Category Archives: Television

Tukufu Zuberi: Penn professor, TV show host, documentary filmmaker and curator

tz_headshotIt’s been a whirlwind year of arts-related activities for Tukufu Zuberi, a professor of sociology and Africana studies at Penn and the University’s Lasry Family Professor of Race and Relations.

First an exhibit he curated for the Independence Seaport Museum opened May 4. Then on June 2, Black Bodies in Propaganda: The Art of the War Poster — an exhibit of wartime propaganda posters that Zuberi both collected and curated — opened at the Penn Museum.

On top of all that — and while hosting the tenth season of PBS’s History Detectives TV show — Zuberi somehow also found time to write, direct and produce the feature-length documentary film African Independence. It won Best Director and Best Documentary at the San Diego Black Film Festival in January.

While we can’t claim to know how Zuberi finds time to sleep, we can give you this overview of his recent arts-and-culture projects:

Tides of Freedom: African Presence on the Delaware River
On view at the Independence Seaport Museum on Penn’s Landing through 2015.

Screen shot 2013-06-12 at 11.13.45 AM

Spanning 300 years of African-American history along the Delaware, Tides of Freedom explores the concept of freedom through the museum’s collection and four major moments in Philadelphia’s history: enslavement, emancipation, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights era. Zuberi himself recorded introductions to each section of the exhibit, which is the first in the Seaport Museum’s new “Freedom” series.

The museum’s recovered “waste book” — a 250-year-old ledger that documents commercial transactions on the wharf — is one of the artifacts on display. Zuberi discovered more than 60 entries of bought and sold African slaves in the book, which is said to be the only document of its kind in Philadelphia.

You can see scans from the “waste book” online here.

Black Bodies in Propaganda: The Art of the War Poster
On view at the Penn Museum through March 2, 2014.


From the collection of Tukufu Zuberi

Zuberi combed through his personal collection of propaganda posters to curate Black Bodies in Propaganda at the Penn Museum. The exhibit presents 33 wartime posters, the majority of which target African and African-American civilians. According to the Penn Museum, “these carefully designed works of art were aimed at mobilizing people of color in war efforts, even as they faced oppression and injustice in their homelands. The exhibition explores changing messages on race and politics through propaganda—from the American Civil War, to World War I, World War II, and through to the African independence movements.”

As Zuberi explained: “These posters tell a story about the dynamics of race. Black bodies are racialized in these posters as they capture defining moments in history. Race is always about second-class citizenship, it is always about a relationship between two groups and how one group is defined as superior and the other group is defined as inferior. These posters represent definitive moments in this historical process.”

Zuberi has done several radio interviews about the exhibit that you can listen to online, including:


Power99 FM


African Independence
Screening at select events and locations, including Penn’s State of the Field of Africana Studies Conference on Oct. 17, 2013.

Here’s the official synopsis for the 2013 feature-length documentary that Zuberi wrote, directed and produced:

The film highlights the birth, realization, and problems confronted by the movement to win independence in Africa. The story is told by channeling the voices of freedom fighters and leaders who achieved independence, liberty and justice for African people.  This film offers a unique presentation designed to enlighten and provide audiences with insights from Africans into the continent’s past, present, and future. Through the lens of four watershed events—World War Two, the end of colonialism, the Cold War, and the era of African Republics—AFRICAN INDEPENDENCE shows a unique side of Africa’s recent history.  

This is the trailer:

And here’s an interview Zuberi did about his academic career and making the film:

History Detectives
historydetectivesZuberi has been a host for all 10 season of PBS’s History Detectives, the most recent of which aired last June through October. (We’re told that Season 11 is being filmed right now.) He’s one of five “detectives” on the show who each travel the country delving into historical mysteries, local folklore and family legends.

In this video, Zuberi explains why he enjoys working as a history detective.

You can also watch full episodes from the show’s tenth season here.

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Our 5 most popular posts of 2012

You may remember our “best of” (i.e. most-viewed) blog post countdown from last year. We’re back with another for 2012, only this time with a twist: We decided that only posts written this year would be included.

Before we get into our countdown, ever wonder where people are reading this blog?
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It seems the answer is “all over the place.” This past year, we had visitors from Zimbabwe, Argentina, Australia, Thailand and 90 other countries. (Long-distance readers: please say hello sometime in the comments!)

Now, without further ado, here are our five most popular posts from 2012:

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A long read, a quick watch and a new listen

The holiday season is upon us, and sometimes the greatest gift is time to relax, unwind and not think about the holiday season being upon us. For those who are looking forward to some days off in the coming weeks — or will at least have a free hour or two — here are a few Penn-arts-related offerings for a long read, a quick watch and a new listen:

READ this interview with Erik Larson C’76 from Creative Nonfiction. (He even mentions his time at Penn: “I studied history at the University of Pennsylvania, but that’s because the history professors were some of the best. I got lured into Russian history, in particular, by a fantastic professor. I got so drawn into Russian history by this guy that it changed my whole college plan. Suddenly I was Russian history, Russian language, Russian literature.”) For more on Larson, you can see his summer reading suggestions from this blog post or read the Gazette’s most recent review of his work.

LISTEN to music from aspiring rapper/hip-hop artist — and Wharton sophomore — Taylor McLendon, a.k.a. “Ivy Sole.” More than 30 tracks are available on her SoundCloud stream. McLendon spoke to the Daily Pennsylvanian last month about her work, describing her main goal as an artist: “If I can make a song that 50 years from now can send you back to that time but still be relevant, I think that would be the greatest thing ever.”

WATCH The Simpsons writer and executive producer — and former Gazette student columnist — Matt Selman C’93 discuss some of his favorite moments from working on the show, video below. (You can also read about how Selman helped the Button make an appearance on The Simpsons in this 2008 Gazette story and see an excerpt from one of his student columns here.)

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Alan Sepinwall C’96 talks TV, new book

alan-sepinwall-1Last week, over on “What’s Alan Watching?,” Alan Sepinwall C’96 reviewed the latest episodes of 30 Rock, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Last Resort, Suburgatory, The Mindy Project, New Girl, Parenthood, How I Met Your Mother, Treme, Homeland, The Walking Dead and Boardwalk Empire.

He says it was “something of a slow week.”

During peak TV season, he’ll write up to twice as many reviews in a given week. Somehow, amid all that writing, Sepinwall also found time to pen a new book, which was released last month. We caught up with him to learn more about it and hear his take on the current crop of TV shows.

0760-sepinwall-ecover-trwt_4_lHow did you come to write The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever?
I wrote a book years ago called Stop Being a Hater and Learn to Love The O.C., which was a quickie cash-in book of the kind that are made about any instant pop-culture phenomenon. It was a fun book, but I always wanted to write something more serious, and more permanent, about all the great television shows I had gotten to cover in my career. A literary agent reached out to me about the idea of doing a book and got me thinking again, and then I was at a party at the San Diego Comic-Con standing next to Ted Griffin, who had created a show I loved called Terriers — which was quickly canceled in part because it was called Terriers — and mentioned the idea, and he not only prodded me to do it, but gave me the title I ultimately used. And when the man who comes up with the name Terriers gives you a title, you use it.

Your book looks at the TV dramas that “ushered in a new golden age of television that made people take the medium more seriously than ever before.” Which show would you consider the most important to that transformation?
I would say the three most important shows were Oz, The Sopranos and The Shield. Oz was the first drama HBO made, in a very relaxed atmosphere where there were almost no rules of any kind, and it was very good and enough of a success that HBO decided to continue in that direction. The Sopranos was great, and also a surprising crossover hit, which led other people to start experimenting. And The Shield was the show that proved you could make an HBO-style show away from HBO, which only made the golden age more wide-reaching and long-lasting.

What’s your all-time favorite show?
Going into the writing of the book, I would have said The Wire without question. After re-watching large chunks of the shows to refresh my memory on certain things, I found myself falling for The Sopranos in a big way again, to where those two shows would be 1 and 1A — The Wire more consistent, Sopranos maybe more daring — and where I’m not sure which is ahead on any given day. So I’ll wimp out and say The Simpsons.

What do you consider the best show on TV right now?
The two AMC shows in the book, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, are both pretty incredible, and Mad Men had the ever-so-slightly better recent season, so I’ll pick that.

How about the best show that no one’s watching — or at least not enough people?
Parks and Recreation on NBC. It’s from a bunch of the people responsible for The Office, and it’s better in almost every way than The Office was at its best: smart and warm and just wickedly funny, at times almost feeling like a live-action version of The Simpsons.

What’s the worst show that ever made it to air?
Oh, God. With any luck, it’s something I never even watched. In recent years, I’ve largely stopped watching unscripted TV, so I’m sure I’d be horrified by Toddlers & Tiaras and the like. But my favorite bad title (attached to a bad show) of all time is probably UPN’s Homeboys in Outer Space. This was a real show.

Can you share a few of your favorite reviews?
I get asked most frequently about my Mad Men reviews, and here’s one of my favorites from this past season:

And a vintage one from a few seasons back:

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The Voice: Dan Taraborrelli C’01 is carving out a career in the voiceover business

Listen closely to the next jewelry commercial you watch and you might hear Dan Taraborrelli C’01. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” he says of working in the voiceover business. “I was always skilled at manipulating my voice and I love combining that talent with my acting ability.”

The alumnus recently became the official voice for Reeds Jewelers and the announcer on Live Well Network’s “We Owe What?”. He frequently narrates explanation videos for web applications, and you can also hear him in this promo for the newly relocated Barnes Foundation:

There are quirkier gigs, too: Tarborrelli provides the voice for ATMs that buy back used cell phones and narrated a tale for iStoryTime—“an interactive storytelling experience delivered to the convenience of your mobile device.”

A double major in communication and theatre arts at Penn, Taraborrelli began looking for voiceover work in late 2009. With help from a local voiceover veteran, he set up an in-home studio and began auditioning for commercials and other projects. “It just took off from there,” he says. “I’ve been able to consistently find work and I get better with each gig.”

Describing his voice as “clean, sincere, intelligent, youthful, warm, natural, friendly, real,”  he says practice is crucial. He spends his free time listening to commercials and web videos from top brands, attempting to replicate their vocal deliveries. He also does his best to avoid shouting or anything else that might endanger his instrument. “I actually had laryngitis a few weeks ago and it was absolutely awful not being able to speak,” he says. “I drank a lot of tea with honey.”

Though he’s kept his day job providing software support to a consortium of 12 arts organizations, Taraborrelli says voiceover business has been “very good” so far. He may even go full-time in the future. “I’d love to voice a cartoon character for an animated series,” he says, “or do anything for Google, as I’m also a tech geek.”

To hear more of Dan’s voice work, check out his demo site:

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Whitney Cummings ’04 launched two new comedy series this fall

It’s been quite a start to the fall TV season for Whitney Cummings C’04. Both the show she helped create (2 Broke Girls on CBS) and the show she created, wrote and stars in (Whitney on NBC) debuted last month, and both were picked up last week for full seasons.

Then again, Cummings is no stranger to making big splashes in big ponds. She raced through Penn in three years and immediately began performing stand-up comedy after graduating in 2004. She also joined Ashton Kutcher’s candid camera-style show Punk’d that year, helping to prank celebrities including Julia Stiles, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Vivica Fox. By the end of 2008, she’d appeared on Variety’s list of “10 Comics to Watch” and performed lots of stand-up, including on the late-night HBO stand-up series Down and Dirty with Jim Norton and on Last Call With Carson Daily. She had also turned 25.

Cummings soon hit the Comedy Central Roast scene, skewering David Hasselhoff, Donald Trump, Joan Rivers, and of course, all her fellow comedians. Recognizing her growing popularity, Comedy Central offered Cummings a one-hour special. Whitney Cummings: Money Shot premiered in August 2010. Here’s a clip:

Some love Cummings for her bawdiness. (From a recent Tweet: “For a woman being on top during sex is like riding a bicycle: you never do it after college.”) Others admire her biting humor. (From the Donald Trump Comedy Central Roast: “Donald, you are gross, nobody likes you, but you come back every couple of years and nobody knows why. You’re like the McRib.”) And still others praise her penchant for self-deprecation.

That unique blend of humor may explain how she’s managed to launch two successful sitcoms simultaneously this year. 2 Broke Girls, which she worked on with former Sex and the City writer/director Michael Patrick King, follows two waitresses who become roommates. It’s the classic odd-couple pairing–out-of-touch rich girl who’s lost everything and no-nonsense, street-smart girl who’s (unsurprisingly) the more experienced waitress. Here’s the preview CBS put together (complete with Wharton mention):

Cummings’ second new show, Whitney, is a relationship ensemble comedy that’s been compared to Friends. Here’s a taste of that one:

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SNL featured player to Annenberg seniors: “Be prepared to work hard and pay your dues.”

I’ve mentioned Vanessa Bayer C’04 on this blog before, and the most recent Gazette includes a profile of the new SNL performer.

Now, you can also watch her speech from the Annenberg School for Communication’s graduation ceremony on May 15. Check out the video below to see Bayer discuss her unsuccessful a cappella auditions, her first meeting with Saturday Night Live‘s Lorne Michaels, and her dad’s favorite joke: “We sent her to an Ivy League school, and now she’s a comedian!” Vanessa even whips out her Miley Cyrus impression, which has become a staple on SNL.

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