Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Jerry Seinfeld and the art of conversation

President Obama and Jerry Seinfeld sharing the art of conversation --
and a good laugh, too.

Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee is a show that focuses on the art of conversation. It's a gathering of comedian Jerry Seinfeld and his friends, going for a cup of coffee, driving in cool old cars, sharing stories all the way.

"It's a show about trust," said former Daily Show host Jon Stewart.

Now, in an ultimate show of trust, President Obama is going to ride in a car and share coffee with Seinfeld. The president will appear in the opening show of the seventh season of the popular web series, which debuts on Dec. 30. He becomes the first non-comedian to appear with Seinfeld.

In their episode filmed earlier this month in Washington, D.C., Mr. Obama and Seinfeld take turns driving a blue 1963 Corvette Sting Ray split-window coupe around the White House driveway that encircles the South Lawn, then sit down to chat over coffee in a staff dining room.

According to the White House, the president's appearance in Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee was "an opportunity to pull back the curtain for Americans on life in the White House.

"The president and Jerry had a unique, candid conversation that focused largely on the lighter side of the presidency," said a White House statement last week.

"Growing up in the '60s my kid dream was always to be an astronaut -- doing a comedy show with President Obama in and around the White House felt like going into space," said Seinfeld in a statement released by Crackle, Sony's online video site and the show's distributor.

At 61, Seinfeld has been a comedian his whole adult life. He's one of the best when it comes to the art of observational humor, whether talking about personal relationships or the nuances of uncomfortable social obligations. It's what we loved about the New York native in Seinfeld, which spanned 180 episodes over nine seasons from 1989-98 on NBC. The series remains a fixture in reruns across the country.

Now, in transitioning from TV to the internet, Seinfeld takes an offbeat approach that shows the other side of the comedy world, something he feels talk shows and interviews can't or don't let you see. The web-based comedy series he created, directs and stars in debuted in 2012 and is shot using DSLR and interior-mounted Go-Pro cameras.

A who's who of contemporary A-list comedians, including Chris Rock, Ricky Gervais, Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer as well as iconic comedians Mel Brooks and Don Rickles, have been coffee companions of Seinfeld's. So have past and present late night TV hosts such as Stewart, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, Trevor Noah, and Stephen Colbert. Seinfeld co-stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander and Michael Richards have also made appearances.

Each episode of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee follows the premise of Seinfeld introducing a vintage car such as a 1952 Volkswagen Beetle or a 1967 Austin-Healey 3000, then picking up his guest comedian in that vintage car and, finally, taking them out to have coffee or dine in a restaurant. Seinfeld has filmed episodes on both coasts, in New York and Los Angeles, and he's also ventured to Portland, Oregon as well as to New Jersey and Massassuchetts. Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee can be seen by anyone, anywhere with access to the internet, and on any web-enabled device. And, don't worry, the language in each 12-to-20 minute episode is family friendly.

The unscripted conversations between Seinfeld and his companions in Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee are at times both meaningful and meandering, silly and deep. Yet, with the series having been streamed over 100 million times, they're very comfortable to watch on a smart phone.

Hardly a show about nothing.

Note: The seventh season of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee premieres online on Dec. 30 at 11:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Along with President Obama, other featured guests this season include Will Ferrell, Steve Martin and Garry Shandling.

Go behind the wheel of the President Obama episode of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/behind-the-wheel-of-the-obama-episode-of-seinfelds-comedians-in-cars/2015/12/21/2d6376b0-a29b-11e5-9c4e-be37f66848bb_story.html

To watch previous episodes: http://comediansincarsgettingcoffee.com

Photo: Courtesy of comediansgettingcarsgettingcoffee.com. Video: Courtesy of YouTube. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Christmas 2015: Sharing our humanity

May there be peace on Earth, good will towards men.
How lovely are the messengers 
that preach us the gospel of peace!

There are so many different things that can tie together a good message about our faith, love and hope in God. And, there are plenty of good messages that are worth sharing. Sometimes, it just takes moving in the slow lane of life, observing, and enjoying the journey.

With Christmas just a few days away, I would like to share a Christmas Day poem by the 19th-century Scottish poet and essayist Robert Louis Stevenson reflecting our common humanity:

A Prayer for Christmas Morning
By Robert Louis Stevenson

The day of joy returns, Father in Heaven, and
crowns another year with peace and good will.
Help us rightly to remember the birth of Jesus, that
we may share in the song of the angels, the 
gladness of the shepherds, and the worship of the
wise men.

Close the doors of hate and open the doors of
love all over the world.

Let kindness come with every gift and good
desires with every greeting.

Deliver us from evil, by the blessing that Christ
brings, and teach us to be merry with clean hearts.

May the Christmas morning make us happy to 
be thy children.

And the Christmas evening bring us to our bed
with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven, for 
Jesus's sake.


Wishing kind thoughts for a Merry Christmas. Although we are of many faiths, it is important that our common humanity allows us to share a season of peace and goodwill.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Pink Martini: The "little orchestra" that's bringing joy to the world in these troubled times

Pink Martini / The "little orchestra" that's inclusive, full of warmth and
represents many human experiences.

Pink Martini is an internationally acclaimed "little orchestra" from Portland, Oregon, founded by a couple of Harvard classmates, pianist Thomas Lauderdale and vocalist China Forbes, that mixes glamour and sophisticated easy-listening music. Since 1994, the band that the Washington Post once called "utterly cosmopolitan yet utterly unpretentious," have amassed an impressive repertoire of festive songs drawn from around the globe, including many timeless classics and a few rarely heard chestnuts.

A typical Pink Martini show -- and I speak from experience have seen the band perform nine times over the past decade in a variety of California settings -- is both multilingual and multicultural, and at holiday time it's also multi-denominational. Above all, it's inclusive -- full of warmth -- and represents many human experiences.

Through the energy and creativity of their music, Pink Martini brings joy to the world in these troubled times -- something which should make all of us feel grateful and appreciative.

"We're very much an American band," said Lauderdale, "but we spend a lot of time abroad and therefore, have the incredible diplomatic opportunity to represent a broader, more inclusive America... the America which remains the most heterogeneously populated country in the world... composed of people of every country, every language, every religion."

Pink Martini has performed on concert stages and with symphony orchestras throughout Europe and Asia, as well as in Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, Northern Africa, Australia, New Zealand, South America and North America. I have seen them perform both as a "little orchestra" as well as in concert with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. When his schedule allows, NPR "All Things Considered" host Ari Shapiro, also a Portland native, joins Pink Martini as a guest vocalist.

Pink Martini's 'Joy to the World'
Last Monday in Livermore, about 30 miles inland from Oakland, my wife and I saw our most recent Pink Martini show. It was part of a two-week "Joy to the World" bus tour through northern and coastal California towns, including Arcata, Davis, Monterey, Redding, and Santa Barbara.

On this night, the 12-member band delighted their audience at the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center's 507-seat Bankhead Theater by performing from their expansive catalog of pop, jazz, classical and holiday songs that were beautifully sung in Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, German, Turkish, Armenian, Spanish, Italian, French, Romanian, Croatian, Chinese, Japanese and, oh yes, English, too. There was a nice mixture of charm, elegance and humor throughout the band's two-hour performance.

In a recent interview with the Santa Barbara Independent, co-lead vocalist Storm Large said: "Every language expresses love, pain, joy or grief, in whatever song I'm singing, in whatever language, it's just a matter of being honest in the feeling I'm expressing." This was plainly evident when Large sang the very serious Romanian folk tune "Pâna când nu te iubeam" ("Until I Loved You") as well as a long-time favorite of mine, the spine-tingling Croatian song "Eu plavu zoru" ("At Blue Dawn"), accompanied by violinist Nicholas Crosa.

Pink Martini performs their "Joy to the World" holiday
show in Livermore, California on Dec. 7.
Among the sacred and secular holiday songs which Pink Martini performed in Livermore were: "Little Drummer Boy," "We Three Kings," "A Snowglobe Christmas," "Talj, Talj," "La Vergine Degli Angeli," "O Holy Night," and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

"Christmas music is so inherently joyful for me, as well as for the audience," said Large. "People just have so many good feelings around the holidays. It's a marvelous reason to sing."

Pink Martini's unique vision can be attributed to its inclusiveness of language, culture, and religion, musically. The band wants anyone and everyone to feel welcome at its shows and, if they are so encouraged, to jump up and dance. And many did dance in Livermore. The evening was complete  with an encore performance of the band's signature tune "Brazil" in which many in the audience at Large's urging formed a conga line while others danced at their seats and in the aisles.

If you think about it, said Large, "It's really the perfect recipe for 'Peace on Earth and Good Will' we hear about so often during the holidays, but sadly have witnessed quite the opposite in the world of late."

Note ~ Hear Pink Martini's "Joy to the World: A Holiday Spectacular" that's airing this month via NPR:


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Golden State Warriors: They are the darlings of the NBA

Stephen Curry / An affable MVP who makes his art look effortless.
Barely two months into the new pro basketball season, the Golden State Warriors once again are the darlings of the National Basketball Association. Nightly, the defending champions have been providing their fans with a highly-entertaining product that sells out the house at Oakland's Oracle Arena. Five games into a two-week, seven-city road trip, the Warriors are also dazzling fans across the country in cities like Salt Lake City, Charlotte, Toronto, Brooklyn and Indianapolis, too.

The Warriors are scoring lots of points thanks to shooting the lights out from 3-point range, playing stingy defense that forces opponents into committing costly turnovers and, most of all, they are winning. Great teams find all kinds of ways to win.

Recently, the Warriors set an NBA record for most wins at the start of a season -- 16 -- and the winning streak continues, reaching 23 on Tuesday night with a 131-123 victory over the Indianapolis Pacers. The Warriors became the first NBA team to open a season with 13 consecutive road wins, breaking the 12-0 record set by 1969-70 New York Knicks.

Draymond Green / The Warriors' power forward scored 22
points and added 9 rebounds and 7 assists against the Nets.
So, the perfect season lives on -- 23-0 and counting -- and when you consider the Warriors won their final four regular-season games last season, the Warriors have 27 consecutive victories, which ties the second-longest winning streak in the NBA's history. Next, the Warriors complete their seven-city road trip this week with games at Boston and Milwaukee on Friday and Saturday.

Last season, en route to winning the team's first NBA crown in 40 years, the "Dubs" achieved a franchise-best 16-game winning streak, going five weeks without losing a game. One of the reasons for the Warriors' success can be attributed to having one of the brightest minds in the game in head coach Steve Kerr. However, he's been sidelined this season while recovering  from two off-season back surgeries. At the start of this season, Kerr passed the reigns to one of his assistants, Luke Walton, and the interim head coach hasn't missed a beat.

Luke Walton / So far, he's made all the right moves
as interim coach of the Warriors.
So far, Walton has made all the right moves, and he's getting the most out of his deep roster of talented stars -- point guard Stephen Curry, shooting guard Klay Thompson, and power forward Draymond Green -- and "second unit" role players like Andre Iguodala, Ron Livingston and Leandro Barbosa, each who could start for any other NBA team.

Nobody has been able to stop the Warriors this season -- maybe for a quarter, but not for all 48 minutes. When the Warriors take the court, writes San Francisco Chronicle columnist Bruce Jenkins, they "have five players who can run, pass, set screens, rebound, play fiercely motivated defense and, most importantly, hit the three-point shot.

"They love playing together: the fancier and more unselfish, the better. Curry is being linked with the all-time greats and Green looks to be a certain All-Star."

As the accolades come pouring in for the Warriors, the national media has begun to take notice. The other week, I read an utterly fascinated feature about the affable Curry in The New York Times in which Graham Lustig, the artistic director of the Oakland Ballet Company, said "there's a certain musicality to the way his body works. It looks like he's moving to a slightly different dimension as everyone else. Incredible, unbelievable control. And that's what you want in a dancer."

With each three-point basket shot from way downtown and every spinning layup, the 6-foot-3 Curry is reinventing the game of basketball -- transcending the sport, if you will -- and turning it into an artistic performance. According to Lustig, "much of his aesthetic appeal was rooted in what ballet dancers seek most: to make their art look effortless.

"Steph doesn't really look like he's putting in a lot of effort, does he? I'm not suggesting at all that he doesn't use effort. It's just that he doesn't display it, and I think that's probably at the core of what this is about."

Stephen Curry / "When he's hot, he makes things happen,
says teammate Leandro Barbosa.
Far from effortless, Curry began the season by averaging a league-best 31.6 points per game to go with 6.0 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 2.5 steals in winning Western Conference player of the month honors for November. With his 44-point outburst Saturday at Toronto, which included 15 points in a seven-minute span en route to an 112-109 victory, Curry has scored more than 40 points in seven games this season.

"Steph knows he's going to be on the court for most of the game, and he's going to have the ball in his hands for most of the game," Walton said after Sunday's victory against Brooklyn.

"He can pick and choose when he wants to get aggressive and take over and when he wants to get his teammates involved. That's his call out there, and he does a great job judging when to do both."

Toronto point guard DeMar DeRozan told the San Francisco Chronicle: "He's a heck of a player, and he makes it look so effortless." After a recent win at Phoenix in which Curry scored 41 points by knocking home 11-of-20 field goal attempts -- including 9-of-16 3-pointers -- in just 31 minutes on the court, Barbosa said: "When he's hot, he makes things happen. We were just enjoying watching him play."

While Curry seems to be enjoying himself shining in the spotlight -- putting on a boffo show for the fans both at home and on the road, which have included hip-hop mogul Drake in Toronto -- and contributing to his team's success, where their wins this season are coming by an average of nearly 16 points per game, the basketball world can't seem to get enough. The Warriors are not only a hot ticket at the box office, sales of their team merchandise have skyrocketed this season, too.

The Golden State Warriors / Celebrating the team's first
NBA championship in 40 years. 
Collectively, the Warriors show no signs of letting up. They love the feeling of being winners and their confidence remains high. In their win over Indiana on Tuesday, it was Thompson's turn to shine. His 39-point performance included 10 three-pointers.

Winning motivates this team. There's no boredom or conflict. After the Warriors' victory in Toronto Saturday, Curry called the team's winning streak "surreal." He told the San Francisco Chronicle that it doesn't sound right when you say it out loud. "But we're very confident when we're out there on the floor. We're very comfortable, and we expect to win every night."

Their fans love a winner and Curry and the Warriors keep delivering victories.

A postscript: On Saturday, a night after a gut-wrenching, physically taxing double-overtime victory over the Boston Celtics, which elevated the team's win-loss record this season to 24-0 and winning streak to 28 games, the Golden State Warriors finally lost a game, 108-95 to the Milwaukee Bucks in Milwaukee. It was the seventh and final game of a two-week road trip across America and Canada. The streak had to end sometime.

Photos: Courtesy of Google Images.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Toy Story at Twenty: To infinity and beyond!

Toy Story / A great story with great characters.

With the release of The Good Dinosaur over Thanksgiving weekend, it's hard to believe that it's been 20 years since the debut of Toy Story, the memorable tale of a group of toys that come to life which was the first feature-length computer-animated film and the first theatrical film produced by Pixar.

At San Francisco International Airport, I recently happened upon SFO Museum's newest curated exhibition, "Toy Story at Twenty," which tells the story behind the story of this wonderful buddy-comedy adventure film through a variety of artifacts -- early sketches, toys and sculptures of the unforgettable characters Woody, a pull-string cowboy doll, and Buzz Lightyear, an astronaut figure -- as well as sharing backstories from many of the principals at Pixar such as director John Lasseter, producer Ralph Guggenheim, and story co-creator Andrew Stanton, who were involved in the production that forever changed the landscape of feature animation.

Toy Story / A buddy movie where the buddies are toys.
"It'll be a buddy movie: a banter-laden tale of a bitter alliance blossoming into a true friendship," said Toy Story director John Lasseter, as quoted in the exhibition. "It'll have a few unusual twists. First, the buddies will be toys. And second, it will be the first time an entire movie will have been created using computer animation."

According to Toy Story producer Ralph Guggenheim, "Nobody knew what skills we'd need when we started. It was a completely new series of combinations that had to add up to more than the sum of its parts." Added story supervisor Joe Ranft, "If the story isn't there, all the breakthrough computer graphics in the world piled onto it won't matter. You'll have made a piece of passing fashion."

Fortunately, the vivid, entertaining and moving story was there and it resonated with its audience. The iconic and timeless Toy Story had its theatrical debut on November 22, 1995, and went on to earn over $361 million worldwide.

Toy Story / An early sketch image of Woody.
The voices Woody and Buzz Lightyear are familiar ones belonging to actors Tom Hanks and Tim Allen.

"Getting a line reading from Tom Hanks is like getting this big, incredibly wet sponge," remembered animator Glenn McQueen. "It's overflowing with different possibilities for you to wring out." Meanwhile, as John Lasseter described it, "Casting Tim Allen to voice Buzz gave us that quality we wanted of a macho guy with a soft underbelly. Tim's perfect at doing an everyday guy."

Toy Story story co-creator Andrew Stanton said: "We never thought Woody and Buzz's repartee would hold the spotlight in and of itself. But once they were animated, suddenly the chemistry between them was the highlight of the movie."

Toy Story / A prototype of Buzz Lightyear.
The film received three Academy Award nominations, including Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, and Best Original Song for "You've Got a Friend in Me" written and performed by Randy Newman. It won a Special Achievement Academy Award.

"Randy (Newman) turned out to be a great help to us when we needed a lot of emotion told to the audience, and accepted by the audience in a short amount of time," said Andrew Stanton.

"'You've Got a Friend in Me' speaks volumes about the love between Andy and Woody, better than we ever could tell it in dialogue. The way you feel it at the end of the song, we would have needed two more sequences without a song to get that point across."

Peter Schneider, president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, summed it up best: "At the end of the day, it's not the technique that the audience cares about; it's a great story, a visual feast, and great characters. They want to be taken on an emotional journey they've never been on before."

"Toy Story at Twenty" opened last week and it's on continuous display daily through May 22, 2016, for free, pre-security, in the SFO International Terminal main hall departures lobby. It is accessible to all airport visitors, and I highly recommend it.

To infinity and beyond!

Images: Courtesy of Pixar and Toy Story at Twenty.