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 after which Will Ferrell was interviewed in character. 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.

8/12/15: As if late night weren’t already crowded enough, we learned today that starting January 1, Antenna TV will broadcast complete episodes of THE TONIGHT SHOW from the Hollywood period, 1972-1992. So the latest 11pm competitor will be none other than…Johnny Carson himself.

Jon Stewart, Patriot

December 21, 2010

By devoting his last show of 2010, in its entirety, to the Zadroga bill – a measure to provide $7.4 billion in health care to ailing 9/11 first-responders (negotiated down to $6.2 billion by Democrats determined to get them some help, any help) — Jon Stewart has entered the political fray. First, he pointed out that none of the big four networks had come out in support of, or even mentioned, this no-brainer bill, with the sole exception of one tepid spot on Fox. Then he noted the scandalous silence of the Fox “News” yak machine on an issue they should have owned, considering how they cynically ginned up this phony “Ground Zero Mosque” issue with ersatz 9/11 adoration. This wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican Party – hmm, maybe the ownership is the other way around – has been using 9/11 as a propaganda tool for going on a decade. And not even they can shame two-faced Republican feebs into supporting the first responders?

Don’t tell me it’s a fiscal issue: you just added more than a hundred times that much to the deficit over the next ten years by letting rich people shave a whopping 3% off their taxes, and threatened to hold your breath till you turned blue, halting all other Senatorial business, until you got your way. Besides, the Zadroga bill pays for its health benefits by closing tax loopholes on companies who outsource jobs! Now some are saying no to Zagroda because a few of the first responders may have been undocumented! The bottom of the barrel has been reached, and the dearth of reason shown: Pubs actually hate the bill because passing it would be seen as another achievement for their opposition. Screw the first responders! Just like the START treaty: if you’ll recall, these same numbnuts held that important national security issue hostage as well, until after Daddy Warbucks was safely tucked in and allowed to “trickle down” onto the heads of the poor unemployed groundlings. Lazy bastards: get a job!

Some lamestreamers watched THE DAILY SHOW last Thursday. It was rough stuff. First a Stewart monologue segment. Then a lengthy interview with four actual 9/11 first-responders who are actually suffering and can’t get an actual dime out of Pubs who are so sanctimonious that they believe calling the Senate back into session between Christmas Day and New Year’s is somehow sacreligious! (The responders, who of course must go to work every frickin day there is, got a huge laugh out of that one as they watched tape of Sen. Jon Kyl struggling to float this pathetic lead balloon.) Finally, poor Mike Huckabee was booked to talk about his Christmas kids’ book, but Stewart would not let him off the hook until he finally stated the obvious: “every Republican should vote for this bill.”

Fox’s Shepard Smith now wonders about the naysayers, on the air, “how do they sleep at night”? Other major news organizations also picked the story up, some with patronizing spin: “look, a fake news show is affecting the real news!” Hey: if you guys had been doing your jobs, it wouldn’t have been necessary!

Finally, one of the most hardcore ideologues in the United States Senate vows to gum up the works in his own clumsy, unpatriotic way. He told Fox “News” that he was against the bill because it hadn’t been brought up in committee. It was brought up, and testimony was heard, last June in a committee of which this dope’s a member — and he doesn’t know (or else he just sat there and lied) because he didn’t bother to show up! I’m with Shep: how do you sleep at night, dickweeds?

EDIT, 12/22 P.M. It’s not everything we wanted, but it’s something. Thanks to Jon, Shep, and everybody else who pressed and pressed on this issue.

Comedy’s Central

August 27, 2009

Five years ago, when I saw the first story reporting that significant numbers of college-age TV viewers cited Jon Stewart and Comedy Central’s THE DAILY SHOW as their primary news source, my response was derisive laughter (much as Stewart’s own might well have been). But that was during the heartbreaking John Kerry campaign, and five years is a game-changing span. For one thing, George W. Bush was gradually revealed to be no more adept at executive competence in government than he was in pro baseball or oil exploration, so baldly that even the “base” could see it. The earliest-sniffing conservatives were already deserting Bush’s sinking ship when his response to Hurricane Katrina made the vast reason-oriented nonpartisan middle realize, hey, these guys can’t even handle a catastrophe they know is coming. What if something surprises them again?

The DAILY SHOW gang from about seven, eight years ago. From left: Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, Jon Stewart, Rob Corddry, and Samantha Bee.

The DAILY SHOW gang from about seven, eight years ago. From left: Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, Jon Stewart, Rob Corddry, and Samantha Bee.

That seemed to mark the tipping point. FEMA, one of the best-respected and most effective of all federal agencies in the Clinton years, was now being managed by the recent Judges and Stewards Commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association – who had just been forced to resign from that job. The level of deceit and incompetence which had propelled us into two horrific wars somehow wasn’t as scary when, after their successful election (you can’t really call it a “re-election”), the Bushies put away the mushroom clouds and ratcheted back the doomsday howling a notch. But part of the reason they became, in the end, subjects for ridicule, is that for year after interminable year, THE DAILY SHOW had been speaking truth to power and saying out loud, these people are so bad, it’s funny! Not only did the emperor have no clothes, he was nevertheless doing a pretty good job of pantsing himself! Once you concede that the purpose of THE DAILY SHOW and its sister broadcast, THE COLBERT REPORT, is to entertain, not to inform, it is possible to view through an ironic filter and catch up on an issue or two each day, especially when you take a forlorn look at the alternatives waiting for you at the big networks. I’m not laughing any more, except at the two shows’ brilliant writing.

Besides whip-smart writers, these shows possess two other not-so-secret weapons: superb video librarians and the agility of their “correspondents,” especially Stewart and Colbert themselves. George Allen may have been derailed in Virginia over his “macaca moment,” but he’s not the only one to mistakenly think, if I said it yesterday, it’s yesterday’s news. It’s one thing to read about a gaffe or a flip-flop, another thing entirely to see it with your own eyes. If you’re in the public view, your history lives forever on video tape, and future candidates forget this at their peril. Both Stewart and Colbert (who satirizes right-wing cable TV through a comic character, a self-important conservative windbag bearing a strong resemblance to Bill O’Reilly, whom Colbert calls “Papa Bear”) are great improvisers. In a reversal among late-night broadcasts (Monday through Thursday here), their featured guests are sometimes showbiz types, but usually authors who write on an array of subjects demanding wide-ranging and extensive prep, yet both guys can coax substance along with laughs. One of the greatest talents they share is instinctively knowing when to shut up.

You as a potential guest either get them or you don’t. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the nonvoting Congressional delegate of the District of Columbia, has shrewdly used THE COLBERT REPORT to publicize the fact that nearly 600,000 Americans in the “lower 48” are not represented by a voting member of Congress, a fact of which 78% of the country was unaware, according to a survey conducted in 2005, before COLBERT went on the air. (License plates in DC read, TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION. Imagine the uproar if Norton, and the citizens of DC, happened to lean Republican!) Colbert began his years-long mock battle by attacking the delegate’s voting record: “You have not recorded a single vote since your election!” Norton, a great sport, gives as good as she gets, and this past year DC came very close to advancing a voting seat forward (Democrats offered to create a new Congressional seat somewhere very red, like Utah, to balance things out and appease the GOP). Nancy Pelosi once warned back-benchers not to appear on Colbert’s “Better Know A District” segment, in which he twists interview questions to make fun of Congress, one member at a time. But Norton knows exactly what she’s doing – and why.

The most recent non-getter is Betsy McCaughey, whom New Yorkers will remember as the ditzy lieutenant governor who remained standing during one of Gov. George Pataki’s State of the State addresses, for reasons that are still unclear. Did she not notice that everyone else in the room except the governor had taken their seats? Was she pretending that people were looking at her rather than at Pataki? Was she trying to get on his nerves? We may never know. McCaughey, who began lying about national health care plans during the Clinton administration, bounded onto the DAILY SHOW stage on August 20 carrying a thick binder full of paper, which she claimed was only half of the text of the current health care bill. One of the leading purveyors of this “death panel” bullshit, McCaughey offered to find the passage in the bill that provided for pulling the plug. Stewart, who had read the section in question, helpfully offered that the consultations, which the bill would pay for, were over life-sustaining measures, and were meant to happen long before an urgent need arose. McCaughey riffled through her binder without success. Stewart called for a commercial while she continued to look. When she came back, she brandished a page and charged that doctors’ evaluations under the plan would be affected by whether or not such discussions had taken place. This was evidently the bureaucratic molehill on which McCaughey had built her mythical Star Chamber. Stewart had said little during the two interview segments (twice as much time as most guests receive), but McCaughey was still revealed to the DAILY SHOW audience, and thousands of subsequent YouTubers, as — like they say down in Crawford — “big hat, no cattle.”

Stephen Colbert: perhaps the greatest performance artist of his time. Certainly the funniest.

Stephen Colbert: perhaps the greatest performance artist of his time. Certainly the funniest.

I didn’t realize how dead-on Colbert’s parody was until he and O’Reilly pulled a stunt switch one night and appeared as guests on each other’s programs. I had never watched THE O’REILLY FACTOR before. There’s a segment on Colbert’s show called “The Word,” in which he delivers a diatribe while Chyron letters at screen right comment on and undermine his point of view. This, I discovered, is inspired by a real O’Reilly segment called “Talking Points,” in which the Chyron on his screen simply repeats what he’s saying! It’s as if you’d want to read Bill’s Teleprompter while he’s talking! Instant hearing impairment! (Note: I’m not talking about closed captions. I’m talking about simultaneous transcripts.)

Colbert’s greatest moment so far, not counting his sensational recent week in Iraq, was undoubtedly the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on April 29, 2006. It’s unclear (i.e., doubtful) whether the Cheney/Bush machine realized that “Stephen Colbert” is a parodic character. But this night, which is annually devoted to the lighter side of politics, gave the comedian a chance to spout, in full-blowhard regalia, directly at the President of the United States, who was seated only a few feet away:

“I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message: that no matter what happens to America, that she will always rebound – with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.”

“We’re not so different, he and I. We go straight from the gut, right, sir? That’s where the truth is, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say, ‘I did look it up, and that’s not true.’ That‘s because you looked it up in a book.”

“So the White House has personnel changes. Then you write, ‘Oh, they’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.’ First of all, that is a terrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!”

The first reports from the dinner were that Colbert had bombed. The president hadn’t seemed amused in the slightest. The keynote speaker just hadn’t been funny. Then we noticed that the first reports had tended to come from media and commentators more sympathetic to Bush. When we finally got to read a transcript or see the speech on YouTube, we realized that Colbert – with the REPORT barely a year old — had been able to surprise a room full of journalists and speak directly to George W. Bush in a way that had probably never been done before.

That’ll never happen again, the surprise. Stewart and Colbert are well-marked locations on the cultural map, with Emmys and Peabodys cramming their mantels (in Colbert’s case, a mantel that’s actually shown on the air, in keeping with his character’s narcissistic persona). But it’s no longer a ludicrous idea, the ability to infer actual news through the prism of satire. A few times during the Bush years, it seemed like THE DAILY SHOW was all we had. That’s because in the depths of the Iraq war, when even the front page of the New York Times consisted of administration stenography, it just about was. But it’s not so lonesome out there any more. Welcome to the MSM, Jon and Stephen. Now don’t screw this up.

EDIT, 9/16/09: Never let it be said that we stifle opposing views. Here’s Christopher Hitchens from this month’s Atlantic.

4/10/14: Today we learned that Stephen Colbert will succeed David Letterman, who announced his retirement last week, as the CBS late-night host. So in a few months the phony conservative blowhard character will be retired, but not Colbert’s prodigious improvisational skills.

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