The Sunday Magazine: The Killers’ Christmas Songs

The Holiday season is full of uniquely personal traditions big and small. One of the small traditions I use as the kickoff for the musical portion of the festivities is the release of The Killers new Christmas song to benefit Project (RED).

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The Killers are a rock band which got their start in Las Vegas. Since 2001 they have put out four albums. The band has never been one to crank out new music every year. They work at their own pace and I believe they are one of the best bands in this time span. I look forward to every release.

Project (RED) was formed in 2006 to raise money to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa. Over the past few years there have been many (RED) branded products which donate their proceeds to the initiative.

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The Killers agreed to be part of the inaugural year of events and released a Christmas song called “A Great Big Sled” to benefit Project (RED). From a band who has made music that really connects with me this song has become my sing-along anthem to the holidays. Most sing Frosty or Rudolph you’ll catch me in my car singing lyrics like, “but little boys have action toys for brains, I’m living proof it can last a long time”.

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Since that first song The Killers release a new Christmas song during the first week of December to coincide with World AIDS Day on December 1. I consider the collection of eight songs over the last few years to be the band’s “fifth” album. Over the eight songs 2009’s “Happy Birthday Guadalupe” is about the hope for simple love on Christmas Day. Last year’s “Christmas in LA” is all about spending the holiday away from family because you chose to follow your dreams. 2008 saw Elton John and Neil Tennant join in for “Joseph, Better You than Me” which explores the faith inherent in the man who would be baby Jesus’ earthly parent. This song resonates more with me than traditional hymns as the song asks, “Will my faith stand still or run away”. The band indulges in a silly little ditty for 2011’s “The Cowboy Christmas Ball”.

What sets these songs apart from other artists who release Holiday songs is these feel more like songs really considered over the year between releases. As a result the songs stand on their own more surely and don’t lend themselves to becoming a musical time capsule more emblematic of the time period it was released.

Sometime this week I will get my annual e-mail that the new The Killers Christmas song has been released and I will be downloading as fast as the internet will allow me to. Then I’ll begin humming my way through December into the New Year.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Cocktails with Amaro

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With the return of cocktail culture over the last few years, thank you “Mad Men”, there has been an influx of ingredients found on the liquor store shelf which rarely showed up previously. One whole category of liqueurs that has really found a foothold are those called Amaro.

Amaro liqueurs are a class of herbal, bittersweet liqueur. For those who live in Europe, Amaro liqueurs have been drunk neat as a digestif for years. As bartenders in the US wanted to add new spins on their own contemporary cocktails they turned to importing some of the more interesting versions. While Amaro describes the group the variations are very broad.

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Fernet-Branca is an amaro which has a strong herbal licorice character; more Ricola than Twizzlers. It also has an almost perfume like combination of other ingredients including saffron, cardamom, rhubarb, and myrrh. Yes myrrh. The smell of Fernet-Branca is a wonderfully bitter design. My favorite Fernet-Branca cocktail is to add it to a traditional martini. That cocktail is called a Hanky Panky.

Hanky Panky

1 part gin

1 part sweet vermouth

Two healthy dashes of Fernet-Branca

Stir all of the ingredients in a glass filled with ice and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with an orange peel. Like a martini feel free to reduce the vermouth and up the Fernet-Branca to taste.

st germain

The forerunner of the amaros finding their way to the US was the introduction in 2007 of St. Germain liqueur. St. Germain is an elderflower liqueur which was a trendy drink prior to cocktail culture taking off. Once it did St. Germain was a natural to become used as any other amaro is used. It is part of one of my favorite champagne cocktail recipes that gets a lot of use during the Holidays called the Bois de Rose.

Bois de Rose

1 part gin

¾ part St. Germian Liqueur

¼ part Aperol Liqueur

¼ part lemon juice

Brut Rose Sparkling wine

Take everything but the champagne and add to a shaker containing ice. Strain into a champagne flute filling it halfway and then fill the rest of the way with the sparkling wine. Garnish with a lemon twist.

cynar

My favorite amaro is called Cynar. Cynar is a mix of multiple herbal ingredients but is it what is pictured on the label which makes it distinctive, an artichoke. I first came across Cynar in a drink called The Norma Jean where it is combined with gin, lemon juice, mint, and simple syrup. It is one of my favorite summer drinks. My favorite use of Cynar is my alternative to egg nog called The Warm Fuzzies.

The Warm Fuzzies

1 part rum

1 part cognac

2/3 part Cynar

1 ¼ part simple syrup

2/3 part lemon juice

1 egg

Put all of the ingredients in a shaker with no ice. Shake for about 30 seconds. Then add ice and shake for another 30 seconds. Strain into a glass and sprinkle some nutmeg on top.    

As we enter the Holiday season give an amaro a try in your favorite drinks. It adds a unique kick to everything.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson

When I was in graduate school in the early 1980’s there was this late night talk show that ran at 12:30 called Late Night with David Letterman. It was weird. It was different. It was just what I needed after a long day and night in the lab. The 12:30 slot for late night talk show hosts has offered up many unique versions of the talk show. One of the best, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, is coming to an end on December 19, 2014.

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I first became aware of Craig Ferguson when he played the boss Mr. Wick. From 1996-2003. While I thought he was good in the role I had no idea how good he would be when he made the leap to host of The Late Late Show in 2005 succeeding Craig Kilborn. What has stood out even from the earliest shows was the removal of the typical talk show tropes. There is no band. There is no human sidekick. The monologue comes after a cold open sketch. This is what the 12:30 slot has always represented as the hosts have some freedom to make their own rules. Mr. Ferguson has taken this freedom and created a talk show which makes fun of talk shows.

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As I mentioned Mr. Ferguson has no human sidekicks but he does have two sidekicks. One is a robot skeleton by the name of Geoff Peterson who joined the show in 2010. Grant Imahara of Mythbusters was looking for Twitter followers and he told Mr. Ferguson if he could get him 100,000 twitter followers he would make him a robot sidekick. The milestone was achieved and Mr. Imahara delivered Geoff Peterson, a robot skeleton. This is in itself a comment on the near vacuous quality of the typical late night sidekick. Geoff is voiced by one of the writers on the show, Josh Robert Thompson. The interplay between Geoff and Mr. Ferguson is my favorite part of The Late Late Show. It allows these two characters to impale the inane brilliantly. The other sidekick is Secretariat which is two guys in a horse suit. Secretariat doesn’t speak but hangs out in a stall on the opposite side of the stage from Geoff. Again there is biting satire that two guys in a horse suit function as a sidekick as well as any human.

Mr. Ferguson has a refreshing interview style where he doesn’t have his staff pre-interview the guest and help shape the questions. Instead Mr. Ferguson takes some time to find out about the guest and they have a real conversation. This reminds me of the old style of interview you saw on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson or The Dick Cavett Show. By not being sort of scripted it allows for spontaneity and sometimes chaotic side trips. When Kristen Bell is the guest it is a treat to watch two similarly minded comics trade riffs back and forth.

The final segment of every show is “What Did We Learn on the Show Tonight, Craig?” This is a parody of those sensationalistic shows like The Jerry Springer Show where after an hour of yelling and screaming a tacked on coda is meant to add meaning to the idiocy. When Mr. Ferguson does it he acknowledges the silliness of it and sometimes makes it wickedly subversive.

Before he starts his monologue Mr. Ferguson says, “It’s a great day for America” and for ten years is has been. On December 20 it will not be a great day for America because The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson will be done.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Charles Demuth

When I spent time in New York City during the mid-1980’s one of the things I was most fascinated by was modern art. In those first years of my time in The Big Apple I was a glutton for seeing the artists I had admired. Even better was the opportunity to discover new artists who I had never heard of. One of these discoveries was Charles Demuth and he was my introduction to the concept of Precisionism.

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My Egypt by Charles Demuth (1927)

Precisionism arose from the more widely-known schools of Cubism and Futurism. The preferred subject of the Precisionist movement was the industrial landscape, in particular the American industrial landscape. Mr. Demuth would become one of the major artists within this genre. The painting which captivated me was the one seen above “My Egypt”. I would come to find out this was part of a seven painting set by Mr. Demuth that he did between 1927 and 1933. These seven paintings would be the capstone to his career. What I saw was a recognition that through the creation of the large industry of the early twentieth century America was creating its own pyramids. When I look at My Egypt through the fractured planes Mr. Demuth uses I see it as a flawed reflection which has come true in the nearly one hundred years since he painted them.

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Incense of a New Church by Charles Demuth (1921)

Mr. Demuth did most of his work in the house he shared with his mother in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The Precisionist style flourished from about 1916-1936 and Mr. Demuth’s earliest examples come from 1921. The one seen above, “Incense of a New Church”, has become one of my favorite paintings by Mr. Demuth. The tendrils of resinous smoke put together in overlapping segments so that it almost looks like reptilian. The smokestacks of the factory replacing the altar of the old church. I have a lithograph of this which is one of my daily inspirations.

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Charles Demuth (Photo: Alfred Stieglitz)

The 2008 retrospective that was held at the Whitney Museum in New York is still one of my favorites as I was able for the first time to take in many of his earlier pieces. It also confirmed that for me once he made the move to Precisionism that was where his best work was. He was a contemporary and close friend of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. Upon his death in 1935 he left all of his paintings to Ms. O’Keeffe trusting her to be the proper arbiter of their eventual resting place. The picture of Mr. Demuth above was taken by Mr. Stieglitz and it is one of the few pictures of him we have.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Green Day

One of my favorite musical memories was standing on a hill next to the South Stage at Woodstock 1994. As I’ve mentioned many times I was an original punk during the 1970’s and early 80’s but it had faded. The next band scheduled for the stage was a trio from California called Green Day. I had worn out the cassette of their debut album “Dookie” by this mid-August day. I turned to my two friends and said, “This might be the day punk comes back.” Over the next hour Green Day took the stage ripped through their set while engaging in a mud fight. Also notable was in the middle of the musical chaos a security guard mistook bassist Mike Dirnt for a stage invader and swept his legs out from underneath him breaking some of his teeth. He got up and without missing a beat continued shredding his bass. From that moment I knew punk was back.

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Green Day post Woodstock 1994 set Mike Dirnt in the middle showing off his chipped teeth.

Green Day is lead singer and guitar Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt, and drummer Tre Cool. Like the best bands they have evolved over the past twenty years. I am very happy to see that they are nominated to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year at their first opportunity. When punk first came around it burned itself out within ten years. Since its rebirth in 1994 it has stormed along for the last twenty years and I believe it has much to do with the success of Green Day.

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Green Day in 2014

Off of that momentum from Woodstock the band would have a spectacular five years of success releasing three more albums in that time. Then they took a well-deserved break. When they returned to the studio in 2004 I think they produced one of the great albums of the 21st century, “American Idiot”. American Idiot was the first punk rock opera in the tradition of other rock operas of the past as it follows its musical protagonist Jesus of Suburbia through his life. It was a scathing indictment of America at that time. It hearkened back to the disillusioned youth of England that spawned the punk rock movement in the first place. The title song encapsulates all of this as it is very punk in its lyrics but the band has gone from a stripped down sound to something very much more powerful and together. As much as I adored Dookie I listen to American Idiot frequently because it is one of my favorite contemporary releases.

American Idiot would be adapted to become a proper Broadway musical and played for a little over a year in 2010-2011. Billie Joe Armstrong played in the cast for a few of the performances and also appeared on some of the show’s touring dates.

There have been four more releases since American Idiot and while the sound continues to change underneath it all is still the snarl and crack of the three young men I saw re-start punk rock in 1994. I really hope to see them inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year I think they deserve it.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Blacklist

Every new television season I manage to pick up one or two new series which eventually get a season pass on my DVR. The sad thing is when it comes to the next new television season I find it is those that I watched the year before which I delete from my DVR to make room for the new potentials. In almost every artistic endeavor you can name, sustaining creativity and building upon it is extremely difficult. I imagine for a new television series it is even more daunting. When you film your original order of thirteen episodes you likely put all of your good ideas on the line. Then if you’re successful you’re asked for nine more episodes to complete the first season. Now what? The truly creative manage to get over this; others have problems and it is why you often see those final nine episodes of a freshman television series become so maddeningly inconsistent. Of the new shows I began watching last year one of them has not only come back stronger than when it began but it feels like it is peaking at the moment. That show is NBC’s The Blacklist.

the blacklist

The premise of The Blacklist is that a one-time agent who had turned to a life of crime by becoming the man who brokers deals between international criminals turns himself in. The character’s name is Raymond “Red” Reddington and he is played by James Spader in one of the best performances on television. It is his performance which makes the show watchable even when the plotting gets a little too byzantine. The structure of the show is Red only works with one profiler in the FBI, Lizzie Keen played by Megan Boone. The mythology weaving its way through the show is about Red’s and Lizzie’s relationship. There is some connection and the show feeds the audience bits and pieces about it around the case of the week. Those cases are people who are on The Blacklist, criminals so careful the police agencies don’t even know about them. Every episode starts with a name. Sometimes they have supervillain like names The Kingmaker or The Alchemist; sometimes it is just the name of a person or group. By the end of the hour the titular villain is thwarted.

The cases are pretty standard television fare. The performance of Mr. Spader is not. He excels at playing these morally ambiguous characters. He really became one of my favorite actors when he played the role of lawyer Alan Shore on the last season of the show The Practice before being spun-off into his own show Boston Legal. There is common ground between Red and Alan, besides the actor who brings them to life, both happily almost gleefully use unethical means to ensure positive outcomes. It is this ability to portray a character who contains a strong adherence to a personal ethos which makes Mr. Spader so much fun to watch. In The Blacklist he has never been better.

If you are looking for something to catch up on and binge watch as the weather turns colder I can highly recommend doing so with Season 1 of The Blacklist. Then catch up to the current season because it is only getting better.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Argentinian Malbec Wine

Location, location, location is a widely known axiom in real estate. It also applies to wine making as well. For great wines to be made it requires a combination of the right amount of sunshine, the right temperature range, and the right kind of soil. These considerations are all combined in a single concept called terroir. Terroir loosely translates to “sense of place”. When the term was first coined I suspected that it was more a marketing ploy by France and California to continue to promote the idea that they were the premiere wine growing regions in the world. It wouldn’t be until the early Naughts that I actually came to believe in the concept and it wasn’t a French or California wine that convinced me it was one from Argentina.

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Malbec grapes on the vine in Mendoza

The malbec grape was a widely used blending grape for the French and California red wines. It was primarily used to soften some of the rougher edges a particular vintage might produce. By itself malbec was never considered to be a wine on its own because it just didn’t have enough character. In France after a particular rough winter in 1956 where most of the malbec vines were lost vintners gravitated to other varietals when replanting like cabernet franc. In California the opposite happened as it wasn’t until the mid-1990’s that malbec began to be produced in significant quantities for use as a blending grape.

I remember going to my favorite wine store in Boston and being offered this new wine from Argentina. i freely admit I’m a wine snob and so I expected this new wine from Argentina to be uninspiring. Except when I took my first sip the incredible texture and flavor made me reassess my thoughts on Argentinian wine making. When I asked what the wine was I was told it was Terrazas de los Andes Malbec. I was flummoxed; not only Argentinian but a flaccid tasting grape like malbec. How could this be? The answer was in the name of the wine I had tasted.

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Nicolas Catena Zapata

The introduction of the malbec grape came from French agronomist Miguel Pouget who brought some cuttings with him to Argentina in the mid-18th century. It wouldn’t be until 1994 when winemaker Nicolas Catena Zapata would decide to plant malbec grapes in the high-altitude of the Andes Mountains that these spectacular wines would be cultivated. His Bodega Catena vineyard is the result.

The region in the Andes known for this is called Mendoza. The vineyards that are in the region all exist from altitudes of 3,000-5,000 feet above sea level. The soil is also very flinty as you might expect from being on the side of a mountain range. You would also expect that being on the side of a mountain at altitude the grapes are exposed to a greater and more intense amount of sunlight. All of this is probably true and together they transform the malbec grape grown in Mendoza into one of the best red wines in the world. Terroir indeed.

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The malbec wine imported to the US is uniformly good and unlike most other big red wines is drinkable right away without further aging. These malbecs don’t have a lot of the tannins and harshness that require some mellowing by aging in the bottle. This quality makes them very accessible. What even makes them more accessible is the best malbecs are still available at less than $20 a bottle, often less than $15 a bottle. Compared to their French and California counterparts which are over a $100 a bottle these are fabulous bargains.

Malbecs go with any kind of meat dishes or robust tomato-based dishes. Whatever you would pair a cabernet sauvignon or Bordeaux with a malbec will serve just as well. The best vineyards are Terrazas de los Andes, Bodega Catena, Trapiche, Layer Cake, and Cigar Box. So far I can say there hasn’t been a poor vintage yet produced which is another oddity as the terroir seems to be remarkably stable in the conditions for the grapes to grow.

If you’re looking for a great red wine that doesn’t cost a lot heading into the fall and winter you just need to head to the Argentina aisle in your local wine store and say “Malbec please.”

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Thor Goddess of Thunder

Spending this weekend at the 2014 New York Comic-Con I realize how far things have come since I attended my first con back in 1973.  Back then it was more about comics than popular media although Star Trek original series episodes were often the entertainment in the early days. Things would continue to grow over the years until by the early 1980’s the San Diego Comic-Con had grown in size to become the biggest con in the country. Throughout those early days I can tell you there was one very common aspect to all of them, very few women. This year as I walk around the convention hall there are lots of women. Some of this is due to the expansion of Comic-Con to cover a wider swathe of pop culture as it is more than just comic books. Even with that as a disclaimer over the last couple of years there have been a lot of female characters added into the mainstream superhero comics.

thor goddess of thunder

The biggest indicator of this change is the recent change in gender of Thor. For those not up on your comic book mythology Thor has been the embodiment of the Norse God of Thunder son to the ruler Odin. Thor has a hammer called Mjolnir which only he can wield and which only he can pick up, because he is worthy. The new story line outlined in the latest issue of the comic is the male Thor has lost the ability to pick up Mjolnir. Part of the mystery to be resolved over the next few issues is why this happened. What has changed is a woman walks forward and picks up Mjolnir which makes her Thor Goddess of Thunder. Her face is shrouded and the other mystery to be resolved is her identity. Along with a female Thor, Odin’s wife Freyja has been ruling over the Norse Gods recently and seems reluctant to let go the reins of power. The women are taking charge in Asgard, the Norse Gods home.

This is a big event within comic book mythology and it has much to do with the changing demographics of who is reading. In the third quarter of 2013 young women aged 17-33 purchasing comic books increased by 20%. They are drawn to the books which show women superheroes. They eventually may show up at a con dressed as their favorite superhero which represents their ability to find fun in imagining themselves saving the world.

The trend isn’t going away as Wolverine of X-Men is being killed off in the comic books and the new version will be his genetically engineered daughter X-23 who will be the new lead in her own series of books.

I am looking forward to reading the adventures of Thor Goddess of Thunder, and X-23, and hopefully many more female heroes over the next years because there is nothing like a woman who can be as tough as she needs to be.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: David Fincher

Back in 1989 before MTV became an entertainment network and still showed music videos there were two videos which were some of my favorites to watch that year. Don Henley’s The Boys of Summer and Aerosmith’s Janie’s Got a Gun both were directed by the same person. I was reminded of those videos after seeing that director’s latest feature film. The director is David Fincher and his latest film is Gone Girl.

Gone Girl is a movie based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote the screenplay. It is a story of married couple Nick and Amy Dunne. Amy goes missing on their fifth wedding anniversary. The movie explores both of their very different journeys. I was thinking about those early videos by Mr. Fincher because I can see The Boys of Summer as Nick’s theme and Janie’s Got a Gun as Amy’s theme.  

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Rosamund Pike and David Fincher on set at Gone Girl

Mr. Fincher has become one of our best movie directors over the twenty five years between those videos and Gone Girl. He has a reputation as a perfectionist asking his actors to do many more takes than usual looking for the perfect nuance. It is a process which has led to the creation of singular set pieces in his movies. The final act in Se7en, the reveal of the twist in Fight Club, Lisbeth’s revenge in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the scene in the bar where Mark Zuckerberg buys into the world of big business in The Social Network. Every one of those scenes requires the actor to show you layers underneath the obvious playing out on screen. That Mr. Fincher is able to do that makes his dedication worth it. Gone Girl is a movie where nothing that you see on the surface is real and Ben Affleck as Nick and Rosamund Pike as Amy are asked to give some of the most layered performances they have ever given. I think Mr. Fincher is responsible for that especially when it comes to Ms. Pike who has never given a performance like this in her career.

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Ben Affleck (l.) and David Fincher on set at Gone Girl

If there is a frequent criticism of Mr. Fincher it is that his characters come off as cold or unfeeling but I think that, again, is a surface judgment. These characters are alight with banked emotions which are kept hidden. In my opinion Mr. Fincher is as close as we have to a modern Hitchcock. Even in true stories like Zodiac or The Social Network where going into the movie I know the story he still manages to involve me within the story and make me see what I know in a different way.

It is very early to be making movie award predictions but Gone Girl is an example of Mr. Fincher synthesizing everything he has learned over the last twenty-five years into something I hope is at the very least recognized with a directorial nomination come Academy Award time.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Saturday Night Live

By the time this publishes tonight I will be sitting in front of my television set watching the opening show of the fortieth season of Saturday Night Live (SNL). I have been thinking that watching SNL has been a fixture in my life from my teen years right through to my AARP card carrying years. The cast members have seemed to evolve and change along with me. There is always some part of a given show which makes me laugh. That SNL is still standing is testament to one man Executive Producer Lorne Michaels.

SNL_Original_Cast

When I talk about the importance of clear creative direction in perfumery it is no different in the visual arts. If there is not a clear vision on top the effort is doomed to failure or ennui leading to boredom, and cancellation on television. Mr. Michaels has continued to refresh the cast over forty years adding in fresh faces and arguably being the biggest star making show of the past forty years. Just think about the movies you love and chances are an SNL alumni has something to do with many of them. That is also some of the joy of watching SNL as you see a comedic performer grow from unknown to superstar.

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Lorne Michaels

The other thing I take great joy from watching is taking on the catchphrases into my own daily life. “Candygram!” when I’m trying to be deceptive. “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead” when talking about something obvious. Although when using it in a meeting of young scientists who were not born when SNL premiered I had to explain it and simultaneously feel my age. When we go shopping my wife rolls her eyes every time I pick up the package of meat substitute Seitan and channel the Church Lady. My all-time favorite line came from Billy Crystal’s impersonation of Fernando Lamas, “It is better to look good than to feel good” I was also a big fan of “You look mahvelous.” I could go on but you get the idea.

So as I get set to sit down and watch Chris Pratt host tonight’s episode I wonder who from this cast will be the next big star and what line will become the next part of my lexicon. I’ll know very soon.

Mark Behnke