Monthly Archives: May 2010

So long, Gary Coleman, small person with kidney problems, we will miss you.

I knew Gary Coleman. Briefly.

In 2003, the former child star of Diff’rent Strokes, who died today aged 42, of a fall, a knock on the head, and then an epidural hematoma (though not a stroke thankfully, which would have been the most horrible coincidence ever), was running as a gag candidate against Arnold Schwarzenegger for the governorship of California, and I was working for CNN as a reporter on my debut assignment.

The CNN editor told me to follow Coleman’s campaign with a camera as he doorstepped for votes. To be honest, I’d barely heard of the guy back then. Diff’rent Strokes was either never shown in Britain or, if it was, it was certainly never watched by more than about four people, because his stardom was a complete mystery. I must say, though, that this little guy surprised me. He was a celebrity marvel. That rare thing – a total has-been who, years later, still had the power to stop traffic. For the report, we put him out on Sunset Boulevard in a smart suit for a lark and there was chaos. Not the sitcom kind of chaos where hilarity ensues, but real mobbing-type fan chaos, the sort that causes car accidents and endangers lives.

The general public simply adored Gary Coleman. It’s just a fact. They’d followed his ups and downs, his bizarre erratic behavior, his arrests and public humiliations, his relentless bullying by the tabloid media, his sexless existence and strange moral values that seemed to preclude him from having any kind of fun, yet somehow they were able to see behind the facade, finding kinship in the string of hard knocks suffered by this tiny little boy-man who, despite a couple of kidney transplants that stunted his growth, and despite deciding to sue his own parents for misappropriating his TV fortune, had nevertheless faced the world with dignity and his head held high. Well, four feet high anyway, which is high enough.

Make no mistake, however, though physically diminutive, Coleman had the charisma and enthusiasm of a giant. I’m not kidding. It was a wonder to be in the presence of it.

In our sit-down interview, he was friendly and gushing. He had a keen brain and wonderful sense of humor. When he smiled, I honestly felt as if he liked me and wanted to be my friend. More than anything, though, he longed to be taken seriously, as an adult. Unfortunately, that couldn’t happen. His legacy as a child star and his stature as a tiny little person you wanted to treat as a collectible and stick in your top pocket simply stood in the way of that transition from famous kid to full-grown man, simply because, to the naked eye, he wasn’t one.

I remember emerging from the interview, after he’d left us, and telling people, “I’ve just met one of the most fantastic people EVER.” The crew loved him, the producer loved him, the people waiting outside the door loved him, the firemen who stopped their truck on Sunset Boulevard, blocking traffic for ten minutes, loved him. The whole thing was just an eye-opening experience.

But then I met him again about two months later, in Las Vegas. He was sitting in the lobby of a hotel playing with a Gameboy. So naturally, since we were such good TV friends, I walked straight up to him and introduced myself. Not that I needed to. I was the guy from CNN he’d had such a good time with – remember?

Well, he didn’t remember. Or if he did, he pretended not to. I was quite put out. He looked up, grunted something unintelligible, and, dismissing me with a menacing glare, went back to his Gameboy. Something at that point told me that this was the real Gary Coleman. In the limelight, fizzy, rambunctious, and fun. In private, a depressed, abused, miserable munchkin with major psychological issues. A man trapped in a kid’s body, yearning to break free, but unable to figure out an escape plan that worked. Until now.

Anyway, that all happened several years ago.

In the end, I never got beyond my debut CNN assignment. The debut assignment was also my swansong on the network. I was fired the next day. And Gary Coleman never got to be governor of California, although he did clock up an astonishing 14,000+ votes, coming in eighth, which is a fantastic achievement, and to my mind a grand testament to the star power of the one-time actor turned security guard who left us today.

TV Swami – he very sad to lose a friend. Albeit a television friend he only met twice.

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American Idol – You Are Sooo Busted!

I have it! I’ve figured it out. It’s taken me nine seasons and many weeks of heavy thought, but I’ve suddenly realized how they fix American Idol. And now I feel just plain stupid for not hitting on the answer sooner. And ridiculous for wasting weeks of heavy thought on something so trivial. Still…

Some while ago, I posted my theory about why I believe the whole Idol elimination process is rigged to favor contestants that the producers think will sell the most albums once the season has wrapped up and all the mediocre performers have gone home and been forgotten about. Since then, consistently, week after week, that theory has held up. I made a prediction about which kid would leave, and sure enough, that kid left. It was flawless and dead-on.

Until this week.

This week Big Mike Lynche was sent packing. My pick had been Casey the Hair, who has minimal discernible talent, but great hair, a shaven chest, and tons of girlie appeal.

However, it was this apparent crack in my system that revealed the clue I’d been looking for. For a while I couldn’t work out how it was done. Now I’m more sure than ever that American Idol is rigged. Let me explain. Dim the lights. Here we go.

Ryan comes on at the start of the show and says how many fools wasted money this week on texting a vote, or repeat-dialing the show’s premium phone lines. This time it was a season high, 37 million.

Then we work down through the contestants one at a time over the course of an overpadded hour – an hour that could be reduced to four minutes; the rest is filler – whittling it away until we have our bottom three.

But then after that, there is no reference made during the show to who got the lowest number of votes, have you noticed? Something Seacrest fudges very handily by saying, “America voted and Big Mike is going home.” Or he’ll have two people standing there, as he did last night, and go, “After the nationwide vote, the person who’ll be in the final three is….Crystal Bowersox.”

See? No mention of Big Mike receiving the lowest number of votes. Why would there be? He didn’t, right?

In fact, now I come to think of it, it’s been like that on more than one occasion. “After the nationwide vote…” – not “…the person with the lowest number of votes…” So it looks like America gets to choose the bottom three, but if America acts like a dweeb and dumps the wrong person, the producers step in and pick the one they think should leave. I betcha I’m bang on the money with this.

My guess is that Casey the Hair tanked this week. But the tweens like him a lot and some of them may even buy his album, the one he records before he’s dropped by his label.

Of the four contestants left, Big Mike is the most generic, the least likely to endure as an artist and make money for the producers in coming years, and also the least likely to keep the girlie audience tuning in next week at a time when ratings are plummeting anyway. Bowersox and DeWyze are this season’s real talents. Big Mike is talented too, but squandered his advantage early on by not doing very much with anything and seeming kinda lame. That said, he was better all-round than Casey the Hair. No matter – Mike had to go.

And there you have it. Zero correlation between who got the lowest number of votes and who leaves. Furthermore, if the producers are challenged on this, they can throw up their hands in shock like a swooning coquette in a Victorian drama and claim, “But we never said Big Mike got the lowest number of votes, only that he was going home.”

Ta-daa. Am I right or am I right?

American Idol, you are sooo busted. Looks like it’s all about money. Selling albums, keeping sponsors, maintaining ratings. Ethics? Pah – not so much.

TV Swami – he feeling smug about this theory but extremely miffed at American Idol.

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SUCCESS: What is it, and are you absolutely sure you want it?

Hollywood, California.

June 2nd marks the thirteenth anniversary of my arrival in the United States. On June 1st 1997 I rented a van, drove to a field in Yorkshire, northern England, with a bunch of my belongings, set fire to everything but the van, and sat there for an hour watching my past wither to flakes and ashes. Next day, I threw some clothes and various odds and ends into a couple of bags and set off for California in search of a new adventure and a different life, thinking, “Let’s give this American Dream thing a try. If it doesn’t work out, I can always come back.”

Well, I never went back.

That’s not to say I don’t get homesick from time to time, because I do. The one word of advice I received ahead of this life-changing journey was from a friend who’d migrated to New York a couple of years earlier. He said, “Remember this: Americans may look like us and speak English like us, but they’re not like us.” Which at the time I thought was the lamest scrap of wisdom I’d ever heard. Now I realize he was right.

Last week there was a general election in Britain. The canpaign was a model of restraint and civilized point-making that collapsed on Thursday in a shambles of wretched compromise and half-hearted go-nowhereness that is so typical of my home country and which I recall with great fondness. An election that sparks lots of debate yet has no clear winner is  just so British somehow. “Getting nothing done, but having a fun time doing it” sums up everything I remember about the culture I left behind. 

Americans aren’t like that at all. They get things done. They’re obsessed with getting things done, as a matter of fact, and they’re proud of it. It’s important to them to achieve things, to make things happen. They each want to be a success, a winner, Number 1 at whatever they do, not realizing that, in any race, there can only be one winner, one Number 1; everyone else is an also-ran. That fact alone leads to a lot of resentment. 

The reason they’re in a race in the first place  is because of a big cultural carrot that was dangled in front of them as kids, called the American Dream. It’s a fun idea, but a hoax. Only, you don’t find that out until it’s too late. Like every other dream, and also like leprechauns and Santa Claus, it’s a fiction. It can never be real. Shame actually, because they honestly, truly believe in it. 

In theory it promises that if you work hard and commit yourself to a particular course of endeavor, you will be dubbed “successful” by your peers and rewarded with riches, an expensive car, a stable family, and a level of recognition that will stand the test of time. The one thing it doesn’t promise, after you’ve given over your life to achieving all these things, is happiness. And there’s the problem.

It didn’t take me long after I got to Hollywood to realize that a vital piece of information had been left out of the story. Nobody, it seems, had told the Americans that being materially successful and being happy often do not coincide. They’re not even in the same ballpark a lot of the time.

That’s why many of them today are so angry and frustrated.

According to the American Dream playbook, they did everything right: they got their education, worked hard, had a family, bought two cars, a house, filled that house with widescreen TVs and computers and Playstations and all manner of other junk – only to find that it led nowhere. All they had to show for their efforts in the end was a bunch of useless stuff and a series of time-consuming distractions that left them worse off financially and certainly no happier than before they were “successful.”

That’s because “success”  based on owning and having stuff is a false god. It weighs on you like an overstuffed backpack, dragging you to your knees, leaving you exhausted from trying, stressed out, sleep-deprived, and shouldering massive amounts of debt, with a life that feels hollow, pointless, and chaotically out of control. 

Next thing you know, these so-called winners are looking for the exit: they’re cheating on their spouse, gambling, drinking, doing drugs, anything they can find to run away from the reality they’ve created, and offload some of the pressure. “Where did it all go wrong? How did I manage to make so many bad decisions? What the hell happened to me?” they ask themselves.

What happened? You mean you don’t know?

You bought into the myth of the American Dream, my friend, that’s what happened. You ignored your individual needs. Instead of focusing on doing what was right for you and only you, and keeping it simple, you got sucked into the machine that makes things very, very complicated. 

You filled your life with stuff. You responded meekly to a barrage of marketing hype, paying to watch movies that were mindless junk, eating food that was hideously fattening and caused cancer, buying first generation technology that was quickly superceded by something better, leaving you with cupboards full of garbage you’d never use again – generally stocking your world with inconsequential nonsense that filled the hours but not your heart. Things and pastimes that met the spurious standard of “being someone”  in a broken, struggling society, but not the urgent requirements of your spirit. That’s what happened, and it’s why you’re on medication and paying child support and hating your job and drinking too much, and why you feel so unfulfilled. 

For god’s sake, I want to yell at them, stop trying so hard. Quit struggling to be first and to win the whole time. In short, give up! I promise you, you’ll feel so much better.   

Here are the bullet points about success:

  • Success is whatever you consider is right for you. It is not a competitive sport. It is not a comparative exercise. You, and you alone, decide what success means in your own life. Nobody else’s view is important.
  • If you require cars and houses and a fancy address and fashionable clothes in order to earn people’s approval and feel like you made it, then you’re not a success, you’re just needy.
  • Authenticity is everything. If you have it all, but you feel like you faked it or compromised your integrity to get there, you’re not a success, you’re a phony and you’re slowly dying inside.
  • You can have no money, live in a dumpster, and not know where your next meal is coming from, but if you’re happy being that way, you’re successful, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

Los Angeles in particular has been hard for me. I love the place, love the people, I’m very settled here. But as an outsider – in particular as an outsider from a country whose hidden creed is to get nothing done, but have fun doing it – I still look on the life here with some dismay.

In Hollywood, nothing is ever straightforward. It’s always about selling more, earning more, having more than the next guy, coming out on top. Lunches are all business. Parties are not fun events; they’re opportunities to hand out your card and take names and numbers. By 9pm the movers and shakers are gone and in bed, ready to be up at 4.30am, in the gym by 5.15, in the nearest Starbucks by 6.00, and at their desks by 6.30, ready for a thirteen-hour day. Everyone seems to work around the clock here, in their struggle to score points or gain some mythical advantage. 

Rules are flexible, cut to suit the situation. Nobody you engage with can be relied upon to do what they say they’ll do, or even to tell you the outright truth. Everywhere you turn there are secret negotiations going on, ulterior motives, measured responses, concealed agendas. It’s beyond sad. As a result, their lives are hideously complex and highly pressured. Nothing is ever clear for them, nothing is ever easy, and nothing is ever enough.

When I go to parties, I’m surprised to  find myself the focus of attention. People want to hang out with me. Why? I only figured it out recently. It’s because I’m different. I’m  authentic. I have no agenda, I seek nothing from you; I don’t even have a business card. If I want you to know my phone number, I’ll tell you. I go to parties simply to eat your free food, get drunk, misbehave, and laugh a lot. In Hollywood society, that makes me unique. And it’s so not the American way.    

Americans are opportunists. Their lives are underscored by a quiet greed. They focus on personal short-term gain while remaining blind to longer-term consequences, whether it’s invading foreign countries or refusing to vote for healthcare bills or running a red light and almost killing pedestrians in their haste to be one step ahead of the rest. I mean – jeez, no wonder they’re so unhappy. And you can tell they’re unhappy because they smile so damned much, hiding their inner pain beneath a thin veneer of bubbly engagement.

So much conflict and suffering could be avoided if they’d only take a leaf out of the British book and play a straight game, sit back, and do as little as possible. Be happy to be alive, wherever you come in the ranking. Accept second place with grace. Alas, they can’t. They need to win. They must succeed at all costs. It’s the American Dream. Have have have, get get get, go go go.  

A while back, I made these same observations to a seasoned film producer at a party, thinking he would understand. Instead, he replied, “This is America. Nobody invited you. Nobody’s making you stay. If you don’t like it, leave.” And he walked off.

Ho-hum.

Watching the UK election play out this week, I admit I became wistful. There are definitely things I miss about my homeland that I can’t get in California. Warm beer, four seasons per year, crowded streets, the rebellious attitude to authority, the sense of belonging to a culture and not a system. But most of all I miss the quality of life. I miss sitting around pointlessly for hours in bars and restaurants, chatting and laughing ’til you cry, and ridiculing and groping your friends. I miss genuine wit and funny interactions. I miss jovial banter. And I miss that feeling of going nowhere and doing nothing that typifies most evenings in England.  Believe me, there’s no British Dream. Nobody would stand for it.

Few people in the UK place great value on winning or being Number 1 for its own sake. In fact, it’s frowned upon. Nobody wants you to become more successful than they are, and they’ll shun you if you do. All most regular folks want is a good social life, a job that pays for that social life, friends who like a laugh and who you can rely on and do stuff with, and a pillow to rest your spinning head at night after you come home drunk. Everything else is a bonus. I miss that.

Oddly, on June 1st 2010 – 13 years to the day since I burned my belongings in a field in North Yorkshire and said goodbye to my old life, a book about my new life is being published in the UK. 

Naked in Dangerous Places (Or Stranded in Dangerous Places, as the UK publishers have called it) relates what happened when I got my own travel series on American TV. Two seasons, thirty-two shows. It was a crazy ride, but one that ended in disaster and cancellation. Some might say inevitably, given how I feel about the American attitude to winning.

When the book came out here last year, it baffled many Americans. “Why would you write about something that failed?” they asked me time and again. 

And I realized – of course, they wouldn’t understand that, would they? They’ve been programmed with the American Dream software. It’s a winners-only club here. They have to succeed. If they don’t, or they fall short, they keep quiet about it, whereas we British, we believe that failure builds character, and tells a more interesting story. So we write books in which we appear as happy losers, and we feel no shame in that. 

At least, that’s my take on things in Britain. Then again, I’ve been gone a long time. Maybe they’ve become more like the Americans. I do hope not, for their sake.  

TV Swami – he say YES to Stranded in Dangerous Places. But of course he would, he wrote it.

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