Monday, August 10, 2015

Supposedly Fun Things

David Foster Wallace never meant much to me. When his opus INFINITE JEST was critically acclaimed as the Great New Thing, curiosity led me to read the first fifty or so pages, chip on my shoulder, skeptical eyes. While it was clear that DFW had talent and a gift for unexpected sentences, his approach left me cold. It felt too academic, too writerly. (I did enjoy some of his reportage, particularly his piece on David Lynch.) I expected more pow from this reported genius.

After seeing THE END OF THE TOUR, my assessment of DFW softened. Part of this is age (I'm not as combative as I was 20 years ago), but mostly I was moved by Wallace's inner-struggle, at least as it was depicted in the film. Jason Segel does an excellent job conveying what it must have been like to go from literary obscurity to fawning profiles in Time magazine.

DFW appeared to be painfully shy, tormented by self-doubt, haunted by depression. His intellect provided little balm. He sought whatever peace he could find through attempts at normalcy, being an average guy aware of his limitations.

Fame, to the degree that American writers are famous anymore, did Wallace in. He was too perceptive to ignore the trappings. In this, he reminds me a bit of Jack Kerouac, who faced the fame machine when its blades were newly-sharpened. Instead of hanging himself, Kerouac drowned his liver in booze. (The distance between Kerouac's fame and his desire to live was captured in BIG SUR, perhaps the best of the Beat movies.) Not many people can handle being legends, not in this culture, anyway.

While he had early bouts with the bottle, DFW preferred fast food, candy, soda, cigarettes, and whatever TV he could watch. Segel's Wallace embraces this with adolescent joy, much like his love of reading books on rainy days. Again, seeking comfort through normalcy, however illusory. American commercial culture offers numerous, limited comforts; Pop Tarts and action films provide only so much relief.

DFW groupies probably hate THE END OF THE TOUR, which, I suppose, is understandable. But I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, and if nothing else, it's nice to hear intelligent people converse. It also inspired me to re-engage INFINITE JEST. We'll see how far I make it this time.

Monday, April 27, 2015

This Thing On?

I'm thinking about returning to this space on a more regular basis. Any interest here? Let me know --

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Censored SNL 40 Moment

When Chevy Chase hosted the second show of SNL's 1985-86 season, Michael O'Donoghue penned a monologue that, for some reason, wasn't used, despite Chevy's desire to deliver it.

"Right after I stopped doing cocaine, I turned into a giant garden slug and, for the life of me, I don’t know why.

"Hi, I’m Chevy Chase. Have you noticed that, in the years since I left Saturday Night Live, my eyes have actually gotten smaller and closer together so they now look like little pig eyes? Why? Again, I don’t have a clue. As I was saying to Alan King the other day at the Alan King Celebrity Tennis Tournament, ‘Alan, I need more money. What I can’t fit in my wallet, I’ll eat or I’ll shove up my ass, but I must have more!’ And when I looked in the mirror, my eyes were the size of Roosevelt dimes and had moved another inch closer to my nose. ‘What is going on here?!?’ I exclaimed to my new wife, who looks like my old wife except she’s new.

"Still, the fans showed up for my last movie – The Giant Garden Slug’s European Vacation – a movie any man would be proud of, particularly if that man was Cantinflas. There’s much more I can say but I have a twenty lodged in my lower colon and it’s just driving me crazy. My next film is called The Giant Garden Slug Blows Eddie Murphy While John Candy Watches and it opens tomorrow at Red Carpet Theaters everywhere. Don’t miss it."

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


I had my life threatened once. Clearly, it wasn't serious, but for a few minutes it seemed possible. Piss off the wrong American and who knows?

I'd written an editorial in New York Perspectives, a Manhattan weekly I edited, titled "Sinead Eats Pope!" I defended Sinead O'Connor who, on the most recent SNL, ripped in half a picture of Pope John Paul II, adding "Fight the real enemy."

Partly a parody of NYC's tabloid press, rabidly fueled by Sinead's stunt, the editorial was also autobiographical. I shared some of my Catholic upbringing, my early disillusionment and eventual exit from what felt like an ancient death cult. This proved too much for a troubled young man.

He said he was calling from a phone booth down the block. As a Catholic, he was appalled by my editorial and couldn't believe I had the nerve to write it. He calmly informed me that he had a gun, and if I didn't explain myself to his satisfaction, he was coming up to kill me.

I was brasher then, pushing whatever buttons I could find. But here I spoke softly, confessed that perhaps I was wrong. I was trying to make sense of a confusing childhood, and besides, wasn't God in favor of free speech?

The guy backed off and began weeping for the Church. It hurt him that so many people mocked his faith. I suggested that perhaps his faith was being tested, that shooting writers was no way to honor God.

"Maybe you're right," he sniffled, and hung up.

I mentioned this to Christopher Hitchens who said, "It's the ones who don't call that you worry about."

Perhaps the killers in Paris didn't phone Charlie Hebdo to warn of an impending massacre, but the cartoonists and editors there knew that was a possibility every time they went to work. They literally played with fire.

By now, countless writers, pundits, bloggers, and Tweeters have scoured the scene, picking through racism, fanaticism, heroism, hypocrisy, and martyrdom. Previously unknown to most Americans, Charlie Hebdo instantly became the measure of creative freedom. Call yourself Charlie and march with the civilized.

I'm not going to argue whether or not Charlie Hebdo is racist; its humor does little for me. (Then again, I'm not its target audience, despite being of French descent.) What happened was obviously horrific and indefensible. The world is filled with bad images and even worse people. Communication is bound to get fucked up.

I'm more interested in the limits of satire, something I've thought about long before the Paris killings. How truly effective is satire? How far can you take it before it loses meaning? Is it a tool, a weapon, or a glamorized pose?

Dave Chappelle's case is instructive. Not since Richard Pryor has a comedian tackled race with such organic fury. Chappelle's Comedy Central show cut so close to the racist bone that Chappelle lost sight of the joke; all he could see was the pain and humiliation. He reached his satirical limit. That's when he checked out.

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert dance further from the fire, extending their satirical lines while softening their jokes (Colbert's White House Correspondents Dinner set notwithstanding). A necessary trade off if one is to survive in corporate comedy. Stewart gets solemn when the heat comes too close, but otherwise he plays the reliable jester who gives his fans what they expect.

Bill Maher has more or less moved toward direct advocacy, primarily against Islam. Indeed, it's all he seems to think about, though not too deeply. A nuanced understanding of religion and history isn't as much fun as making wild generalizations. Maybe Maher's playing a character, a Muslim-bashing Tony Clifton. But I doubt we're that lucky.

The Onion chugs along, churning out fake news that at times seems indistinguishable from the real thing. And the less said about Weekend Update, the better.

The problem may be that America isn't really built for satire, especially in this distracted age. Context and meaning can't keep pace with accelerated media, so the stage belongs to the loud, the literal, and the obvious. Satire requires reflection, not selfies. Education and knowledge help, too, but let's not get greedy.

Satire is an extension of will; it doesn't exist the way popular comedy does. Space must be carved out, grain gone against. In the wake of the Paris massacre, some say that satire is a universal right. In a corrupt, violent world, no right is guaranteed, something that earlier satirists recognized, and Charlie Hebdo's staff presumably understands.

Satire is not medicine, it's mockery; and when you mock those who deserve it, reaction is possible, though ideally not via bullets. Depends on who you're mocking. The smart response is none at all, leaving the jokes to wither. Corporate co-optation works as well. Ask a few SNL alums.

Attacking the powerless while calling it satire is perhaps the crudest approach. In many cases it's educated, fairly privileged humorists who find marginalization hilarious. The upside, I suppose, is that few of those under attack have any idea that they're being mocked. They're not part of the same, smart crowds. I've been in both worlds. Different oxygen.

In closing, I leave you with the only Muslim joke I've written, which was delivered by (surprise!) Bill Maher. It dealt with Mike Tyson's prison conversion, and it received laughter, a few stray claps and groans. My favorite combo:

"Mike Tyson was released from prison this week, and as you know, he is now a Muslim. Tyson is considering two opportunities: he's either going to fight Riddick Bowe, or kill Salman Rushdie."

That's my time. I'll be here all week, not answering my phone.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Downfall II: Oval Delirium

Watched NIXON BY NIXON: IN HIS OWN WORDS on HBO. If you need a reminder of what criminals presidents are, check it out.

I remember Nixon in real time. He resigned when I was 14, my liberal stepmother choking up and feeling sorry for him as he quit in self-pity.

Fuck him, I thought. I knew little about politics then, but I recognized nastiness when I saw it. (Plus, my mother and stepfather were big fans, as were their friends, so that added to the indictment.)

As American politics verged to the right, with Clinton and Obama appropriating and implementing reactionary policies, Nixon seemed in retrospect almost benign. But his taped conversations reveal him for the venal piece of shit he was.

Anti-Semitism. Misogyny. Racism. Queer bashing. A complete disregard of and active hostility to political pluralism. And perhaps most distasteful of all, bloodlust for the Vietnamese.

The blood on Nixon's hands hardened into crust. Kissinger's too; listening to his banal endorsement of carpet bombing is particularly sickening. But it was Nixon who set the bar.

He berates his generals for not being savage enough. He openly wishes he could wipe out Vietnam altogether -- "level it," as he repeatedly says. None of his aides dissent. All go along with the slaughter.

None of this brought down Nixon. However weary the country was with Vietnam, it was regarded as standard, if misguided, policy. Only when Nixon attacked a powerful target did his political career collapse.

Unlike antiwar dissidents, the Democratic Party had serious mainstream pull. It was one thing to spy on the Black Panthers and the Yippies; it was quite another to wiretap people connected to corporate and private wealth.

Early on, Nixon brushes off Watergate. At best it'll be a footnote. But after his re-election, more and more emerges about the operation. Nixon can't believe it. He rails like a madman in his bunker, seeing enemies everywhere.

They did exist. Nixon had baited powerful people for too long, and this was their revenge.

Of course, Nixon was never punished for his crimes. US presidents never are. He was allowed to retire and write books about grand strategies. His apologists appeared throughout the media, scolding us for destroying a great man.

Nixon destroyed himself. He became a cautionary tale for future presidents. (Iran/contra was much worse than Watergate, yet Reagan survived untouched. Appropriately enough, they named an airport after him.) Still, imagine how Nixon would enjoy Obama's NSA and drone wars.

He'd be right at home, along with the rest of us.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Other Johnny Ace

I loved Jonathan Winters. I share some of that love in my latest Splitsider piece. Or peace.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Here, Queer, Etc.

Un-friending someone on Facebook is the new Fuck You.

Social media has forged fraudulent ties. Relationships based on fantasy and nostalgia. A delicate ephemeral balance. Upset that, watch anger rain down.

I discovered this recently after banishing a handful of Facebook friends. Some for being boring. One for racist jokes. One relative (we've since reconnected). And my ex-wife.

It took her nearly two weeks to notice, but when she did, she expressed shock. Why?! What did it mean? It seemed to her an act of aggression.

Not quite. Fact is, I'm currently writing about her and us in JANITORGOD, my next book. My ex haunts me more than I care to admit. Getting it down is ripping me up.

This is a good thing. Necessary and long overdue. Dealing with her on Facebook clouded my creative judgment. So, click click, goodbye!

Many of you have asked if I've done the same thing with this space. For a time, yes. The idea of blogging bored me. What more to say?

I've put most of my creative juice into the book, with energy leftover for casual Tweets. This sharpened my focus and prose. I look at old posts, disgusted by the fat. Taking a break was the right move.

Does this mean I'm back? Maybe. Depends on my mood.

There's so much pious bullshit to counter. America has always been cracked, but the symptoms are getting worse. We truly are a lunatic nation.

Who wants to immerse themselves in that? There's no real escape, but one can lower the temperature. A bit, anyway. The flames still burn.

Speaking of friends, I've reconnected with Mark Neely, whom I knew in my early NYC days.

Mark was a working actor. Appeared on TV and in films (he's Julia Louis-Dreyfus' boyfriend in SOUL MAN). He introduced me to 1920s jazz. Had an intense, infectious laugh.

Mark and I laughed a lot together. His sense of humor was even weirder than mine.

He'd made several short films for his amusement. I must have watched them a dozen times. Then he suggested we make one together.

It was largely an improvised shoot. We were inspired by the early Keystone shorts. Comedies made in public with passersby staring into the camera and at the actors.

It's an odd little movie. Not much to it. Brings back memories of that time more than it raises laughs.

I lived on the Upper East Side with my girlfriend Mary. We were macrobiotic, which explains my rail-thin figure.

I performed improv in the West Village. Was about to write my first Letterman submission. Thought I was the shit.

Within a year, Mary left me. I moved to LA and wrote for Ray Combs, staying for a time with Mark. Life seemed more serious out there.

Hoo haw.

Anyway, here it is. Shot in September 1984. A few weeks before I turned 25. My Echo and the Bunnymen haircut was growing out. And at 1:18, I was nearly hit by a car. Art!