Paul Farhi on Pop Culture: The anti best of/worst of list

Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 22, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Paul Farhi was online Tuesday, Dec. 22, at 1 p.m. ET to talk about the latest news and topical issues in the pop culture world of TV, radio, movies and trends.

Today: 'Tis the season of "best of" and "worst of" lists, and frankly, we're sick of it. Let's us count the ways: They're arbitrary, they're utterly subjective, they're a gigantic cliche. Bring your best-of and worst-of lists and we'll check 'em, twice. Plus: Local news goes nuts (predictably) on the snowstorm. Wall-to-wall coverage: Why?


Paul Farhi: Greetings, all, and welcome to a) the last chat of Aught 'Nine; b) the last chat of the decade (and don't start with all that jibberjabber about the decade ending in the 10th year, i.e., 2010; I'm just going with the flow here)....Anyway, according to Federal Law 604-B, we here in the official mainstream news media are required to file our best-worst/in-out lists at this time of year, under penalty of death. Strictly from a labor perspective, it's hard to complain about that. Best/worst lists enable us to just gin up a whole lotta rehash from the year past and take the next week and a half off. We love these lists, don't we? A cursory run of Google (and is there any other kind of run of Google?) gets you the usuals (best-worst movies, TV shows, books, games--basically the entire year-end issue of Entertainment Weekly), but also: best/worst airports to sleep in, best tech gadgets, best jobs, professional wrestlers, porn-movie intros, NHL jerseys, popes, Heisman Trophy winners, and on and on.

I realize this kind of shorthand is irresistible--it's brief, topical, easily illustrated, and starts the occasional argument--but it's also a cliche worth retiring. Of course, I blame David Letterman for all this. Where would America's thriving list-making industry be if not for the popularity of his nightly Top 10 lists? Letterman's stuff has the advantage, of course, of often being very funny (btw, is there a Top 10 list of the Top Letterman Top 10 lists somewhere?)

If we must, I'll admit I find myself drawn to the "worst" lists. Maybe it's because we all sort of know what the best stuff is; it's already been duly celebrated. The trashier material--now that deserves a second calling out. And it might even be socially useful, in the sense that highlighting the bad might drive away something similarly lousy in the future.

Take your worst commercial of the year (well, here I go, indulging in the very best/worst-ism that I decry). Was it your Chris Farley back from the dead for DirecTV? Was it the Bud Lite commercial in which the woman nailguns a boutonnière to her mate's chest (I cringe every time I see it)? Was it those Levis ads with the creepy lighting and Walt Whitman copy? (No, I like those for their weirdness). Anyway, you get the idea. Or maybe not.

In other news: I get the need for snow coverage. But so much? Who is served by this? Advertisers? Viewers? The stations? Isn't it self-defeating? Wouldn't housebound viewers want to watch something else all day?

Well, let's go to the phones...


Laurel: I don't mind "Top 10" lists nearly as much as In/Outs. Usually, "Out" is something I've barely heard of.

Paul Farhi: I would say that, unfortunately, is only true of our in-out list. I've done this the last few years: My son (young person) and me (older person) have gone through the list trying to see how many we "get." Between us, we can come up with about one-third. Now, I'm all for stretching, branching out, discovering new stuff. But why so idiosyncratic? Maybe that's just our (inexplicable) tradition.


mom's basement: re: last week's "Guido"'s an Italian name! How is that not offensive to Italians?

Carloyn Hax once published a letter from someone whose mother frequently complained about the behavior of "Shaniquas," what can you expect from Shaniquas etc. I don't remember what the specific objectionable behavior was, but if anyone tried to defend the term by saying you didn't -have- to be black to be a Shaniqua, you just had to exhibit these certain bad behaviors, would that make it any less offensive?

Paul Farhi: Right. People (on this channel, no less--the shame!) have tried to argue that the term is generic, that to be a "Guido" is to exhibit a certain set of behaviors and appearances (muscles, flashy clothes, an orange tan, loads of hair "product," etc.), regardless of one's ethnic origin. But that doesn't get you past the fact that "Guido" is a very specific (i.e., Italian) name. Maybe if you called such people by another, more general name it wouldn't be so bad. Got any suggestions for a new name?


But-But-: You just made my list of the "Top Ten Ways to Kill an Hour on Tuesday Afternoon."

You took the place of that lazy-a--ed Weingarten.

Paul Farhi: I like that list! But don't go dissing my man Weingarten. Since Dave Barry's quasi retirement, he's personally keeping the newspaper humor column going...


Baltimore MD: Worst List: Social media and the people who think everyone uses it. Paul, I was amazed during Dr. Gridlock's chat by the couple of people who wrote in saying, "Metro did a great job communicating during the storm on Facebook and Twitter." Meanwhile, Metro evidently did a terrible job communicating in old-fashioned ways, like by calling radio stations. All the social media types should be aware that tens of thousands of DC citizens who depend on Metro bus and rail for their only transportation don't spend a heck of a lot of time on Twitter and Facebook. This atomization of media is one of the worst trends of the aughts in my opinion.

Paul Farhi: Interesting point. And now we have snowball fights organized by Twitter (see story about the cop who pulled the gun on the snowball fight in Shaw on Saturday). Somehow, that seems wrong (organizing a spontaneous thing like a snowball fight AMONG 20-SOMETHINGS, not pulling a gun at one, though pulling a gun at one isn't cool, either).


In/Out List of sorts: That annual Christmas poem done by Roger Angell in the New Yorker. It is usually pretty clever, but I find myself befuddled by at least half the names used (which I assume are chosen for their utility in the poem rather than their news value). Greetings, Friends!

Paul Farhi: But, you know, I kinda like lame traditions like this. The Style section always used to run Art Buchwald's Thanksgiving column (on Thanksgiving, natch). It really wasn't a great column (I was never much of a fan of Buchwald's, frankly), but I did like the quirkiness of it.


Gift cards at Christmas: The new fruitcase, refuge of the unimaginative, or a good deal for everyone?

Paul Farhi: Having already sent some o' those myself (the cash AmEx kind), I can't entirely diss them. Yes, unimaginative, but I figure it this way: I COULD get more creative, but also waste my time/money on a gift no one really wants. EVERYONE wants cash, so why not? But I can't defend it on creative grounds, no...


Washington DC: Another Jersey Shore comment: What amused me when Jersey Shore first came on was reports that MTV had actually received death threats for airing the show. It made me wonder if some "made" men of a certain ethnic persuasion didn't find the whole "guido" thing a little too demeaning and were readying their big sedans for a little jaunt to the Jersey pine barrens.

Paul Farhi: Yeah? Hadn't heard that. But did these people never see "The Sopranos" or "Goodfellas" or "The Godfather" or 10,000 other Mob shows? Tony Soprano wasn't exactly a role model for the Italian-American community.


Alexandria, VA: I agree with you - the blizzard of 2009 was perhaps less of a pain than the blizzard of commentary about it. Channel 9 had an army of reporters all over the Metro area, all saying the same thing - "It's really snowing hard here, and the roads are a mess!" Then they would interview a pedestrian, who would confirm that it's snowing hard and the rods are a mess. Non-stop, for two days, pre-empting things that might have been, well, less boring. What possible informational content did that talk-a-thon convey?

Paul Farhi: I guess the stations could claim they're doing everyone a public service by going wall-to-wall with snow coverage, but I'm not sure that really holds up. They couldn't break in every hour or so with reports of one kind or another? They couldn't run a crawl on closures and the like over their regular shows? And don't viewers eventually tune out? I suspect the answer is something like, "We do this because it's an exercise in 'branding' our news. If we cover the storm extensively, people are more likely to watch our news in non-storm times." Or something like that.


McLean, VA: Worst development at the Washington Post: closing all domestic news bureaus because "the Post is not a national newspaper of record."

Best development at the Washington Post: editors' slugging annoying reporters.

Paul Farhi: I won't get into second-guessing the boss on that quote (suffice to say, many of us weren't happy with the closures), but I will take you up on the slugging reporters thing. For the record: The reporter was NOT annoying. The editor is NOT a folk hero for throwing a haymaker.


just sayin': If I was an offduty police officer and a gang started pummeling me with snowballs, I'll put out my weapon too--they're allowed and required to break up fights if they witness them, even if they aren't on duty.

Paul Farhi: was a SNOWBALL fight! Buncha young people flinging snow around. I mean, I know I'd be upset if some punks hit my Hummer with a bunch of snowballs. But pulling a gun on 'em seems like a temper tantrum, not a reasonable law-enforcement response.

And the question I'd kinda like an answer to: How does a guy making D.C. detective money afford a $50,000-plus car?


Albany, NY: My pet peeve is that end-of-year lists only talk about 11 months, usually omitting things that happen in December. I mean, I get that some people have to go to press early (although Google Zeitgeist? Doesn't the Internet mean never having to say "deadline"?), but why don't they 'fess up and say, "the first eleven months of 2009" or go back and start on December 1, 2008? AP athlete of the year Tiger Woods finds your question interesting.

Paul Farhi: True dat, all around. And btw, I was glad to see Tiger winning the athlete of the decade thing. Totally defensible choice (I might have chosen Lance Armstrong, who finished second, but Tiger is just fine). And good to see that the voters didn't let a couple weeks of horrendous publicity sway their assessment of the past 10 years of remarkable athletic achievement.


Gift Cards: "EVERYONE wants cash, so why not?"

I say just give cash then. Credit card company "debit" cards are a joke - you can't use them once they get down to a certain level (what can one buy for 27 cents?), they charge you fees - like the $4.95 "purchase" fee, and they track your purchases so they can sell your information to marketing companies. They make me feel dirty and cheated.

Paul Farhi: Hmmm. Hadn't thought of that. Okay, good ol' American cash money next time.


Boodlesville, MD: Paul, anybody who pulls a gun on Twitter users is OK in my book.

Just sayin'.


Paul Farhi: Haha! And Twitter users who use Twitter to organize snowball fights at that. Plus, shouldn't those young people be out drinking, like all good young people, at a time like that?


Silver Spring: Can we do a Best/Worst List of Best/Worst Lists? Will that melt the cosmos?

Paul Farhi: I proposed that very idea to my boss people a few weeks ago. I think they liked it, but, yes, feared solar implosion.


Boodlesville, MD: "How does a guy making D.C. detective money afford a $50,000-plus car?"

Paul. Please. Really.

Paul Farhi: No, really.


Top Eleven List: Why don't you be different and have a Top Eleven list? Every one else does ten. You could brag about it. "My list goes up to Eleven!"

Paul Farhi: Genius! Very "Spinal Tap"-ian. Always a good thing...


Freezing in Florida: I think the purpose of the nonstop Snowpocalypse coverage is to make us feel better about it being a bone-chilling 45 degrees this morning.

My favorite news item was the early CBS coverage of that snowball-hating cop. The reporter described him as an "undercover" cop. "Undercover." In a Hummer and a fur coat.

Paul Farhi: Well, we have very classy criminals here in D.C., so one must dress/drive the part.

By the way, Florida, I was in Tampa-St. Pete a few weeks ago, and stumbled upon an exhibit of historic front-pages from the St. Pete Times. About half of them were world-is-ending covers about "brutal cold snaps." Like if the temperature ever got into the 30s. Guess it's all relative.


it was a SNOWBALL fight! : AT each other? Fine. Coming towards ME? I'm gonna stop 'em. The video looks like they hit his (overpriced) car, he got out. If they would have run away like they were supposed to, everything would be fine. But they (lots of them) hit HIM with snowballs! Even Andy Taylor would have used his gun after that. What 20 and 30 somethings thinks they can throw snowballs at a cop and not have a gum pulled on them? What is this world coming to? People throw snowballs at an officer and he's supposed to take it? How soon we forget 9/11 and our love of the officers who protected us.

Paul Farhi: Well, wait. Let's get the timing right here. The cop EMERGES from the car with his gun drawn. I.e., his car was pelted and it made him mad, and he made the decision to come OUT with the weapon. But at that point, you're right. Dude draws a gun on me for throwing snow I'm beating it out of there as fast as I can, cop or no cop.


re: The new fruitcase, refuge of the unimaginative, or a good deal for everyone?: I vote "good deal." My in-laws are often "imaginative" in their gift giving, resulting in a bunch of useless crap in my basement storage room. Anyone need some Hallmark animatronics or country-style wall hangings? A gift card at least would give me an excuse to go spend some money on myself, on something I actually want.

Paul Farhi: Um, 'fruitcake.' Yes, there's even a little book called "Scroogenomics" that takes up this idea as its premise. The idea is that holiday gift giving is an enormously wasteful enterprise because of the mismatch between what's bought and the recipient's desire to receive what's given. Of course, this misses the point of giving gifts entirely--it's not about economics, it's about sentimentality, which you can't put numbers on.


They couldn't break in every hour or so with reports of one kind or another?: They did. They speculated on the cause of Brittany Murphy's death.

Paul Farhi: Well, there you go. A two-fer. I wonder what would have happened if Michael Jackson had died during the storm.


Corner of Bedlam and Squalor: Paul:

For worst commercial: That piece of mindless, Capra-on-acid treacle where the doofus suitor is introducing a new "sign" to his nitwit deaf "girlfriend". I have raced to the next room and grabbed a large handgun and threatened my TV with death if it did not automatically shut off. Then I came to my senses. And kicked my sofa. Just cuz I really hate that commercial.

Paul Farhi: Oddly enough, I kinda like that one, even though I know I shouldn't. It seems "inclusive"--that is, even deaf people like to get expensive gifts (duh!)--but it's really just kind of a rip off of deaf people. They're using the girl's disability as a point of interest--Look! Deaf people!--and that seems wrong.


State of Dyspepsia: Re: The local channel's fascination with snow: How does anyone know that Channel 9 was running the same reports hour after hour unless they were there watching it? Turn the dang channel! Local news has been like this for 20 years now.

And really, waiting by the radio to hear updates? How quaint. The information for those willing to look for it was spectacular. It never occurred to me to wait until someone dropped it in my lap.

/rant off

Paul Farhi: My, my, we are curmudgeonly bunch today, aren't we? Is there something in the egg nog. Is it just the very concept of egg nog? (And who doesn't love the word "nog"?)


Jersey Shore, NJ: I hear on the talk shows, not really the news per se, that these "characters" on Jersey Shore are kids. These aren't kids, these are mid to late 20 year olds. I know, I know, in the real world the rest of us are working to pay the bills. I just wish they would quit calling them kids.

Paul Farhi: Some folks over here were criticizing that aspect of the show yesterday. Not sure why it matters. I mean, they LOOK like young people (and, jeez, when did "late 20s" stop qualifying as "young"?). Plus, every aspect of the show is contrived. I'm not sure this particular contrivance is any worse than any other part of the show.


Tiger wasn't Athlete of the Year ...: ... he was Player of the Year!

Paul Farhi: Ah, yes. Better!


Houston, TX: Worst commercial of the year - the one for the laundry spot remover featuring a young lady and her grandmother, with the "with-it" grandmother ending he commercial by saying "rock-on!".

Who green-lighted this? What the heck? It is so 1960's as to be totally baffling.

Paul Farhi: Old people get portrayed one of two ways in commercials, seems to me: As "active" seniors enjoying a fabulous retirement thanks to [name of sponsor here]; or as rambunctious oldsters who say/do unexpected things (for example, "Rock on!")....


Arlington, VA: The Chris Farley ad was bad, but if I hear/see that VA Lottery ad ("Give the Gift of Scratchers!" Sounds like infestation to me) one more time, I'm gonna....

Paul Farhi: "Scratchers." One of the not-so-great words created by advertising, no? My all-time fave is "moisturizer."


Chantilly VA: Top Ten Lies Told by the Salahis (could probably be Top 100)

1. I left the invitation in the car. 2. I was a Washington Redskinette. 3. My husband will be Ambassador to Palestine. 4. This is a Patek Phillippe. 5. I am president of Oasis Winery. 6. My name is Michaele.

Etc etc. Everyone can play!

Paul Farhi: All true, apparently...And you know what gets me about the Salahi story? Why don't they just save face? Very simple: Just say, "We thought we were invited, but we were mistaken. It appears to be a great misunderstanding. Our apologies for the trouble we've caused." Classy, simple, and would shut (almost) everyone up. What's the upside in insisting you were supposed to be there?


Albany, NY, again: "And the question I'd kinda like an answer to: How does a guy making D.C. detective money afford a $50,000-plus car?"

Apparently, Paul, banks and other lenders have been giving out more loans than they should. I've heard a couple rumors. You might want to see if the Post could put a reporter on it to check this out.

Paul Farhi: Ah, yes. I think I read something about that. Thanks.


MD: I am giving a certain someone in my family a gift card from Sur la Table for a class--the amount is the tuition for Basic Knife Skills, but if he/she would prefer to take croissant making or something else, it's fine. He/she has taken one or two classes there before & enjoyed them. I think that this does show forethought and interest in this person.

Paul Farhi: Yes, good point. If you know what the person likes, if the person has liked that sort of thing before, if the person has mentioned that he/she would like that thing again, it seems like a perfectly thoughtful gift....Jeez, I think I'm turning into Sally Quinn....


Okay, good ol' American cash money next time. : No! Paul, if you give me cash it's going directly into my wallet where it will get wasted on candy bars and soda at 7-11. Give me a gift card to my favorite store and then I am forced to go purchase something nice for myself. Thanks in advance.

Paul Farhi: But, see, that's what makes cash the ultimate libertarian gift. No restrictions, no "controlling authority," as Al Gore once said (about cash gifts, as a matter of fact!). So, have all the candy bars and soda you want, if it makes you happy, courtesy of me (or someone like me).


Chantilly VA: Two comments on the 14th and U snowball fight:

1. Nice to see the return of the flash mob. Weren't flash mobs so 2004?

2. To the poster asking how the cop could afford a Hummer: Overtime, my friend. Many cops and other public servants make more in OT than they make in base pay.

Paul Farhi: Well, it's nice to see flash mobs that actually are flash mobs. The 2004 (or whenever) flash mobs always seemed like a media creation--that is, flash mobs seemed to occur more frequently in the media as a social "trend" than as an actual trend....And, yeah, between banks that lend to anyone and overtime, I think you might be able to get the money for a Hummer.


Upperville, VA: The Post not replacing Angus Phillip because of pressure from PETA, HSUS, and the far left.

Mr Phillip's columns were not always about hunting. He will be missed. Makes my worst list along with Dan Steinberg never attending a herding trial after he promised to do so!

#1 on the 10 best list herding dogs!

Paul Farhi: Is that why Angus left? I wasn't really aware of that. Angus had been on a contract, after taking one of our many buyouts over the years, and we've gradually been cutting back on those contracts. While I'm sure PETA wasn't pleased with his column, they probably had bigger fish to fry (oops, non-PETA sensitive comment there...)


WRONG!: "What 20 and 30 somethings thinks they can throw snowballs at a cop and not have a gum pulled on them?"

The car is unmarked. The cop was plainclothes. He showed no identification. As Paul noted, he pulled the gun out immediately. How on earth was anyone supposed to know he was the cop?

And, please, spare us the 9/11 stuff. Nothing can excuse that this guy (driving a Hummer?! I agree, where'd he get that sort of money?) pulled out a gun without identifying himself, 9/11 or not.

Paul Farhi: I don't mean to demean all D.C. cops here (and in fact, the snowball cop called in backup cops, who were VERY polite and reasonable with the hotheads in the crowd), but the department did get slapped with a huge civil judgment a few weeks ago for mishandling anti-war protesters. Maybe this is another demonstration of poor training/poor judgment in the department, I don't know. But it sure ain't right.


Throwing snowballs at VERY expensive vehicles: Reminds me of when I was in Little Italy in Boston and came across a Cadillac parked ON THE SIDEWALK. I was complaining loudly when my friend reminded me we were in LITTLE ITALY and I was yelling at a EXPENSIVE CAR. We walked away quickly, not wanting any trouble. (Guido connection for you.)

Paul Farhi: Kind of an insult to Italian-Americans, no? And why was the car such a bother to you in the first place? You couldn't walk around it?


Lost Springs, WY: As the WP Pop Culture guy, you must instinctively (at least subconsciously) rack and stack the most intriguing "pop culture" stories of the year/decade even if you don't like lists. My vote for the most outrageously funny and entertaining story of the year (besides the Tiger Woods meltdown) was the Salahis couple adventure at the White House. Wow - the picture of them with the President is priceless! I'm surprised the firings of Secret Service personnel haven't been announced yet.

Paul Farhi: Well, yeah, the Salahis and Tiger have been very good to us (check out our series on the Salahis this week; good reading). As for the Secret Service, they've suspended two agents (possibly three), pending an investigation, I believe. But let's give some discredit where it's due: Why are the Democrats in Congress blocking the testimony of Desiree Rogers, the White House social secretary? She does have some 'splainin' to do. The Dems attempt to shield her from a grilling is indefensible.


Paul Farhi: And on that felicitous note, I'll bring this chat to a close. It's been a great year, gang, and I've enjoyed every one o' these chats. I hope everyone gets the gift card of his/her choosing this year. We'll be dark next week, but back at ya in 2010, Jan. 5 to be exact. Hope it's a great and safe Christmas and New Year's for you and yours. And as always...regards to all! --Paul


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