Friday, November 23, 2007

Story of the Week -- Nov 19-23

Turkey Talk

My favorite task this week was to call the Media office at the Butterball Hotline. I was investigating a rumor that the hot line trains its callers to speak in a Midwestern accent. I asked the woman in media relations if there was any truth to the rumor, and she answered me with...well she basically laughed at me.

Once composed, she said "well, all of our callers come from the Chicagoland area (By the way, am I the only one who thinks Chicagoland Area sounds like the parking lot, gas station, and Pizzeria Uno's in the immediate vicinity of a schlocky amusement park?) and they're all middle-aged ladies so..."

I stopped her. "So it's not so much that they're trained to speak like middle-aged Midwest housewives, and more like they are middle-aged Midwest housewives."


To further investigate the sheer stupidity of my question, I turned to the Butterball Hotline's media relations web site. Butterball Turkey Talk-line experts are "more than 50 professionally trained, college-educated home economists eager to assist Americans in preparing holiday feasts." Let's meet some of them, shall we?

Mary Clingman is the director of the Turkey Talk-Line. Her favorite call came from a man who was concerned that his Thanksgiving turkey spent too much time thawing in the refrigerator while he was off assisting his wife with the birth of their first child. Mrs. Clingman asked "how much does it weigh?" and the man replied "The turkey or the baby?" and Mrs. Clingman thought that was very funny. Clingman has a degree in Home Economics from Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, and she looks exactly the way you think she does. Mary's been talking turkey for 23 years.

Carol Miller has been talking turkey for 24 years and graduated from Northern Illinois University with a degree in Home Economics (a major that, as you might suspect, no longer exists at NIU) Carol remembers a caller with a very straightforward question - "when do I have to put my turkey in the oven so that it's done at halftime?" Carol and the caller put their heads together and calculated out the exact time! She loves the callers, especially on Thanksgiving Day, when her advice is often greeted with applause on the other end of the phone.

Astrid Volpert is the Talkline's token Hispanic. She has a degree in Nutrition and Biology from Perdue University. She formerly worked for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) a non-profit organiztion that provides low-income women with nutritious food, information on healthy eating and health care referrals. Now she talks turkey and volunteers at her children's school and for the Cub Scouts, where she holds board positions. According to Butterball, she is a "polished and charming media interview", which is probably code for "she doesn't sound hispanic".

Lastly, Dorothy Jones (23-year turkey talker) also has a home economics degree from NIU. And she has the best story of all. Her favorite caller came from a man who was distressed about the ammount of time it takes to cook a turkey. He asked Dorothy if the turkey would cook faster if he drove a railroad spike through it "to promote heat conduction." Calmly, Dorothy advised against avian impalement and instead offered a less violent shortcut.

These ladies are exactly who you think they are (a particular Dana Carvey character comes to mind) They may all have old-fashioned degrees and old-fashioned ways, but don't call them old fashioned. The Butterball Hotline keeps up with the times. 2007 marks year 2 for TurkeyTalk - the Butterball PodCast.

Here's a few more things you may not have known:

The line opened in 1981, when 6 operators answered about 11,000 calls. Today, more than 50 operators handle over 100,000 calls between Thanksgiving and Christmas (actually, the hotline officially opens November 1)

A survey this year of nearly 2000 adults found that 95% of American Thanksgiving tables feature mashed potatoes, but only 46% have gravy.

Men are twice as likely as women to prefer the drumstick, while the majority of women stick to breast meat. (hmm, might of thought that one would go the other way...)

83% of Americans in the North call it "stuffing", but the south is split between calling it "stuffing" or "dressing". Only 1% of the country calls it filling.

Americans in the Mountain Time Zone are most likely to serve pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving.

Southerners are the most likely to deep fry their turkeys.

Americans in the South Atlantic region (which stretches from New York to Florida along the East Coast) love the turkey just as much as they love the sides, and are more likely than any other region to use cilantro in their turkey preparation.

Well I bet that was more than you ever wanted to know.

Really, you want more?

Friday, November 9, 2007

Story of the Week -- Nov. 5-9

On Strike, Part II

Last week I joked about the effects of the WGA strike. Then one of my loyal readers posed a more serious question:

BrookLyn GaL: I'm curious as to your opinion on the strike since you're a writer. Of course as a viewer, I don't care who wins what, I just don't want to be without The Office. But I don't know enough about the demands and whatnot to know who is in the right.How do you feel about the strike, as a writer?

A very good question. There are times, Brooklyn Gal (and fellow loyal readers, all 5 of you...) when I, too, just want to make sure there's a new episode of The Office next week. And there are times when I think of myself, still, as a potential future member of the WGA, that maybe someday cousin Herb will be right, and I'll have to join the picket line.

Then I went on vacation before I finished writing this article. Apologies. But get ready for more travel articles from me at And now I'll finish my story of the week from a week ago that still applies because the writers are still on strike:
For the purposes of a coherent response, I've devised a hypothetical.
Let's just say:

In 1984 and 1985, I wrote 3 episodes of "Charles in Charge" (the one where Charles learns that people aren't always the way they seem, the one where Lila tries to sabotage her brother's crush, and the one where Charles has to supervise Lila's slumber party after he's decided to swear off women, in case you were wondering). For writing those 3 episodes, I made about $50,000.

Now I've had a solid career since, writing some after-school specials, a few small movies, and I produced a couple of short-lived sitcoms. But "Charles" was the best show I ever worked on, and the only one that made it to the magical world of television syndication. It pays to be in TV Land, trust me. Every time one of my episodes appears on Nick at Nite, or shows up at 2am in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, or gets slapped with Korean subtitles and shipped to Seoul, I get a little check in the mail called a residual. Those 3 episodes are really the gifts that keep on giving, with each by now at least doubling in value. Pretty sweet, if you ask me.

Why do I get residuals? Because if it weren't for me, there wouldn't have been a script. Without a script, you can't make a sitcom, and the studio and the network would have had nothing to sell to Nick at Nite, Sheboygan or Seoul. And if they're making money off of my work, well then I deserve to make money off of it too. That's why I'm a member of the Writer's Guild. They negotiated my minimum basic agreement and got me those residual checks.

Why do I need residuals? Well, I haven't written anything that made any kind of money in more than a year. Thanks to residual checks, I can afford to keep writing and get myself to the next big project.

Simply put, residuals are great. But, when the WGA last negotiated our residuals, there was no such thing as a DVD, TiVo, broadband or iPods. There were video stores, of course, and plenty of people bought VHS copies of movies for their home libraries, but nobody in the industry seemed to think anyone would be interested in buying old episodes of silly sitcoms or other TV shows ever again. But it turns out, in 2007, people love buying old episodes of silly sitcoms. Even TV shows that got cancelled after one season are on the market today.

More than 20 years after I wrote my episodes of "Charles" and probably 10 years since anyone in the industrialized world has seen any of them, you can get 'em on Amazon for 22 bucks. The problem is, I don't see a penny that. And, for all the same reasons I get residuals for reruns, shouldn't I be getting a piece of the DVD, iTunes, etc. pie? I think so. It's only fair to me and to generations like me.

And so, until the suits gives me and my writer colleagues a piece of that pie, we're not going to write another sentence.

So, Brooklyn Gal, while I, too, would rather not be without The Office, I think you'd agree that the people most responsible for the show's comedic genius, the writers (the actors make the comedy work, but they can't do anything with a blank page), deserve their fair share, today, tomorrow, and for years to come.

**Thanks to Pamela Pettler for lending parts her identity to this hypothetical. I hope she gets her much-deserved residuals.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Story of the Week -- Oct 29-Nov 2

On Strike

My cousin Herb insisted to my Dad that I would have to go on strike Monday. Insisted.

Thing is, I'm not a member of the Writer's Guild of America. Or any union. I don't get residual checks for anything I've written. My name doesn't appear in the credits of any major motion picture or TV show, and an IMDB search of my name says that I played myself in a 1999 episode of "Horizon"* Only that wasn't me, it was someone else with my name, and he didn't write anything for that show. So there is no possible way I could be on strike Monday. And I can't really believe anyone thought I would be.

Well, I can believe that Herb thought I would be.

So it's Monday now, and I am not on strike. It took me a while to write this, but I have no labor-related excuses. The Writers Guild of America is on strike, and the degree to which you or anyone outside the guild care is probably based on whether or not you depend on The Daily Show to keep you sane and/or alive. If you're like me, you can probably deal with the fact that The Late Show will be a rerun tonight. Some people won't even notice.

A NYC Transit strike this is not. But I can sum up in one word why you should care about the Writers Guild Strike and you should be praying they get back to work soon:


"If it weren't for the (1988) strike, "Cops" might not be on the air today," said the show's producer Morgan Langley.

You may not remember there was a 22 week long strike in 1988, but you're suffering the consequences today. Without new episodes of "Married with Children" to show, Fox resorted to COPS and America's Most Wanted, two of the earliest reality TV shows. Those shows proved 2 things: people will watch anything, and writers are expendable. And if the latest strike lasts (which it could) get ready for more reality TV than you ever thought possible.

And if that happens, you shouldn't encourage it. Watch sports, watch the news, but don't watch "The Bachelor: Teen Edition" or "The Real Lord of the Flies" (actually, I think CBS is already doing that show...) Those shows are cheaper to produce as it is, and with the writers demanding more of the DVD and online share, you wouldn't want to encourage studios to cut out the WGA altogether.

So while I am not on strike, I do hope those who are on strike get their issues resolved soon and get back to work.

Here, read more:,1,6311115.story?coll=la-headlines-business&ctrack=2&cset=true

*You're still wondering what the hell "Horizon" is, aren't you?
I dug further. It's a long-running BBC documentary series. So the other David Spiegel didn't so much play himself as, well, give an interview in a documentary for British Television.