Dave

May 18, 2015

thYou probably have to be a certain age to really appreciate the effect David Letterman has had on late-night comedy — no, on comedy period. And you have to be lots younger, intense and distractable now, to understand without much pondering why it is that he has to go.

You gotta know the rules to break ‘em, they say, and the rules were set by the former king of late-night, Letterman’s idol, Johnny Carson. A shy, guarded man off camera, Carson was most comfortable in two places: standing on his star-marker to deliver the nightly TONIGHT SHOW monologue, and behind the protective barrier of his desk, from which he would inquire and admire. The list of guests who sat on the couch to Johnny’s right for his thirty years on the air is matched only by those of Dave’s thirty-three. At first glance, the format remains: monologue, band, desk, guest. But the difference between the two men is what was in the background, behind them, out in the country at large.

Carson’s thirty-year reign began in 1962, when New York was still the center of the television industry; he didn’t move to California until ten years later. He came from that era of show business in which the audience still gave a damn about whatever Buddy Hackett and George Burns had for lunch at the Friars Club, and guys, women take so doggone long to get ready, am I right? Because there was so little “candid” repartee on the air, Johnny Carson’s brand of chitchat was trailblazing. He managed to maintain his stance as a wide-eyed Nebraska boy (the surrogate for his audience) even when he’d already become a bigger star than most of his guests. And think about that ten-year period in America, beginning with a healthy JFK and ending with Nixon’s creepy henchmen: almost alone among showbizzers, Johnny remained vital and relevant through it all.

thHollywood seemed to suit Carson. Everything was in color now, and he continued to dress in the height of fashion, even as it changed around him. Those ties with knots as big as your fist don’t look all that silly on old video of Johnny, like the Nehru jackets do on Sammy Davis Jr. (Can you imagine a David Letterman men’s apparel line? Carson had one.) In the early Seventies I managed a small group of writers at my graduate-school job, and one of them was a rabid TONIGHT SHOW fan. This was the first time I’d encountered somebody younger than I whose day was not complete until he’d watched Johnny, who missed the show when it went on hiatus, who could quote every Art Fern or Aunt Blabby sketch by heart. In his adulation for the Rat-Pack school of show business, this man seemed caught out of his time, like, say, Leon Redbone. But to him, the coolest guy on tv, far and away, was Johnny Carson.

The studio system had imploded and the kids were taking over film sets and recording studios. They were reacting — if not quite rebelling — against however the powers that be used to do things, no matter what that was. During Johnny’s second decade a group of young comedians caught up in that same artistic wave began to question the nature of comedy itself. While National Lampoon magazine extended sophomoric humor to the mainstream by allowing college weisenheimers to continue placing whoopee cushions well after graduation, standups openly wondered why they were still using the Borscht Belt as a template. The most obvious was George Carlin, who decided to ditch the suit and tie, grow his hair long, and employ his genius for wordplay as candidly as he could. He became a funny, raunchy hippie, embodying the “Al Sleet, the Hippy-Dippy Weatherman” character he had once jeered on the Ed Sullivan show. This same ironic distance was emerging in every aspect of the performing arts, and in television it manifested itself in SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, SCTV and wee-hour rock-concert shows. All these outliers were programmed late, late, for that was presumably when bleary-eyed hipsters were stumbling back to the apartment or the dorm.

250px-LatenightdllogoJohnny’s third decade began in 1982, the same year NBC opened up a new comedy slot immediately following his broadcast, to be mounted by his own Carson Productions. They didn’t have to look far for a host. One of those young pranksters was a TONIGHT SHOW favorite and Johnny’s personal choice for heir apparent. This was LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN, and its guiding principle was, we’re on after most of Johnny’s fans have already turned in, so we’ll have some fun with the format and deconstruct it for those night owls who are still up.

Although there was still a monologue, desk and band (the brilliant Paul Shaffer has kept Letterman musically vital all this time but still favors the classic rock that Dave’s original fans grew up on), the best parts of LATE NIGHT ventured out from Johnny’s safety zone, way farther than the few steps of the “Mighty Carson Art Players.” Letterman’s “field pieces” from that era (for example, taking over a Taco Bell drive-through station and messing with the unwitting customers) are still funny today: in fact, they’re being revived one by one on the last few shows. They’ve always played a remote piece or two to rev the live studio audience as part of the warmup routine. There’s only one man who can do a field piece as well as Letterman, and that’s Conan O’Brien — but, of course, Conan went to school watching Dave, as did today’s DAILY SHOW correspondents, who march down the same well-whacked jungle lanes.

You could sum up LATE NIGHT with one simple fact. It was self-aware: it knew it was a tv talk show. Writer/performer Chris Elliott might pop up from a trap door as “The Guy Under The Seats,” later plop into the guest chair as an unctuous celebrity, skewering the very type of shameless promotion that had just aired on Carson. They might strap a minicam onto a monkey’s back and let the beast run loose, for no good reason at all. Then there were irresistible stunts, like Dave testing suits made of Alka-Seltzer or Velcro, or dropping stuff off a five-story tower to watch it burst. Don’t forget the legendary Stupid Pet Tricks and their offshoot, Stupid Human Tricks. It was as if the hell-raisingest class clown somehow glommed the keys to a tv studio and figured out how to turn everything on. The churlish NBC insisted all this was their “intellectual property” when Letterman was passed over as TONIGHT SHOW host on Johnny’s retirement, so the show had to start over when it decamped to CBS.

220px-The_Late_ShowThe NBC show kind of had the writers trapped in their offices at 30 Rock; they had to leave midtown for most of the field pieces, though they did find themselves playing around with a Simon & Schuster publicist whose office at 1230 Avenue of the Americas happened to be right across from theirs. (Because of this informal relationship, S&S wound up publishing books of the writers’ Top Ten Lists.) Once CBS served them up an entire building, the old Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway, the rechristened LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN was able to stretch out. Now they dropped stuff from their own place onto 53rd Street, where they also rode horses, shot guys out of a cannon, held batting practice, etc. And they made friends with their new neighbors in what in 1993 was a rather run-down neighborhood (it’s not any more). Soon souvenir salesmen Mujibur and Sirajul and deli owner Rupert Gee were semi-regulars on the show, and charmingly bizarre field pieces could happen right next door (such as cramming dozens of people all wearing Spider-Man costumes into the local Jamba Juice).

Letterman himself had always been viewed as aloof and cranky when off camera, self-critical to a fault (journalist Bill Carter reported that Letterman scribbled the note “I hate myself” and showed it to Teri Garr during a commercial break). Opinions differ among those who know him well. But then two earthshaking events changed everything. In January 2000, he underwent emergency quintuple bypass heart surgery, which saved his life. And in November 2003, he and longtime partner Regina Lasko welcomed a son, Harry. Even casual fans can tell that Letterman has mellowed, softened, grown into a new kind of responsibility that has nothing to do with comedy. Parenthood may be a prime reason Dave decided to step down when he did.

We’ve been in the Letterman audience several times over the years, starting with the old NBC show in 1990. The guests that night at 30 Rock were Rush Limbaugh — a conservative curiosity stepping into the lions’ den six years before Fox News went on the air — and a young starlet named Sharon Stone, who was in a new movie, TOTAL RECALL. “Tell us a little about yourself.” “Well, I was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania…” etc., then a few moments later Letterman fished out a copy of the current issue of PLAYBOY with a, um, healthy pictorial. “What do they think of this back in Meadville?” A CBS taping years later featured Howard Stern, who came on already livid because Dave had been giving too much airtime to his then-rival, Don Imus. Stern was blowing a gasket, actually turning red, not letting Letterman get a word in edgewise. Cut to commercial. Stern immediately deflated, the two guys talked and grinned. It was an act, all of it. As the countdown back to air happened, Stern puffed himself up and made it look like he’d been yelling all the way through the break. You know the talk-show world is artifice in your brain, but now you get to see it with your eyes. Of course, the overpreparation makes it even juicier when the host does lose control unexpectedly, such as Drew Barrymore’s spontaneous upstage flashing, or the infamous interview with Joaquin Phoenix who was “in character” as a sullen rapper without Letterman’s knowledge. (He came on later to apologize.)

th-1I’ve always been amazed at the attention to detail in Shaffer’s musical direction: each piece of walk-in music has something to do with the guest. For example, George Clooney was on last Thursday night, and his newest project is a movie called TOMORROWLAND. So Shaffer and the “CBS Orchestra” struck up Jimi Hendrix’s “Wait Until Tomorrow.” This same thing happens every night, every time. (A couple nights ago, Shaffer buttoned a Top Ten list having to do with Thomas A. Edison with a familiar guitar solo. After the break, Dave said from the desk, “Todd Rundgren.” Paul replied, “I Saw The Light.” Dave said, “Perfect!” It’s gone that way for 33 years.) Then one night when I was in the audience Chuck Leavell, that keyboard master, happened to be in town with the Rolling Stones. So Shaffer asked him to come sit in with the “CBS Orchestra.” They did pick a couple Stones tunes, and I think an Allmans piece, but what impressed me was that Chuck held his own with these grizzled sight-readers — probably the most versatile house band on television — on anything they wanted to play.

A self-aware, self-deprecating, anything-goes tv show. (The host once described LATE NIGHT as “a comedy show disguised as a talk show,” but lately there have been a helluva lot of things for guests to plug; it can be wearying.) The ultra-ironic is not so unusual any more, because David Letterman’s DNA has been absorbed into the culture. A pure talk show like Carson’s is anachronistic these days; now you shoot for YouTube clips, something which Letterman admits he has trouble wrapping his mind around. The game has changed once again, as a new generational shift takes hold. The day after tomorrow, when Dave finishes his final show, the senior late-night host in time on the air will be Jimmy Kimmel — at 47 he’ll be the oldest too, but Stephen Colbert, 50, will edge him out when his show replaces Dave’s in September.

Nobody better deserves a happy retirement than David Letterman. I’d say it’ll be fun seeing him in interesting places, but Johnny virtually vanished after he left THE TONIGHT SHOW and enjoyed the rest of his life largely in private. There are many similarities between the two men, and holding their lives close to the vest is one of them. Frankly, I just wish one thing for Dave above all else. I want him to get to a place where he never feels like scribbling such an anguished note, ever again.


The State Of Late

February 13, 2015

Everybody’s talking about tv this week, which makes it pretty much like every other week of the year, only right now they’re talking less about what’s on it, more about who’s on it. On Tuesday morning, Brian Williams, the jovial but “trusted” face of ratings-leading NBC News, was suspended without pay for six months over a bit of erroneous reporting about his own experiences during the Iraq war. Then, late that same afternoon, Jon Stewart announced at a taping of THE DAILY SHOW that he intended to leave his job of 16 years within the next few months. By Tuesday night, the two men’s roles had shifted. Brian Williams was revealed as a serial resume-fluffing showboat, and Jon Stewart, a former stand-up comic, was now arguably, if only temporarily, the most trusted name in tv news, by virtue of abdication.

Brian Williams.

Brian Williams.

I feel for Williams. He seems to be a nice guy who was blessed with the looks and the voice, and also with the rare ability to poke fun at his own profession without disrespecting it. These qualities made him, and they may also break him. The first time I was ever aware of him was at a 2004 preview screening of ANCHORMAN at which Will Ferrell was interviewed in character afterward. Ferrell’s SNL castmates turned out in force to whoop and holler and sat in the rows just in front of and behind us: Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Jimmy Fallon, Ana Gasteyer, Amy Poehler, Chris Parnell, etc., probably some writers too. Somebody pointed out this tall, distinguished guy who looked like a Hollywood casting director’s idea of an anchorman, being escorted down to a very close seat. “That’s Brian Williams…he just took over for Tom Brokaw.” They even made a crack about him from the stage, but time has erased the details. A jolly occasion. (I met Tim Robbins, who has a cameo, in the lobby…he’s basketball tall.)

The fullness of time instructs that it’s probably right and proper that I first beheld Williams at a movie-studio event featuring a parody of a newscaster. He has always wanted to straddle the news and entertainment divisions. After all, his idol Brokaw graduated from light (THE TODAY SHOW) to heavy (NBC NIGHTLY NEWS), but those were the days when NBC News supervised both shows; TODAY is now so louche that I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that’s not true any more. Williams himself went further. He became The Coolest Anchorman Ever, chatting with Letterman, sparring with Stewart, slow-jamming the news with Fallon, even hosting an episode of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE: not since Ron Nessen had SNL strayed so far into the real world that you and I inhabit. The most amazing fact I learned out of this whole kerfuffle was that when it looked like Jay Leno was leaving for sure, Williams raised his hand: he seriously wanted to be considered for the TONIGHT SHOW hosting gig. That, I didn’t know about him.

What could turn a King Of The World, aware enough to be a self-deprecator, into a craven self-aggrandizer? After all, he got the facts right when he first reported about the Iraq choppers at the time. (The one ahead of his was hit by an RPG, not the one he was in. Still admittedly very scary, but not the same, as the vets who were with him kept pointing out and pointing out and pointing out.) You might as well ask O.J. or Tiger or Nixon why they risked their earthly royalty with, let’s just say, ill-considered behavior. And exactly how rare is this phenomenon? Haven’t you exaggerated something in your past to make yourself look better? I know I have, and before you righteously peg me as an aberration, I must point out that this is common enough to be a sitcom trope: hubby is happily pontificating, and the wife jabs him with the pinprick of truth that deflates him, har har har. Also, keep repeating the same harmless fabrication in public for years and years and years and even you may come to believe it. My uninformed guess is, that’s exactly what happened to Brian Williams.

As this was “breaking” over the weekend, somebody asked me, “Do you think he’ll lose his job over this?” I said, “Yes.” “Do you think he should?” I said, “Yes.” That’s cold, turkey, especially because I still like the guy. But if I’m his boss, I have to cut him away. (The question was asked at the point when Williams had decided on his own to take some time off. NBC News, shamefully, had not yet officially weighed in.) I replied, “Look at what he does for a living.” He has to stare into a camera and tell people, this is what happened today, I swear it is, forget about that Iraq stuff, I’m rehabilitated now. Most thoughtful people will look at him askance. Viewers of the verbal geek-shows on Fox News won’t even be that kind. NBC has no choice but to find another way forward. I’ve read that Williams is “shattered,” and that hurts me too. But news is news and trust is trust, and that’s precisely how NBC has marketed him, for cryin out loud. On the other hand, let’s not forget that NBC NIGHTLY NEWS is on top in the ratings right now because of Brian Williams, and if there’s any possible way to weasel out of this and preserve that advantage, perhaps by cloning an Iraq-fudging-free duplicate, the NBC suits will be on it like white on rice. Whatever brings the eyeballs.

Jon Stewart.

Jon Stewart.

Time was displaced weirdly on that strange day. At the top of his show Tuesday night, Jon Stewart said he had some business to get to, that you (we, the tv viewers) probably know something the studio audience (the ones who had stood outside shivering in the cold) did not, but we’d take care of that later. This is because THE DAILY SHOW rolls tape in the late afternoon: I think around 4, maybe 5. (I was there once, but the weather was much better.) So anybody who was physically in the studio with him (and, to be fair, the publicity department, painfully aware of all this too) had heard Jon’s announcement by, say, 6pm at the latest, in time to tweet all their friends/bosses. By the time the episode aired at 11pm, the whole country already knew Jon was resigning. At air, the studio audience, trapped in late-afternoon real-time, was actually the last to know. Calling Christopher Nolan!

As he fought away tears, the finest thing Jon told his audience was: “this show doesn’t deserve an even slightly restless host, and neither do you.” What were we to make of the fact that Jon took summer 2013 off to direct (evidently rather credibly; I’ve not seen it yet) a movie? Or that he tapped John Oliver to fill in for him? (One of the all-time greatest DAILY SHOW episodes ever was Oliver’s first, when the whole “correspondent” infrastructure seemed to break down over petty jealousy. Every joke topped the previous one. Classic.) What you, I, Glenn Beck, everybody, has to take away is that Jon Stewart has skin in THE DAILY SHOW. It’s not a berth, as with Hannity or O’Reilly. To him, it’s a lifestyle. The Times ran a piece Wednesday on how politicians are crying alligator tears upon seeing Jon go. I can tell you that book publicists are crying real tears. We can only hope that Colbert finds a way to open 11:35 to more books, as he’s hinted he might. The Stewart-Colbert hour was the last stand for authors who deserved tv time in a culture that doesn’t seem to care. You could tell when Jon had been really rocked by a book, not just pro-forma politeness, and that earnest look to camera could make a TBR bestseller.

John Oliver.

John Oliver.

Could John Oliver take over now? The conventional wisdom was that he’d been a victim of poor timing: he got his weekly HBO show before Colbert split for CBS, otherwise he would have been a shoo-in for the 11:30 spot. (Remember: Colbert battled the monologues of Jay, Jimmy and Dave among younger viewers, and, over time, stared them all down.) But now Oliver’s a hit, and can afford to tell Comedy Central that he doesn’t care to host a four-night-a-week clambake. What he and his writers on LAST WEEK TONIGHT have managed to do is to stretch out the DAILY SHOW format and, after the monologue and such, air a ten-minute, meticulously researched piece each week on a single topic. FIFA. Beauty pageants. The India election. Etc. LAST WEEK TONIGHT blurs satire and journalism in a way the others can’t — plus, the host gets to vent his spleen unbleeped. I can’t imagine him going back to basic cable.

Larry Wilmore.

Larry Wilmore.

In the Colbert slot is Larry Wilmore, and after less than a month behind the desk, he’s already proven that he can carry a show. I’m glad the title changed from THE MINORITY REPORT to THE NIGHTLY SHOW, because the former monicker seemed to marginalize the show too severely. (Although it’s great that black culture has its own comedy show once again — Larry was one of the writers on IN LIVING COLOR — and who else would be able to hone in so hard on the Bill Cosby scandal?) Improving on LAST WEEK’s lead, THE NIGHTLY SHOW usually sticks to one topic for the full half hour. It’s still grasping toward its format: the four-person panel segments feel too rushed, albeit while introducing us to a bunch of bright under-the-radar comics, and the “Keep It 100” segment, in which the host asks absurd what-if questions to his guests, may wear out its welcome sooner than intended. But the show is current as hell: the last moment each night is a Tweeted question to the host, one that he sees for the first time on the spot. On Wednesday, the surprise question was, “Would you go back to host THE DAILY SHOW?” (He said no.)

Stephen Colbert.

Stephen Colbert.

Of course, the big question mark in all this ruckus is Stephen Colbert. The wailing and gnashing of teeth at the demise of THE COLBERT REPORT wasn’t over a fear of losing this great improvisational master; we’ll actually see more of him as he does a whole hour on CBS, five nights a week. It was about losing the character he played, the right-wing buffoon who poked holes in the conservative mass media by pretending to be one of them. This near-decade-long bit of performance art fooled everyone at first, especially whoever booked Colbert for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006 (early reports were that he bombed and people walked out. Then we noticed that the reports were all coming from Bushies, and when we actually saw the speech, it was brave and hilarious). Colbert’s right-wing gasbag character was able to speak truth to power in a new, visceral way, which we’ll all miss. But just as David Letterman deconstructed the talk show format, maybe an out-of-character Colbert and his very fine writers will be able to do the same.

James Corden.

James Corden.

And then there’s the guy nobody’s talking about, the man who will take over for the departing Colin Ferguson in CBS late-late-night land: British actor James Corden, whose lightning-fast improv skills are no secret to anyone who saw him in ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS — as I did. So much change in such a short time. Think about it: by the end of this year, the senior guy in late-night will be…Jimmy Kimmel.

By now, THE DAILY SHOW is as much a format as THE TONIGHT SHOW, which has survived the loss of Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Jay Leno. Most of the people just named have come up as possible replacements for Jon Stewart in the past few days, along with a chorus of feminists who think it’s past time for a Sarah Silverman or Amy Schumer to be sitting behind one of those desks. If the show were on NBC, I’d even throw Brian Williams’s name into the hat. The show won’t be the same. It can’t be. But somebody will step up, and there’s no reason this franchise can’t survive for a good long time, unless powerful people suddenly stop doing and saying stupid things. Ya think?

2/17/15: HBO has moved quickly. Today they picked up LAST WEEK TONIGHT for two more seasons, through 2017, taking John Oliver out of the DAILY SHOW replacement sweepstakes. I think LAST WEEK is a better gig for him, and evidently he agrees.

2/25/15: And now we’re enjoying a little dustup involving Fox News blowhard Bill O’Reilly. Seems this bilious gasbag was nowhere near the Falkland Islands when he “covered” the war for CBS News per his frequent and loud boasting. Unlike Brian Williams, though, this actually works in O’Reilly’s favor. He’s no longer a newsman. He’s long since become a one-sided pundit: nobody particularly trusts him on anything at all. Not only won’t O’Reilly lose his job for serial lying, he’ll be able to paint it as one more example of continuing persecution by the “haters” of the “liberal media.” He’s already begun that defensive campaign in his trademark boorish, bullying style.

4/7/15: And now the newly-designated anchor of THE DAILY SHOW, South African comic Trevor Noah, is feeling some heat over years-old tweets of some less-than-sensitive gags. Man, the news just keeps getting weirder.


Don Pardo, 1918-2014

August 23, 2014

pardoI was waiting for the Don Pardo obit like a horror-film audience member peeking through hisser fingers, but when it finally came it was still a shock. “A light just went out,” as they say when somebody important to you passes away. Well, one just did last Monday, an announcer so strong and true that he was still strappin’ on the cans at age 96.

Don Pardo had been active since the heyday of radio, but he was best known to those of a certain age for his work on tv game shows, especially THE PRICE IS RIGHT and the original JEOPARDY!, the network version hosted by Art Fleming. (The Alex Trebek JEOPARDY! is syndicated.) We knew his voice because it was rock-solid, and we knew his name because the hosts of those shows would often call out to him on the air: “Don Pardo, tell her what she’s won!” His only real competition was a guy named Johnny Olson, who announced all the Mark Goodson-Bill Todman game shows and THE JACKIE GLEASON SHOW. Olson’s was the very excitable tenor voice that made a catchphrase out of the words “COME ON DOWN!”

So, in 1975, when Lorne Michaels hired Pardo to announce SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (originally called NBC’S SATURDAY NIGHT) it was certainly through a gauze of irony. The hippest thing on tv, billboarded by an ancient Mr. Game Show? And Pardo did indeed have enemies among the hipsters, including the curmudgeonly Michael O’Donoghue, who also loathed the Muppets with which he was forced to share the stage in the early days. When O’Donoghue briefly took over after the disastrous Jean Doumanian season, he tried to throw Pardo out along with the rest of the “old guard,” including longtime director Dave Wilson.

But Pardo and his strange stretched syllables had already become as totemic to SNL as Lorne himself. The record will show that Don Pardo billboarded every single SNL episode for 38 seasons, missing only season 7, when Lorne too was gone, even though Pardo flubbed the name of the “Not Ready For Prime Time Players” on the first live broadcast. (There were a few more flubs that night, making the experiment even more thrilling: it was actually live.)

I’d wager most everybody who has ever been connected with the show, even those who hated the experience – and there are plenty of them – have “something in their eye” right now in memory of Don Pardo. Even we simple fans do. He was the sound of American comedy through thick and thin, his dulcet tones matching and encouraging our own excitement. Goodbye, Mr. Pardo, and please give our regards to Belushi after first slapping him around a bit for leaving us far too young. You showed us, and told us, how to do it right.

9/19/14: Today we learned that former longtime cast member Darrell Hammond, the impressionist who actually subbed for Don Pardo a couple of times when the elder voice was ill (and completely fooled us!) will be SNL’s new announcer, but as himself: the “Don Pardo voice” will be permanently retired out of respect.


The Guy Next To Me On The Train

July 18, 2014

I was waiting on the platform at the Rhinecliff train station last Monday. I was talking to a newly-made friend who had also just attended Ricky Jay’s magic-appreciation-immersion weekend. The Amtrak train to Penn Station pulled up. I had to say goodbye because, weeks before, just after I’d ponied up the fee for Ricky’s “Congress of Wonders,” I’d also decided to treat myself to business-class seats on the train, up and back. A gentleman in a light brown suit pointed me to the right car. I walked through the “café car” and found only one empty seat, next to a window seat already saved by a small pack. The helpful gentleman returned from the café car; I’d begun to make myself at home without thinking that he might have been ordering a veggieburger and needing to slip past me.

“Do you know Marc Connelly?” he asked, once he’d settled in and gotten his burger situated on his tray table. He’d overheard my conversation on the platform; he couldn’t have escaped it. Startled, I looked straight at him. “No,” I said. “You remind me of him, I thought you might be related.” I was aghast. “Are you in the theater?” “Yes,” he said, with an inimitable side-of-the-mouth grin, at which point I pegged him.

“You look like John Astin,” I said. “I get that all the time,” said he as he dressed his veggieburger. “And,” said I, “you sound like John Astin.” Now he reached for my hand. The next ninety minutes flew by as we plied each other with conversation. It was the final bit of magic from the Congress of Wonders; I’ll never know how Ricky did it.

astinMr. Astin was returning to his Baltimore home from teaching a master class upstate. (His base is Johns Hopkins, but he’s frequently elsewhere.) He knew who Ricky Jay was, and seemed interested in my weekend experience, which I could only describe to him as a series of outré TED Talks, each of which had at least one spoke aimed at the art of magic. He was amused by my inability to communicate, but sensed a fellow mind.

We talked about our upbringings, what brought him into performance, what led me into studying theater in college, the close relationship between theater and magic, how theatrical arts can be taught and what that means (in subsequent real life, I have depended far more on my college theater-major training than on my political-science-major training), one-man shows (he loved learning about the William Faulkner evening I co-wrote and described the opening minutes of his own Edgar Allan Poe piece, which are chillingly cool), and more and more and more.

He even mentioned Gomez Addams. That led to a discussion about fame, or simple notoriety. Chance had sat me next to Ricky Jay the previous night in the back room of a Rhinebeck tavern, and I couldn’t help but watch countless sycophants bring stuff up to Ricky to sign. This natural curmudgeon endured them all and, as I confessed to my new train-bound friend, the jagged line — you think you’re done, then one more person walks up! — actually became tedious to me, and I’m not even Ricky! He reminded me that he’d already enjoyed some tv notoriety before THE ADDAMS FAMILY, and that what you have to do is just be thankful and continue moving on: in truth, there’s nothing to complain about. I assured him that, even to ten-year-olds, it was his show that was the transgressive one, and the other one that was relatively square. He’d probably heard something similar before, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

As we were pulling up to the final stop, he thanked me for entertaining him on the trip. Heck, he’d done the same for me my whole life! As we departed inside the terminal, “See ya later, John!” “I think we just might, Tom!” Man, I hope so. What a well-read, well-spoken guy. I’m a deeper fan than I was before.


This Single Is A Homer

June 13, 2014

76 coverWhen did everything change? Because everything sure has. High rollers pay to go backstage at rock concerts, which are themselves underwritten by huge corporations, and Dylan tunes are musical beds for commercials. A stint on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, as writer or actor, is a golden ticket to a career in sitcoms or the movies. Pop and hip-hop musicians are regular White House guests, and it’s the rare politician indeed that doesn’t have some classic rock stuffed into his iPod, itself created by a company founded by a couple of hippies in a garage, not all that long ago.

David Browne makes a compelling case for 1976 as the cultural hinge point in a swell new Kindle Single, THE SPIRIT OF ’76. (A Kindle Single is an electronic piece too short to be a book but too long to be a magazine article; the writing is of professional quality, curated by editors at Amazon.com and sold through the Kindle e-book platform, which means you don’t have to own an actual Kindle to read it: just download the Kindle software on any Internet-connected device you have.) Full disclosure: I’m a longtime Browne fan, dating back to when he was the chief music critic for Entertainment Weekly. I also edited his first book, DREAM BROTHER, a fascinating history of the parallel careers of Tim Buckley and his son Jeff which, among many other pleasures, demonstrates that musical talent may actually be genetic. He’s still knocking them out today as a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.

While we were celebrating our country’s bicentennial, Mr. Browne reports, the counterculture was becoming mainstream in so many ways; the tremors were rattling dishes everywhere. The new SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, a rock-world reaction against corny tv variety shows like Carol Burnett’s, won the first four of its Emmys. The two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, were bringing the same sensibility to the decidedly non-hip world of computing. The Ramones arrived to carpet-bomb the artificial barriers between givers and receivers of music. A struggling, hangdog-looking actor created a movie sensation glorifying blue-collar determination and come-from-behind perseverance. A Southern-drawling peanut farmer who loved the Allman Brothers was a serious contender to dethrone the sitting president of the United States. They were all part of a wave of excitement and optimism that didn’t last long, but smashed its way through pop culture all at once. “It was the perfect year for new things to be born and develop,” says Tommy Ramone.

THE SPIRIT OF ’76 looks closely at all these events and more through that prism. It’s as breezy and authoritative as Mr. Browne’s astonishing book-length FIRE AND RAIN, which connects four important pop acts and albums from 1970 in such gorgeous detail that no matter how many times you’ve worn out these records, you will learn something new about CSN&Y, James Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel and the Beatles. (How does somebody so young find out all this stuff? It’s called journalism.) Mr. Browne’s work is so entertaining and likable because he seems to be speaking for the reader. He doesn’t live in a snobby critic’s ivory tower; he’s a fan just like you and me (albeit more industrious and learned). Pick up this Single and you’ll find yourself not only glad there was a 1976, but also sad that its vaulting spirit dissipated into venality and cynicism.


Roger & Thee

March 7, 2014

loudest voiceWho’s the most powerful conservative in the United States? God knows it’s not Mitch McConnell or John Boehner. Not Rush Limbaugh or Karl Rove. Not the former President Bushes or anyone in their family. Not even the Republican Party’s personal Mr. Monopolys, the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. Nope, America’s most powerful conservative rules his fiefdom from a second-floor office on New York’s Avenue of the Americas. He is Roger E. Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News, and as he will gladly tell you, he elected two presidents – and might well have made it three if he hadn’t been busy creating a monster instead.

The brash, mercurial Ailes – part instinctive genius and part paranoid bully – is the subject of a new biography by New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman, THE LOUDEST VOICE IN THE ROOM. It tracks his career from the Mike Douglas TV show where he met and wooed Richard Nixon, to the 1968 campaign immortalized in Joe McGinniss’s classic THE SELLING OF THE PRESIDENT (with which Ailes eagerly cooperated before having to backtrack and humble himself before H. R. Haldeman), then to TV and theater production, an early attempt at partisan conservative broadcasting, a stop at CNBC, and finally permanent sponsorship in the form of an equally bombastic media magnate who felt “mainstream” journalism was too lefty. Since Fox News went on the air in 1996 (just in time for Monica Lewinsky), it has become the official campfire of the right wing, the nexus of one-sided opinion. Its slogan “Fair and Balanced” was created to get under liberals’ skin, and it’s worked: the channel is anything but either and everybody knows it. Fox News is the broadcast home of a parade of blowhards who never have to answer to the public, not even to Rupert Murdoch himself: only to Roger Ailes.

Piecing together Ailes’s upbringing is beyond any biographer, even one who can get a face-to-face with the subject (as Mr. Sherman could not), since Ailes routinely lies about dozens of biographical facts. For example, Mr. Sherman titles his first chapter after an allegedly traumatic childhood experience in which Ailes’s father extends his hand to catch his jumping son and then snatches it away to let him fall: “Don’t ever trust anybody” is the parental takeaway. The source is an Ailes confidant. The story is almost certainly a lie.

Another fiction which has stood the test of time concerns the signal day when MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW producer Ailes met guest Richard M. Nixon. According to official Ailes lore, there was a belly dancer named Little Egypt also booked on the show, “so I stuck Nixon in my office for 15 minutes. If I’d put Little Egypt in there, I’d be managing belly dancers right now.” This was the conversation – sometimes he says it was an hour long – in which Ailes convinced Nixon that he needed a “media adviser.” Trouble is, as the author reports, “According to several of Ailes’s colleagues who were present and the show logs, there was no belly dancer named Little Egypt booked that day.”

Ailes’s life is festooned with such bits of retroactive “history,” but friends and foes alike note that he has long created a “reality distortion field” as powerful and impervious as Steve Jobs’s. So why should we even care about digging through his shape-shifting past? Because Roger Ailes has become not just a reflector of modern American culture, but a driver of it to an almost unthinkable degree, the thought leader of a rabid, vocal and inward-looking minority. As Mr. Sherman writes, in Fox News’s early days, emboldened by Bill Clinton’s personal foibles, some viewers “kept the channel on for so long that the static Fox News logo…burned the pixels. Before a rotating one was introduced, even when they turned off their sets for the night, the outlines of the graphic remained tattooed to the dark screens.” Some cable channels have viewers. Fox News has believers.

I remember when Rush Limbaugh’s first book appeared in fall 1992. I’d never heard of him, but then I hadn’t listened to talk radio since my grad-school days twenty years earlier, when Atlanta’s WRNG, a 24-hour call-in station, entertained me on long car trips. Stuart Applebaum, Bantam’s corporate spokesperson, predicted a huge hit for our competitor Pocket Books. Why? “Conservatives don’t have anything to read.” And it was true: when I thought of conservative literature, it was ages-old screeds from Barry Goldwater or the John Birch Society, maybe ragged conspiracy-spouting pamphlets for gun-show booths. Well, conservatives didn’t have anything to watch either. For years it was accepted right-wing wisdom that the big-shot media were hopelessly biased in favor of progressivism, from organized labor to women’s suffrage to civil rights. (That continues to be a powerful motivating force on the right, which likes to view itself as the long-suffering victim.) And Rush Limbaugh represented its first shot across the bow, now that mass media had become untethered to even the pretense of objectivity.

For most of the 20th century, on radio and television at least, bald editorializing was actually quite rare. Eric Sevareid’s spots on CBS, for example, were devoted to explicating the news rather than promoting an opinion, which would have been anathema to the longtime journalist. When official opinion was broadcast, station owners – mindful that they were using airwaves licensed to them by the public and guided since 1949 by the FCC’s “Fairness Doctrine” – would invite an opposing view. This conceit became a weekly 60 MINUTES feature called “Point/Counterpoint,” savagely parodied by the new satirical program SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (“Jane, you ignorant slut!”). But in 1987 the FCC rescinded the Doctrine, and Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush beat back attempts in Congress to reinstate it, on the grounds that broadcasters’ First Amendment rights to free speech were being impinged. That opened the floodgates for partisan broadcasting that had no obligation to present an opposing view. This relatively recent development in mass media is the hottest thing on radio, and despite the public sackcloth and ashes, the leading programs are overwhelmingly conservative. As for television, Fox News speaks for itself – quite literally.

One of the most impressive aspects of the right-wing establishment is its message discipline. Do you remember just after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, when presidential spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters, “I’m not going to engage in the blame game,” and continued to use the term repeatedly during his press briefing? Then the same term was picked up by Congressional Republicans, conservative talk radio and Fox News. It also happened when President Obama refused to release photos of Osama bin Laden’s corpse because “we don’t need to spike the football”: the instant right-wing meme was that he was doing exactly that (perhaps hoping we’d forgotten George W. Bush’s flight-suit strut on that aircraft carrier), and this exact phrase tumbled from right-wing mouths for two days. What, does Fox hold meetings to decide what today’s talking points are going to be? As Mr. Sherman reports, why yes, as a matter of fact it does. That’s the exact opposite of reporting news, but that’s also what creates Fox fans. Besides, simply repeating something, no matter how preposterous, gives it weight, as Fox News has proved with the “Swift Boat” campaign against John Kerry and its laughable annual “War on Christmas.”

Many observers, including me, have long wondered whether the on-air opinionators of Fox News are simply performing for the camera or genuinely subscribe to the principles they’re spouting. After reading this book, I’ve come to the conclusion that at least some of the on-camera talent may indeed be pontificators-for-pay (Glenn Beck in particular was never an Ailes team player and stuck to his own messages, and Bill O’Reilly’s main orientation is apparently Bill O’Reilly), but Ailes himself actually believes a lot of this stuff. He is an intensely paranoid man who sees conspiracies lurking everywhere – perhaps they are remnants of his time spent with Richard Nixon – and is so afraid of assassination that he had his Fox News office bomb-proofed and installed a bunker beneath his mountaintop country home in Putnam County, New York (after purchasing the sleepy local newspaper and turning it into an advocate) to weather an attack, which will be easier for him to spot after having cut down the nearby trees and bought as many surrounding houses as he could.

Is Fox News the official organ of the Republican Party? You may recall that no less than Dick Cheney directed that all tv sets in his vice-presidential hotel suites be pre-set to Fox, and a host named Steve Doocy flabbergasted observers one day by casually consulting a GOP talking-points memo on the air. Or is it the other way around? After all, it was Fox News – particularly its acerbic host Sean Hannity – which fanned the flames of the nascent Tea Party and probably cost Republicans control of the Senate for two straight election cycles; hyperventilating bombthrowers can win Senate primaries, but it turns out they get clobbered in the more rational general elections. (In the gerrymandered House, quite a few bombthrowers actually won, and collectively became Speaker Boehner’s worst nightmare.) Whatever Fox News is, it’s here to stay for a while, if not exactly at full strength: the channel’s core viewers are aging white men, and most of their potential younger replacements have long since learned to laugh rather than obey. Let’s face it, it’s more fun — and more lucrative — to be Roger Ailes when you have an enemy in the White House; whatever would Fox run 24/7 during a Romney administration? For now, railing against the Kenyan socialist (while secretly hoping for another Clintonian punching bag?) will just have to do.

3/9/13: Read this great story on Chris Ruddy, the guy behind the Newsmax empire, who is ready to give Ailes a run for at least part of his money on television. Ruddy has calmly discerned and exploited the market potential of serving right-wing-but-not-frothing boomers, and in real life he’s an independent who makes up his own mind.


Blockbuster Video, 1985-2013

November 7, 2013

BlockbusterI missed Blockbuster, by and large, so I won’t really miss it. But millions of others won’t miss it for an entirely different set of reasons.

In 1980, while waiting for the result of the home video format war (ask your parents), I became one of the first kids on my block to own a VHS videocassette recorder/player. I guessed right; though VHS was technologically inferior to Betamax, its cassettes held more stuff, and that was enough for me and the non-Sony world. This machine changed my life – and, as it turned out, the entire culture’s. Not only could I record ordinary tv programs to watch later (the eggheads instantly gave that phenomenon a fancy name: “time shifting”), but they also included, if I so chose, uncut and uninterrupted movies off HBO, or classic flicks that aired at 3 in the morning: I could set the thing like an alarm clock! How useful this would have been while I was struggling through my Master’s thesis on Fifties monster movies. They’ve gone about as fer as they kin go, said I.

As with television a generation prior, Hollywood had no vision of the future and its knee-jerk reaction was to fight home video tooth and nail. In 1976, Universal and Disney brought suit against poor Sony, alleging that home video recording amounted to piracy; by the time the matter finally reached the Supreme Court eight years later and time-shifting off the air was judged to be fair use, the practice had grown so widespread that the legal action was basically moot, now enriching only lawyers.

In the meantime, of course, the studios were taking big chomps of the new home video pie themselves. They began to issue official, “studio-struck” versions of their most popular movies. Fox Home Video was a pioneer: I remember being astonished to see PLANET OF THE APES, PATTON and M*A*S*H shown at people’s homes during parties (the serious film and tv production guys all had Betamaxes early on). At one such bash at my friend Dave Adcock’s, 2001 played with the sound off, and you could see people taking quick glances over your shoulder. Far from ruining the movie business, home video revenue came to carry the biz on its back – you made more money on home entertainment than on the theatrical release – and continued to do so until very recently.

Renting videocassettes, in both Beta and VHS formats, was the next logical step – after all, most adults only want to see a movie once – and it sprang up in thousands of mom-and-pop stores, located in strip malls and lesser venues, DIY-shabby but cute, like independent comics stores. Mine was called Video Station, owned by a wonderful movie fan named Curtis. The first time I walked in, I was gobsmacked at the choices I had, for movies I could see tonight. I simply must share this with others, I said.

So, every Friday night for several years, I screened a movie at my house. Ten or fifteen friends came over to watch – the audience was constantly changing and self-regenerating – and we loved having our own private movie theater. After the first few weeks, one of my neighbors timidly came to the door and said, “Sorry, but we just have to know what you do on Friday nights. All these cars pull up in your driveway and on the street. Then you turn off all the lights, and we can’t hear a thing!” (Remember, VCRs weren’t very common back then. Once I explained that we were all watching a movie, it made sense. Hope nobody thought I was hosting the world’s most boring coven.)

I was such a reliable customer that Curtis would give me a peek at release schedules and let me have pre-dibs on new movies, which were appearing on tape even before their pay-cable runs. One Friday his delivery ran late and he personally drove the cassette over to my house just as people were beginning to arrive for the movie. (He declined a beer, but accepted our warm applause.) This was the state of home video rental in the early Eighties: warm, personal service, hand-selling (Curtis recommended most of the lesser-known films we screened, just as Quentin Tarantino did at his video store out in California), the same qualities you want in a good independent bookseller. Video life was sweet.

Then, in 1985, a Dallas businessman named David Cook decided to take the concept wide. Mom-and-pop video stores were starting to add locations and develop into local and regional “chains,” but Cook’s eyes were bigger, and Blockbuster was born. Wayne Huizenga executed its national rollout: it quickly added videogames, swallowed up smaller companies and opened new stores aggressively, aided by a virtuous circle in which floods of new customers were entering the movie-rental market every week. Less than ten years after its founding, the now-ubiquitous Blockbuster was big enough to seriously propose a merger with Viacom.

Now all the homegrown Video Stations were out of business, and everybody was dealing with Blockbuster (there were 9,000 stores at its peak in 2004) or a franchise just like it. Oligopoly bred complacency as video rental became a typical weekend’s afterthought. Blockbuster customers were treated to a shelf full of thirty display cases of that weekend’s new release, all of them already rented. There was little quality control over returned rentals; you wondered exactly what some people had been doing with them. And then there were the late fees. You couldn’t ignore them like some did with their library books, because Blockbuster had your credit card. Grumbling about Blockbuster became a national pastime (especially when it appeared that late fees constituted a profit center), but its business model was already mortally wounded.

Those late fees inspired a Blockbuster customer named Reed Hastings to think of a new business model, and what he came up with was Netflix, which opened in 1997, concentrating on the new DVD format. There was no store; you ordered your movies via the Internet and got them through the mail. And – here’s the master stroke – you paid a monthly fee to have a certain number of disks at your house for as long as you wanted. The company got a reliable stream of revenue without having to charge late fees! Netflix subsisted on mail-order while it quietly broadened its “streaming” capability, and lately has even moved into original programming, the very thing which has kept HBO afloat all these years. Fun fact: in 2000, Netflix offered itself to Blockbuster for $50 million, and was turned down.

So why do you need Blockbuster anymore? Hmmm: you don’t. Yesterday the company’s current owners announced that it will close its remaining 300 company-owned stores by early January. That will leave only about fifty franchisee-run stores, and they’d better watch their backs, because the brand name’s “goodwill” has long since been used up. Entertainment is still big business, but the way it’s delivered to our eyeballs is constantly mutating and adapting to fit new technology. Blockbuster controlled the golden goose for 25 years, but these days it’s about as relevant as a Commodore 64 – and I know plenty of former customers who are just fine with that.

11/9/13: Variety reports, “Blockbuster has sent out tweets over the last several days alerting customers it will stop renting movies on Nov. 9, with most stores starting to liquidate inventory on Nov. 14.” (Note to Rand Paul: this is how you quote somebody without plagiarizing them.)

11/11/13: The funnest fact of all: Variety reports that the last movie rented from a company-owned Blockbuster store was THIS IS THE END. (First half: amusing. Last half: embarrassing. Kind of like Blockbuster itself!)


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