Friday, March 25, 2016

It's Garry Shandling's Life

If Garry Shandling did nothing else, THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW would be his perfect comedy statement. Anyone who's written for or been around talk show hosts immediately recognized Larry Sanders. Vain, insecure, petty, funny, and cocksure, reliant upon an unseen backstage army, constantly worried about his place in the food chain. Who would want to live like that? Well, Larry Sanders, for one.

Showbiz is a generally awful place, filled with genuinely awful people. Shandling made this his centerpiece, and there were more than a few cringe-inducing moments on LARRY SANDERS. Yet, despite the shallowness of his character, Shandling made him funny and compelling. As bad as Larry could be, he was often outpaced by his celebrity guests. You almost felt sorry for him.

Like Roseanne and Seinfeld, Shandling surrounded himself with first-rate character actors. Rip Torn as Larry's producer and Jeffrey Tambor as his announcer gave the show its kick. Penny Johnson, as Larry's personal assistant Beverly, convincingly showed how frustrating and maddening that job would be. The rest of the revolving cast -- Janeane Garofalo, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jeremy Piven, Scott Thompson, Wallace Langham, Sarah Silverman, Bob Odenkirk, among others -- added texture to Larry's tortured world.

I don't know if Shandling was looking to influence the likes of Tina Fey and Larry David, but their respective shows bear the LARRY SANDERS mark. Shandling simply did his best work about a world he intimately understood. And while he was considered cutting edge for his time, Shandling owed much to the comedy before him.

IT'S GARRY SHANDLING'S SHOW, his first series, is often lauded as being meta -- breaking the fourth wall, acknowledging the medium, playing with form. But as I'm sure Shandling knew, this was done at television's dawn.

THE BURNS AND ALLEN SHOW offered the same conceit, though at a time when most Americans didn't own a TV. George Burns, as himself, talked to the audience, set up subsequent scenes, even watched his own show on a monitor in his office, commenting on the characters. As contemporary as Shandling was, he also honored the classics (Jack Benny, too).

In an age of interchangeable, frenzied comedy, Shandling seems almost sedate and measured. Not many comics find that quiet voice. Rest in that peace, Garry Shandling.

Friday, February 12, 2016

And A One, And A Two . . .

(From SAVAGE MULES. I keep reading how Bernie Sanders is George McGovern. Maybe he is.)


As the Nixon era commenced, larger sections of the public turned against the war, with increasing numbers of Democrats joining them. While the language remained polite in most political mouths, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota provided spicier rebukes to the war-makers. At the Chicago convention, disaffected McCarthy and RFK supporters turned to McGovern as their antiwar symbol, none more passionate than Abe Ribicoff, a senator from Connecticut, who blasted Richard Daley's mini-police state by saying on national television, "And if George McGovern were president, we wouldn't have these Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago!"

McGovern wasn't president, but he stood in stark relief not only to Nixon, but also to pro-war figures in his Party like Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the "Senator from Boeing" (and often-cited godfather to the neocons).

Abe Ribicoff's wish for a McGovern presidency moved a bit closer to reality in 1972, as McGovern upset Party fixtures Edmund Muskie and Hubert Humphrey to grab the Dem nomination. But a seemingly chaotic convention, followed with VP choice Thomas Eagleton's admission that he had suffered depression and received electroshock treatments, sank McGovern's campaign before it took off. His attempt to unseat Nixon was probably quixotic at best, given that many mules were wary of McGovern. And the lack of presidential debates, in which McGovern would doubtless have gained strength, didn't help either. Still, in the face of these and other obstacles, McGovern ran an inspired campaign, and was the last Democratic nominee to take such an open antiwar stance. One of his commercials, where a Vietnamese mother carries her dead child down a deserted road, remains one of the strongest ads in American history.

Of course, Nixon buried him. With McGovern's loss, antiwar Dems were cast adrift both in their Party and in the national culture -- the term "McGovernite" seen as the political kiss of death. The Democrats never again dared to reach so far.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Oh! You Pretty Thing

"Can you do Bowie for my 5th period class?"

Paris Goodrum, my high school drama teacher, loved my David Bowie. It emerged from a class assignment in lip syncing. Paris stressed that he wanted something more than just mouthing lyrics. He wanted performance, and this I took seriously.

This was 1975, Lawrence, Indiana, as far from Swinging London as you could get. The majority of students were pretty conservative. Theatricality was fine if you were Robert Plant or Ted Nugent. Bowie was entirely a different flavor.

I rehearsed endlessly in my basement bedroom. Since my hair was long, I went with the Ziggy Stardust look. My father made fun of me when he wasn't rolling his eyes. (And he was a rock club owner! Oh, Dad.) I forged ahead regardless.

Just before drama class, I prepped in the men's room. Applied rouge, lipstick, and eye shadow. Covered my face in glitter. Wore a frilly blue shirt with bright red suspenders and denim shorts. Yellow knee socks and platform shoes. Feather necklace and hoop bracelets. Naturally, there were stares on my walk back to class. But I felt empowered.

My classmates laughed and hooted when I stood before them. Paris told them to zip it. I began to lip sync to "Future Legend," standing still, eyes unblinking. Then I tore into "Diamond Dogs," affecting Bowie's moves while improvising a few of my own. The class loved it, Paris especially.

I did my Bowie for a couple of Paris' classes. He'd turn to his students and say, "Now THAT'S how you do it!" This gave me a weird, brief popularity, as well as feeding rumors about my sexuality.

A few months later, the drama department put on a revue for the entire school. Paris requested my Bowie. I accepted, but instead of reprising Ziggy/Dogs, I cut my hair short, as Bowie had done, and eschewed the glitter and flash. I dressed in a blue denim jumpsuit, slicked back my hair, and synced to "Young Americans."

It was a subtler performance, which the students didn't like. They wanted early, wilder Bowie. Paris felt a bit let down, but years later when I bumped into him, he mentioned my Bowie with a smile.

David Bowie wasn't a rock star or a celebrity -- he was a cultural force. His work inspired countless people, even rednecks like me. He gave hope to gay teens at a truly closeted time; he played with gender before it became a sociological category.

His music and style changed and evolved, not always successfully. He made music videos years before MTV. He collaborated with greats from rock, soul, and techno. He was the shit.

Goodbye, David, and thank you.

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.