The Dynamic Duo In Gotham City

July 10, 2015

thAs Penn & Teller began their limited New York engagement last Tuesday night (it runs through August 16th at the Marquis Theatre in Times Square), it seemed like a valedictory performance, at least to those of us old enough to remember the mid-Eighties off-Broadway run at the Westside Arts that made them national stars. They are now the official longest-running headliners in the history of Las Vegas, which tells you how long it’s been since they’ve played Broadway. But New York still holds a special place in their hearts; you can tell.

th-1When they introduced themselves to the nation from the home base of that Westside engagement, they’d already been honing their act for a decade. They quickly became the hippest ticket in town (the eccentricity was a big draw; their Obie was inscribed “To Penn & Teller for Whatever It’s Called That They Do”) and favored guests on New York’s own Letterman show, which reached just their kind of crowd, all across the country. Back then, before the Internet took over everything, the technologically savvy P&T hosted MOFO, a computer bulletin board that allowed their fans to chat with the boys and each other. (It was named for “MOFO, the Psychic Gorilla,” the star of one of their few bits in which the normally silent Teller spoke, though surreptitiously.) Penn used to lead midnight jaunts through a grimier Times Square and descend with his small posse on an unsuspecting grindhouse for some kung fu or B-movie horror. They’ve always nurtured a personal attachment in their fans, greeting them outside the theater after each show. (Shake Penn’s hand or tell him you loved it, and he’ll probably say, “Thanks, boss.” See, everybody who pays to see him is his…)

th-1I had a strong feeling that this might be my last chance to see Penn & Teller on stage. Not that I sense anything ominous regarding their partnership or their appeal. It’s just that Vegas is so rippin far away. For years to come, I’m sure I can always buy a plane ticket and book a hotel room and schlep myself across the country to the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio. But now, in a rare luxury, they were coming to me: all I had to do was hop a bus and take a short stroll. So I decided to make the most of P&T’s brief NYC residency by also attending their “TimesTalk” at the beautiful New York Times Center the Thursday before they began performing at the Marquis.

At the TimesTalk.

At the TimesTalk.

Before a fraction of the capacity of their Broadway venue, the boys chatted with moderator Erik Piepenburg, did a few tricks, and answered questions from the audience. You’ve heard Penn talk for years now, but Teller in particular is quite well-spoken and astute; he’s spent so much stage and air time in silence — which he views as a more intimate form of communication — that you occasionally find yourself disoriented as the “quiet guy” spews out deftly-considered sentences. They’re both wry and funny (Teller: the difference between the old street-busking days and Broadway is, “Here, you pass the hat first.”), yet dead serious about matters that demand it, including the performance of magic. I’ve probably watched Teller in Houdini’s “East Indian Needles” illusion ten times now, including at this TimesTalk and later at the Broadway show, and even though the method is widely known if you care to dig, it’s still exhilarating to see it nailed perfectly by a master; it’s exactly like watching a beloved song done live by the very singer you wanted to hear. They also presented their legendary take on “Cups & Balls,” an ancient sleight-of-hand routine, using transparent cups. At the end came one I hadn’t seen before: they convinced a blindfolded volunteer that solid rings were passing through her arms using an intricate, delicate series of moves requiring both performers. We, the audience, were watching the method, which was fooling only the blinded subject, and we were still amazed at the clever artistry that spun the illusion. Which was the whole point, after all. For us, it was a great intimate session with two wonderful raconteurs. For them, it was the dinner break from rehearsal.

th-2Five nights later, I was settling in for their first preview at the Marquis. As in Vegas, the Penn & Teller pre-show consists of a jaunty, merry jazz pianist (Mike Jones, “Jonesy,” who’s been with them forever) accompanied by a big guy in a fedora thumping away on an upright bass. They’ve been playing since the house opened. The bassist is Penn, he’s actually a pretty good one-man rhythm section, and he’ll keep picking that tub until about curtain minus :10. On stage, as is also common in their Vegas show, are some props that the arriving audience members are invited to come up and inspect and/or sign.

PENN & TELLER ON BROADWAY had been described by the stars in the TimesTalk as a summation of their career: not “our greatest hits,” but a meaningful selection. For example, “Needles” was the first trick Penn ever saw Teller perform. Historic. It’s in. The boys took command of the theater even before they were announced. Projected onto a big video screen, Penn instructed us to turn our cell phones ON. One lucky audience member was going to be selected for the first trick, and that person would be able to record it from an angle that would reveal the method. Once the mind-blowing bit was over, we all realized: the video inside that guy’s cell phone is the ONLY way you could figure out how that phone possibly got from one place to a jaw-dropping other place. A minicam figured into another hilarious piece as well. Never let it be said that Penn & Teller are old-fashioned.

No. Let it be frickin said. When they first appeared off-Broadway thirty years ago, Teller writes in the program notes, their producers advised them to avoid describing themselves as “magicians.” It, um, conjured the wrong image. So they remained coy about what they did (note the Obie citation). Only while exiting did their audiences realize they’d been persuaded to attend a magic show. Now, on their triumphant return, they’re embracing their inner magicians. Penn promises the audience that they will see nothing less than: (1) a rabbit pulled from a hat! (2) a lady sawed into halves! and (3) the vanishing of an elephant! “What more could you possibly want from a Broadway magic show?” he bellows. But in between, they take humorous but no less effective shots at hated enemies like “mentalists,” unthinking religious fervor (they don’t even like thinking religious fervor), and, science be praised, the imperious rat bastards of the T.S.A.

thMaybe I’m imagining it, but I think I noticed a nod to the duo’s advancing physical age. Don’t get me wrong, they both look great. Penn has lost more than 100 pounds after being diagnosed with high blood pressure and adopting a healthier lifestyle. Teller is as quick and agile as ever, but he’s a couple years older than I, and I have a Medicare card, d00d. What we didn’t see was one of those towering Grand Guignol bits that used to put Teller in jeopardy, whether suspended above spring-loaded bear traps or a row of pointed spikes, “drowned” in a water-escape cell, or madly pulling himself through tubes to appear as impossibly separated body parts. These are all illusions, sure, but they require physical effort too. I suspect that at some point the partners may have decided to pull back a scoche on the stuff that makes you pant. There’s a grisly moment played for laughs — their specialty — and Penn does “risk injury” in a piece with a nail gun, but that aspect of P&T has been refined. They still perform the amazing “Bullet Catch” in Vegas, but that’s as suspenseful as they get nowadays.

th-2No, my two favorite parts of this show were quieter ones. I think Teller has performed the piece they call “Shadows” every time I’ve seen them live, and each time it strikes me with a melancholy I can’t explain. (Same beloved-song analogy as above.) By the end of the illusion I want to cry. I almost did this time, because for me the trick’s innate sadness was stuffed together with, this may be the last time I ever see this. Sniffle. Then the lights went out and Penn began talking softly about carnival acts, the “ten-in-ones,” the freak shows. Then some fire lit him just a tad, and his monologue led us up slowly to a demonstration of fire eating. What he was saying seemed to come from deep inside. He never raised his voice. He said that after thirty years of coming out and greeting the audience after every show, they couldn’t help but eavesdrop on some remarkable comments. “Aw, Teller used candy needles.” (As if anybody would manufacture them.) “It was cold fire.” (WTF?) Everything else we’ve done tonight has been a trick, said Penn. This — meaning the small torch he was about to put into his mouth — is a stunt. They went through a routine that I once saw with a female assistant; tonight, the part was taken by Teller. Finally, in that same calm, earnest tone, Penn uttered the words that have opened and closed every live show I’ve ever seen: “I’m Penn Jillette, this is my partner Teller, we are Penn & Teller.” Now came a tear: the monologue and fire-eating was also how they’d ended their Westside Arts show, all those fun-filled years ago.

And just like that, poof! it was done.


Fabula Interruptus And Other Problems

July 5, 2015
This adorable little moppet has a secret friend named Drill.

This adorable little moppet has a secret friend named Drill.

When I read that ABC was planning to turn Ray Bradbury’s short story “Zero Hour” into a tv series, I rolled my eyes, as I’m sure would most others familiar with the piece. It had been one of those pin-pricking yarns that really got to me as a kid, probably because of the parent issues involved. I was creeped out by “The Veldt” and Ray’s mushroom-growing boy in the same way. That ol’ Bradbury could really get under your skin, as in “Fever Dream,” another super-squirmish tale. The disquieting thing they all share is that the parents aren’t really, really listening, and it is they who putatively control reality for their kids. As a youngster in THE WHISPERS, the resulting series, tells her mother, grownups don’t know what’s really happening. They only think they do.

But wow, a whole tv series? This story can’t be more than 5,000 words long. Look it up and go read it right now. “Zero Hour.” It’ll take you fifteen minutes, tops. Then we’ll continue. If you have to order a Bradbury story collection to read “Zero Hour,” then I’ll see you after it arrives, at which point I will accept your gratitude for steering you to a really good book. You’re welcome.

Now. After watching as many episodes as tv critics usually get in advance to evaluate a new series (three or four), I have to concede that I’m rather pleased with how the WHISPERS writers have been able to “open up” the story. Having just read it (or watched or heard it; the previous two links guide you to tv and radio adaptations for printophobes), you already know, sort of, who or what the children’s invisible friend “Drill” is, and that is still the undercurrent that informs the entire shebang. But non-Bradburian plot points are opening up like flower petals as the little teeny story inspires a big multipart saga. And THE WHISPERS is hardly alone. We’re living in a Golden Age of scripted television. Not some fabled long ago. Right this dadburn second. But this age has brought with it some huge problems.

The LOST cast asks,

The LOST cast asks, “WTF?”

Everybody thought scripted tv had gone to hell after SURVIVOR ushered in a new wave of “reality” shows (they have their own writers, but let’s set that aside for now) as the century turned, and for a depressing little while it really looked that way. But creativity, like water, will always try to find a way into your home, and in my opinion the important hinge for scripted tv was fall 2004, when this same ABC premiered both LOST and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. It’s true that THE SOPRANOS had started carving its path through the jungle as early as 1999. But subscription cable like HBO has a built-in ceiling. Even today, the recent record-breaking Season Five finale of GAME OF THRONES could only attract 8 million and change, meaning non-thief viewers coming from the subscriber pool. Those earlier two ABC series, in contrast, were beamed out on a Big Four broadcast network, and they flipped out the folks en masse.

(N.B.: Every time the Writers Guild calls a strike, it puts more writers out of work in the long run. “Reality” began as a palsied defensive salvo from the networks, but damn if it didn’t catch on!)

Soap operas and their prime-time cousins (e.g., DALLAS) aside, most dramas in the history of television had been episodic, meaning you could watch them in any order and they’d still make sense. LOST and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES broke that mold on network tv. They were each one long serial tale, a series of weekly cliffhangers that not only required ordered viewing, but also felt compelled to feed the audience enough backstory at the top each week to create a new catchphrase: “Previously on LOST.” Now damn near everybody else works that way too.

The good news: a come-hither format that, when artfully executed, can deliver a sprawling story that resembles an epic novel but also makes you pant for next week’s continuation (this format took hold long before the instant gratification of streaming and bingeing became possible; see below). The bad news: these days it’s almost impossible to earn anything from domestic syndication, even with the jumbled-up episodic sitcoms that are perfect time-fillers and once celebrated their 100th episodes (they’d made enough of them to deal to local stations) more than their original green-lights: now we’re gonna get rich!

Even without the syndication market, LOST and HOUSEWIVES were such monster hits, bolstering ABC’s other shows on their air nights, that the law of diminishing returns was invoked and we began to see dozens of crappy imitators. Their fates helped change viewing patterns and, I submit, the very willingness of audiences to try out new programs.

THE EVENT cast asks,

THE EVENT cast asks, “WTF?”

An important personal touchstone was THE EVENT, a series that NBC launched in fall 2010, after LOST had just finally ended its six-year tale. Like LOST, THE EVENT was a vaguely foreboding story whose secrets and surprises began just out of camera range and were filled in gradually. The production looked like a million bucks, the cast were all seasoned pros, NBC promoted it as hard as humanly possible, and I started watching the 22-episode first season, having found a new hour per week with the finale of my beloved LOST. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough colleagues in dens and media rooms across the country, and NBC cancelled the program after a single season — even though the drumrolled “event” of the title had not yet taken place!

I felt cheated, foolish, taken advantage of. NBC had utterly wasted my time, pulled a rug out from under me. (Of course ratings are ratings and tv is a business, I get it, but I was still one disappointed customer.) However, THE EVENT did teach me a lesson. Now I’m wary enough to really pick and choose with healthy skepticism among the time-sinks competing for my attention. And I’m not alone. Nor is THE EVENT. While I was writing this piece, NBC pulled the plug on AMERICAN ODYSSEY, whatever that is, after one lone season. If you were interested in its story, better get disinterested right away.

This LOST/EVENT template, a weekly serial which may or may not actually reach its payoff, is being replicated all over the dial. Ten or twenty scripted mega-stories launch every year now. The latest innovation is the “summer series,” like UNDER THE DOME or THE STRAIN, which brings the tv calendar full circle and makes “the new season” year-round. But also spiking is the threat of cancellation.

An entire little town asks,

An entire little town asks, “WTF?”

This attrition-in-disgust resentment is not news to those who fashion our programs, the suits and showrunners. So some clever people decided to cut losses and introduce something new: the non-serial series. AMERICAN HORROR STORY proved so creepy and visceral that its producers said, renew us and we’ll reboot for another unrelated ten-episode story; all we’ll promise is the same sensibility. FARGO made the identical move: we’re going to set our ten episodes within the world of the Coen brothers’ movie, then we’ll reset and try another story within the same milieu. (That’s how you can get, say, Billy Bob Thornton to star: the gig has an end date.) I read that WAYWARD PINES was always planned as ten episodes with a beginning and an end, but it’s been doing pretty well, so we’ll see if Fox can resist the temptation to plod on serially.

A single member of the WAYWARD PINES cast asks,

A single member of the WAYWARD PINES cast asks, “WTF?”

THE WHISPERS, the Bradbury-inspired series, begins with the story’s unsettling premise — single-digit children in an idyllic Bradburian suburban setting begin playing “a game” with their friend, whom older siblings and adults cannot perceive — and then opens into a dark conspiracy involving defense secrets, an unexplainable something found on the other side of the world, an amnesiac who seems to be oddly connected to it all, and two troubled marriages that help keep the proceedings at human level. Like Stephen King’s best novels, like LOST itself, THE WHISPERS is most effective when the audience is still digging through the initial mysteries. As the writers inevitably begin to explain themselves, the piece visibly loses power, like many second halves of King novels. That’s also happening with Fox’s isolated-town tale WAYWARD PINES, whose “reveal” (if indeed true; I haven’t read the source books so can’t be sure) is so preposterous that it induces a bit of recoil in the viewer. Its isolated-town cousin, UNDER THE DOME, which just began its third season on CBS, is suffering from the same problem: the story is getting away from itself through weirder and weirder complications (LOST devotees may empathize). I have read DOME’s source novel — by our pal Stephen King — and if the book’s ultimate reveal is preserved for tv, there are going to be some angry viewers, because it just doesn’t support the ever more elaborate buildup.

Everybody in THE WHISPERS except the adorable children ask,

Everybody in THE WHISPERS except the adorable children ask, “WTF?”

The fly in the ointment, of course, is streaming. HOUSE OF CARDS fans on Netflix are watching a serialized story too, but they can consume a whole season’s worth over a weekend, because the entire batch is released at once. Network tv uses a different business model, so they’re obliged to beg you to take a chance. In opposition, Netflix is teaching viewers that they can put off weekly gratification in favor of having the whole enchilada. (Back in the heyday of DVD, many people would buy whole seasons on disk and tear through them all at once. Binge-watching is nothing new.) If the networks worked that way, they’d have to “drop” a season for streaming and wait for the reaction before green-lighting the next one. Meanwhile more and more viewers will still call their bluff and fail to commit until they’re sure there will be a satisfying major-chord ending. The relationship between creator and consumer may be turning into a Leone/Tarantino Mexican standoff.

And that’s gonna make a great open-ended series.

7/27/15: WAYWARD PINES ended with a startling turnabout (evidently departing from the source books) that will encourage some to want a theoretical second season. They did explode the initial premise, but they are not leaving it alone.

8/31/15: I knew it. UNDER THE DOME is no more.

10/22/15: And today we learned that ABC is sending THE WHISPERS to the tv graveyard after one season. It started strongly, but then the writers slowly went nuts. By season’s end, the only thing left from Bradbury’s story was the name Drill.

A Senior Moment

June 27, 2015

walkerI’m a senior. A senior!

I’ve reached that age where you can’t pussyfoot around it any more. My good friend Jack Dann, who has me beat by a year or two, recently called putz on me because I could have been taking senior discounts at certain movie-theater chains for years now. I left the money on the table (luckily for me, I don’t care to witness most of the full-fare crap while it’s still projected on the screen) because I was a little shy at first. Didn’t want to blurt it out. But now that I’ve hit that magic number, somehow these days it just rolls off the tongue.

Senior, cashier at the Perot science museum in Dallas! Senior, IMAX box official! Long ago, I tried to act older in order to buy a sixpack; this morning at CVS, the pharmacist asked me for my birthdate and I wanted to kiss her for that six-bottle pack. I’m a for-real senior citizen. Dude, I have a Medicare card. What torques me now is that the young things running such cash registers don’t even bother to look up before giving me my crusty-assed discount. You can only pretend you’re 18 on the way up, homes. As Charlie Brown used to moan, AAAAUGH! (A true Senior is a guy who doesn’t wish he was 18 again; he wants a little more sophistication. 30 is just fine.)

Seniority is no longer an honorific. It’s now a demographic, because the term is everywhere. Years ago I was a Senior Editor, which is what they called me when I started editing books for Bantam in order to to make authors and agents feel like I knew more than I actually did. THE DAILY SHOW makes fun of the same syndrome by giving each and every correspondent a “Senior” designation: “Senior Black Correspondent,” etc. Anything “senior” in an academic environment gets a berth wide enough to drive trux thru.

THE DAILY SHOW's Senior Black Correspondent.

THE DAILY SHOW’s Senior Black Correspondent.

I could have been a senior Senator 35 years ago. All you have to do is be at least thirty, win a statewide election, and wait for the lovable old hilarious coot who is your colleague to drop dead or get primaried by zealots in hisser party (as Mississippi’s Thad Cochran almost did last year). You may still be a whippersnapper, but you have now become a senior Senator. What could be easier? Elizabeth Warren — my age plus a few months — is the senior Senator from Massachusetts, but she’s only been on the job for 2 1/2 years!

Jimmy Kimmel is the senior (if that means longest-serving) late-night tv host, and he’s only 47. That fifty-year-old fossil Stephen Colbert will become the senior (if that means eldest) talk-show host when he assumes his post in September. This is not about white hair any more, dammit, although I’ve got a head full of it (meaning I don’t have to shave myself bald to compensate). Donald Trump is a senior, and look at that thing on his head! I prefer sticking with Mother Nature’s all-natural good hair genes.

thThe old kind of senior is the kind depicted in the movie GOING IN STYLE, a Marty Brest beauty from 1979, the year I couldn’t trust myself any more pace Abbie Hoffman. The new kind of senior is the guy in the Dos Equis ads. I still want you kids to keep offa my lawn, but now I bellow it with much more authority, because Ich bin ein geezer!



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 fan of THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON (that was the official name of the program in NBC press materials; I knew that from my college-era stint on the local Sunday newspaper). 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. (Phoenix 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 Till 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.

Cassandra Channels Billie

April 25, 2015

61D3iXftobL._AA160_She was just billed as “Cassandra” back in Jackson, Mississippi in the 70s-80s, when she was the featured singer with Sergio Fernandez and his band at local spots like POETS in “The Quarter” on Lakeland Drive. All caps because the name was (rumored to be) a response to the overly cheerful T.G.I. Friday’s: it (supposedly) stood for “Piss On Everything, Today’s Saturday.” At first you said, Cassandra? I just want a pint or two; I don’t want to hear about how everything’s falling apart.

But this Cassandra melted you down within five minutes. Her worst quality, I have been told by more than one POETS server, was that her voice made customers forget to keep drinking. That’s how smitten we all were. Most decent-sized cities with local music scenes have one or two standouts who make you think, this individual is good enough to go pro. Well, ours went and did it. Her name was, and is, Cassandra Wilson, and she’s been a shining light among jazz vocalists in the wider world for more than 25 years.

After all that time and all that adulation, Cassandra has become so confident in the recording studio that she’s willing to take a few chances, and has it ever paid off on her latest release, COMING FORTH BY DAY. It’s an album of mostly covers of, and a tribute or two to, Billie Holliday, a singer whom Cassandra respects, admires, even adores. But this is no impression, not an attempt to resurrect a style or a voice. This is Billie through Cassandra, and she had the guts to engage Nick Launay, the longtime producer of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. (Did anybody else see that documentary, 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH?) The supporting musicians thus range from T Bone Burnett to Nick Zinner, with Van Dyke Parks supplying the string arrangements.

The best way I can describe the result is, it’s as if Billie Holliday were sitting next to you and singing softly into your ear. Yes, there are some out-front dynamics, but in most cases Cassandra makes you lean in to her; the only other producer I might have trusted to get a similar ambience would be Daniel Lanois. You will never consider “All of Me,” “You Go To My Head,” “These Foolish Things,” or even “Strange Fruit,” the same way again. It’s the midnight set after the playboys and their girls have all gone home.

This album is not for everybody; Cassandra has plenty for you jumpin’ jivers in her catalog. But in a way, it’s a wonderful summation of her career, and never have I been prouder of Jackson’s knock-em-dead chanteuse.

Some Moss Gathers

April 10, 2015

politifact-photos-141205175643-rolling-stone-uva-rape-on-campus-story-topThis has to be the all-time low point in the 48-year history of Rolling Stone. One of the last remaining outlets for long-form journalism, which used to be everywhere, the magazine has been forced to retract one of its biggest stories, and it has nobody to blame but itself for the great damage it has done to the fight against sexual assault on the college campus.

A loudly publicized RS article by Sabrina Rubin Erdely purported to document a shocking instantce of gang rape during a fraternity party at the University of Virginia, using it to highlight a very serious — and very real — nationwide problem. But Ms. Erdely’s scoop began unraveling almost as soon as it was published. It was, it developed, based on interviews with one traumatized victim, and the rest of her story didn’t hold up to scrutiny. Potential corroborators disputed the main witness’s version of events, and the fraternity in question hadn’t even held a party that night. Other journalists are shaking their heads at RS’s utter failure to double-check its reporting, at every step of the process, even after its fact-checking department warned that the factual backup was unusually flimsy. An independent review by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism (in fairness, itself commissioned by an appalled Rolling Stone) ripped the magazine for ignoring basic rules of reporting. Soon, RS was reduced to the butt of a Jon Stewart bit.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Ms. Erdely and her editors evidently committed the logical error called “confirmation bias,” which means they began with a proposition and searched for real-life support. In their victim, known as “Jackie,” they felt they had found what they needed and, in deference to her psychological trauma (or so the editors say), they failed to subject her story to the scrutiny that would have been employed by any decent high-school newspaper. A journalist reports verifiable facts.

It’s a delicate subject, to say the least, about which we definitely don’t know enough. A few weeks ago, two activists told Bill Maher that on average, one in five college women would face sexual assault by the time they graduated. That number sounded way high to me, so I did some digging around. The stat comes from the Centers for Disease Control, which says: “In a study of undergraduate women, 19% experienced attempted or completed sexual assault since entering college.” Wow. Amazing. In my defense, though, I submit that I was way off in my estimation for one simple reason. I’m a man.

A long-ago girlfriend, with whom I worked in the same professional setting, years later casually mentioned the gauntlet of potential hit-ons she’d had to endure when we were together, mostly from older gents who were also part of that setting. I had been absolutely oblivious. Nor had she cried on my shoulder about it; to her, it was just an annoying part of everyday life as an attractive young woman. You guys have no idea, bub. Let’s take that same dynamic and dial back the maturity level so that both people are in college. Now the one-in-five starts to look much closer.

If you’re not a rock star, jock star or movie star, it’s hard to imagine having to fend off potential suitors, but women (adjust for LGBT relationships however you wish; let’s just say, the “naturally pursued”) do it all the time. And pursuers have to stick their necks out every so often and face casual rebuke: most women I know have many ways to clearly indicate they’re not interested in a romantic relationship, because life forces them to develop those signals. (Or hmmm: was it just me?) You may wind up feeling foolish for trying, but by me, that’s not sexual assault. When you don’t yet know enough to (or are too drunk to) read a NO THANKS signal, you’re getting into some deep water that no amount of “Boy, did we get hammered!” can bail. And even if a woman gets used in the worst way by some budding Stanley Kowalski, it’s still up to her to report the damn thing and go through the humiliation all over again. Because little lady, the burden of proof is on you.

Columbia J-School Academic Affairs Dean Sheila Coronel and Dean Steve Coll present their report.

Columbia J-School Academic Affairs Dean Sheila Coronel and Dean Steve Coll present their report.

The worst part of this is that many — especially our pals on the pale, male and stale far right — don’t believe in college sexual assault any more than they do in climate change or evolution. It’s just a bunch of gals getting too tipsy and marijuanaed up and regretting the hookup the next day. And this false alarm is going to set societal awareness back even more. Red-state pinup Ann Coulter has already begun: “From the Duke lacrosse team, the Columbia mattress girl and the University of Virginia, the left has not been able to produce one actual rape on a college campus. It’s beginning to look as if the rape of the Sabine women never happened, either.” College rape is nothing but another left-wing canard.

I also have trouble squaring Rolling Stone’s decision to go to the mats for its employees with my natural outrage that no Wall Street bankers are in jail for ruining the economy, no Cheney-Bush goombahs were punished for torturing human beings and inspiring legions of terrorists, and cop after cop walks away clean unless a camera lens is stuck in his snoot while he’s committing murder (and sometimes even then). Seems like if you’re in for a penny, you’d be in for a pound.

It’s a tragedy all around: for an unjustly pilloried fraternity and university, for any serious response to assault on campus, and for the journalistic reputation of a paper that should never have let this one get sent to layout.

7/30/15: The Times reports today that RS managing editor Will Dana will be leaving. It’s almost certainly related to the mishandling of this story. So here, at least one head did roll.

10 Things I Learned In Argentina (With A Bonus!)

April 8, 2015

1) You know you want a slab of lean Argentine beef, right? Order the sirloin, called in most restaurants the “Bife De Chorizo.” They also have ribeye, filet, even succulent tenderloin, but this New-York-strip-steakish cut is not only cheaper, it’s also exactly what you want and is their best expression of mid-day, siesta-inducing beef. Tell them to cook it however they would enjoy it best themselves. Get the steak frites.

This is it.

This is it.

2) The famous Malbec grape, star of the Mendoza wine region, is more versatile than you may have imagined, especially in blends with Cabernet and Franc or yummy Tempranillo. The stuff we get in the States is generally the mass-produced dregs, hence the low regard. It’s like being in the Duoro: these really beautiful wines are so good that the locals drink them all up! But this could be changing as French winemakers move into the region and marry two styles, with international sales in mind. There are now pure Malbec bottles that can make your hair stand up, but the blends are still the absolute grooviest.

The tank room at Bodega (winery) Alta Vista near Mendoza.

The tank room at Bodega (winery) Alta Vista near Mendoza.

3) Eva Peron is tucked away in her famous cemetery, La Recoleta in Buenos Aires; it takes some footwork to find the memorial to her mortal remains. Fortunately, Airbnb led us to a great place in the charming Recoleta neighborhood, so we felt like we had plenty of time to wander around.

Evita and family.

Evita and family.

4) If you want to go to Uruguay, it’s a simple ferry ride, which we took, to Colonia del Sacramento. Some people on both sides take this ride for visa reasons: you have to leave the country every few months, etc. We were thrilled to be in another country. It looks like Cuba b/c of all the antique American cars passionately (and otherwise) maintained.

IMG_06545) US$ are more prized than AR pesos. This is because there is an official exchange rate and a “blue market” exchange rate. “Blue” instead of “black” because airbody knows about it, and individual stores will even offer the “blue” rate to your face if you’ll only pay in US$.

6) Mendoza is primed to explode. It’s like Napa a generation ago. They’re even selling plots wherever you go. The main problem is WATER. Don’t buy a plot unless you know you have this problem nicely solved, but if so, you’re betting on one of the world’s next trendy wine regions, so the dice would seem to be loaded in your favor.

This is the cellar at O. Fournier in the soon-to-be-trendy Uco Valley. You may peg it as a sanctuary. You would be correct.

This is the cellar at O. Fournier in the soon-to-be-trendy Uco Valley. You may peg it as a sanctuary. You would be correct.

7) The Vines Of Mendoza is a great place to settle down and taste. They know what they’re doing there, and although they’re obviously promoting, they listen to you too.

First thing you wanna do in Mendoza is head down to Vines Of. They are great.

First thing you wanna do in Mendoza is head down to Vines Of. They are great.

8) The non-tourist-serving Argentine people know just enough English: maybe a tad less than Europeans, but they make up for it in friendliness. You can communicate in a pinch with flailing hands and pointing fingers. Waiters and such are by and large fine: they have menus in English so all you have to do is point. A typical taxi driver may speak just a few English words, which matches my Spanish precisely. I made a couple of ’em laugh with my pitiful attempts. Write down your destination ahead of time and you’re bueno.

The first few days of fall were just perfect for al fresco steak snarfing.

The first few days of fall were just perfect for al fresco steak snarfing.

9) The stars are all different in the Southern Hemisphere. I should have noted this in Australia twenty years ago. We stayed in a top-floor place in B.A., but I never got a really close look at them. I imagined seeing the Southern Cross — or maybe I actually did! — and took a swig of Malbec. It was as if I had, so I was happy.

10) I turned on my pad and saw a Google Doodle made up of gourds: squash, pumpkin, etc. Curious, I clicked to get the significance, and — in Spanish — found it was the First Day Of Autumn. In other words, Sergei and Larry and Eric, along with the entire Apple staff, knew exactly where I was.

IMG_0645That is molto creepando, but I still owe a hearty muchas gracias to Ricardo (Mendoza Wine Tours), Andreas (The Vines of Mendoza), Alejandro (at our B.A. apartment), and all the other terrific people who made us feel right at home. Note to self: quit falling in love with these places. The return list is getting too long!

The actual second course (of seven) at our i Latina dinner. Don't miss it.

The actual second course (of seven) at our i Latina dinner. Don’t miss it.

BONUS TIP: Before you go to Buenos Aires, check out This was the best place we ate in the entire Southern Hemisphere. Go all out for the wine tasting menu.


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