“Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Episode VII” Review: Evil Always Returns Ahead of The Force

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Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

You’ve probably read at least 100 reviews of “The Force Awakens” by the time you read this or discover it squeezed in with other critiques on Google. Back when I wrote film reviews more often, I always attempted to bring something different with an analysis of the audience along with the movie. For “The Force Awakens”, it’s worth the same attempt, though with one caveat: my showing of “The Force Awakens” wasn’t filled with overly excited uberfans dressed in old “Star Wars” cosplay from their dusty closets.

While there were no major surprises in the audience, “The Force Awakens” arguably has one of the most compelling and insightful plot elements of any film this year: A reminder of how evil regimes always return.

Examining our world as it is now, we already see how evil continues rearing its demonic head, sometimes sooner or more intensely than we ever thought possible. The trouble is, not everyone can foresee or acknowledge evil returning. Examples of this in the real world are arguable and enter the controversial realms of recent politics and specific candidates.

In the category of terrorism, we see evil regimes turn up about every decade to 20 years. Each one ultimately gets vanquished, yet it seems we never learn enough lessons to keep it from occurring again.

It’s this dynamic that makes “The Force Awakens” doubly powerful outside its smashingly successful attempt to revive a pop culture behemoth. It’s not hyperbole to say director J.J. Abrams pulled off an out-and-out miracle in making this film have a solidly believable connection with the original trilogy without feeling too far removed.

Catching Up on 32 Years

With The First Order being depicted in the film as more nefarious than the previous Galactic Empire, we see a glaring analogy to terrorist groups we’re trying to eradicate now. We also see how previous heroes who helped destroy prior regimes frequently become mired in myth to a point of frustrating distortion.

In the first quarter of “The Force Awakens”, we see a big idea develop that brings more truth to our real world than any other sci-fi product. In this case, the myth is Luke Skywalker who becomes a former war hero elevated to lofty status. He’s gone missing since the days following “Return of the Jedi”, and nobody knows where he is.

The problem: The First Order is slowly gaining more power over the Republic, now led by General Leia Organa, again played by a regal-looking Carrie Fisher. The Resistance is equivalent to our real-world Homeland Security and only proves its power when in battle action. Fortunately, the Resistance has X-wing fighter pilots with skills even the most decorated U.S. Air Force pilot would genuflect to.

Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron is the new roguish equivalent to Han Solo here, and he possesses a map containing information on Luke’s whereabouts. When The First Order tracks Poe down on the planet Jakku to obtain the map, Poe places the map data inside the droid BB-8. The latter is the ubiquitously popular ball-shaped robot that hasn’t yet been made into a cheese ball for further marketing purposes in our world.

Admittedly, BB-8 is cute, fun, and almost overshadows R2D2, but we soon enter the world of the mysterious Rey, played by Daisy Ridley. All the accolades you’ve heard about Ridley’s performance aren’t overwrought. There seems to be a true magic that emanates from unknowns on the big screen, perhaps out of feelings of doing or dying when trying to deliver in the biggest movie franchise of all time.

And, yes, Ridley really does deliver while finally paving a stronger path toward more complex women in lead roles. The same goes to John Boyega playing Finn, a Stormtrooper from The First Order who becomes a conscientious defector. After an escape with Poe above, Finn links up with Rey on Jakku. This leads to the revival of one particularly noteworthy starship you’ll love seeing hitting the skies after sitting idle for 30 years.

Then there’s an entrance stage left: Han Solo and his never-aging sidekick, Chewbacca. If you see “The Force Awakens” in 3D, you’ll get a kick out of seeing the Millennium Falcon’s familiar cockpit again and feeling as if you’re in the passenger seat. All of the expected and perfectly-executed space battle scenes work fantastically in 3D, despite Real D still having troubles with images looking slightly too dark.

At this point in the film, the surprises and unexpected connections start unfurling into a long list of spoilers if revealed. The most interesting non-spoiler revelation here is the psychological study of The First Order’s Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver in one of his best roles to date.

Ren has parallels to tragic Shakespearean characters as a powerful allegory for real-world Millennials and their current ethical struggles. Once his metallized mask comes off, we get a chance to see Driver create one of the most psychologically complex villains in recent memory. His problem is he’s torn between fear and evil, with the latter emotion failingly nurtured by Supreme Leader Snoke.

Snoke is another mysterious (giant) character played through motion-capture by Andy Serkis. Motion-capture has finally taken a flying leap forward, particularly with Lupita Nyong’o and her expressive alien character, Maz Kanata. Maz has lived long enough to throw hints toward many of the mysteriously lost familial connections in the film.

These connections make up the key elements of “The Force Awakens”, and each one were once part of a long slate of rumors.

The Rumors Are True; All of Them

With the above subtitle a play on words for an already popular line Han Solo utters to Rey and Finn about the myth and truth of the Jedi, it’s also a bit meta for many of the film’s longstanding plot rumors. All those plot rumors you’ve heard about are definitely true without any explanation necessary. The only one you can write off is the notion of Luke turning evil, which isn’t fully addressed anyway.

Some may look at the adherence to a few old rumors as a major weakness in “The Force Awakens”, yet it doesn’t lessen the impact. One particularly notable death in the film doesn’t necessarily mean things will stay that way in future episodes. Another rumor you’ve heard about related to Rey is only hinted at and leaves open a lot of questions for the next installment.

Then you have the biggest rumor of all: Where is Luke Skywalker in all of this? He’s definitely there, but you’ll be slightly staggered at how brief his scene is. Nevertheless, the impact of his appearance is one guaranteed to give you chills if you grew up seeing the original trilogy in movie theaters. The beautiful setting of his appearance only adds to the majesty and mystery, enhanced further with John Williams’s new earworm worthy themes.

The Audience

The city where I live used to have a huge “Star Wars” fanbase, yet it seems some of them disappeared. Ticket availability on Fandango for “The Force Awakens” in my hometown was wide open for weeks. Even so, going on a Friday afternoon next to a major mall during the peak of holiday shopping season only gave me visions of sheer chaos.

When arriving, there wasn’t a single person in line at the box office. While the theater had four screens showing “The Force Awakens”, my showing only had 30 people attending at most. Attendees avoided wearing cosplay, and nearly everyone stayed fairly subdued. Whether that’s a sign of the times is up for debate, though there was still an interesting mix of demographics.

Only a quarter of the crowd looked old enough to remember seeing the original “Star Wars” trilogy. The majority were definitely Millennials who only grew up seeing the original trilogy on DVD or endless cable TV plays. They were just as quiet as the older crowd, and no one did much reacting to the film’s breathtaking plot revelations.

Much of this gives me the impression that some audiences find far too many sobering parallels in “Star Wars” to our real world. After construction of a new “Starkiller Base”, the Dark Side in “The Force Awakens” is still strong enough to continue into Episode VIII. All told, there could easily be many more trilogies in the “Star Wars” universe where you’d see the Dark Side continue to return over and over.

If you’re finding real meaning in this new incarnation of “Star Wars”, it’s this: Evil will likely keep on returning in our world as a test of our wills with new lessons learned along the way. Hopefully each vanquishing won’t be forgotten and turned into myth much like Luke Skywalker has in “The Force Awakens” universe.

Total Score: Nine Out of Ten Stars

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How Much Power Will the Public Have in Shaping Movies, TV, and Netflix? An Interview with David Paull of Dialsmith in Portland, Oregon

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When I worked for Yahoo! Contributor Network from 2007-2014, I did few interviews, though found one favorite subject I returned to twice. It was the subject of public opinion, how it’s gauged, and what tools get used today to collect thorough information on what people think.

My fascination with how the public has the ability to shape which politicians win, what movies we see, and what TV we watch led me to a company in Portland, Oregon that’s been testing this concept for years. Dialsmith has outstanding leadership with CEO David Paull, and when I interviewed him two separate times in the late 2000s, most of our discussion focused on politics. The reason is Dialsmith provides all those real-time public opinion tools you see on cable news after Presidential debates (including ones without Donald Trump).

You’ve seen their tools used for numerous other purposes as well to determine what we collectively think of virtually everything. Dialsmith later branched out into sports, general marketing, and now deeper into entertainment.

Since this blog is exclusively devoted to all things entertainment, I thought it was overdue to explore more than just talking about movies and TV a couple times a month. With my third, new interview with David Paull at Dialsmith, you can see how the public is already determining what you’re watching on TV and the big screen.

While the company has focused mostly on using their tools for TV research, you’ll see what other arenas Dialsmith’s tools are being used in, or will in the future. The possibilities are virtually limitless, from the field of Netflix shows to gathering public opinion on movies before they hit theaters.


Q: Hi, David. It’s been about five years since our last interview, and while we talked about political public opinion last time, I remember us bringing up the possibility of Dialsmith’s tools gaining more public perceptions on entertainment. Now you’ve done it recently in several instances using your Perception Analyzer. Can you explain what that device is and how it works to those reading about you for the first time?

A: Hi, Greg, and thanks for having me back. It’s true that our tools are well known for use in political and public opinion research. Over the years, CNN has featured our Perception Analyzer dials on-air during presidential debates while well-known political consultant and pollster Frank Luntz and others have used them on FOX News, CBS News, and more. Beyond politics and public opinion, we work heavily in market, media, academic, and litigation research.

For those unfamiliar, the Perception Analyzer is a research technology developed by my company Dialsmith for collecting real-time, in-the-moment feedback from research participants. It’s rooted in the principle that people are not very good at accurately recalling what they thought, and how they felt, about something from the past. People are also easily influenced by what we call “groupthink” when asked to talk openly about perceptions and opinions. With the Perception Analyzer we’re able to get individual, unbiased, in-the-moment feedback that can be used for driving deeper and more substantive discussion in focus groups and other research sessions.

Q: It’s interesting the Perception Analyzer is almost a pop culture phenomenon on its own with an appearance recently in ABC’s “The Muppets”, namely with Statler and Waldorf. Tell readers about other fictional shows the device has been seen on, and do you consider this almost a surreal form of meta?

A: It was very exciting to see those grumpy critics on “The Muppets” using dials to quantify their constant displeasure! Our dials tend to pop-up in more documentaries and reality shows than fictional ones. They have been featured in a PBS documentary called “The Persuaders,” a Showtime movie about the election of Boris Yeltzen called “Spinning Boris,” and various reality shows including “Celebrity Apprentice,” “Food Network Star,” and the recent theatrical release “Our Brand is Crisis,” which is based on a political documentary where our dial were used in a focus group scene.

Q: One thing I haven’t analyzed much here on my blog is TV (other than the late-night arena). I know the Perception Analyzer has been used for a number of years to determine public opinion on test pilot episodes. Now you’ve gone online with this tool as the networks change public perception toward being more immediate. Explain how this new online process works using online dial testing and how it’s helping networks shape their shows.

A: For many years our Perception Analyzer dials have been used in live focus groups to test TV pilots for nearly every major network and cable channel. Screenings are done to test both characters and story lines in pilots before they air as well as in established shows as “maintenance” to ensure they are still resonating with the target audience.

They are also used extensively for testing news broadcasts, segments, and on-air talent. To meet the growing demand for online research solutions, we have adapted our in-person dials in to an online slider that can be used to rate recorded media in surveys and online focus groups.

Rather than putting people in a focus group room, we’re now also able to recruit participants to take an online survey or attend an online focus group. In addition to other survey questions, we can show them a media clips, ranging from 30-second commercials to 3-minute political debate clips to 45-minute TV pilots and everything in between, and have them provide the same moment-to-moment rating that was previously only available for in-person focus groups.

This has had a huge impact in meeting tighter budgets and faster turnaround times. And, in side-by-side analysis of data from in-person dials and online sliders, the data have proved to be consistent and reliable across both methods.

Q: Do you see most of your public perception tools for entertainment moving primarily to the online world (as with seemingly everything else)? I say this based on some mainstream networks soon trying out their own streaming services.

A: That’s a good question. Each year, we are certainly seeing more and more of a shift to online and mobile research methodologies and I do expect that to continue. However, there is still a very valid benefit to in-person qualitative research discussions where you put people in a room, look them in the eye, observe their body language and work to understand what they think/feel and why. Because of that, we still have just as strong of a product development effort around advancing our in-person in-the-moment research tools as we do our next generation of online and mobile tools.

Q: Speaking of the online world, you had an interesting blog post in September citing Netflix’s recent study about how viewers ultimately get hooked on a new series. As you noted there, it’s just the beginning of more discussions on the psychological factors behind what entices people to keep watching a show. How do you see your tools possibly discovering deeper insights into the viewer/Netflix show connection?

A: Yes, a recent Netflix study found that the magic moment of getting hooked on a show happens during episode 4 of a Netflix series, citing that 70% of viewers who watched up through episode 4 ended up watching the rest of the season. However, most historical data on television viewing habits are based on the traditional model of releasing one episode per week. With Netflix, and other online streaming content creators and providers, releasing full seasons all at once, viewing habits are changing.

What we don’t yet know is how those changing habits are impacting loyalty to a show. For instance, could it be that viewers feel less invested in a series that they can watch on-demand so they’re willing to watch multiple episodes before making their decision? We’re not sure yet, but it’s a very interesting and important shift that needs to be further studied and understood.

Along these lines, our tools are used to help determine at what point in an episode viewers begin to lose interest. We have also added a “tune out” feature that allows research participants to indicate a specific moment when they would change the channel.

Q: It’s great to see your opinion tools move into the realm of movie trailers this year. We all have different perceptions of film trailers. But tell readers about an online research study Dialsmith took part in last spring with a live audience watching summer movie season trailers.

A: Earlier this year, we conducted a study with our online focus group research partner to uncover the DNA of an effective movie trailer. Trailers are very important to the success of a movie, especially the all-important opening weekend. Trailer editors have to find ways, in 60 – 90 seconds, to peak your interest, tell you just enough without giving away too much, and get you emotionally invested to the point where you’ll purchase a ticket.

Through dial testing, and in this case online dial testing, we’re able to measure the moments of each trailer that hit or miss with the target audience, then use qualitative discussion to learn why and use those findings to advise clients on how trailers may need to be re-cut or in some cases re-done to better hit the mark.

Q: You truly hit a new plateau with that new movie trailer study. Do you see your tools helping shape the movie industry to a point where we get better quality movies than what we’ve seen lately?

A: Well, the quality of today’s movies are certainly a matter of personal opinion. One person’s “great” is another person’s “hate!” What our tools help any media producer do is better learn about their audience’s immediate in-the-moment reaction and peel back the layers to better understand why.

We’ve seen results from dial testing focus groups and surveys result in re-cutting of critical scenes, completely changing storylines, and swapping out actors who didn’t connect with the audience. In the end, if research participants are properly recruited and screened, and the research study is well-designed, our findings can most certainly result in a better quality finished product.

Q: As I asked in our last two interviews: Do you see your tools eventually being integrated in the home for a larger, real-time picture of how the public views entertainment (and politics)?

A: I do. As broadband penetration becomes more ubiquitous and more and more people consume media on a mobile device, or at least with a mobile device in-hand, we will be working toward ways to capture their real-time, in-the-moment and moment-to-moment feedback as they watch and from wherever they watch. Can’t say too much more yet, but stay tuned for some cool things coming down the pipeline.

Stephen Colbert’s First Week of “Late Show”: Will Intelligent Comedy Win or Finish Second?

Colbert and Fallon: The divide of comedy styles.
Colbert and Fallon: The divide of comedy styles.

In an alternate TV universe where Stephen Colbert is an upstart late-night TV host the public hasn’t really heard of, this semi-review of his first week on “Late Show” would be written off as too hasty. After all, how many late-night hosts in history can you think of that had red-letter first nights, first weeks, or first months? Starting from Johnny Carson on down to Jimmy Fallon, the first night of a late-night show is generally filled with awkwardness and desperately finding assured footing into a personal comedy brand that’s not quite there.

Let’s be fortunate we don’t live in the above alternate universe where Colbert is one of those relative unknowns. In our reality, he’s one of the rare ones with enough confidence to say his first night (and week) hosting the “Late Show” was arguably the most brilliant of any late-night debut in history.

We didn’t even have to contend with any rote monologue jokes about wanting to vomit or run away from nervousness. Late-night TV historians can certainly tell you even Johnny Carson did that on his first night hosting “The Tonight Show” in 1962. Perhaps the most nervous host in history was Conan O’Brien when first given NBC’s “Late Night” throne in 1993. His noticeable trembling and sweating on his debut night was physical proof of how much pressure was on his shoulders, despite gaining confidence within a month.

Colbert is an example of how any late-night host needs a strong training ground for at least five to 10 years before getting a big-time late-night gig. It’s with that in mind where you can continually say Colbert’s first week was strong, even if something unexpected happened by the second night.

Yes, when the ratings came in, Jimmy Fallon had ultimately beaten Colbert in the ratings. This continued for the rest of the week, which seemed beyond comprehension considering Colbert’s near tidal wave following.

Once you think about it a while, though, you can start to see a setup for a repeat of late-night TV history. It also says much about a major divide in America: Those who crave intelligent comedy and those who go for comedy that’s easier to digest.

We’ve seen this before along the late-night TV timeline. It goes back as far as when ABC hired Dick Cavett to compete with Johnny Carson during the late 1960s/early ‘70s. Most people looked at Cavett as being a more intellectual wit, if also sometimes exteriorly bland. Carson had a spark and appealed to Middle America, plus abhorred doing anything that made you think too hard.

We saw this divide again during the Jay Leno-David Letterman era. Leno always made his comedy middle of the road to give you the easy laugh. Letterman wasn’t really an intellectual, though his comedy forced you to turn your gears to get the full impact.

Stephen Colbert comes from perhaps the most intellectual side of comedy to ever hit the mainstream. The Colbert and Jon Stewart comedy brands are known for bringing intelligence to comedy while still dripping with hipness and irony. The problem with that is “The Colbert Report” was everyone’s favorite early evening alternative news show. In late night, audiences are likely too tired and don’t want to think nearly as hard.

This dilemma brings to light yet another American divide that looks foolish next to our more serious social divides. It still highlights how comedy has two (if not more) frames of mind, depending on demographics and maybe where you live.

Fallon winning the first ratings wars may be an indication slightly more people want the Fallon brand of comedy that’s easier to absorb. Colbert continues to knock us over with blazing topical, observational, and political comedy that’s perhaps too much to assimilate for those exhausted after a long day.

If this is really a problem for Colbert, then maybe late-night TV wasn’t the best forum for him after all. Others may argue Fallon won merely by the type of guests he had rather than comedy content. It’s hard to figure that when the monumental interview of Vice President Biden on Colbert was still beat out by Fallon in the ratings.

With probably a decade or two ahead of Colbert and Fallon battling it out for #1, will we see Colbert’s more thoughtful comedy always coming in a distant second rather than first as it deserves?

There truly seems to be a near 50-50 divide on the two comedy planes, which is the same for far too many other issues in our country. When it’s that close, the most we can hope for is just enough people finally getting Colbert’s comedy brand to bounce him to #1 when it really counts during network sweeps.

Dog Days at the Movies: New Perceptions and the Psychology of Better Screenwriting

Seriously, Sirius in relation to Dog Days.
Seriously, Sirius in relation to Dog Days.

When I wrote for Yahoo! Movies through Yahoo! Contributor Network earlier this decade, I once took on the complicated subject of Dog Days at the movies and ended up going in an unexpected direction. I equated the rise of the star Sirius as a subtle sign of hope that two different Dog Days could coalesce. To wit, I asked people to visit their local movie theaters in August and prove the Dog Days concept wrong. It was perhaps the only time anyone saw astronomy and movies consolidate into a forced attempt toward a celestial sign helping the cinematic arts.

At the time the piece was written, it was a delusion to think the era of Dog Days for movies could ever end. Perceptions persisted for decades by that point about how late July-early August was the official “dump months” (as it’s called in movie parlance) as an allegorical cornfield for all bad movies.

A couple of years after I wrote that piece, new analysis started popping up in the media asking whether the movie industry’s Dog Days were really a misunderstood concept all along. It was equivalent to finally comprehending an elusive scientific conundrum, despite the answer staring us in the face for decades.

The movies have frequently blinded us to accepting certain things, only because they’ve been such a persuasive element of pop culture. Our perceptions transformed quickly on the concept of Dog Days once big-budgeted movies started being relegated to the winter season. Moviegoers saw evidence of this already in the 1970s and ‘80s when the patterns of wooing Oscar meant cramming everything into a fall or winter window.

By the 1980s, we saw evidence of how the summer movie season opened the underworld gates to the studio leftovers in August. Even with a few exceptions, we’ve seen a good 35-40 years of movies that continually bomb in August, which placed us on automatic pilot about what later summer expectations were.

Then something happened last year that changed these perceptions. “Guardians of the Galaxy” managed to become a major success at the box office in the first week of August. While this might not seem surprising for a superhero movie with true star power, it obliterated the idea that no one goes to the movies in August with assumptions there isn’t anything worth seeing.

It’s puzzling why it began this way in the first place when August is the final gasp of summer and people need new entertainment to fix their late summer blues. Kids are about ready to head back to school and sometimes deal with inexorable vacation boredom. Adults probably need a vacation from their vacation before perhaps heading back to work in September.

So does that mean August’s Dog Days at the movies are probably over? The true litmus test comes in what happens this year and the next few Augusts. We have to question whether screenwriters took the perception that some of their movies will inevitably end up in the scrap heap of late summer and continue to write them in cookie cutter ways. All of this may be the result of why screenwriting has been so mediocre lately in the mainstream. I base this on the prospect of screenwriters knowing their screenplays will still be sold and released in a time frame away from the Oscars as basic filler.

With that in mind, the prospect for more success in August could alter the mind state of writers and everyone in the industry toward more inspiration. One thing I’ve learned as a working writer is that you need unexpected stimuli to sometimes inspire you toward fresher ideas. Because mainstream moviemaking is caught in a dangerous rut right now, it’s worth worrying about a new generation of screenwriters feeling trapped in a sea of creative mediocrity.

The above only gets wrapped into one’s soul and alters perceptions of the world to cynical moods. It only hurts how writing in movie progresses, and right now it has far too much devolving.

We’ll have to wait and see how this August shapes up as a rerun from last year. Now that “The Fantastic Four” is opening the first week of August, clearly Hollywood wants another “Guardian of the Galaxy” situation. If the former is a success, Dog Days may officially be another frame of mind we’ve managed to alter.

This could inspire screenwriters to write something that shoots toward something meaningful in late summer. It may also domino the perception that all the great movies have to be crammed into December where they all too commonly cancel one another out.

Perhaps we’re looking at more breathing room for great movies throughout the year to avoid taking rain checks on visiting a movie theater until the holiday season.

Exit David Letterman; Enter Colbert: How Much Does Playing a Character Factor into Late-Night TV?

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When Stephen Colbert left “The Colbert Report” last fall, I pondered just how challenging it must have been for him to balance both a satirical politically conservative character and his true self. Personas on TV stick to the public consciousness as strongly as a magnetic force. The more compelling the persona is, the more people believe you’re really that character. You can see evidence of that in the history of TV from Lucille Ball, to the cast of “All in the Family”, on up to the era where characters didn’t just reside in sitcoms and into reality programming.

In the world of late-night TV, you could argue manufactured personas existed along with all the prime-time programming airing three hours earlier. The personas of talk show hosts Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson were sometimes different than how they were in their private lives. While all talk show hosts might have had to invent a persona in order to be entertaining, that sense of playing a character seems to have become more pronounced in the David Letterman era.

Now that Letterman is officially retired from late-night TV, and all the analyses of his positive contributions in entertainment have been said, nobody ever pondered that he and Stephen Colbert might have been linked closer than we’ve realized.

Letterman’s subversive nature helped turn late-night TV on its ear 33 years ago with assumptions he was being his true self. The mystery is whether Letterman was really his own self or just playing the dumb guy taking a wrecking ball to late-night TV conventions.

Only on very rare occasions did Letterman break out of his role on-air and admit he wasn’t really that dumb. We didn’t really need to be told, because we all knew he knew exactly what he was doing and how to do it well. Plus, we eventually discovered a much more serious and intellectual man behind the veneer when he did his iconic shows post-9/11. While most talk show hosts would have done the same, it was all the more incredible to see one of the most sardonic hosts in history become one of the most articulate and thoughtful TV hosts after a national tragedy.

For many, that was the real Letterman before everything went back to normal again. In the world of Stephen Colbert, you have to wonder how he would have handled 9/11 had “The Colbert Report” been around in those days. We all know Colbert mastered the art of a complete persona mostly opposite of his own. It was also the worst possible comedic pit to be in due to setting the persona so deep that we’re still questioning how he’ll get out of it when taking over Letterman’s chair.

If Letterman had at least a sliver of a made-up persona, we still don’t know what Colbert is completely like when being himself. We’ve seen some glimpses of his real self on “The Colbert Report”, especially when doing a heartrending tribute to his mother when she passed away. Otherwise, how do we know if Colbert can completely shed his former persona when moving into the “Late Show?”

Most likely, he can’t entirely if you go by the idea that you need to create a familiar persona in order to make it in the late-night TV arena. Most viewers tuning in to Colbert’s first “Late Show” will expect him to be the same character he was on “The Colbert Report” in order to gain any immediate comedic momentum. Maybe he’ll have to form a new character if his real self can’t translate into a satirical mold. In that scenario, it may mean a repeat of the usual late-night TV path of starting slow and building strength over a period of months or years.

Also, if Colbert can’t be himself on late-night TV, what does it tell us about other late-night TV hosts that we think we know? Consider the public once thought they knew Johnny Carson when he did “The Tonight Show”, even though we found out later he wasn’t anywhere near his public persona when behind closed doors.

As far as we know, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, James Corden, and Jimmy Fallon are nothing like we know them once the camera goes off. With so many comedians feeling like they have to be “on” whenever seen in public, you can see why they have to be something other than they really are. It’s a strange dichotomy and reality that many comedians are dull and nearly lifeless when not on a stage. Then they turn on immediately when in front of an audience.

One thing we do know: Colbert is one hell of a good person in his private life based on what we’ve heard in the press. This alone seems to indicate that his real self is probably better than his previous character or any character he decides to portray. This alone improves upon what we found out about Carson and Letterman in their private lives.

Perhaps bitter, sardonic humor in late-night TV is going out with the amazing legacy of Letterman. Should the real Colbert present himself, we may discover the perfect balance of edgy hilarity with compassion and warmth for every guest entering this new late-night world.

Late-Night TV Roundup: James Corden’s ‘Late Late Show’ and the Sincerity vs. Snark Battle

Will James Corden become the most sincere late-night TV host?
Will James Corden become the most sincere late-night TV host?

It seems every time anticipation builds for a new late-night host, the stakes become higher for the host to perform up to expectations in the first week. With that, the late-night host has been shaped recently as someone personable, yet also sardonic, sarcastic, and capable of being ironic. If you can blame David Letterman for setting this path 33 years ago, or if it was formed further with the The Daily Show and The Colbert Report formula, sincerity isn’t always in the DNA of a modern late-night host.

When you look at the entire timeline of late-night hosts, you can see how sincerity was once a major part of capturing viewers. Late-night icons like Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson were always sincere, though also had a hint of ego to keep a comedic balance. Carson evolved from a sincere young host to one arguably a little more egotistical and sarcastic by the time the 1980s and ‘90s rolled around. By then, sarcasm was more popular in comedy where new late-night hosts had to adapt.

You could say Arsenio Hall was the most sincere late-night host on the block back in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Even though he brought in the younger demographics craving a young and hip late-night host, the return of his sincerity to late-night syndication a couple of years ago didn’t go over well. While you could blame the lack of marketing and promotion on the cancellation, it could be Hall simply didn’t have enough edge people expect in a late-night host for the 21st century.

Now, when you add up Letterman (as sarcastic as ever in his last year on the air), Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’ Brien, and Seth Meyers, you have a collectively snarky late-night bunch that contrasts interestingly with Jimmy Fallon. Yes, the latter host is a little more sincere, even if he also has a darker edge that wavers between sincerity and bitter cynicism, which is an appealing combination.

But what happens when you get a comedy host who’s always sincere, even through his comedy routines? In the world of The Late Late Show, the comedy style of Craig Ferguson was even zanier and more absurd than even Letterman managed. Letterman went very serious during the 9/11 terrorist attack and changed the entire foundation of his cynicism. If he went back to cynical comedy not long after, you can’t say Letterman has ever been quite as cynical as he was back in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Fortunate or not, Ferguson never had to go up against a serious, world-changing event. His comedy thrived living in its own surreal world, mixed with profane Scottish wit. This combination of freewheeling comedy with a Scot accent was a winning combination for a decade, yet definitely never sincere. Any moments of Ferguson being sincere was for only brief moments or when the cameras were off. The rest of the time, the late-night format and all guests were simply one entire joke.

With James Corden now taking Ferguson’s chair, we see some British wit once again on American TV, though this time with what appears to be the most sincere late-night host we’ve ever seen. Corden already seemed to set this persona in his promo commercials for The Late Late Show over the last several months. Then he proved it on March 23 where he debuted his gentler approach to comedy, view of the world, and honest rapport with guests (two at once) on the roster.

Whether Corden really is this way, or it’s a persona he’s set for his TV personality, it’s something seemingly very genuine. And as time goes on in a world of cynicism in entertainment, a lot of people may appreciate this approach, despite missing the loud guffaws with Craig Ferguson.

The question is whether the public will accept less cynical comedy from Corden, or if they’ll find it too soft. Looking at it from a wider view, it’s also a tug-of-war in all of comedy where a darker view of the world brings bigger laughs than a more genuine view.

Then again, having a genuine personality in a cynical world could be much funnier when you put it in perspective. Think of it as the Forrest Gump effect where Forrest’s genuineness and naïve qualities about the world helped bring an endearing comedy and sweetness helping the jaded view the world differently.

James Corden may just look at the world differently, and that’s very refreshing in the cutthroat world of show business. Let’s hope he doesn’t become jaded in the process while likely fighting detractors along with his likely many supporters. So far, the biggest names in showbiz are showing support, which is the best foot forward.

With a few tweaks of his show format, Corden may nurture a new path in late-night TV where genuine behavior brings a new type of funny that’s almost a throwback to a time on TV when cynicism had no place on a single network.

Did ‘Birdman’ Bring a Catharsis to Hollywood Rather Than Provoke Celebrity Culture?

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Did “Birdman” manage to save Hollywood in more ways than one?

A couple of notable films have gone after Hollywood with a vengeance early this year. One managed to win over Oscar, and the other is likely to be forgotten by the Oscars next year because of a release this coming March. But there isn’t any denying the connective strings between Birdman and Maps to the Stars in their stinging condemnation of show business and celebrity culture. Arguably, the latter film has more of a beef against how Hollywood works than the former. And if Hollywood has a possible beef in return with Maps to the Stars, what are they possibly thinking about Birdman?

The above latter film has had a surprising path since it released in theaters this last fall. While working as a writer at The Movie Network over the last six months, I did a review of Birdman and pondered how the Oscar voting academy would take to a film that clearly pointed to show business as destroyer of families, credibility, ethics, and career. While that’s only a possible outcome for anyone, there was a lot of familiarity there. We even had to use the overused term “meta” because Michael Keaton’s own trajectory mirrored that of his character, Riggan Thomson.

Thomson’s character doesn’t have the same outcome as Keaton, which gives an even more powerful metaphorical parallel to actors in the Hollywood system. The greatest thing about Birdman is that Thomson eventually becomes aware of how much he’s been destroyed by his career and the trap he’s found himself in trying a comeback on Broadway. Regardless, with so much of Hollywood going to Broadway lately, I still posed the question of whether the film would offend celebrity culture voting in the academy.

It turns out that assumption was wrong on every level. Birdman has won every major award on the award circuit up to this writing. With this blog written a day before the Oscars, it’s likely the film will either get Best Picture or at least Best Director as a split with Boyhood.

So did the magic of the filmmaking behind Birdman usurp its message? Perhaps Hollywood wasn’t offended at showing celebrity culture as an inexorable trap nobody can escape. Maybe Hollywood found it refreshing that a film finally took on the issue in a bold way without flinching. It possibly even created spirited discussions in the voting community that would have made a great documentary on its own.

The reality is that celebrity culture has to be aware of the pitfalls their industry has had for decades. Birdman makes it even more painfully aware without necessarily offering any answers to fix it. The film’s ending alone is one that many people are still debating and whether it’s redemption or just giving up.

Any notable person watching the film must have had any complacent thoughts about their own career shaken to the core while accepting either interpretation of the ending. There isn’t a doubt movies are waking us up to increasingly more complex issues in culture and in our lives so we can work toward improvement. Many of those movies aren’t offering direct answers and instead let us know about hidden issues so we can find the long road to finding solutions, possibly years from now.

Maps to the Stars (from director David Cronenberg) is a film that also takes this same tack, though much more blisteringly than Birdman. Cronenberg shows us a ruined actress (this time played by Julianne Moore) with people in her orbit even more ruined by the ravages of show business and parental neglect. The pyromaniac character of Agatha Weiss (played by the still underrated Mia Wasikowska) is an interesting contrast to Emma Stone’s Sam Thomson, despite both being the emblems of what we see so much of in the entertainment industry.

Both of these films had to have hit a nerve with Hollywood families who’ve had kids ending up almost exactly like Agatha and Sam, if even worse (or dead). An Oscar victory for Birdman may be the message that the academy voters get it and they’ll work toward preventing more Riggan and Sam Thomsons from happening again. To them, ribbing celebrity culture and smearing the concept for all of its egoism and hedonism wasn’t the point of the movie. They may have seen the film in a much different light from the public who had more mixed opinion.

The irony here is that because of Birdman’s other innovations in direction, it’s going to be remembered far into the future than Maps to the Stars likely will. Both, however, may be just the beginning of films taking Hollywood to task for their perpetual craziness, whether seriously or through satire.

It may have already been enough for the celebrity world to permanently change things for the better.