Once a blissful "late bloomer," Groban is a powerhouse singer with new PBS special


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Mike Hughes

A brief sampling -- Josh Groban singing "Bridge Over Troubled Water" at Madison Square Garden -- makes one thing clear: This powerhouse singer is in the hands of skillful TV people. Groban's concert is Monday on most PBS stations, a key element to their pledge drives. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For Josh Groban,
this all happened in a sudden swoosh.

He was, he says, a
teen-ager with a “blissful naivete,” belting out show tunes at
home and in class. Suddenly, he was with two important Davids (Foster
and Kelley) and a Rosie (O'Donnell). He became a music star ... and
now a key to the latest pledge drive.

On Monday, most
stations will air his Madison Square Garden concert. The epic
producion has chorus, orchestra, guests (Jenniferr Nettles, Idina
Menzel) and 17 cameras ... which, he insists, were discreet.

disappeared,” Groban said, “for me and for the audience .... It's
a real art to be able to (get) up in the nostrils, without people
knowing what's going on.”

The pledge drive
runs March 2-17, with varied elements. There's the “Victoria”
season-finale Sunday; there are looks at PBS icons -- Ken Burns,
Henry Louis Gates and the late Fred Rogers.

But the key is
music, which is scarce on other channels, but quite big on PBS.
Alongside lots of music memories – wih such late stars as Lawrence
Welk, Perry Como, John Denver and Nat “King” Cole, plus reunions
of folk and pop stars – theren are a few new specials.

David Horn, the
“Great Performances” producer, points to pledge specials keyed to
birthdays – Andrea Bocelli's 60th, Joni Mitchell's 75th.
For the latter, he said, “the all-star lineup includes James
Taylor, Diana Krall, Graham Nash, Chaka Khan, Norah Jones, Emmylou
Harris, Rufus Wainwright and Seal.”

Jim Dunford, PBS'
programming vice-president, points to the long link with Groban. “He
did his first PBS special 20 years ago and it has been an ongoing

Well, not quite that
long. Groban – who turned 38 on Wednesday – did his first PBS
specials in 2002 and 2004, when he was 21 and 23. That brought him to
one of his boyhood influences.

“My introduciton
to great concerts and theater ... was from PBS,” he said, citing
“Sunday in the Park With George” in particular. “It's been a
favorite of mine ever since.”

Other shows also
stirred him. “I was a late bloomer .... I was a musical-theaer kid.
I would sing along to soundtracks. And I would write at the piano and
I would sing about the day I had .... And I would go take improv
classes and just try to be as weird and silly as possible.”

Then everything
accelerated: A music teacher told Foster about this teenager with the
big voice .... Foster began using Groban to sub for stars, during
camera rehearsals for big events ... O'Donnell heard him at a
rehearasl and put him on her talk show.

Foster soon wedged
him into a fundraising concert. “I was sandwiched between B.B. King
and Ray Charles,” Groban recalled. “So the pressure was on.”

He apparently did
fine: Kelley heard him and asked him to sing briefly during the “Ally
McBeal” wedding scene. Then Robert Downey Jr., who was supposed to
be the groom, plummeted into drug problems; suddenly, Groban said,
the wedding was off.

“Kelley basically
said, 'Can you act?' I said, 'Well, I did 'Fiddler on the Roof' in
11th grade' ....

And he rewrote
overnight an entire script (about) an agoraphobic kid who was afraid
to leave his house and he (hires) Ally McBeal to go to the prom and
then he sings at the prom.”

At 20, this
“late-bloomer” became a star. The first PBS specials followed; by
26, he was listed as the top-selling artist of 2007.

There have been more
adventures – comedy bits with Jimmy Kimmel ... a Netflix series
with Tony Danza ... multi-year romances with January Jones (“Mad
Men”) and Kat Dennings (“2 Broke Girls”).

“All those songs
about love and loss,” Groban said, “these grand emotional
gestures that I was singing at 18, ..., now I've lived them.” And
he could sing them to the Madison Square Garden masses, with 17
cameras ready to capture a pledge-time epic.

-- Josh Groban
“Bridges” concert; 8 p.m. Monday on most PBS stations (check
local listings)

Pamela Adlon: She loves the frantic, frazzled world of show business

It's been  14 months since we had a new "Better Things" episode, but don't despair. The season-opener (Feb. 28) indicates the show is better than ever. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Yes, Pamela Adlon
says, show-business has plenty of frazzled, fractured people.

There's ambition and
despair. There's “that angry air that hangs over so many.”

And yes, she's
always wanted to be in the business.

“I grew up on
sound stages with my dad,” she said. Don Seagall had a successful
decade, writing comedy scripts; his daughter savored it all.

“I remember
following (director) James Komack around with a scarf around my neck
and holding a script like I belonged there, pretending I was the
director .... I loved being in that environment. I still do. It's the
only work that I truly, truly love,”

That's despite
pushing herself to extremes. While taking other jobs (especially for
cartoon voices), Adlon co-created “Better Things,” based on her
life as single mom to three girls. She starred and directed; she
wrote every episode with Louis C.K.

Then she suddenly
had more work: C.K. admitted to sexual abuse and was dropped; for
this season, Adlon was on her own, hiring four writers to help.

“I'd never been in
a writers' room, let alone run a writers' room,” she said. “And
I'm not sure I did it the right way. Still, I loved it.”

Some stories come
from experiences she's had as a mom. In the season-opener, she takes
her eldest daughter to Columbia College in Chicago, which happened in
real life.

Others are from her
mom. That includes a scene in which she tells her kids they have five
minutes to express their rage and then shut up. Olivia Edward, who
plays little Duke, gets to unleash a sudden cascade of verbal abuse.

“She was jazzed
about shooting this,” said Hannah Allgood, who plays the middle
daughter. “She had a blast.”

On days like that,
almost anyone might love show business.

--”Better Things,”
10 p.m. Thursdays, FX

-- Season-opener,
Feb. 28, reruns a 11:20 p.m. (after a rerun of last year's
season-finale at 10:37) and 1:57 a.m.; also, Saturday night
(technically, Sunday morning) at 1 a.m.

"Free Solo" does it all -- a daring climb and a loner love story

As the Academy Awards wrap up, viewers have the usual question: Where can we see the winners? Answers vary: "Green Book" is still in theaters, "Roma" is on Netflix, some things have sort of disappeared. But one of the happiest answers is this one: "Free Solo," the Oscar-winner for best feature documentary, will be on the National Geographic Channel this Sunday, March 3. Here's the story I sent to papers:  

By Mike Hughes

For the “Free
Solo” movie, the climb continues.

It has its Academy
Award (best documentary feature), plus other prizes. It's had a solid
box-office showing; by Oscar night, it had made $16.5 million in the
U.S. and Canada.

Now comes a new
phase: On Sunday (March 3), the National Geographic Channel will show it

This is no standard
doc, Carolyn Bernstein, the channel's programming chief, told the
Television Critics Association. “It is the breathtaking portrait of
the free soloist climber Alex Honnold as he prepares (to climb) the
world's most famous rock, the 3,000-foot El Capitan in Yosemite
National Park, without a rope. Alex is truly one of a kind.”

He is. He's spent
large chunks of his time living in a van, but before meeting the TCA
in Pasadena, he stayed in a luxurious hotel. How was it? “Not as
good as the van,” he said.

Really? “One of
the things that drives me crazy in nice hotels is, there's too much
room,” Hannold said. “You have to, like, wander. It's like a
10-meter walk to the bathroom ....

“You're like,
'Where's the outlet? Where's the light switch?' You're wandering
around. It's confusing. With the van, it's like, everything's within
arm's reach. .... You know, it's simpler.”

This was going to be
a film about a simple life, a man devoted to one goal. Filmmakers
“wanted to make a strong character study abou courage, about Alex,
and kind of living with purpose and pursuing your dreams,” said
cinematographer Clair Popkin.

And Honnold, now 33,
is purposeful. During his one college year (University of California,
Berkeley), he has said, he sublet a family friend's apartment and
“never met anyone; I never spoke to anybody.”

Then he quit school,
took his mother's old van and gradually became a climbing star. “We
started with Alex when he was online dating, living in his van, being
alone,” said producer Shannon Dill.

And then? “One of
the really nice things about documentaries (is when) reality falls in
your favor,” said editor Bob Eisenhardt. “We didn't start with
the idea that we were going to have a love story.”

Sanni McCandless, a
novice climber and outdoor enthusiast, was doing marketing for a tech
start-up in Seattle. “I had just sort of actually sworn off online
dating,” she said. “I was like, 'If I see someone that I'm drawn
to, I'm going to give him my phone number.'”

That's when a friend
talked her into going to Hannold's lecture. “I was just immediately

The rest clicked,
Dill said. “Sanni – being the brave, daring person she is – met
Alex, was interested and she gave him her number.” They talked by
video, then became a couple ... coinciding with his two-year
preparation to climb El Cap without ropes.

Popkin and Mikey
Schaefer were also climbing, while filming him. “We were often more
tired than Alex, because were were also carrying camera gear,”
Schaefer said.

But they had safety
ropes. Honnold had no ropes and, he said, few worries.

free-soloing is much more stressful than actually doing it,” he
said. “When you do it, you know how prepared you are and you know
how comfortable you are.”

-- “Free Solo,”
9 p.m. ET Sunday, National Geographic Channel

-- Commercial-free,
rerunning at 10:45; on the West Coast, it airs at 6 and 7:45 p.m. PT

Anyone can document a success; here's a comic look at a rousing failure

This new season of "Documentary Now" ripples with offbeat wit. Here's the story I sent papers, keyed to the film that airs Wednesday (Feb. 27). 

By Mike Hughes

It's easy for an
actor to savor the rare show that clicks.

Taran Killam can
tell you that; he got to co-star in “Hamilton,” in Los Angeles.
“I felt like I'd won the lottery,” he said.

But what about the
failures? The latest “Documentary Now” film, written by Seth
Meyers and John Mullaney, pretends to be the making of the cast album
for a show that has already flopped. And yes, the actors know the

“I was in a play
once where they fired the director right before we opened,” James
Urbaniak said.

Richard Kind recalls
being in “Luck,” a luckless HBO series. “First day of
(shooting) our second season,” it was cancelled.

And Killam recalls
the near-misses. “The closer you get to success, the more it

Now they do a comedy
version of failure. Urbaniak plays the show's director, with Killam
as the film's director and Kind as one of the actors.

For Killam,
portraying a failure requires some make-believe. He grew up in
California, had a small movie role at 12 and started getting steady
roles at 17. At 19, he became the youngest “MadTV”

regular ever.

A few years later,
he met Cobie Smulders. “On our first date, she said, 'I just got
this pilot.'” That was “How I Met Your Mother,” which would run
nine years; they're married now, with two daughters.

Killam went on to
“Saturday Night Live,” where Meyers co-wrote his bits as Jebediah
Atkinson, the world's crabbiest critic. In the three years since
leaving “SNL,” he's ranged from guest shots to “Hamilton” to
“Single Parents” on ABC. “It has been a busy few years,” he

And now he plays a
documentary director, surrounded by failure. That requires some

-- “Documentary
Now,” 11 p.m. Wednesdays, IFC.

-- Each episode is a
comedy take-off on a documentary; the Feb. 27 one spoofs a 1970 film
on the making of the cast album for Stephen Sondheim's “Company”

-- Also on
Wednesdays, Taran Killam stars in “Single Parents,” at 9:31 p.m.
on ABC.

Here's your Oscar-night guide

If you scroll down a ways, you'll find a couple stories about Academy Award night. There's an overview of the Oscarcast and a short story about the show -- the "Whiskey Cavalier" pilot -- that follows the ceremony. Now here's a related piece I sent to papers -- an extended box, summarizing the Oscar night on TV.

By Mike Hughes

A look at the
Academy Awards telecast:


-- 8 p.m. ET Sunday
(Feb.24) on ABC; that's 5 p,m. PT.

-- The network
insists it will be done by 11 p.m. ET.


-- No one

-- It will be the
first host-less Oscar show since 1988. There was a three-year stretch
(1968 to '70) when the Oscars turned terribly serious, with no hosts.
There was also no host in 1939 – the other 85 ceremonies had at
leas one host.


-- At first, reports
said ABC, obsessed with trimming the show, would only have two of the
five nominated songs -- Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper doing “Shallow”
from “A Star is Born,” Kendrick Lamar and Sza doing “All the
Stars” from “Black Panther.”

-- That brought
outrage from music people and ABC denied the report. It has lined up
Jennifer Hudson for “I'll Fight” (from “RBG”), Bette Midler
for “The Place Where Lost Things Go” (from “Mary Poppins
Returns”) and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings for “When a Cowboy
Trades His Spus for Wings” (from “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs).


--With no host, will
anyone stir laughter? Possibly; the comedy people chosen as
presenters include Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Keegan-Michael Key, Melissa
McCarthy, Maya Rudolph and Awkwafina.

-- Other presenters
include Jennifer Lopex, Jason Momoa, Chadwick Boseman, Charlize
Theron, Samuel Jackson, Angela Bassett and many more.

Before the show

-- The E network
starts its previews at 1 p.m. ET; it will be on the red carpet from

-- ABC will have its
own red-carpet show, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. ET.

And afterward

-- E plans an “After
Party” at 11 p.m., with two hours of its red-carpet coverage at
12:30 a.m.

-- After pausing for
local news, most ABC stations will have “Whiskey Cavalier” at
11:35 p.m.' some Pacific Coast stations will air it at 10;. It's a
light tale of two opposites – from the FBI and CIA – forced to
work together; this is the pilot film, which promptly reruns at 10
p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 27.