Saturday, December 24, 2016

We Walk into a Bar in California

The 21st Amendment, San Francisco
It’s a little tougher to quit a major project (like visiting a bar and a church in every state) when you’ve told people your plans. Among those we told were Jason Snell and Tim Goodman, the hosts of the podcast TV Talk Machine. Goodman is the chief TV critic for the Hollywood Reporter, and Snell produces the podcast which is “released simultaneously worldwide” every week to an untold number of faithful listeners. Before our trip began, I messaged the podcast, letting them know I’d be tweeting every week to let them know the TV show (set or filmed in that state) we’d be watching.

Starting with our first state, Nevada, I tweeted that I’d be watching an episode of Crime Story set in Nevada. They read that tweet on the podcast. I hated the thought of admitting to their loyal listeners that we were quitting, so that commitment was one more thing that kept us going to every state.

During the first part of the year, Goodman expressed reasonable doubt that we were actually traveling, so we began to tweet photos from various locations (such as Niagara Falls, the setting of the TV show Wonderfalls; and Deadwood, the setting of the show Deadwood). So the hosts cheered us along on our journey.

When they began to talk about a get together for listeners of the show in the San Francisco Bay Area (where Goodman and Snell live), I asked if the meetup could be held when we returned to California. They decided to hold it at a San Francisco bar, The 21st Amendment, and figured it wouldn’t be too busy on the Monday before Christmas. They weren’t entirely correct.

When we arrived, we asked the hostess if she knew where the private party was. She directed us upstairs, along with Matthew, who was also there for the TVTM meet-up. The people upstairs were young and very well dressed (Mindy said the backless dresses were a sure sign of a holiday work party, not a tv podcast meetup).

We went back downstairs and found a few other TVTM listeners hovering near the entrance. We staked out a few seats at the bar, and before long, Goodman arrived with the news that Snell was stuck in traffic. Eventually, Snell arrived along with more TVTM fans. Eventually, all sixteen or so of us were able to take advantage of four small tables near the door.

I was surprised by how little of the talk revolved around television. Many of the folks there had been listening to Goodman for years, even to a previous incarnation of the TV Talk Machine that was a little less, well, “refined” than the current conversation. Rather than a serious critical evaluation of television programming it had been a mix of silly voices and comic bits that could generously be described as “freeform,” but the old version of the show made people laugh, and some of those people wanted to express their appreciation for the joy it had brought them.

Something else people wanted to talk about was music. Goodman was a TV critic, he was a music critic before he wrote about television, but he said he doesn’t enjoy criticizing people’s favorite music anymore. Music is such a personal thing, he said. People fall in love listening to a certain song or a band or album, and so Katy Perry will always be precious to them. The critic can never convince anyone their favorite music is junk.

Because it is the season, Goodman talked about his Christmas playlist. He loves the season, and he loves Christmas music, but many of the songs he adores are a little more obscure. For instance, he talked about Aimee Mann’s “I Was Thinking of Cleaning Up for Christmas” in which a heroin addict considers changing her ways before Yuletide but then thinks better of it. (This led me to listen to Mann’s Christmas album on Youtube, and I liked it very much.) He also mentioned Solomon Burke’s “The Silent Night Story”, a preacher singing and speaking the Christmas Story.

I should mention Goodman and Snell were both very gracious with their listeners. There were times when some of us would launch into prolonged diatribes about elements of the podcast, or our own personal interests or pet peeves, and they would listen patiently. I appreciated their appreciation of their fans.

It was also fun to actually meet letter writers who had just been names. A number of people, all named Allen, write in to disagree with Snell, and one of the Nemesis Allens was there. People recognized me as Traveling Dean of the 707 (my area code). I had a great time talking with “Kate from Rwanda,” who does indeed travel from Rwanda for the meetup (and to celebrate Christmas with her family in San Francisco). Kate works with literacy issues in Rwanda, and as an author of children’s books, I found it fun and sad and fascinating to hear about the struggle to find authors for kid’s books, to find Rwanda’s Dr. Suess.

Almost every week this year, we’ve asked two questions at bars:  “What makes for a good bar?” and “What makes for a good church?” This week, though, it seemed more appropriate to ask two other questions: “What TV bar do you remember?” and “What TV church do you remember?”

Mindy asked those questions of Design Geek Jess, and her TV bar was one we’ve heard mentioned throughout the year when people talked about real bars, Cheers. The church she remembered was from The West Wing. She called it President Bartlet’s “Hamlet moment” when he questioned his faith in the National Cathedral.  

Mindy asked Thom  the same questions. He mentioned Moe’s Tavern from The Simpsons. For a church, he thought of the final episode of Lost (spoilers). The church in that episode was either heaven or an entry to heaven, and Thom said he thought it was very interesting, “It was really heavenly,” he said, and spoke about the light coming through the stained glass. Thom also spoke admiringly of a real church, Glide Memorial in San Francisco which he said is “not just for people who believe. The way they sing and the way they present the message is incredible.” He admires the work they have done for those afflicted with AIDS, including a project that allows unused AIDs medicines to be donated and sent to developing nations where medicines are much less available.

I asked other people about TV bars and churches. Kate’s mother, Kristen, said in answer to the bar question, “There’s only one place, Cheers.” As for a TV church, she referred to Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, the hospital chapel on the show where “people went when struggling with existential issues.” She described it as a sanctuary and also mentioned the churches of Justified.

Kate would not be constrained to a literal interpretation of the question and said that Monk’s Cafe on Seinfeld should be counted as a bar, since it was where people gathered to eat and talk. (Kate is not big on accepting offered choices. We had a poll among about 20 favorite California TV shows, and she insisted on writing in The O.C.) For a church she thought of the chapel in the prison on Orange is the New Black, which sadly is a “crazy” place on the show, where people go primarily to have sex.

A couple of people just answered the bar question. Marlene thought of the “proper Irish bar” of Brooklyn 99. Blair thought of two Star Trek bars, Ten Forward from The Next Generation and Quark’s from Deep Space Nine.

I talked to “Nemesis” Allen who also thought of Cheers, “though in a real bar you’re more likely to be surrounded by people who aren’t friendly.” I asked if there was a TV church he’d like to attend;  he said that was unlikely because he was an atheist. He said, “when I see churches on TV, I wonder what’s motivating them from a plot perspective. I assume there is something nefarious going on.” He mentioned AMC’s Preacher, which certainly has nefarious things, but which he said got too weird for him.

Matthew mentioned Cheers, and said it was quite interesting to go to the real place in Boston which looked the same outside but not inside. For churches, he mentioned Deadwood and Westworld and also Picket Fences (“There was a church funeral on that show where everyone knocked on the casket”),

I asked host Jason Snell about favorite TV bars, and he said it was a tie between The Swamp on MASH and The Bronze on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “The Bronze was a strange place that served drinks, but teenagers hung out there and interesting bands were playing.” And then, of course, there were the vampires. I asked for a favorite church or clergyman on TV, and he went back to MASH with Father Mulcahy “who was great.”

Through the year and throughout the United States, a recurring theme when we’ve gone to bars seems to be the search for community. More and more people find community online, and yes, in things like podcasts, what host Tim Goodman calls “radio without the listeners.” There are people out there, and sometimes we need to meet in the flesh.

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