Harry Shearer and the future of Springfield

It looks like “The Simpsons” is parting ways with one of six main cast members, Harry Shearer. The prolific Shearer voices several characters, including Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, and both Messrs. Burns and Smithers.

Since the show relies so heavily on a small cast – most of the main characters have come from one of eight voice actors – that a departure, or firing, or someone getting hit by a bus was inevitable. Given how outspoken he has been, it’s not surprising it’s Shearer – who also clashed with both Lorne Michaels and Dick Ebersol during separate tenures at Saturday Night Live.

From an operational perspective, the producers should be able to replace him in the near term. The characters Shearer has helped create have become so recognized and ingrained in the culture that just about any mid-sized city has someone who can do a spot-on Mr. Burns impersonation, or a dead-ringer Ned Flanders. If the audiences start to leave, it shouldn’t be due to voices sounding different.

In fact, forcing the writers to downplay Shearer’s former characters might remove  some of the crutches that recent writing generations have leaned on. Could the current batch of writers bring new characters that freshen up the series?

Think about the side characters that have made “The Simpson’s” so great (many voiced by Shearer. Many are cultural relics. Flanders is a wacky neighbor, pulled straight out of the old-time family sitcoms “The Simpsons” was created to satirize. Burns runs the biggest company in town, but the big bad boss just isn’t as threatening in an era where workers change jobs as frequently. Kent Brockman is the smug evening news anchor on an over-the-air local network affiliate; Krusty the Clown hosts an afternoon kids’ TV show. In a modern Springfield, neither of these types of people would exist. Brockman would be younger and pushing to latch on with a station in Capital City. Krusty’s time slot would be filled with Steve Harvey while kids watched their cartoons on the Disney Channel.

(Bumblebee Man? He might still be ok.)

At a quarter-century, “The Simpsons” has over-stayed its welcome as groundbreaking TV and evolved into Sunday-night background noise.  Future media critics may point to Shearer’s departure as the catalyst for the beginning of the end. But if the current crop of writers are up to the challenge, it could be a new beginning.

Announcing the start of a campaign and/or murder spree


“Death, it comes to us all,” Hillary explained, resting her coffee cup on the table. “For all our advances in medicine and health care, life has a 100% mortality rate. It’s the only thing that really binds the haves and have-nots, you know? The deck may be stacked for the rich, and the system may be rigged so the rich get richer, but no one escapes the end.”

Hillary leaned in, her eyes still wide and unblinking. “We are all equal in death.”

She paused to let it sink in, the smile was still painted across her face.

“After I finish this coffee, I’m getting into my van. I’m going to travel from one end of this country to the other, bringing true equality to the nation. There will be plenty of people out there who want to stop me, small minded people who don’t understand what we’re accomplishing. But one day, history will look back on this trail of death we are forging at appreciate the revolution.”

Hillary took another sip of her coffee. “You’re wondering why I’m telling you all this.”

She leaned in closer, her voice lowering to a throaty, raspy whisper.

“It starts with you.”

Birthday Ramen!

Did you know that today is Momofuku Ando’s birthday? He’s the guy who invented instant ramen, and he would be 105 if he was alive today. You might have learned all this if you’d clicked on the Google doodle that most people saw today:


I didn’t see that.  Since I share Momofuku’s birthday, I saw this:


The alt text – “Happy Birthday, Jim!” – confirmed that this was for me. It’s no mystery how Google found out – I’ve probably volunteered the information dozens of times given all the Google products I use. It was still the creepiest happy birthday I got today.

CPAC 2015: George Washington ate here

Much of the attention CPAC earned came from the annual straw poll results or sound bites from the candidate speeches. I’ll remember none of that.

I made it to CPAC for exactly one day this year, which was luckily all I needed to meet with my “CPAC friends” – fellow consultants, bloggers, or activists who I tend to bump into once a year, only at CPAC. That day was Friday. Late in the afternoon, I realized I 1) hadn’t eaten a full meal yet and 2) needed to go someplace quiet to get some work done. Off to the National Harbor McDonald’s I went, for a Friday Filet-o-Fish and some time away from CPAC, I thought.

I was only partly right: Soon after sitting down in a booth in the nearly deserted McDonald’s, I spied George Washington walk in. As regular CPAC goers can attest, there’s always a guy there dressed like Washington, so there was no mystery about where he came from.

Some of the other conference goers came in after him and struck up a conversation as they all waited for their respective orders. (I eavesdropped, of course. How often do you get to listen in on a conversation with George Washington? It wasn’t rude, it was history, so back off.)

They had apparently seen him join a group of people who walked out during Jeb Bush’s speech earlier that day. Yes, the Washington impersonator replied, he had participated but hadn’t organized it. Curious, the other attendees asked who he would vote for among the Republican contenders.

“Well,” he replied thoughtfully, “Scott Walker is probably the one I identify with the most. I didn’t finish college, either, you know – though I did receive a certificate as a surveyor from William and Mary.”

Surveyor? Suddenly, I realized: He’s interacting with everyone as if he actually is George Washington. Either this dude is committed to staying in character, or everyone in the McDonald’s is going to end up with the title, “Victim of a Bizarre Murder Spree.”  I’m not sitting in a spot where I could dodge musket fire at that point so I listen up and hope for the best.

President Washington introduces himself to a family sitting two booths over. The daughter, Alexandria (“How lovely,” Washington exclaimed at hearing her name. “They named a city after you, you know!”) had encouraged him to join her, her father, and her siblings. During their conversation the Father of Our Country mentioned that he does do school visits. It’s a bit tough to get him though. He explains: “My website is down but it will be up soon. In the meantime, Dr. Franklin gave me this wind whispering device – you speak into it and it carries your voice into the wind.” President Washington hold up his “wind whispering device,” which is a mobile phone. Ben Franklin understood cell phones but apparently couldn’t figure out GoDaddy.

Washington gets up to leave and runs into some more kids, siblings from another family that happened into this now-historic McDonald’s. Seeing their red hair, he pointed out that both he and his pal Thomas Jefferson had red hair in their younger years. “That means you have revolutionary hair!” he told them.

And just like that, he donned his tri-corner hat and off he went; the great George Washington was spirited away by either the mists of the late afternoon Potomac or a Honda Accord – I didn’t get a great look into the parking lot.

You know what the best part about it was? The kids ate it up! Those red-haired kids bragged to their Dad about having revolutionary hair for the rest of the time they were there, just like Alexandria seemed genuinely excited about interacting with a Founding Father. Even while was chowing down french fries or talking with college-aged CPACers who are obviously messing with him, he refused to admit that he wasn’t George Washington or act like anything was amiss.

In the context of CPAC, the guy walking around like George Washington can be a bit of an embarrassment to the younger, comparatively hipper attendees. This year, I was happy he came – even if it was just for a side trip to McDonald’s.

(Since I know you’re wondering: Yes, some of these interactions were with black people; No, the issue of slavery did not come up.)

Week in Review: The best tribute David Letterman will get

David Letterman is not at his peak right now, and he’s probably right to walk away from late night television this year. In Tuesday night’s installment of the Late Show, many of Dave’s gags fell flat, and the audience responded with polite reverential applause. It was especially sad because Letterman made his bones as a sort-of anti-talk-show-host. For him to be treated with such kid gloves is almost worse than the awkward silence following a less accomplished comedian’s failed joke.

Then Chris Elliott came on to do a turn in the guest chair. If you’re a long-time fan, you could remember the old Late Night show, when Elliott was a writer and Letterman did what was arguably his best work. Their friendly banter was genuine – from Letterman making fun of Elliott’s new project, Schitt’s Creek to Elliott pinging Letterman for being two or three years away from being a “wacky Regis.” It’s always kind of fun to watch people on a stage who really respect and enjoy each other’s talents.

Never above making a public spectacle of himself, Elliott offered a touching tribute to Letterman as only he could:

Letterman’s response (“Thank you Chris. That was awful.”) was somehow heartfelt and ironic all at once. It’s too bad they couldn’t save this performance for the final show.

(Sidebar: It’s not the first time Elliott has used the song, as fans of his short-lived sitcom Get a Life might recall.)

A Winter’s Tale, as told by Emails from Fairfax County Public Schools

“Now this could only happen …in a town like this.” – Frank Sinatra. 

Fairfax County’s Public Schools (FCPS) have had the kind of week usually reserved for an embattled politician who sticks his foot in his mouth. Poor decisions have led to explanations, and then to further explanations, over-corrections, still more explanations, and apologies. In three days, parents of Fairfax County schoolchildren received nine emails.

The first missive came bright and early on January 6, at 7:49 a.m. The simple message, in its entirety:

The inclement weather may result in your child’s bus being delayed this morning. Please be patient and safe if you are driving this morning.

There was no official delay, since the weather didn’t look like it was going to be that bad early in the day.

But as Beltway denizens know, the storm was stronger than expected. What was supposed to be a dusting of snow ended up as a couple of inches. Buses couldn’t get around. Neither could teachers. Outrage had its snow tires on, though, and it managed to reach the school district’s Facebook page. Because Fairfax County rests in the shadow of Your Nation’s Capital, the school district naturally had to reply with a public statement, which came via email at 10:15 a.m.:

Dear Parents:

We apologize for the difficulties the weather caused this morning. Please know that significant area government entities were coordinating at a very early hour. The decision was made with the best information we had very early this morning. Needless to say, the conditions were far worse than anticipated.

Weather conditions are expected to improve around midday. At this time, we are planning to dismiss schools at their normal dismissal time, however, we are continuing to closely monitor the situation and will keep parents apprised.

Just over an hour later, a follow-up email declared all evening activities and afternoon pre-school cancelled. (A neighbor whose child is in the afternoon preschool broke that news to a Fairfax County school bus driver, who had not been clued in.)

That must not have been enough for some parents. Just before 2:00 p.m. came a fourth email, entitled “Weather Update.” It was a second apology for the decision to open schools:

It is clear that our decision to keep schools open today was the wrong call given the intensity of this weather system. We are very sorry for that. We have heard from many of our families and we are listening. We thank you for your patience and working with us through this very difficult circumstance… Our focus now is to get our students and staff home safely this afternoon. Students who were unable to get to school today will be given excused absences.

Please know we will be going over our procedures and processes to make every improvement possible to avoid the situation we encountered this morning. We are closely monitoring the weather conditions and will make a decision with regard to schools opening tomorrow and will let families know, through our normal communication processes, as soon as possible.

“Going over our procedures” is, of course, complete bull meant to sound like deep introspection. “As soon as possible” was, predictably, quick. The follow-up email came at 6:12 p.m. As expected, there would be a two-hour delay on Wednesday.

For those in “real” America, Fairfax County surrounds Washington, D.C. and Arlington to the south and west. It covers lots of area, and it is common for one side of the county to have different weather from the other side. The school district covers all these areas, from communities around Alexandria banded with major roads to the more bucolic neighborhoods hugging the Potomac out by great falls. There were plenty of roads untreated; school buses would have had a hard time getting around on Wednesday.

Fairfax’s snow and ice removal system is solar-powered: they just let the stuff melt. While environmentally friendly, nasty side effects include re-frozen black ice spots lurking in the neighborhoods. As the sun set on Wednesday, FCPS sent out what was their only email of the day, alerting parents that the following day would see a second consecutive two-hour delay.

Less that 15 hours later – at 7:22 a.m. – Fairfax sent yet another email, cancelling school for Thursday. In the 48 hours since the surprise winter weather, Fairfax County had gone from a regularly scheduled day, to a two-hour delay, to a full-blown snow day. To explain their backward, bizarro reaction, FCPS made yet another statement. For the second time in three days, the email subject read, “Today’s Weather Decision”:

The decision to change from a two hour delayed opening to an all day closing for schools was made today because, as our bus drivers reported to work, it was evident that many of our buses would not start in this morning’s cold weather… In addition, the refreeze of snow and ice on residential streets and sidewalks also made walking and travel treacherous.

Not to pile on to what has been a week full of criticism for FCPS, but while it’s cold here this week, it has been colder in the past. School buses have surely survived worse. Also, why are the “treacherous” sidewalks and their safety implication afterthought to buses running on time? The snow day was either an obvious over-correction to Tuesday’s criticism or a subtle middle finger to the critics.

At least, in a show of progress, FCPS only had to apologize once for yesterday’s snow day. Their final email of the week (to date) announced today’s two-hour delay. If you’re scoring at home, that’s nine emails in 72 hours, with all the message discipline and conviction of Trent Lott’s ill-advised BET interview after he was accused of wishing Strom Thurmond a happy birthday.

Look on the bright side, Fairfax County Public Schools: The next chance of wintry weather is coming up on Monday. You might just get a do-over!

America’s Gone Burgundy

For a fake news anchor, Ron Burgundy sure gets a lot of work, doesn’t he?

Will Ferrell has been pimping Anchorman 2 like crazy, all in-character as Burgundy himself.  You’ve seen him peddling Dodges – which Ferrell does for free.  Today, Emerson College attracted the attention of transparent eyeballs everywhere by renaming their communications school after Burgundy for a day while Farrell bums around campus in costume.  Last week he showed up on a North Dakota newscast; tomorrow, he hosts SportsCenter with David Koechner.  (Whammy!)

Adweek posits that the Month of Burgundy will change how movies are promoted.  (That’s probably not true: not every movie could be promoted this way.  Martin Freeman will not spend a month walking around Boston looking like Bilbo Baggins.)

This may seem scattershot, but look closely at this promotion strategy.  It’s actually quite targeted; Farrell and Company are not just throwing anything against the wall to see what sticks.

The audience for Anchorman 2 is most likely 18-35 year olds – and probably the men in that group more so than the women.  The youngest are college students who enjoy the brand of humor, the eldest are people in their mid-20s when the original came out last year.  They are the people dropping cable and consuming entertainment mostly online.  

The idea of Ron Burgundy chilling on the quad at Emerson probably appeals to them, as does the YouTube clips of Farrell showing up in character on a North Dakota news set.  The best chance to reach this group through live TV is probably sports.  Not only does that make the SportsCenter appearance effective, but Farrell’s pro-bono Dodge commercials run during Sunday afternoon football games.  That’s some great real estate to get for free.

It seems like Ron Burgundy is everywhere these days, but don’t be fooled: Papa Burgundy probably knows just what he’s doing.

Facebook Ad exploits the shutdown



The Wydler Brothers – the Hans und Franz  of Beltway-area real estate – are promoting this picture in Facebook sponsored posts.  It’s not entirely original – plenty of shops in and around DC are trying to drum up business based on the shutdown – but it is pretty clever,

It might be the most useful though – depending on how the messaging wars go in the next 13 months, there could be some new lobbyists/former Senators looking to buy.

Why Bankrupting America’s New Web Series Actually Works

This week, Bankrupting America launched “The Government,” a new web series this week parodying both government spending and The Office.  Unlike many attempts at politically themed humor, it actually works.

There are some over-the-top spots – the introduction of the (probably?) fictional Department of Every Bureaucratic Transaction comes to mind – but nothing that detracts from the main joke.  What makes the video click is its natural dialogue, solid acting, identifiable characters, and subtle jokes (such as the employees walking around in the background holding golden coffee mugs with oven mitts).

In other words, structurally, it entertains for the same reasons The Office did, which means it’s a great approach to this type of communication.  If future episodes hit these same beats (and patch up some of the rough spots), Bankrupting America will have a pretty powerful messaging device on its hands.