award for Best Supporting Actor goes to: the Carmen’s Union, for making it all possible.

If the Address is Legit You Must Acquit

“Your name has been selected by the Jury Commissioners for prospective jury service.”

I’m the sort of person who would normally be very glad to read that. I’ve never served as a juror, and while I do not overestimate the excitement of serving on a jury outside a Hollywood set, I do value the sense of civic duty.

Watch an episode of The West Wing called “In This White House” from early in the second season. It features a strong sense of civic duty, and contains one of twelve Aaron Sorkin moments that’s guaranteed to make me cry.

So I should have been glad to receive a notice about jury duty. Instead, I am just amused. See, the return address on the envelope begins:

“Chittenden County Clerk”

Some of you may not be sufficiently familiar with the geography, so I will introduce three facts:

  1. Boston is in Suffolk County
  2. “Suffolk” is not just another spelling of “Chittenden”
  3. Chittenden County is in Vermont

This leads us to three interesting conclusions.

First, it would be hard to serve on a jury in another state. Unless they have better teleconferencing hardware than I expect.

Second, I could apparently have voted in Vermont for the last two years, while also voting in Boston.

Third, Vermont is comfortable asking me to serve as a juror even though I haven’t paid them any taxes in the last two years. If they think I still live there, shouldn’t that have come to somebody’s attention by now?


Rob Reiner: “Jack Nicholson himself – I’ll never forget this – when we did the courtroom scene, when Jack has that famous monologue (‘You can’t handle the truth!’) we did that scene from maybe 15 different angles before we got to him and Jack was off camera for all of these and he said he wanted to do his last. In other words, he wanted us to come around and shoot him after having shot everybody else because it would give him a chance to keep working at it.

“Now, in doing his off-camera performance for everybody else’s reaction he did it full out – every single time, full out.

“And I said, ‘Jack, save a little – save it for the time you’re gonna be on camera….’ And he says:

“‘Rob, you don’t understand. I’m an actor. I love to act, and this is a rare time when I’ve gotten really good material so I can act.'”

Remind Your Lungs How Much They Like the Taste of Air

“She is gonna call me ‘Point B’ because that way she knows that no matter what happens she can always find her way to me. And I’m gonna paint the solar system on the backs of her hands, so that she has to learn the entire universe before she can say, ‘Oh, I know that like the back of my hand.'”

This poet, Sarah Kay, is absolutely, completely, and in all other ways amazing.

  1. Hand Me Downs
  2. Point B
  3. Hands
  4. Hiroshima
  5. Jellyfish
  6. And Found

Some of those are very hard to hear, so either get headphones or just be ready to turn the volume way up.

I honestly don’t think I’ve heard words that powerful since Sorkin’s West Wing.

On Heckling

I believe two things.

First, as a patron of the arts I’m entitled to certain expectations. If I attended a musical where main characters forgot the lyrics halfway through a song I’d complain afterward.

Second, no member of the audience may make any sound after the curtain rises until it falls again. That time belongs exclusively to the performers, no matter how objectionable their work. Complaints get voiced after a show.

I attended yesterday’s Eddie from Ohio concert in Somerville, where we had the pleasure of a persistent heckler. This group (one of my all-time favorites) is well known for telling stories during their shows. Even on their CDs we can hear their often elaborate introductions to songs. At yesterday’s show, for instance, we were treated to a hilarious ad hoc rendition of the popular Great Day that played on the lyrics being misheard as “Great Dane.” It was so funny that singer Julie Murphy Wells couldn’t go on to the next song; they skipped over it.

This is what live music should be. There’s great joy in hearing music created live on stage, but we also want a small taste of having “met” the performers, so we can step outside their CD and recognize that we’re seeing them in person. When Celtic Woman came to Boston last June they so faithfully executed the over-produced staging they could as effectively have projected their DVD on a movie screen.

One patron at last night’s show disagreed with me. When the group launched into the introduction to one song he shouted, emphatically, “You’re here to sing!”

Well! Are they, now! When they brushed it off he persisted, shouting out again. He was silenced only when bass player Michael Clem drew enthusiastic cheers with his quip, “I hope you’re drunk… because stupid is forever.”

I respect that he just wants to hear the music – our opinions differ, and that’s fine. The difference is I didn’t jump up during Celtic Woman’s performance and shout, “You’re here to talk!” Just because you don’t understand a performance (and the introduction to a song is every bit a part of the performance) doesn’t mean other people don’t. We were all enjoying it.

A heckler at the Blast! performance in Lowell on Thursday similarly seemed to miss the point of the show. It’s very playful, bringing performers out into the audience and showcasing musical battles on stage. In Everybody Loves the Blues, the trumpet player performs a brief solo. When it seems he’s finished the other musicians inhale dramatically, getting ready to play again, but the trumpet just launches into another elaborate riff. Then another. And another. Our resident heckler that night missed the spirit of the piece entirely, shouting for the soloist to cut it out.

Last year we gained brief national notoriety when two Boston Pops patrons got into a fistfight because one wouldn’t shut up during the show. What will it take before we recognize that once the curtain rises on a performance – any performance – the performers literally have the stage for as long as they want it?

As Aaron Sorkin put it in The American President, “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his voice that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

On the one hand, I wrote down the wrong address for the Music Box Theatre, where Aaron Sorkin’s play (“The Farnsworth Invention“) is running on Broadway. I feel appropriately silly for hailing a cab to go three blocks, only to end up two minutes late anyway.

Now I have to go again, just to see the beginning of the play.

However, I redeemed myself by appearing so familiar with my surroundings in New York throughout the day that no fewer than four people separately stopped me to ask for directions. I answered all four correctly.

1. “Where’s the zoo?” – from just north of the zoo in Central Park.

2. “Where’s Broadway?” – standing in the middle of Times Square. Dude, even if you’re from West Nowhereville, Montana, it’s Times Square. You can find Broadway with a blindfold. You’re on it.

3. “Where’s the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts?” – I should get major points for this one, even if I couldn’t name the exact subway line that stops there

4. “I know we’re at 42nd and Eighth, but where does the bus to the airport stop?” – again, I should get some huge points for pinpointing the exact part of the intersection where the bus stops. That’s not something you get off a map.

Now we just have to stop to reflect on how many things are wrong in the universe when I can pass for a New York City directions-giver. I think it’s the white cashmere scarf and the briefcase that really did the trick.

Three Degrees of Separation

After watching the entire run of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (thrice, historically speaking), I plugged in an episode of Scrubs called “My Unicorn.”

There’s a scene where Matthew Perry, as an air traffic controller, is watching an old episode of “Wings” on TV.

Then and only then did it hit me: the guy who plays Jack Rudolph on Studio 60 (i.e., Steven Weber) starred in Wings!

It took me over a year to connect an actor with… himself. I have no hope of ever winning the Kevin Bacon game.