Author Archive - JessB


The Top 20 Physical Comedians of Modern Television

Now that the 2006/2007 fall TV schedule is over, it's time to ponder what it is about television that we like so much. Is it watching people do stupid things on reality shows? How about steamy hospital dramas that have more sex than medicine? Is it comedies about fat, dumb husbands with hot wives that hate them? All of these things are well and good, but they don't really give me what I'm looking for. I like all types of comedy, but oddly enough, my favorite is physical comedy (oddly enough, I say, because it's a well-known fact that women don't "get" The Three Stooges). Perhaps I DON'T like The Three Stooges - but I do enjoy me some fallin' down. I like people smacking themselves in the face with doors and I like people throwing themselves around the room. What makes it funnier is to see it in the middle of a sitcom where everything else is "normal" and actors get by on witty lines. It's the physical comedians within these groups that make certain shows stand out. And, of course, there's the stand-outs on Saturday Night Live. While I tend to consider it a bit easier to do physical comedy on a sketch show, I've included the standouts from that show as well. The following is an in-depth look at physical comedy throughout the past 40 years. You will note that Dick Van Dyke and Lucille Ball, while mentioned, are not on the list. We'll call them the far end of the "modern" scale and look past them to those they inspired. You'll also notice that to keep your attention, I have sprinkled a bit of nudity throughout the article. Enjoy!
Chris Farley Will Farrel
Dan Akroyd and John Belushi
20./19. (tie) Chris Farley/Will Farrel & John Belushi/Dan Akroyd - For many folks in their 20's and 30's, Farley and Farrel epitomize physical comedy. For the preceding generation, it's Belushi and Akroyd. The main draw for all four of these guys is their size - seeing them take their large frames and hurl themselves through dance routines (Farley's Chippendale, Belushi and Akroyd's Blues Brothers, Farrel's cheerleader) or bandy about the set in a "large" fashion (Farley's Matt Foley, Belushi's samurai, Farrel's hot tub lifeguard) cemented them in our minds as guys who based their comedy on the idea that big guys doing most anything is hilarious. While they could possibly be near the top of just any "physical comedy" list, for the purposes of this list (which focuses on television), we'll give them their rightful place near the bottom for using the unbridled comedy venue of late night, weekend, sketch comedy television to hone their skills.
Molly Shannon18. Molly Shannon - A former SNL cast member NOT known for her movie career, Shannon makes it in to the top 20 by taking some seriously badass falls. Her work as the character Mary Katherine Gallagher was mindblowingly physical - launching oneself into a pile of boxes or chairs on "live" TV is much more impressive than doing it in a movie or even a taped sitcom. All that, and she's wearing a short skirt! She also added a lot of dancing and gymnastics to her other characters such as Sally O'Mally ("I'm FIFTY years old!"). She probably won't be remembered as one of the best SNL cast members of all time, and her career went pretty dead after she left the show - but she gets an A+ for effort for slinging herself around with the boys of SNL.
Sarach Chalke Zach Braff
17./16. Sarah Chalke/Zach Braff - You don't generally find good physical comedy in today's sitcoms. Heck, with all the reality show buzz, it's hard to find a sitcom at all. But along with being brilliantly written and acted, Scrubs holds up the current television schedule with a little bit of physical comedy thanks to Braff and Chalke. From the beginning, Braff has been taking shots to the head from inanimate objects and riding his scooter through seemingly solid objects. And of course, he's been through the Ritter/Van Dyke school of falling down. Chalke gets her position on the list for being the hottest chick on television (or so I've read) to take the occasional fall or just flail around hopelessly.
Don Knotts as Barney Fife Don Knotts as Mr. Furley
15. Don Knotts - Knotts gets his points basically for being extremely funny-looking and putting it to use in a comedic fashion. He's funny just when his hair is out of place as Barney Fife. He's funny when he's scared. Funny when he's drunk. Funny when he's trying to be macho. His high-pitched excited voice and spindly frame serve as a template for actors like Zach Braff (16), Andy Dick (13) and Michael Richards (10) as he fully embraced his end of the comedy spectrum as "that weird little guy." Later in his career, on Three's Company, he kept up his reputation as being a sort of "rubberband man" with his his bug-eyed facial expressions and slow-wittedness. While Knotts didn't do as much falling down shtick as others known for their physical comedy, his ability to play out "anxious" through facial expressions and mannerisms sets him up as a true modern physical comedy legend. Ellen DeGeneres14. Ellen DeGeneres - Before Ellen was known as a lesbian, she was known as a great female physical comedian. Able to clumsily dance and sing her way through her sitcom (and now even her own talk show), she brought back the clumsy female lead we really hadn't seen since I Love Lucy. Although the sitcom itself wasn't really anything to write home about, the classic setup of miscommunication -> "madness ensues" was made more palpable and fresh by having DeGeneres herself do the pratfalls and play the dummy. DeGeneres plays as a female Don Knotts doing the comedy of Jerry Seinfeld and getting herself into situations similar to Lucille Ball. Andy Dick13. Andy Dick - It would appear that while Andy Dick played America's favorite spazz on television (Newsradio), he was also quite a spazz in real life. The Newsradio writers obviously put this to good use and used Dick as a punching bag for the show - during the second season, every show opened with Dick's character falling down for some reason or another. While this didn't carry through to the following seasons, falls, smacks and flailing were a part of Dick's repertoire throughout the rest of the show's run. Combine that with the perfectly clueless nature of Matthew Brock, and this little gem of a physical comedian shines. Much like Scrubs, which adds more humor to its already awkwardly-humorous setting (a hospital) by adding slapstick, Newsradio brings a new facet to making office life humorous by adding physical comedy in the form of Andy Dick. Chevy Chase12. Chevy Chase - Really not known for his work on TV...but his stint as a cast member on Saturday Night Live solidifies him as one of the most memorable physical comedians in modern TV history. Why? Well, I am a huge fan of the prat fall and no one does it better than Chase. While Chase is known as a terrific prick and was definitely not a favorite amongst fellow cast members, he sure did a hell of a job falling down on camera. He didn't even resemble Gerald Ford in the least bit, but he ingrained the image of Ford as a clumsy boob for all future generations. Chase did the "fall of the week" during SNL openings...and that's why he's number 13.
Steve Martin11. Steve Martin - Like Chase, Martin isn't known for his television work anymore, but he's so good he's remembered for being a cast member on Saturday Night Live (which he wasn't). Martin is the modern equivalent of a Vaudeville man, using props, songs and incredibly lame humor in his act. He's very much the guy who made the "fake arrow through the head" funny and danced around like a complete buffoon singing about King Tut. Martin's physical appeal is in his lanky body and large voice, accompanied by his self-deprecating humor. His physicality in the "wild and crazy guys" alone earns him a spot on this list for funny catch phrase, funny costume, funny accent and funny dance. Jim Carrey10. Jim Carrey - Also not known for his television work, Carrey ripped on to the scene in the early 90's on the sketch comedy show In Living Color. It was there that he caught the eye of Hollywood (and the rest of America) by taking physical comedy to a new level - contortionism and completely out-of-control slapstick. Not only did Carrey have the prat fall down pat, he took it a step further by often falling limbo-style onto his knees and springing back up. His characters, such as Fire Marshall Bill, had seemingly elastic faces. His distorted female character, bodybuilder Vera DeMilo, was so over the top she was downright gross. Carrey, like other sketch comedy stars on this list, went on to do the same in movies but his brand of physical comedy on In Living Color makes him an extremely important part of the modern physical comedy list. Michael Richards9. Michael Richards - They say that on Seinfeld, Michael Richards' entrances as Kramer met with such applause that special timing had to be allotted in the scripts to cover the audience reaction. Whether popping into a room, tripping over a chair, flailing around in tight jeans or dancing to polka while making sausages, Richards' career as Kramer makes him an extremely important part of this list. Once again, Richards is another actor on the list who embraces his "non-traditional" appearance in order to get laughs. Like Knotts, Richards as Kramer is funny just by being in a scene. Of course, he also takes some excellent shots to the face from doors.
Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams8./7. Penny Marshall/Cindy Williams - The first of two comedy teams on the list, Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams are better known as Laverne and Shirley. While the show was a bit of a yawn at the end of the Happy Days craze of the 80's, it was certainly the showcase for physical comedy in that era. Williams played the "straight man" Shirley to Marshall's off-the-wall Laverne - definitely an homage to I Love Lucy's Ethel and Lucy, but since it was no longer the 50's (in real life - it actually was the 50's/60's on the show) the drunkeness could be more apparent and the cat fights nastier. As with most of the other entrants on this list, Marshall and Williams could throw themselves around, fall down and get smacked in the face with the rest of them. And Marshall clearly used her physical comedy skills to get ahead in Hollywood due to the fact that her looks probably couldn't have gotten her as far. The reason Marshall and Williams are so high on this list, even though their show sucked, is that they deserve it for being women doing this sort of comedy during this time period in television. When other women were "making their place in this world" (Rhoda, Alice, Maude, Mary Tyler Moore, Flo), saving the world (Wonder Woman, Charlie's Angels, M*A*S*H) or just being cute (The Waltons, WKRP) the girls of Laverne and Shirley were throwing themselves around Milwaukee acting like idiots, just to get a laugh. John Cleese6. John Cleese - What's not to love about John Cleese? While Monty Python worked more on a level of wordplay, intellectual humor and downright absurdity, when the situation called for physical comedy, John Cleese was the man. The most obvious case of this is, of course, the "Ministry of Silly Walks" sketch where Cleese flails his large, lanky legs about the street. Another subtle example is the "Fish Slapping Dance," 15 seconds of utter hilarity where Cleese gets slapped about the face with a small fish. If that's not brilliance, I don't know what is. While you won't find too much more in the way of physical humor in Flying Circus (other than the occasional 16-ton weight smashing), Cleese shines as the harried and anxious innkeeper Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers. Fawlty Towers was definitely a "madness ensues" type of sitcom, usually as the result of a miscommunication or an outrageous lie. However, Cleese carried the sitcom with his "large" sense of physical comedy, often yelling himself into a tizzy or running gawkishly about the hotel trying to correct his own mistakes. Fawlty Towers is definitely a clear cut from any Python work, but is a shining example of the type of character Cleese was meant to play. Bryan Cranston5. Bryan Cranston - Who is Bryan Cranston? He's known as the dad (Hal) from Malcom in the Middle, but astute viewers might also remember him as the "dentist who converted to Judaism just for the jokes" on Seinfeld ("Whatley!"). I realize it's odd to see Cranston up here near the top of the list, but while doing research (read: watching 6 seasons of Malcom back-to-back) it goes without saying the Cranston is sitcom television's most talented and relentless physical comedian of the past 10 years. Granted, the entire television family of Malcom does an amazing job of beating each other up (and other random characters) but Cranston shines as the most physical of the group. Most notable are his roller skating scenes (in which he reportedly did most of the "stunts" himself), his work in a Dance, Dance Revolution contest and his new hobby of race walking (note the fabulous costumes in each clip). Cranston is an all-around physical comedian on the show, giving a performance that completely defines "hapless boob." From flustered screaming to girly whining, Bryan Cranston currently holds the torch for best television physical comedian of the 21st century. Since his show has been off the air for a year now, let's hope Scrubs' Zach Braff (16) kicks it up a notch and decides to join a circus. John Ritter4. John Ritter - There are two types of TV fans in this world - those who like Three's Company and those who think it's just ok. I find myself falling in with the latter category. If you're going to watch Three's Company at all, you're either there for the hot chicks or for the brilliant physical comedian that is John Ritter. Unlike other list-ees who seem to have gotten in to physical comedy because they were extremely goofy looking, Ritter doesn't seem to have been touched by the ugly stick. Instead, he is just pure drive and skill when it comes to physical comedy. He's got it all - he has funny stares, funny walks, funny falls. He gets tied up in things, trips over things and gets hit with things. He plays drunk, he dances funny, he sings funny. As I said, Ritter was definitely there to drive the show for those of us not interested in the girls. Ritter was known as a true physical comedy veteran - not only was he on Three's Company with fellow list-ee Don Knotts (15), he also made guest appearances on Scrubs as Zach Braff's (16) dad, on Newsradio with Andy Dick (14) and on the short-lived The Ellen Show with Ellen DeGeneres. Although he did not reprise his physical comedy role in his final sitcom 8 Simple Rules (or so I'm told - I will admit to not having seen that series), he will always be remembered as a good guy and a damn fine trip-er (!). Rowan Atkinson3. Rowan Atkinson - Mr. Bean. The original British "rubber band man." Possibly the fugliest man on the BBC, Rowan Atkinson is also one of the funniest. His series, Mr. Bean (which has been playing on American PBS for centuries, it seems) is the epitome of physical comedy, as the title character is completely silent. In the same vein as silent movie stars Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Atkinson draws his humor for Bean from facial expressions, odd situations and naïveté. While his odd looks certainly help with the humor, as in the case of Knotts (15), Richards (9) and Carrey (10), Atkinson does not draw on his size as a case for hilarity (Farley (20), Farrell (19), Cleese (6), etc.). Instead, the character of Mr. Bean is often very silently doing something wrong in the background, or even just getting into a complete mess at home. Unlike other list-ees who are part of an ensemble cast, the Bean character is performed and written by Atkinson (along with other mega-comedy BBC writers Robin Driscoll, Richard Curtis and Ben Elton) which really makes Atkinson stand out as an actor. Atkinson has been a part of ensemble casts and sketch shows - the Blackadder series and Not the Nine O'Clock News (also written with Curtis and Elton) on which he was also exceedingly funny. However, it was not until the Mr. Bean that his amazing talent as a physical comedian came to the forefront. While in the first Blackadder series, Atkinson's role as the title character was one of a pathetic little man, the following series had him in a more stern and serious character, reacting sharply to the idiots around him (most notably Tony Robinson and Hugh Laurie). In these roles he was more of the argumentative Cleese-type with all of the laughs coming at the expense of underlings (or in the case of Laurie as Prince George - his charge). Atkinson's ability to "run the show," as it were, also comes out in his stage act which is not traditional stand-up, but more short character studies in which Atkinson goes between the angry schoolmaster type (harkened from Blackadder) and the hapless idiot (Bean). There has been nothing else on television that one can describe as a "one man physical comedy show" other than Mr. Bean, which is why Atkinson makes it to number 3 on the list.
Adrian Edmonson and Rick Mayall on The Young Ones
Rick Mayall and Adrian Edmonson on Bottom
2./1. Rick Mayall/Adrian Edmonson - Like Rowan Atkinson, Rick Mayall and Adrian Edmonson got their fame from the BBC and Bel Elton. I often describe this pair to others as a "live action, British Beavis and Butthead." Their physical comedy is indeed extreme and they play off each other brilliantly - with highly-choreographed fight scenes, explosions and a complete love/hate relationship that most likely stems from the fact that no one else can stand their characters so they (the characters) end up together. Unlike other list-ees, these two work best as a duo. They also incorporate more than just prat falls and silly entrances into their performances - they are indeed violent. In fact, such violence has not been seen since The Three Stooges. But in the case of Mayall and Edmonson characters, the violence is usually done out of malice in contrast to the Stooges' brand of "take that, ya numbskull!" joshery. Throughout their careers, Mayall and Edmonson have been smashing up furniture and windows, setting each other on fire (more Edmonson on fire than Mayall), repeatedly knocking each other in the nads, choking each other (a la The Simpsons) and, most often, bashing each other with frying pans and the most useful cricket bat. The characters they play - as The Dangerous Brothers on Saturday Live; Rik and Vyvian on The Young Ones; and Rick and Eddie in both Filthy, Rich and Catflap and Bottom - are lowly, sad, poor, idiots with egos the size of Albert Hall. They are extremely socially and sexually frustrated and are quite possibly a mix between American "white trash" and the British "upper class twit". As with Mr. Bean, Edmonson and Mayall's latest show, Bottom, includes very little interaction with - or at least very little regards to - the outside world. For the most part, the pair just stay home and beat the bejeezus out of each other when not out looking for "birds" to "shag." This format lends itself brilliantly to a stage show version which the two embarked on during the show's run on television and after (there were 5 stage "plays" in all, over 10 years). The stage shows showcase the absolute physicality of their performances, with Edmonson and Mayall sweating, cues going wrong and both forgetting their lines (and ad-libbing beautifully). While seeing the stage shows does add more appreciation of the pair for the casual viewer, any fan of physical comedy must bow down to Rick and Adrian as the ballsiest, craziest, most driven physical comedians to have come on the telly in the past 30 years. Did I miss anyone? Share your thoughts!

Movie Review: Idiocracy

Buy now at!Hey, remember Mike Judge? He's that guy who did that little show called Beavis & Butthead and this movie you like called Office Space. You might also recognize his name as being the creator of King of the Hill. Did you know he had a new movie out? Well, probably not because Fox did a hell of a job keeping it out of theaters and unless you live in Austin you probably didn't even know it was in a theater near you (that is, only if you live in L.A., Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston or Toronto). What, exactly, was Fox's beef? It's really not clear. Judge was doing what he is best at - commenting the stupidity/ignorance that exists in America and imagining a world where "teh sm4rts" are wiped out and the only people left are the ones who eat stupid food for breakfast. While the movie is a bit odd and certainly doesn't have a blockbuster plot or cast, the premise leaves us much to think about and is a truly genius idea that doesn't get touched on often (although Futurama manages to sneak some "future stupidity" in at times). The main premise is explained brilliantly in the beginning of the film - an interview with a young, educated couple explaining that they are not ready to have kids, they feel it's "too early," and a cutaway to a "white trash" family (fathered by "Clevon") surprised by another pregnancy. Five years later, the "educated" couple states they're not ready - "not in this market" - and the "white trash" family has spawned more children thanks to the help of the neighbor woman. The educated couple ends up learning that the man has a low sperm count and one of Clevon's sons is shown as a football hero promising the cheerleaders he will "fuck all y'all" to Clevon's prideful cheers. So begins the "de-evolution" of humans where the more intelligent fail to breed while the less intelligent breed at a high rate, thus lowering the human IQ substantially. Meanwhile, back at The Military, a soldier named Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) who fits the description of "the most average man available" is picked to participate in a top-secret human hibernation project in which he is to be frozen and woken up at a later date. His female counterpart, Rita (Maya Rudolph), is a prostitute who was chosen for the job because she was the only woman they could find who was willing to go along with it. In the midst of the experiment, the Army base where Joe and Rita were being "stored" is destroyed (due to the top man in the Top Secret chain being booted out of the Army on various sex charges) and thus the two chambers are forgotten. Five hundred years later in the year 2505, since people have become quite lazy, trash is no longer buried or recycled - it's just piled up into huge mountains. This results in the "Great Trash Avalanche of 2505" and results in the uncovering of Joe and Rita's hibernation chamber. The avalanche pushes Joe's chamber through the apartment window of one "typical American" guy named Frito - who is too enthralled with the show Ow! My Balls (an obvious reference to Jackass) on his gigantic TV and eating "people chow" from a bucket whilst sitting on his sofa/toilet to care that a man from the past has just crashed into his apartment. So begins Joe's (and then also Rita's) quest to return to the past. Since all humans in the future are tattooed with a bar code on their wrist, and Joe lacks said bar code, he quickly lands in jail. But since he is smarter than everyone else in the future (even though in the present he is squarely average), he's able to quickly escape, thus becoming a fugitive. The rest of the movie is filled with clever sight gags and social commentary. The town's clock tower blinks "12:00" because no one is smart enough to set the time. Everyone speaks a "mixture of valley speak and ghetto talk" which is hard for Joe to understand (and vice-versa - they accuse Joe of being "gay" because he speaks so...awkwardly). The lowest form of humor - fart and sex jokes - have become the norm (for example, the restaurant Fuddruckers is now named Buttfuckers, and Ow! My Balls! is the most popular show on TV). What is considered cursing in today's language is considered the norm in the future language. As expected, capitalism plays a huge part in the future world. People have names like "Frito," "Tylenol" and "Mountain Dew." Starbucks is just as ubiquitous but it has become a "gentleman's massage parlor" (as have many other establishments such as H&R Block). Costco is where you can go to buy furniture, catch a train or get a law degree. Prison inmates wear name-brand track suits. Water fountains no longer serve water - they spout a Gatorade-like drink called Brawndo which contains "electrolytes." In fact, water is only known as "the stuff in the toilet" in the future, as Brawndo takes over as the liquid of choice. Joe ends up getting caught - but not sent back to jail. Instead, he is delivered to the White House to meet with President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (played by Terry Crews of Everybody Hates Chris), a former "pro" wrestler who was obviously voted in on his crowd appeal. The President has called for Joe because his prison IQ test (required so they can place him in a suitable prison job) showed that he was far and beyond the most intelligent man alive. Camacho appoints Joe as the new Secretary of State and promises to the people that he will fix all of the nation's problems because he is a genius. Of course, Joe doesn't actually know how to run a country and the people quickly turn on him, forcing him and Rita to go back on the run in search of a "time machine" promised by Frito. More downright stupidity ensues. I have a feeling that this movie will become another "cult hit" for Judge as Office Space did. Perusing the IMDB pages for the movie, I'm reminded of how much visual comedy is going on in the background and I am already itching to see it again and share it with friends. There is definitely a lot going on that requires multiple viewings. Idiocracy is definitely a gem to add to your collection and one you will enjoy talking about with friends - maybe even finding a special catch phrase or two. If nothing else, check it out so you can see just what the hell Fox was so scared of. Because if Fox doesn't like it, it's pretty sure that you will. Oh, by the way - don't get this movie from Netflix. The copy I got was totally scratched and skippy. The Stupids must have gotten to it first.

What You Should Be Watching: The Knights of Prosperity

The Knights of Prosperity Wednesdays @ 8:30 on ABC (always check listings - it moves a lot) In a Nutshell: Welcome Back Kotter + Heist
Click here for theme song! Click here to see the amazingly sexy theme song!
Here are 10 good reasons why this show is amusing: 1. The theme song kicks ass. It's a story-song in the manner of Shaft. 2. It's produced by David Letterman's company Worldwide Pants, but does not star David Letterman. 3. Famous people - most notably Dustin "Screech" Diamond and Mick Jagger - show up occasionally, playing caricatures of themselves. 4. It stars a big fat black guy with a Barry White voice who constantly chomps a cigar. 5. Two of the characters are an Italian from the Bronx and an Indian taxi driver who continuously throw racial jabs at each other. 6. One of the characters is a fey nerdy guy. 7. The entire premise of the show is how these people plan to rob Mick Jagger. That is it. 8. The gang's headquarters is a Jewish decorations warehouse - thus, lots of over-sized menorahs and dreidels. 9. The gang has made their own shirts. Red t-shirts with iron-on letters right out of the 80's. They often sport these shirts over their button-down collared shirts or, in the case of the sexy Latina character, in a very lovely way. 10. The end of each episode features the cast doing a "slow-mo" walk through an alley wearing their t-shirts to the recap version of the theme song. I'm pretty much watching every week just to see how this show could possibly pan out over more than 13 episodes. So what happens when they eventually do end up robbing Mick Jagger? Will they go on to rob someone else - such as Jeff Goldblum or Howard Stern, who both passed on the show? If nothing else, it's an excellent new twist on a 30-minute primetime comedy. And on network TV, no less! It has its funny moments, mostly relating to the characters and situations mentioned above. And they have what seems to be an expensive arsenal of background music, consisting of a lot of hit music from the past 40 years. Listening to The Simpsons DVD commentaries gives one a good picture of how much each note of a song - especially popular songs - costs. My theory is that somewhere-down-the-line-producer Paul Shaffer had a hand in getting some sort of discount for being one of the guys who probably wrote or played on every song since 1972. They definitely came up with a good "hook" for this show, which indeed has me hooked. I am actually hoping it does a very short run so they don't end up having *ahem* lost the premise before it comes to a big payoff at the end. ABC did a lot of hemming and hawing over this show before it went to air (there were several different names for the series as well as several different celebrities to focus on), and since it's gotten to the air it continues to move around the schedule. Catch it if you can - or check it out in reruns next summer. At least by then you'll know if they actually DO rob Mick Jagger.

Bank of America: Up your nose with a rubber hose!

How may we disappoint you today? How may we disappoint you today?
I really used to love my credit card company. That's sort of an odd thing - like loving your cable provider or your electricity company. But every time I interacted with MBNA, I came away pleased. Maybe it's because one always expects poor customer service these days, and a good customer service experience ends up being infinitely more satisfying than you could ever imagine. MBNA and I had a wonderful relationship since 1998. I didn't screw them over (I was the very model of a modern credit-having individual) and they didn't screw me over. They sent me cool perks. They gave me great rates. Their Web site was awesome. It was a dream come true. I was faithful to them and not only did I get myself a second card, I recommended my parents to them and got a business account for my business. In 2006 I was informed that MBNA was merging with Bank of America. Now, I'd not heard much about BOA. MBNA was such a huge presence here in Cleveland that I just assumed MBNA would be swallowing up BOA and millions of new customers would enjoy the same wonderful customer service as me and that'd be the end of it. I was sorely mistaken. Bank of America swallowed up MBNA and within a few short months proceeded to spew its glistening guts all over my pristine view of the credit card industry. This is a really fucking long rant about Bank of America and how it sucks. If you are into this sort of thing... First and foremost, Bank of America is a bank. MBNA was more or less a credit card company. Credit card companies are very good at having solid credit card services for credit card holders. Banks, it seems, are very much into charging fees as well as having antiquated services as a holdover from their beginnings in 1902. Bank of America bills this as "being able to serve you better by offering you more options," while someone like me sees this as "great, more ways to try to confuse me into buying services." Since the above really just makes me sound like an old coot who likes to rant about stuff just because changes have occurred, I'll give some specific examples of their suckitude. Then you can decide more easily on how much sympathy I should have. 1. The merger seems to have come as a surprise to the BOA staff. Especially their Online Services staff. I suspect some stuffed shirts at the very top of the chain said "yes, we can do this merger quickly and efficiently with very little planning and have it all running smoothly within a month" while no one bothered to ask the IT guys doing the actual work if it could be possible. Turns out, it wasn't very possible. Just before the merger I had gotten into using Quicken as my "money management software." Quicken has been around a long time. Most good financial institutions are modern enough to let you download your monthly statements in the Quicken format and with the push of a button import all of your data to the software. Companies who are even more savvy let you download the information directly through Quicken without having to visit a Web site. MBNA had this going. BOA, on the other hand, did not have this going. At least not for their newly-acquired MBNA accounts. First, it took a few months for my statements to even show up online. Once they were there, I wanted to get them into Quicken. But there was no Quicken option - even though the site's skeleton help system gave instructions on what non-existent buttons to push to get your statements in this format. Eventually I found a notice saying to please call this number for Quicken support. I called said number. The unusually rude operator at the other end was not really sure what Quicken was (seriously! At the special BOA Quicken number!)...but once she figured it out, she was able to tell me that there was no Quicken support for MBNA customers just yet. Try again soon. Five months later now, still no Quicken support. I have the option of getting my statements in PDF or Text format - both pretty useless for importing into software as specific as Quicken. 2. The Web site is very slow, confusing and buggy. I understand that many Web sites can be slow from time to time, but BOA is slow more often than not. Due to the tremendous amount of information they are trying to pack in there about the 400 other services I could be enrolled in, it's extremely hard to find what you want and everything takes several clicks. As I mentioned above, their help system is atrocious. Clicking "help" brings up a new, poorly-designed framed window with very little information on the subject you are looking for. It has plenty of info on making a new account with their various financial services but that's about it. No search, and it's hard to read. Nowhere on the site can you see your monthly finance charge. You have to download the PDF of the statement to get that info. This info is crucial, of course, for people like me who need to balance their accounts by typing all charges into Quicken (as opposed to downloading them). 3. Their phone system is the epitome of "CAN'T I JUST TALK TO A HUMAN NOW?!" First, it seems that in the merger, all of their phone numbers had changed (once again, no one told the Web guys). So you call a number often to hear a voice saying that you must actually call another number. Once you get the right number, the menus start. The computer's voice is friendly enough but the options and menus are endless. Because they want to know which of these seventeen banking services you are calling about. Credit cards are lumped with loan accounts so you have to listen carefully. Yesterday I called to ask some questions about my business account. First I got the "wrong number" message after calling the number prominently placed on the Web site. Then I went through several menus trying to figure out what kind of account I had (they weren't interested in separating my business status from a regular personal account). Of course they asked for the last 4 digits of my Social Security Number, which my business doesn't have. Finally we (me and the computer voice) established that I needed help with my online account (which I did - more on that later) and I was told I was being connected thusly. Then it hung up on me. 4. The MBNA Business accounts didn't switch over to BOA until March 1 (several months after the initial consumer products were switched). This month I got to experience BOA's Business services for the first time. When I logged on, I was met with a barrage of options and restrictions for Business cardholders (I had also gotten all of this stuff in the mail, which included a heck of a lot of rule changes). I was also gleefully extended the offer of being able to "upgrade" my account to be able to download my statements into QuickBooks (Quicken's business-minded older brother), pay bills online and have some sort of "direct deposit" service for my company. Each service cost an extra $10 per month PLUS a base fee of $10 just for the privilege of being able to pay them $10 more per month. I was actually sort of intrigued by the idea of being able to do direct deposit for my employees (except not at $20/mo. They can drag their asses to the bank themselves.) But there was no info on what this entailed. Was it true direct deposit? The link for "more information" went to a dead page. What I really wanted to do was pay my bill online. Just like I had done with MBNA. Just like I do now with my personal accounts. For free, from my bank account, biggity-bam. Well, BOA was insistent that if I wanted to do this, I needed to open a BOA checking account. That sounded absurd...but the message at the top of the page said I could call this number to get it set up. I figured I could at least get ahold of someone who could tell me what I really needed to do to be able to pay my bill online. The number that they showed was the disconnected one (see above) and the one that ultimately hung up on me. I checked out "Transfer Funds" instead. I mean, I just wanted to transfer funds from my bank to their bank. Well, once again I was prompted to open some other sort of account. Not gonna happen. Finally I went to their Customer Service page in the hopes that I might find another number - that actually was in service - where someone could please tell me how I could pay my bill online. And right there, buried 2/3 of the way down the Customer Service page, was a link to "Pay from another financial institution." I cautiously clicked the link, anticipating another application form, when there it was - A WAY TO PAY MY BILL ONLINE FOR FREE. Put in the amount, routing number and bank account number and you're all set. That was easy. Easy to carry out - not easy to find. Not obvious or convenient. Of course, there's no sort of fancy "save this information" option so I can easily carry this payment scheme out again in the future. But it's there. Also "hidden" on the site is the ability to download statements in QuickBooks or Quicken format (remember, you can't do this for MBNA-to-BOA personal card accounts yet). The very feature that Bank of America ASSURED me would not be available unless I paid them $10/mo for the "upgrade." ----- So my experience with Bank of America has not been pleasant at all. The customer service has been less than stellar, the Web services are blah and the business service has been nothing but a headache. Plans are definitely in the works for kicking BOA to the curb, as far as my business goes. My personal accounts are sort of set there for a while, as my oldest credit card account is through them and it is a very good practice to keep your oldest accounts open in order to establish good credit. But, with no annual fees, there's no reason to keep using them. My choice so far, the card company that LEAST offends me, is CitiBank. I recently got a personal card through them and while I am not nearly as satisfied with Citi as I was with MBNA, they have so far offended me less than BOA. Citi's sites seem to be confusing too, and their rates don't touch what I had with MBNA, but they have some nice perks and a pleasant-enough customer service staff. And I get $25 a pop for everyone I refer to Citi who ends up getting an account - so everyone I referred to MBNA is going to be getting referred to Citi now. If anyone has any suggestions as to what company I should switch to, that'd be helpful (both business and personal). Or, share your credit card horror stories. Or better yet - give me your email address so I can refer you to Citi! ;)

What You Should Be Watching: Little Mosque on the Prairie

Little Mosque on the Prairie Wednesdays @ 8PM on the CBC (Canada) In a Nutshell: Father Ted/Vicar of Dibley/Ballykissangel + 24 Little Mosque on the PrairieThis is one of the best new shows I've seen all year. It's a comedy - a sitcom, even - about Muslims. And I'm not talking it's "about" Muslims like Blue Collar Comedy is "about" rednecks, it actually centers around a group of Muslim people and the goings-on in their daily lives. They deal with their kids, their neighbors, their customers. Oh and yes they do deal with practicing their religion. The premise of the show, which was written and created by Torontonian Zarqa Nawaz, is that a group of Muslims living in a small Canadian prairie town needed a place to hold their prayer meetings, so they rented the activity room in the local Anglican church. At first the group hid the fact that they were holding prayer meetings there under the guise of using the space as contractor Yasir's (Carlo Rota) office but the Anglican minister and some of the town's busybodies quickly caught on. As it turned out, Reverend Magee (Derek McGrath) didn't really care - membership was down in his church and they could use the rent money. The mosque's standing prayer leader, Baber (Manoj Sood), was the Muslim equivalent of a "fire and brimstone" minister - speaking vehemently against Western culture (such as American Idol) and pushing the congregation towards an extremely "right wing" view. The mosque members weren't too keen on him, so they sent for a new imam in the form of young Amaar, from Toronto, who was the polar opposite of Baber. Other cast members are Fatima (Arlene Duncan), the strict African Muslim woman who runs a halal lunchcounter; Sarah (Sheila McCarthy), Yasir's whiter-than-white, Muslim convert wife; Rayyan (Sitra Hewitt), Yasir and Sarah's hip young doctor daughter - who declares herself a "conservative feminist Muslim;" the town's mayor (Debra McGrath), Sarah's sympathetic boss; and Fred Tupper, the anti-Muslim loudmouth radio personality in town. The show's cast is an amazing representation of a Muslim community. The young imam has to deal with both the conservative and liberal members of his mosque as they argue with what is the "right" way to do things. Often, Amaar finds himself seeking guidance from Reverend Magee who has some of the exact same problems in his congregation. Yasir and Rayyan"Feminist" and conservative Muslim Rayyan deals with her convert mother who is still learning the ways of the Muslim life while on the other side she deals with Fatima who is very strict in her faith but holds much more traditional views than Rayyan. Her father, Yasir, would rather not have to think about such things - he just tries to keep the peace between the two women in his life. Both Fatima and Baber, the most conservative members in the mosque, have teenage children (Fatima a son and Baber a daughter), and the show touches on how Muslim parents with traditional views struggle with how they decide to raise their children in a modern Western society. One of my favorite lines from the show so far was when Baber accused his daughter of looking "like a Protestant" when she wore a slightly revealing shirt. "You mean a prostitute?" "No, I mean a Protestant!" The entire Muslim community also has to deal with "town mouthpiece" Fred Tupper, who often berates the mosque during his radio show. The townspeople, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, seem to take Fred's rantings with a grain of salt (Fred often dines at Fatima's diner, often playing - and losing - games of wit with her). Mosque members sometimes end up having to appear on his show to defend certain misunderstandings, but the town learns pretty quickly that the mosque poses no threat. The writing and acting on the show are not anything spectacular - it's at the level of, say, Yes, Dear or King of Queens. It is in fact creator Nawaz's first go-round with television and I believe it might even be her first attempt at comedy. However, the first few episodes have been solid and entertaining, and if nothing else, educational. It is more than refreshing to see how Muslims in North America truly live - and how your typical Muslim is no different than your typical Christian - without focusing on any extreme behavior that is meant to shock and awe. The show has an enormous amount of promise. There are many, many avenues to explore - conflicts between the different "types" of Muslims who worship at the mosque, conflicts between the Muslims and the rest of the community, having to live a strict Muslim life in modern times, and the old sitcom standby of man vs. woman. Unfortunately, even this show has gotten plenty of press and "buzz" in America, I am not sure that any of our stations will be picking it up any time soon. It's either way too "controversial" for the American public or just not as exciting as Deal or No Deal. But I urge you to seek it out at soon as it's on DVD or better yet, find it at your favorite torrent site. It's a sitcom about Muslims! What will they think of next?! By the way, if you're wondering why I equated this show to 24, it was the only show I could think of that has any Muslim characters in any sort of starring role (Carlo Rota actually has a recurring role in 24). If anyone could point out some others, I'd like to know. And no, the Kumars At No. 42 are not Muslims.