A Chat with Neil Strauss

Neil Strauss may have had pop culture street-cred for his work as a journalist for Rolling Stone and The New York Times, but it wasn’t until he wrote The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, that he became perceived as a “guy’s guy” journalist…for better or worse. Now, with the help of collaborator Adam Kornblum, The Game has been turned into a game itself. Strauss talked with Bullz-Eye about the unique entity that is Who’s Got Game? while taking additional time to discuss some of his other literary endeavors as well.

Bullz-Eye: So The Game is now officially a game.

Neil Strauss: Yes. In a matter of speaking. [Laughs.]

How weird was that? Was it an idea that you came up with, or did someone else pitch it to you?

Yeah, I don’t think I ever would’ve come up with that on my own. [Laughs.] But now I’m really into it. Now I really love it. There’s two elements. One, it’s really fun – Adam (Kornblum) made a game, and I made it into more of a game that I’d want to play with my friends – and, two, it’s just kind of fun to have a game. It’s kind of a childhood dream. It’s not just Monopoly or Sorry! or Mousetrap or Chutes and Ladders or…there’s this game 221B Baker Street, which is, like, a better Clue. [Laughs.] But all those games…I’d always wanted to do a game, but what I think really motivated me to want to do it was that Adam contacted me, and…I didn’t know him at all, but sometimes in the deluge there’s a compelling email where we sit around and think, “Maybe we should contact this guy.” And he had done a game for Hasbro, so he had some credibility there. He said he had made a game based on the books I’d done already that he’d been, like, taking out to bars and playing there just to meet women. So I thought, okay, this guy’s field-tested his idea, he’s not just writing about an idea that he’s come up with while he’s sitting in front of his email. I guess he’s now engaged, so obviously it worked to some degree. [Laughs.] Anyway, I thought, “Okay, let’s kind of entertain this and take it seriously.” And he sent it over, and I kept just playing it with different friends and then adding tweaks and changing it and adding new types of cards. Like, I really wanted the game to be something that you play in bars but, like, for example, when I’d go out, I’d end up bringing people back to my house and I’d be, like, “Fuck, now what do I do with them?” And the game’s kind of like social lubrication, a way to get to know people and having everybody having fun and laughing and bonding without any awkwardness.

You said Adam got the ball rolling, but when someone’s playing the game of The Game, what’s something that you personally added to the game?

I think a couple of my favorite things are the Neg cards, where, like, whoever has the worst driver’s license picture or the most wrinkled shirt loses points. [Laughs.] It’s, like, I thought, what’s fun is people laughing at themselves and their own foibles in a non-malicious way, where you’re teasing someone like they’re friends might tease them. Another favorite is the Secret cards, which are basically…it’s a secret social mission to pull off over the course of the game. For example, if you make up something conversationally and someone else in the group believes it’s true, you get two points. So all through the game there are these two layers: the game itself, and the social mission. And it’s a fun layer. It’s a fun form of manipulation, because you’re, like, “How can I get everyone to believe this and get my points?” The social dynamics part is something that, as far as I know, hasn’t been seen in a game yet. There are games with fun challenges, tests, points giving and taking, but where you’re actually trying to execute a social mission within the group…? That’s where it becomes unique.

It definitely seems that you don’t have to be single or on the market, as it were, to enjoy the game.

Oh, definitely not. In fact, we had a dinner party a few nights ago, it was about 12 people, and I’d say about eight of them were couples in serious relationships. So, no, it doesn’t matter at all. Either it’s good to get to know someone or it’s just fun to play with friends. But, I mean, my girlfriend and I play it all the time. It’s fun to go to a party and bring your own game. By the way, you only do that at parties with really good friends who are proud of you and can appreciate that you have your own game, and not with casual acquaintances who are, like, “Why is this asshole bringing his game to our party?” [Laughs.]

Having brought up the fact that you have a girlfriend begs a question about the original book: how quickly did you admit to her that you were the guy behind The Game? Or did she know from the get-go?

Uh, yeah, at this point, I think I’m kind of screwed. I kind of have to say it up front, because if I don’t, one of these things happens: they know the book already, their friends are going to tell them, or they’re going to Google me and find out. Better that I be the bearer of the news. [Laughs.] It can definitely make it more difficult as far as getting people to trust anything you’re saying. I think my only recourse is to be as sincere as possible, because everything is tainted with suspicion.

So what was the original impetus for writing The Game? You’d written in the medium of pop culture quite a bit prior to that, certainly, but…

I think the initial impetus was being a rock critic at Rolling Stone and The New York Times and going to all these shows, which are carnivals of flesh and sexuality, really. But that’s rock ‘n’ roll. [Laughs.] And I’m just the lonely guy with the notepad watching everybody else have all the fun, hoping that maybe some girl’s going to come up and talk to me because I’m writing something in my notepad. And then I’d say, “Oh, yeah, I’m going to this show next week and these other shows the following week, if you want to come with me,” and I assumed that was going to be a date, and…I remember once I met this girl at one, and she ended up making out with the guy sitting next to me. And I was, like, “What the fuck…? What’s wrong with me?” So it really came not from a desire to go underground and assume an identity and be an investigative journalist or even to write a book but, rather, to help get over my own problems with women. [Laughs.]

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Bullz-Eye’s 2012 TV Power Rankings

So…where were we?

Oh, fine, let’s go ahead and deal with the elephant in the room: it’s been nine months since Bullz-Eye doled out its last TV Power Rankings. What can we say? There were a lot of good shows on the air between May 2011 and February 2012, and somewhere around late October, it just kind of reached a point where we said, “You know what? It’s way more fun to watch TV than it is to write about it.” Eventually, though, the powers that be pried us off the couch (there’s still an indentation where we were sitting), set us back in front of the computer, and said, “Look, the readers demand to know Bullz-Eye’s take on the best shows of the past year* and, frankly, they’re starting to get a little belligerent about it.”

(*Rounded up for statistical purposes.)

So here we are, ready to offer up our list of the 25 best shows on television** as well as several shows bubbling just under our list, plus a new section called “Still Too New to Call,” where we praise shows that seem pretty damned good after their first few episodes but simply haven’t been around long enough for us to feel comfortable including them in the other two lists.

(**Okay, technically, it’s the 24 best shows on television plus one show that hasn’t been on since 2010, but we’re so excited about that particular show coming back that we included it, anyway.)

All told, we hope you’ll walk away from this piece either nodding your head in agreement or wondering why you haven’t been watching some of these shows. If not, however, there’s a perfectly good Comments section that’s just waiting for your opinions about what’s good on TV.

Everybody ready? Then let’s get this thing started…

25. The Big Bang Theory (CBS)

No, it’s not quite the same show it used to be, owing to the fact that the cast now consists of almost as many women as it does men, but with the series now in its fifth season, the trio of Kaley Cuouo, Melissa Rauch, and Mayim Bialik have probably infused “The Big Bang Theory” with more laughs than the it would’ve had at this point if it had stuck strictly to the original four geeks. The only question now is how much longer we’ll have to wait for Raj to come out of the closet…because, seriously, you don’t need to possess gay-dar to see that that’s what they’re leading up to.

24. Weeds (Showtime)

When we first picked back up with Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) for the seventh season of “Weeds,” she’d spent three years cooling her heels in the clink while the rest of the Botwin clan had been chillin’ in Copenhagen, but with Nancy being shifted to a halfway house in New York City, a family reunion was only inevitable. Big shock: Nancy started selling pot again. Possibly bigger shock: even going into its eighth season, “Weeds” is still reliably entertaining.

23. New Girl (Fox)

When it comes to watching “New Girl,” one’s level of appreciation is directly proportionate to how one feels about the concept of “adorkability,” which Zooey Deschanel brings to the small screen in seemingly limitless quantities as Jess, a too-cute twentysomething who moves in with a trio of guys on the heels of an excruciatingly bad breakup. As with most ensemble comedies, it’s taken time for the chemistry of the cast to find its feet, but it’s coming along nicely.

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The Light from the TV Shows: 11 Series (give or take) That Should’ve Survived 2011

As 2011 rapidly winds to a close, it’s easy to fall back on lists as a way to fill columns – indeed, as a TV critic, it’s my God-given right – but HBO’s announcement this week that it was cleaning house and cancelling “Hung,” “Bored to Death,” and “How to Make It in America” served to convince me that I needed to discuss a number of now-defunct series that lost their bid for continued existence during the course of this year. I’m not talking about shows like “Friday Night Lights,” which had an end-game in sight and wrapped on their own terms. I’m talking about series that effectively had the rug ripped out from under their feet. Believe me, there were a bunch…and I’m still kind of pissed about quite a few of them.

11. Medium (CBS)


After seven seasons on the air and surviving a switch between networks (from NBC to CBS), it’s hard to say that “Medium” didn’t live a good, long life. With that said, however, the show had continued to find new ways to keep things interesting, and with the trio of DuBois daughters growing up and getting their own storylines almost as often as their mom. As such, Allison, Joe, and the gang could’ve easily kept going for another few seasons without any complaints from me.

10. Outsourced (NBC)


Am I going to try to defend my enjoyment of this show? No, I am not, because there’s no point in wasting your time or mine. You may not have thought it was very funny, and if you didn’t, that would be your right. I, however, did. And I still miss it.

9. Law & Order: Los Angeles (NBC)


There’s nothing I dislike more than a series that doesn’t know when to leave good enough alone, and for my part, I don’t know why they felt the need to change the formula and kick Skeet Ulrich‘s character to the curb. Sorry, did I say “curb”? I meant “grave,” of course. Not that there’s anything wrong with giving an actor of Alfred Molina’s caliber a more substantial role, but to do so in midseason can’t have pleased the existing viewership very much. Truth be told, I’d rather they’d just kept the original “Law & Order” around, but in its absence, this was a nice substitute, and it sucks that it never had a chance to really spread its wings.

8. The Event (NBC) / V (ABC)


When it comes to casualties in the alien-invasion field, I can accept the cancellation of “V” a bit more than that of “The Event,” if only because it was a minor surprise that it made it to a second season in the first place. And if I’m to be honest, I’m not really surprised that NBC couldn’t be bothered to give “The Event” a shot at a sophomore year, since they probably figured it’d only let them down the way “Heroes” did. But whereas “Heroes” really dropped the ball in its second year, I felt like “The Event” had a better chance of upping the ante. Guess I’ll never know for sure.

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The Light from the TV Shows: “Hung” is still worth hanging onto

“Hung” is a series that, not unlike a particular physical attribute of its lead character, caught my eye immediately. The reason it did so, however, was less because of the apparent anaconda residing in the trousers of Ray Drecker, played by Thomas Jane, and more because of the people behind the scenes.

Now in its third season on HBO, “Hung” was created by Dmitry Lipkin and Colette Burson. I was well familiar with Lipkin’s name from his previous small-screen creation, “The Riches,” which lasted for an all-too-short two seasons on FX. As such, I would’ve followed him anywhere his next project might have taken him…and when I discovered that it revolved around a well-endowed high school baseball coach who turns to prostitution as a way of making ends meet, I’d have to say that I wasn’t entirely surprised that it took him to a premium cable network.

Alas, as is often the case in the life of a TV critic, there never seem to be enough hours in the day to keep up with every series you’d like to watch, and although I was decidedly curious to see how a concept such as this might play as a series, I wasn’t really able to give it a good look until Season 1 made its DVD debut. Unsurprisingly, those first ten episodes proved highly entertaining, making it easy as pie to dole out a four-star review while musing on the conceptual (if not necessarily tonal) similarities between “Hung” and “Breaking Bad,” both focusing on what a father is willing to do to make ends meet for his family. Sadly, though, I wasn’t nearly as charmed by the goings-on in Season 2, and by the end of those ten episodes, I’d reached a point where I was left wondering whether or not it was going to worth the time and effort to follow the series into its third season.

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Spotlight on Booze: Canadian Whisky

Make no mistake, this is not only your dad’s but also your grandfather’s whiskey. Depending on your age and where your family was during prohibition, it might even be your great-great-grandfather and/or grandmother’s whiskey. Say what you like about Canadian whisky, it’s stood the test of time.

Sometimes referred to, particularly in Canada, as rye despite the fact that it’s primarily made with corn spirits, Canadian whisky, unlike now resurgent American rye whiskey, never threatened to go away. Still, while some uninformed bartenders still think rye is just the name of a type of Jewish bread, it’s the rare bar that doesn’t stock Seagram’s V.O., Canadian Club, Crown Royal and often Black Velvet. Its the even rarer connoisseur or cocktail aficionado who will admit to being excited about them, with some liquor snobs deriding Canadian as “brown vodka.” Following their lead, younger drinkers who have taken to premium brands of bourbon and Scotch, have largely ignored it. That’s not to say unassuming Canadian Whisky has no fans among the cognoscenti. We kind of love it and no less an authority than cocktail historian David Wondrich suggests Canadian Club — a value-priced favorite of ours — as the perfect vehicle for an Old Fashioned, the most purist-friendly whiskey cocktail we know.

In any case, pop culture seems to be slowly becoming more aware of American rye whiskey’s almost-as-retro northern cousin. The 2008 primary elections saw Hillary Clinton swigging a much-discussed shot of Crown Royal, the very smooth Chivas Regal of Canadian. Though the label is angled so that the logo is just slightly out of our view, it’s clear that Canadian Club — first brewed by distilling legend Hiram Walker — is Donald Draper’s poison of choice on “Mad Men.” (In the first episode, newbie secretary Peggy Olson is informed that rye is the same as Canadian, and told it’s what her new boss drinks.) It also sure looks to be Canadian Club that washing up on the Jersey shore in HBO’s bootlegging themed early gangland drama, “Boardwalk Empire.” By law, Canadian whisky must be aged at least three years, though Canadian Club and Seagram’s V.O. are both aged for six

In fact, the popularity of Canadian whisky — which many insist must be spelled sans “e” — in the U.S. goes back to those dark days for everyone but gangsters between 1920 and 1933 when the sale and manufacture of liquor was illegal in the land of free and home of the brave, but thoroughly legal up north. Jewish-Canadian entrepreneur and liquor distributor Samuel Bronfman became wealthy and powerful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams by staying more or less on the right side of the law while doing business with the likes of Al Capone. He purchased Joseph E. Seagram’s and Sons and launched what became, for a time, a massive commercial and media empire. (It’s worth noting that the line’s flagship brand, Seagram’s 7 Crown, best known as the non-7-Up ingredient in a “7 and 7,” is not technically Canadian whisky. The U.S. version, at least, is bottled in Indiana and marketed as “an American whiskey,” whatever that is.)

Since it’s primarily blended and is generally not a very complex kind of a whiskey, it’s likely that Canadian will never have the cachet of bourbon, rye, or Scotch, but its hipness quotient may be improving slightly. Canadian Club has shrewdly played on its history with a series of attention-grabbing print ads with the slogan “Damn right, your dad drank it.” The ads alluded to the allegedly racy lifestyles of fathers of yore and used actual family photographs from Canadian Club employees.

As for cocktail and liquor aficionados, New York Times writer Robert Simonson blogged some time ago that his contacts in the gourmet and mixology worlds became obviously bored at the mere mention of Canadian whisky. However, Simonson’s April 2011 article details how there are real changes brewing in the world of Canadian booze. He specifically cites the highly acclaimed Forty Creek distillery and also attempts by better known makers of Canadian whiskey to brew blends that will appeal to drinkers used to the more complex flavors of today’s premium whiskeys.

Forty Creek does appear to be the most prevalent of the “new style” Canadian whisky manufacturers and we were able to pick up a bottle on sale at out local big-box beverage emporium. Our reaction was a bit mixed; we still think Canadian Club is more tasty and given its extremely low price, difficult to beat. Even so, we anxiously await the arrival of more and better Canadian whiskys. It’s time to see if our polite and funny friends to our north can create some premium whiskeys that will give some real competition to Kentucky and Tennessee, not to mention Scotland and Ireland.

  

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