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Station Break
Pop Culture and More

Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 9, 2008 1:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Paul Farhi was online Tuesday, Dec. 9 at 1 p.m. ET to talk about the latest news and personalities from the pop culture world.

Sayonara, Tribune Co.? Well, not exactly. But close. But please: Don't blame the newsroom for the troubles of the newspapers. It's not our fault. Really. Jay Leno from late night to prime time? Looks like it's going to happen. Good idea or not so much? Station Break's take: Not so much. Tune in to find out why.

A transcript follows.

Farhi is a reporter in The Post's Style section, writing about media and popular culture. He's been watching TV and listening to the radio since "The Monkees" were in first run and Adam West was a star. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Los Angeles, Farhi had brief stints in the movie business (as an usher at the Picwood Theater), and in the auto industry (rental car lot guy) before devoting himself full-time to word processing. His car has 15 radio pre-sets and his cable system has 500 channels. He vows to use all of them for good instead of evil.

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Paul Farhi: Greetings, all, and set yourself down...So, the big news in TV Land (TVburg? TVville?)is, of course, Jay Leno's move from late-night to a five-days-a-week talk/variety show in primetime on NBC. We'll have more details on this in tomorrow's paper, but for now there are enough leaked details to say with some assurance the following:

1) NBC gets a whole lotta programs and saves a whole lotta money. Leno makes a nice chunk o' change ($30 mill-plus), but producing this new show will be far less expensive than producing "E.R." or any of NBC's 10 p.m. scripted shows. Leno is a legendary workaholic (he even does stand-up on Sunday nights at clubs in L.A., for some reason) and he'll stay on the air for as long as a camera is pointed at him.

2) It keeps Leno at NBC. Ever since NBC honcho Jeff Zucker made his weird announcement five years ago that Conan O'Brien would be taking over for Leno on "The Tonight Show" in 2009, Leno has been nearly a free agent. He reportedly has talked with Fox and ABC about jumping ship; NBC surely didn't want him competing with Conan. Now he won't be.

However. Here's what we don't know yet:

1) How long will NBC commit to airing the Jay Leno Hour? There's surely some guarantee there, or it's doubtful that Leno would have taken the gig.

2) What does NBC do when/if Leno bombs? The cost structure of the show means NBC can generate profits even if the show does so-so ratings. But crummy ratings for five primetime hours a week tends to weaken the rest of the schedule. NBC is betting a lot of its stack on this one.

3) What will NBC's affiliates say? Ten p.m. is a critical hour in TV--it's the lead-in for about 200 local newscasts on NBC stations around the country. NBC could be handing all of its affiliates a really cheap suit and calling a top hat and tails.

Enough of that. Let's go to the phones.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Is there a Peter Principle Hall of Fame, and can we fast track Jeffrey Zucker's induction? How can someone be allowed to be so bad at his job for so long?

Paul Farhi: I wouldn't want to be a network TV executive these days. The business is so troubled (I'd rather be in a business with a great future, like...um..um....). And, yeah, Zucker's got it tougher than most. He was basically handed a network in decline; he hasn't done all that much to arrest it.

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10 p.m. is too early : ... for a talk/variety show every night. Even with Leno.

People aren't yet in their sluggish, put me to sleep mode. (Especially in the 9 p.m. Central Time zone!) They're still trying to avoid wasting time watching TV. That's for 11:30 from your bed!

Paul Farhi: Fair point. It's not clear that a talk/variety show WILL work then (btw, we don't know how much talk and how much variety will be in the new Jay Leno show). And when was the last time a variety show succeeded in primetime? In Dean Martin's day?

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Vienna, Va.: Paul, I'm sure they'll be lots of talk today about Leno moving to prime time. I think there's another option for a network to consider when looking to easily fill primetime slots with cheap programming: put the nightly news on at 8:00 or 9:00. In modern times, many people aren't home or free to watch TV to get the news at 6:30. They are there for 8:00. If a network has a real ratings and/or money problem, wouldn't that be an option that could actually draw numbers?

Paul Farhi: No, it would not be an option. Reason: There's this thing called CNN. And MSNBC. And Fox News. And the cable guys are lucky to draw 2 million viewers with their primetime shows, a number that would wreck a network during those hours. Plus, do you know what the median age of news viewers is? About 60 years old. Again, a disaster, advertising-wise, for a broadcast network.

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Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.: Paul --

Could someone please tell the folks at Saointz, Kirk and Miles, and all the people who appear in their ads, how to properly pronounce "insurance." Emphasis on the second syllable, not the first, people!

Paul Farhi: Maybe they're trying to ENsure that you'll hire them when you have a dispute over your inSURance. Or to INsure you against an adverse legal situation. I can't assume either. Because, as you know, when you assume, you make an ass of "u" and "me."

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Bomb, baby, bomb: I don't care if I never see Jay Leno again. He's NOT FUNNY! NBC must be incredibly desperate and stupid to think that people will watch him five nights a week. You think they would have learned with the Rosie O'Donnell crapfest. (Can I say crapfest?) How about taking that $30 mil and using it for developing decent programming.

Paul Farhi: Well, I like Leno as a stand-up (he's far better at it/works harder at it than Letterman, who seems to be phoning in his entire show these days), but we can go to the ratings for some guidance here. "Tonight Show" does about 4.9 million viewers. That's at 11:30 pm. EST. He very easily could do 50 percent more at 10 pm, when there are far more people watching TV. An audience of 7.5 million or so every night for five nights, for very little investment, would make NBC very happy.

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Wrinkles: Okay, I know I'm weird, but I love seeing the actor who plays the brilliant, but delusional doctor on Fringe. His face is covered with wrinkles. It's so refreshing to see someone who has actually aged. The only thing is I wonder if the wrinkles are fake. When I look at the actor's face on IMDb, he doesn't look quite so old. Am I being deceived?

Paul Farhi: You're talking about John Noble, a very good character actor (and maybe the best thing on "Fringe"). And a) he's one of the few older characters on primetime TV, where everyone is 22 years old; and b) never trust a photo of an actor or performer. Every one of them is retouched, remade and generally look nothing like any living person.

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NBC's Leno Move: I've been thinking for years that this makes sense, especially in a DVR world where you don't have to watch what they put on when they put it on.

But the local affiliates are going to get crushed when everybody tunes out after the monologue and doesn't come back for the late news.

If Leno had any interview skills at all, this could be a renaissance of the talk show, but since all he does is tell jokes and plug "projects," there's no reason to stay tuned.

Letterman could pull this off if he wanted to, but he's done.

Paul Farhi: Pretty good analysis, if you ask me. And you know that Leno will be doing 20 minutes of stand-up on every show. Why else be on every night? And that's what he's good at. So that leaves about 25 minutes (minus commercials) for the "variety," if any. Mostly, I think, it will be more celebrity plugging. Not great primetime entertainment, if you ask me. But we'll see.

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Washington, D.C.: What's with the attempted resurrection of the variety show? Are networks really out of ideas?

Paul Farhi: I wouldn't put too much into that. NBC is talking more about what the show will be like today. But even that needs a few grains of salt. Since it won't air until next September, it will undoubtedly undergo many changes between here and there.

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Boca Raton, Fla.: Paul, I'm noticing many of the WaPo chat hosts have Web sites and gift items to pitch lately.

So I wonder is there anything you would like to promote this Holiday Season other than Goodwill to Men and all that stuff ?

Paul Farhi: Why, yes! Thank you, Boca. DVDs of "The Station Breakdancers: The First 75 Years" are available at participating retailers, and a few non-participating ones, too.* Makes a lovely gift for everyone in your family.

*(Sale prohibited in most states).

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Washington, D.C.: Perhaps 10:00 is a bit early, but nothing, nothing is too early to keep ER or the-show-that-wasn't-good-enough-to-knock-ER-off-the-air off the air.

Paul Farhi: I stopped watching "ER" back in the Clooney era. Has anything happened since I left?

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Iowa: The thing that bothered me about Bush kissing Streisand is that it totally turned me on and I'm an independent.

Paul Farhi: I assume you mean at Sunday's Kennedy Center Honors award show, in which Babs was one of the honorees.

Good lawd, I hope you mean that. I can't imagine another time occasion when Bush would be kissing her.

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Weakening the rest of the NBC schedule?: How? It's not like anyone's seeing the 10-11:00 promos now.

The network programmers seem to have forgotten that we have remote controls...we're not tied to any network for the whole night, no matter what they do to screw up TiVo. You just have to check the guide to set an extra ten minutes at the end of "House" tonight.

Paul Farhi: The ratings are down, sure, just as they have been forever. But it's still remarkable to me that the networks are still in the game at all. Reports of their demise have been around since the mid-1980s. That's a long time to be "irrelevant." And yet they still command, by far, the biggest share of the audience.

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Speaking of nitpicking grammar: While we're at it, can we have a nationwide lesson in the difference between "every day" and "everyday"? I pull my hair out every time I see an ad telling me to rinse my mouth everyday.... sorry, I don't have an everyday mouth. Grr...

Paul Farhi: On the next episode of Grammer Chat: The difference between "effect" and "affect." Check local listings. Every day.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Did you see in the obituary for Paul Benedict, who played Mr. Bentley on "The Jeffersons" for many years, that he was not in fact British? He's from New Mexico, of all places! I was stunned to learn this! Next thing you know, I'll find out that Marla Gibbs isn't actually sassy!

washingtonpost.com: Paul Benedict, 70; Played Neighbor on 'The Jeffersons' (Post, Dec. 5)

Paul Farhi: I gotta tell ya: I had the same exact reaction! That dude must have been good, because I never for once doubted that he was British. Brits (and Aussies) play Americans all the time (c.f., Russell Crowe, Mel Gibson, Cate Blanchett, careers of) but not so much the other way 'round. I can't think of ANYONE who did it besides the late Mr. Benedict....

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Paul Farhi: And because you've been such a good little chat audience: We're going to be joined shortly by Esteemed Colleague Lisa de Moraes, who is fresh from the NBC teleconference about the new Jay Leno show. Yes, we're doing guest stars now on Station Break....

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Paul Farhi: And please welcome...[drumroll]....Esteeemed Colleague Lisa de Moraes. Take it away, EC Lisa...

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Washington, D.C.: Wait a minute -- Madonna isn't really British?

Paul Farhi: Hahaha. Oh, yeah....

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Paul Farhi: Ah. Well, I THOUGHT we'd have Lisa, but the proverbial technical difficulties are unfairly denying us her. We'll try again some other time. Onward....

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American as Brit: Gwyneth Paltrow made a brief career detour in the late 90s when she took roles that would otherwise have gone to British actresses (Shakespeare in Love, and another one called something like Sliding Doors). One could argue that Madonna has been impersonating a British person for the last 8 or 10 years.

Paul Farhi: Right. I was one of the few people in America who saw her in Sliding Doors (not bad). Although I think she played TWO people in that one--an American and a Brit. That's ACTing!

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Americans Playing Brits: Don Cheadle in the Oceans Eleven movies.

Paul Farhi: Check. Good one.

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Chicago Ill.: At first I thought the Leno to prime time move was a terrible idea. But ironically, the comments on this chat -- Leno's not funny, Letterman would be better, 10's too early, etc. -- have changed my mind.

As you note, if he gets 7-8 million per night NBC's happy. And this isn't about appealing to culturally progressive naysayers. Instead, it's about connecting with the lowest common denominator. And those are the people who think Leno is funny, who think Letterman's a blowhard, who think 10 is late enough thank you very much. I think we'll be (unpleasantly) surprised at how well this show does.

Paul Farhi: You may be right. One of the things about being a network suit, it always seemed to me, is that you are surrounded by lots of jaded, cynical hipsters in New York and L.A., but you had to make decisions based on the preferences of people who aren't jaded, cynical hipsters. Kind of a tough cultural challenge. The best ones, like Brandon Tartikoff at NBC, could deal with it.

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Variety: The Carol Burnett Show ran into the late 1970s, and had a couple of high-rated reunion shows more recently, if memory serves. ABC tried to revive the format with Dolly Parton in the '80s; I enjoyed it, but I guess not many people watched.

I've long thought that the late-night shows (including SNL) are the successor to that format, since they've mostly gone away from the relatively more thoughtful interviews with non-celebrities that Jack Paar did, and even Carson sometimes when the show was 90 minutes long.

Paul Farhi: Yes, the late-night shows do fulfill some of the functions of the variety shows. Remember, the "special guests" on the weekly variety shows were also plugging their projects (just as SNL hosts are now), but they had to work much harder to do so (and the plugs were never so overt as they are on the talk shows now). The real difference, of course, is that the variety shows had real production numbers--actual skits and dancing and such. The talk shows don't do dancing, and they don't do many skits.

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Playing a Brit: Yes, it's one thing to do it in a movie, but Benedict did it for over a decade on a sitcom in which Britishness his character's main point. He was always telling stories about his relatives in England and being made fun of by "Mr. J." for odd Britishisms. Even his name, "Paul Benedict" sounded British to me!

Paul Farhi: He must have had a very good dialect coach. I'm no anglophile, but it sounded spot on to me (as the Brits say)...

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Canadiens playing Brits: Don't forget James "Scotty" Doohan.

Paul Farhi: Yeah, but Canadians a) aren't American; and b) are kind of quasi-British to begin with. And Scottish is a whole different thing. So, doesn't count.

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Sliding Doors: Hey, I liked that movie! Paltrow actually acts in it, and the result is good. But she doesn't play two people with different accents -- she plays one person in a what if? role, where we see how her life would have been different if she had made a different choice at a crucial time.

Paul Farhi: Yes. Good correction. Thanks, mate (as those pesky British are wont to say).

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Idea for NBC: When the movie houses were running out of ideas, someone came up with the brilliant idea of combining tired movie franchises, giving us the delightful Alien vs. Predator series as well as Freddy vs. Jason. So how about ER vs. My Own Worst Enemy? John Stamos gets to deal with all the people Christian Slater blows up. Or America's Got Knight Rider, where we find out who does the best Hasselhoff act. Or go old school with Night Court vs. Cheers. The possibilities are endless.

Paul Farhi: Do you have an agent? Because someone's gonna want to take a meeting with you.

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Washington, D.C.: Actually, in Sliding Doors, she played two British women. The same woman, really, but on two different life tracks.

Paul Farhi: Oh. Now I'm really confused. Someone fire up the Google Machine!

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American in London: How 'bout Renee Zellweger in "Bridget Jones's Diary"? (Not that she was all that and a bag of crisps . . . )

Paul Farhi: Good 'un! No need for the Google on that...

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Washington, D.C.: I will admit I am one of the few that has watched ER from start to finish. I even had my mom tape episodes for me when I lived in France and what they showed on TV was a season behind (and terribly dubbed with a 50-year-old chain smoker doing the voice of a 12-year-old kid.) I will be sad to see it go but love Life on Mars on ABC. I currently watch it on the Internet the next day since I'm watching ER at that time. Please tell me this show isn't about to die. I know the concept is odd but I like it. And the actor is quite fetching! I'm 26, if that means anything.

Paul Farhi: Yes, ER is about to die (actually IS dead). And 13 or 14 years on the air counts as a pretty good run (no, as a super-fantastic, ultra-fantabulistic run), so no tears here. What I hated about ER, and ultimately made me not want to watch it, was its go-to move: Kid with life-threatening illness or injury comes into the ER, and the docs rush to save him/her. Usually involved a fair amount of blood. Not exactly what I wanted to see right before bed (that's what the news is for, gosh darn it)....

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Wig: Does the disgraced Illinois governor wear a wig. It looks terrible if it is. Otherwise he needs a haircut big time.

washingtonpost.com: Photo: Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich (Getty Images)

Paul Farhi: The least of his problems now, I suspect.

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Cleveland Park, Washington, DC: Paul --

Fred Thompson is apparently about to join the cast of "Life on Mars." Is he going to to have to adopt a New York accent (unlike his L and O character) and really fit in, or is this basically an elaborate setup for an obscure "McCloud" joke?

washingtonpost.com: There's Life After Politics for Fred Thompson -- on Mars (Memphis Flyer, Dec. 8)

Paul Farhi: I think Fred's just biding his time until the Iowa primary. See ya in 2012, fella...

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Burbank, Calif.: Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.......hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha

Paul Farhi: Aye. All together now: "Oh, it's a jolly 'oliday with Mar-eee..."

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Anonymous: Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer actually fooled my British friends. They refused to believe the actor was from California.

Paul Farhi: Yes! Another one for us Yanks...

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SATX: Just a comment -- I'm delighted with this state of affairs. I like Leno, and he's a solid pinch-hitter when the other networks put lousy shows on at 10. It seems weird, but it just might work -- and, I can go to bed an hour earlier, having caught some very lightweight entertainment.

Paul Farhi: Right. Light entertainment. No Emmy bait here. But again, network suits have to think like a TV viewer, not a TV "creator."

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Paul Benedict: When I was in high school, we took a class trip to see a touring production of Shaw's "Arms and the Man," in which the aforementioned Mr. Benedict had a part. I remember that he spoke with that sort-of-British upper-crust movie accent (think of Charles Foster Kane), less than a pure-Brit accent.

Paul Farhi: Okay, let me reverse fields here. Just caught the original "Manchurian Candidate" for the umpteenth time. Who's idea was it to cast Laurence Harvey--very British, though born in South Africa--as an American military "hero"? He didn't even try to disguise his accent. Weakest part of a very good picture, in my book.

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Washington, D.C.: Let's assume Leno does about 7-8 million viewers. It will clearly be profitable. The questions are: 1) how long before people get tired of it? (They expect a late night show to be the same every night, but in prime time, five days a week? Clearly a change in viewing habits.); 2) What about nights where it is up against hits? If it starts fading, on say, Thursday night, does that start dragging the ratings on Tuesday and Wednesday night?); 3) Even if fairly profitable, this will substantially reduce NBC's "capacity" for viewers. It's not much different than a newspaper reducing the number of pages or columns. Bottom line, this will likely boost NBC's bottom line (but not its top line) in the short term. Over the long term, the impact of shrinking the top line could be damaging. Color me skeptical but intrigued.

Paul Farhi: Fair questions, but...1) A sizeable number of people may NEVER get tired of it. They never got tired of Carson, and Leno does have a good following at 11:30; 2) There aren't many hits at 10 p.m. currently. "CSI: Miami" is about the best there is, and it's not a blockbuster. Besides, as noted, Leno doesn't have to do gigantic numbers at 10 to remain on the air. Your strongest point is 3), I think. They could have a modest success in Leno, but a disaster in total, for the reasons you cite.

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Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.: Cameron Diaz and Leonardo DiCaprio both badly played Irish characters in "Gang of New York."

Paul Farhi: Not quite British, but the judges will accept it.

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Brit, Not Brit: I can think of two. The guy who played Higgins on "Magnum, P.I." and the guy who played the butler on "The Nanny".

Paul Farhi: Was Higgins (John Hillerman) supposed to be British, or just an upper-class American, a la Thurston Howell III? I always thought that was some kind of lock-jaw accent, like a lot of the character actors in movies of the 1930s. But I could be wrong...

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How about ...: Sebestian Cabot as Mr. French?

Paul Farhi: Totally different category: British guy playing British guy with confusing continental name.

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Stop talking, already: Is it just me, or do the DJs talk a lot more since the XM/Sirius merger? I'd been an XM subscriber for two years and can't remember ever changing the channel to avoid annoying chatter. Now, I'm doing it several times a day. They talk over the music, between the music. They talk about celebrity gossip, band histories -- the other day, I swear, one of them was giving us her take on presidential pardons. And this was a music channel! If I wanted inane chatter, I'd listen to local radio morning shows.

Paul Farhi: XM/Sirius is still working the bugs out of its merger. This is one of them.

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Laurence Harvey: He was pretty sniveling, wasn't he?

But Angela Lansbury was smokin' back then. Can we put up a picture of Angela Lansbury? (cue McCartney head shot)

Sorry, I was just thinking how great it would be if Ferguson came on after the news...

washingtonpost.com: Angela Lansbury in Manchurian Candidate (Google Images)

Paul Farhi: Yes. And now that you mention her: Angela Lansbury...Britsh, playing an American. And this takes up full circle to an old category: Co-stars who played the parent of another star even though the "parent" was more or less the same age as his "child."

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Paul Farhi: For the record, Angela played Laurence Harvey's mom in "Manchurian" even though Angie is only three years older than Larry.

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Geography Lesson: Don't let anyone say your chat isn't educational it caused me to look at a map of Great Britain and the U.K. So technically it looks like Scotland is part of Great Britain but Ireland is not. So a Scottish accent should be British (but not English). Am I right?

Paul Farhi: I think that's right. Scotland is part of Great Britain. But an Irish accent can also be part of the U.K., if the speaker is from Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K. But Ireland is a separate country. Canada, I'm not so sure about, though (kidding!)

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Another one: Brad Pitt as that totally unintelligible guy in Snatch

Paul Farhi: Oh. Excellent. That was a great parody of the accent. Would love to see a Brit actor top that, American style...

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Paul Farhi: Folks, we'd better stop this whole thing right there. What with the British-American-British thing and the Jay Leno news and Lisa D.'s unfortunate technical disappearance, my head is spinning. Okay, not really, but I think I'm still going to rest up until next week. In the meantime, as they say in old London town, I'm outta here, bro. And as always, regards to all...Paul

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