Commercial Break Jonathan Coulton alters classic TV theme songs to be about more recent series. Then New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum tells Ophira Eisenberg what it's like to get paid to watch TV.
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OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:

You're listening to ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR and WNYC. I'm Ophira Eisenberg, and I'm here in studio with our house musician, Jonathan Coulton, for a very special TV on the radio episode.

You know what I miss about television?

JONATHAN COULTON: What is that?

EISENBERG: I miss television theme songs. You know, they had the lyrics that explained the entire show, what the whole show was about. Like, think about "Gilligan's Island" or "The Brady Bunch." It was like cliff notes.

COULTON: Yeah, it fills you in on everything that's happening in a show.

EISENBERG: I love that.

COULTON: Right. So in this next game, the band They Might Be Giants helped me update some classic theme songs. We rewrote their lyrics to be about more modern TV dramas and asked contestants Rachel Lang and Navdeep Tucker to identify both shows.

EISENBERG: And we learned something. We learned that while classic theme songs are very catchy, nobody under the age of 40 remembers what television shows they were for.

COULTON: Yeah. Oh, well.

EISENBERG: Take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

COULTON: So, you see, you have to tell us what the drama is that we are describing with the lyrics. And for a bonus point, tell us what sitcom the theme song was originally from. And if you get either part incorrect, your opponent can steal that point. Are you ready?

NAVDEEP TUCKER: Yes.

RACHEL LANG: Yes.

COULTON: OK. (Singing) Just sit right back in your Chippendale with a wealthy family. They live in a Yorkshire mansion in highbrow society. The earl, he is unflappable, the dowager's so strong. Aristocrats and servants, can they really get along? Can they really get along?

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

COULTON: Rachel.

LANG: "Downton Abbey" is the drama.

COULTON: Yes.

LANG: And the song is - oh, my God. Wait. All I can think of is...

EISENBERG: It's OK. Relax.

LANG: Don't say it. Don't say it.

EISENBERG: They're just young, everybody. They're just young.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: It's not their faults.

COULTON: I agree with you. It is shocking. Navdeep, do you know the answer?

TUCKER: That would be "Gilligan's Island."

EISENBERG: Yes.

COULTON: That's right.

(APPLAUSE)

COULTON: You are both correct.

(APPLAUSE)

COULTON: (Singing) Making your way in D.C. today, there's no room for disgrace. Hire yourself a crisis manager, maybe you'll save face. Has your public image gone astray? Sometimes you need to know somebody who can clear your name. She'll find someone else to blame. She's got problems of her own. Her wardrobe is never tame. She'll always be somebody who can clear your name.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

COULTON: Rachel.

LANG: "Scandal" is the drama. Thank God. I just want to say that, Ophira, you look a lot like Olivia Pope right now, and I'm loving it.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: You won the game.

LANG: Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

LANG: And the show is "Cheers"?

COULTON: You got it. That's right.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

(APPLAUSE)

COULTON: (Singing) Meet Dana, the one who stays detached, remained a skeptic till Fox was snatched. But Fox believes conspiracies and cover-ups occur with ease. They might seem mismatched. But they're partners. They're FBI partners. And you'll find when paranormal things they sleuth, they both are searching for the truth. They become aligned when partners find threats to mankind.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

COULTON: Rachel.

LANG: It's "The X-Files," and I don't know what the other thing is.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: You sound so sad. Don't feel sad. You're young.

LANG: I'm disappointed in myself.

COULTON: Your whole life is in front of you.

EISENBERG: (Laughing) You have so much potential.

COULTON: "X-Files" is correct. Navdeep, do you want to steal the second point?

TUCKER: There's some sort of relative. I know that part.

EISENBERG: Yeah, OK.

COULTON: That's right. That's right.

EISENBERG: (Singing) There's some sort of relative. OK, that's good.

COULTON: (Singing) There's some sort of relative.

TUCKER: They're related in some manner.

EISENBERG: (Singing) Related in some...

COULTON: ...(Singing) Unusual relatives. What is it? Everyone knows what it is, right? It's "The Patty Duke Show." They were cousins - identical cousins, which I don't think is a thing.

EISENBERG: No.

TUCKER: It's not.

COULTON: All right. Here we go. (Singing) Baby, if you've ever wondered, wondered what ever came of me. I'm living in New York. I'm in the ad game. Now I have a new identity.

(LAUGHING)

COULTON: (Singing) Got kind of tired of having no real future. Ditched the war, left poverty behind. I'm living the ideal mid-century lifestyle, but nothing really seems to ease my mind. I'm living in New York City, and I've got a fake name.

(LAUGHTER, SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

COULTON: Rachel.

LANG: "Mad Men."

COULTON: And?

LANG: You think - I mean, I think...

COULTON: Yeah, you're just going to pass?

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: Don't even try.

LANG: No.

COULTON: Don't even try. Navdeep, do you know what the original sitcom was?

TUCKER: They know. They know.

COULTON: They know. No, I know.

TUCKER: They know.

COULTON: But they're not up here on stage. It's hard for you guys.

TUCKER: Is it "Partridge Family"?

EISENBERG: Dear God, Navdeep.

COULTON: Not even close. Not even close. No. What is it, everybody?

AUDIENCE: "WKRP In Cincinnati."

COULTON: "WKRP In Cincinnati." It was a show about a radio station. Radio was a kind of...

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

COULTON: This is your last question. To make it extra climactic, we're going to have They Might Be Giants play this one.

(APPLAUSE)

JOHN FLANSBURGH: (Singing) Now the drug war failed, and we see that every day institutions are corrupt, and it's always been this way. The cops, the gangs, the mayor and the press. Now Stringer Bell is dead, but no one will confess 'cause it's Baltimore. Yes, it's Baltimore. Yes, it's Baltimore and Maryland. Yes, it is - Baltimore and Maryland.

(APPLAUSE, SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

COULTON: Navdeep.

TUCKER: Is it "The Wire"?

COULTON: It is "The Wire," yes. Well done. Any idea?

TUCKER: Some, but not a whole idea.

COULTON: Not a whole idea.

EISENBERG: OK.

TUCKER: Not enough of an idea to offer an answer.

COULTON: You just described a sitcom, my friend.

(LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: Maybe that'll be my second career.

COULTON: OK. Rachel, do you have any idea what it is?

LANG: No.

COULTON: No, OK.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: What is it, everybody?

AUDIENCE: "Diff'rent Strokes."

COULTON: "Diff'rent Strokes. That's right. Art, what happened in this game?

EISENBERG: What happened?

COULTON: I just felt my mortality. That's one thing that happened.

(LAUGHTER)

ART CHUNG: Well, for fourth-graders they did pretty well.

(LAUGHTER)

CHUNG: But Rachel was our winner.

EISENBERG: Congratulations, Rachel.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Great job.

COULTON: You know, listening to that game, it makes me think that it's true that kids these days are missing out because they have all these instrumental theme songs. There's no lyrics.

EISENBERG: Yeah, well, I'm blaming you. It's your job. You owe it to America, Jonathan Coulton, to solve this problem and write more TV theme lyrics.

COULTON: Listen, Ophira, I'm only one man. But I did do that, actually. Here's some lyrics that I wrote for "I Dream of Jeannie." And when I wrote this, I didn't know there actually are lyrics to this song. But it doesn't matter because mine are better.

(Singing) Jeannie, she calls her boyfriend master. She can do magic when she crosses her arms and nods. She's a crazy genie, and he's an astronaut. They get into trouble sometimes. And sometimes his boss can get suspicious, her double gets malicious. Their friend's the only one who knows her name is Jeannie. She calls her boyfriend master. She can do magic when she crosses her arms and nods - her arms and nods.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: So we've talked a lot about our favorite television shows so far, but we are the amateurs in this department. For the real scoop, we talked to an expert - New Yorker television columnist Emily Nussbaum.

COULTON: That's Pulitzer prize-winning TV critic Emily Nussbaum to you. That's right. This year, our special guest won a Pulitzer for her essays in The New Yorker. And I think her appearance on ASK ME ANOTHER probably pushed her over the top for that award. You're welcome, Emily. In this clip, we talk to Emily about her current favorite shows. Then she helps lead a game using her award-winning reviews with help from puzzle guru John Chaneski.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: So what are you watching now that you're crazy about?

EMILY NUSSBAUM: "The Good Wife."

EISENBERG: Yes.

NUSSBAUM: Let's see - "Broad City" I'm really into right now.

(APPLAUSE)

NUSSBAUM: I came late to "Adventure Time." But I

just binge-watched "Adventure Time," which is really fantastic.

EISENBERG: When you're reviewing new series is there - do you have a specific standard that you hold them up to? Like, this is the top of the pile that I will...

NUSSBAUM: I mean, it's hard to say. I just try to figure out whether I like it. It just sounds stupid. But, I mean, I don't have a particular mathematical algorithm for what I'm comparing it to. I mean, I do tend to favor things that are trying to do something new on TV, I hope. And sometimes those are the shows that feel off-putting and disorienting like "Louie," or shows that do things that haven't been done previously so people don't know how to watch them. So I try to find those kinds of shows, but I've changed my mind about things a million times. So I don't trust my own judgment.

EISENBERG: No (laughter). That's a good way to be for a critic. I like that. Do you ever think I should write a series?

NUSSBAUM: Sure.

EISENBERG: No, do you think you should write a series?

NUSSBAUM: Oh, I'm sorry. I misunderstood.

EISENBERG: Oh, that's very nice. Aw.

NUSSBAUM: I thought you were asking me whether you should write a series...

COULTON: You know, I'd like to do one, too. I'd like to do one, too, actually so...

EISENBERG: Do you think I should write a series, Emily?

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: OK. OK. I know. Since we have you here, here's my idea. So there's this girl. She hosts an NPR show - no. No - because you have such knowledge.

NUSSBAUM: Yeah. I have no interest in writing a television show.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: All right, so here's my pitch - no. But you are very active on Twitter and it kind of informs some of the stuff that you write for The New Yorker. Could you just talk a little bit about your relationship?

NUSSBAUM: Yeah, I love it. Yeah. I mean, I find Twitter really fantastic for talking about television specifically because I feel like - for one thing, it's a great way to procrastinate while I'm trapped at home and unable to write things. But then also I feel like it gives me access globally to people who are excited about a lot of the same shows that I'm interested in, but see them from very different perspectives. I mean, there are people within The New Yorker who are interested in television, but there isn't a huge range of POVs in the same way. And there's this sense where I talk to people from other countries - just, you know, occasionally I'll throw something out and just say what should I be watching that I'm not watching? And I feel like I get all sorts of input. But also, I talk with other critics. It's a way of brainstorming. It's a way of goofing around and being funny. I feel more linked to other people watching. I mean, it makes TV into a social experience in a different way.

EISENBERG: So are you often live-tweeting during a show?

NUSSBAUM: I feel really ambivalent about it because I do occasionally do this and I think it's a terrible thing to do. So I'm not sure how I feel about it. I mean, there are shows that I would never live-tweet during that are very visual shows. But I have to admit that there are shows that are made for live-tweeting, like "Scandal" particularly is a show that - that's the point of watching it, to me, is like, it's a great...

EISENBERG: To have a conversation.

NUSSBAUM: Yeah. It's fun. I mean, it's like hooting in a movie theater or something. And so that one - not that I hoot in movie theaters, but...

(LAUGHTER)

NUSSBAUM: ...Yeah, so, I mean, I haven't made up my mind about it, but it does seem a little bit troubling because it means that you're looking up and looking down. and I try to focus.

EISENBERG: Right? And when you were throwing things out, like, I love this idea that you were starting a conversation about a certain female archetype on television. And you were like, I need a name for this kind of spunky, yet unsettling female character that, you know - and what should we call this person? And someone on Twitter actually...

NUSSBAUM: Yeah, the hummingbird.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

NUSSBAUM: I was talking about characters - I mean, and somebody suggested calling it the Diane Chambers because she was sort of the original...

EISENBERG: The first one.

NUSSBAUM: Yeah, exactly. I was excited about "Enlightened," which if it was on right now, I'd be evangelizing for it, but unfortunately it was cancelled. But that kind of tense, but extremely idealistic female character who made people uncomfortable seemed to be on several different shows. And so, yeah, I brainstormed this name and then I wrote this little mini essay on it. I was thinking of people like Leslie Knope, a little bit Sue Heck on "The Middle," which is another show I love. I can't even remember what I was thinking because I was on Twitter so it was that...

EISENBERG: Right? It's a whole bunch of things, and then someone - OK. Awesome. We are going to put you in the puzzle hot seat just in a little while, and we're going to talk more about your beginnings in your television career - the show that started it all. But right now, you're going to help us out with our next game. So hello, caller. You're on ASK ME ANOTHER.

ANN YOUNG: Hi. This is Ann Young (ph) in Oakland, Calif.

EISENBERG: Ann, would you describe yourself as a TV fanatic?

YOUNG: Yes. Yes, definitely.

EISENBERG: OK. What's something that you're watching right now that maybe you would be a little hesitant to tell a large group of people?

YOUNG: Oh. Oh, gosh - "Squidbillies."

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: I don't even know what that is.

YOUNG: It's a ridiculous kind of Adult Swim show. It's animated. And there's this - it's set in Georgia. And it's hillbilly squids.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: She watch...

COULTON: Sort of writes itself.

YOUNG: Yeah.

EISENBERG: It's kind of, like, I love squid. So I would watch that. Emily, have you watched?

NUSSBAUM: I haven't. And I kept being told to watch more things on Adult Swim.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

NUSSBAUM: So that sounds great.

EISENBERG: That's amazing. I did not know you were going to say that, Ann, or anything like that. And so thank you. Thank you for that.

YOUNG: Oh, sure.

EISENBERG: Now I'm here with Emily Nussbaum, the television critic for The New Yorker. And this game is called Guilty Pleasures - like the one we just found of yours. So we're going to have Emily read excerpts from her New Yorker reviews of recent television shows. And all you have to do is identify the show in each clue. And if you get enough questions correct, we are going to send you a prize.

YOUNG: Oh, OK.

>>EISENBERG. Yeah. So Emily wrote this about a show that debuted in 2012.

NUSSBAUM: Popping with colorful villains, vote-rigging conspiracies, waterboarding, assassinations, montages set to R&B songs and the best gay couple on television - the president's Chief of Staff Cyrus and his husband James, an investigative reporter. The series has become a giddy, paranoid fever dream like "24" crossed with "The West Wing" lit up in neon pink.

YOUNG: "Scandal."

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: That is correct.

COULTON: Somehow you made that an eight-syllable word. That was fantastic.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: I - so I will admit, I have not watched "Scandal." I know. Relax, everybody. Oh, my God, the letters we're going to get. But I have friends who have become better friends because of their shared love of that show. It is - you talk about those - crazy addiction thing. That is a prime example of it, right?

NUSSBAUM: Yeah. Just start binge-watching starting with season two.

EISENBERG: Starting with season two?

NUSSBAUM: Because that's where it really, like, jumps up. Yeah.

YOUNG: Oh. I disagree.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: I mean, I'm not a critic or anything. But, you know, I like the first season. The first season was trashier, I feel like.

NUSSBAUM: Trashier? High standard.

YOUNG: Stamier (ph).

EISENBERG: All right. Here's your next clue.

NUSSBAUM: This sitcom is about a 30-something yuppie who is convinced that she's Sanda Bullock or Meg Ryan. Yet despite her insistence that she is gorgeous and sexy, a petite Asian woman, Dr. Lahiry is no catch out of central casting. She's pugnacious. She's self-centered. She's helplessly shallow. Yet she has the nerve to insist she's the show of her own story anyway.

YOUNG: "The Mindy Show."

COULTON: We'll take it. It's "The Mindy Project." Very good.

EISENBERG: Yeah. It's "The Mindy Project." Fair enough. Yeah. We'll clap for that.

COULTON: You can clap for that, yes.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: In the fall of 2013, Emily wrote this.

NUSSBAUM: To my surprise, my favorite new network drama is a show that looked like the worst idea ever. It has sexy witches, four white birches that represent the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and dialogue like belief is sanity left tenant.

YOUNG: "Sleepy Hollow."

EISENBERG: Yes.

(APPLAUSE)

YOUNG: Nice.

EISENBERG: Ann, do you watch that?

YOUNG: Yes. And that would also be a guilty pleasure, I would say. And the female star is dating Michael Fassbender, which I think about a lot when I'm watching it - a little jealousy.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: See? Everyone has their own reason for enjoying a show (laughter). All right, Ann, this is your last question.

NUSSBAUM: In this HBO series, clever people take turns admiring one another. They sing arias of facts. They aim to remake TV news. This is a new show and there are new rules, a maverick executive producer announces several times in several ways. Their outrage is so inflamed that it amounts to a form of moral eczema, only it makes the viewer itch.

EISENBERG: Oh, burn. What do you think, Ann?

YOUNG: Is it "The Newsroom"?

EISENBERG: Yes, it is.

YOUNG: Yes.

EISENBERG: Thank you, Ann.

YOUNG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TV")

COLLEEN GREEN: (Singing) TV is my friend. And it has been...

EISENBERG: Coming up, we'll put a phone contestant in the puzzle hot seat and see how much he knows about the casts of popular television shows. And later, we're forced to turn off the telly (ph) and go back to work to deal with our cranky bosses, so stay tuned. I'm Ophira Eisenberg, and this is ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR.

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