Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mercy Is A Form Of Thanks




Some of the best advice I've ever gotten came from drunks. Serial boozers see life a certain way, and given what's playing on-screen, it's no wonder that many drunks end up on the street, sipping from bags, feeling their skin and hair stiffen with every unwashed day.

Still, there's a peculiar wisdom in their heads, and in their eyes I've seen heartbreak, compassion, sweetness, and betrayal. My earliest exposure to this came when I helped my father open his bar one morning. It was his first place, connected to a bowling alley, pins crashing constant and loud. Dad was his own janitor, and we'd clear off the tables, wipe down the bar, pick lipstick-stained butts out of dirty glasses. Burnt tobacco and scotch blended horribly in my young nostrils, but the romance of being in an adults-only zone was stronger than any morning-after stench. To this day, whenever I'm in a bar, that and dozen other smells immediately throws me back to my father's lounge, and I fight the urge to crawl along the floor, looking for money dropped the night before by loaded patrons.

On this morning, Dad took some trash out to the dumpster. When he came back inside and re-locked the door, a man suddenly appeared, slamming against the glass, his weathered face staring in. White foam dripped from the corners of his crusty mouth, and he scratched at the door, moaning, grunting. My father knew his name, which I've since forgotten, and apparently this was a daily ritual. Dad calmly told the guy that the bar wasn't open, that he'd have to wait, which drove the drunk into a fit. He stomped the pavement, gesturing as if talking to an invisible friend. Perhaps he promised his friend a drink, and was explaining the delay. It was a weird but touching performance. I stared through the glass, lost in his movements. I'd never seen a real wino before. He seemed in pain. Maybe toss him a beer to take the edge off? Not my call. Dad didn't give the guy a second thought.

Since then, I've rarely brushed off drunks who had something honest to share. A few became poets when the booze hit their brains, and I understood their need for chemical assistance, despite the physical damage. Fuck, physical damage was often the point to all that drinking. Insight doesn't come free; bills must be paid. Drinking just to get smashed is like revving a Jaguar's engine while in park. A waste of fuel and time. Serious drinkers understand this distinction and zoom down the road spread before them. I've taken my share of these rides, and the results aren't always happy. Numerous bodies line the track. But those who manage the twisted course return with tales worth hearing.

A few days after the election, I ran into an old drunk who sits against a stone wall near a local liquor store. He's called The Pilot, "'cause I've seen everything from the air. That's where you see the real shit." The Pilot was happy about Obama's victory, "gotta give the brother props," but added that becoming president was probably the worst thing to happen to Obama.

"Now he got everybody wantin' somethin', diggin' at him, pullin' on him all the damn time. He's gotta be somethin' for everyone, and no man can do that, I don't care how smart he is. And he got crazy motherfuckers lookin' to kill him, you know that's for sure. So he gotta be guarded like no president before. Hell, the man probably can't take a shit without two guys standin' over him with guns. That fucks with your head. He more a prisoner than anything else. Shit, I got more freedom than he does!"

The Pilot laughed, coughed, laughed some more. He offered me a swig from his bottle, some cheap gin I didn't recognize. I gently declined and gave him a few bucks. He blessed me, then said, "One thing for sure -- Barack's gonna be on some money. They should put him on the twenty. White people can have them dollar bills."

Friday, November 21, 2008

Brothers To The End

Of all people to snag a network variety show, I wouldn't have bet on Rosie O'Donnell. Yes, she loves Broadway musicals and is a comedian -- or at least used to be. I can't remember the last time Rosie went flat-out comic. There's always a lesson or lecture attached to her public performances, most notably her speeches on "The View." Her steamrolling of hapless Elisabeth Hasselbeck was strangely fascinating to see, but hardly funny or satirical. And now Rosie reemerges to host a prime time variety hour, a format our generation grew up watching. I wish her the best, given the logistical complexity of this type of show. Whether or not there's a contemporary audience for variety remains to be seen.

Ed Sullivan and Carol Burnett have been cited as possible influences on Rosie's project. But if she really wants to test the variety waters, Rosie should get a hold of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: The Best of Season 3," a four-disc DVD box set that's packed with music, comedy, satire, and social commentary, all artfully rendered and in many ways still resonant. It may seem curious that the Smothers' third and final season on CBS is the first DVD set to be released, but given how the show evolved and ended, it's the season you most want to see. And there's plenty to view here -- 840 minutes of great television, special features, interviews, and entire segments that the CBS censors clipped from the original programs.

While censorship and the Smothers Brothers seem interchangeable, there's a lot they did get on the air, buoyed by a writing staff that featured Mason Williams, Carl Gottlieb, Steve Martin, Rob Reiner (who apparently was the most radical of the writers, berating Tommy Smothers for being a "sell out" during meetings), and Bob Einstein, whose unique comic imagination has never been adequately recognized, especially when compared to the more famous Smothers alumni. (You may know Einstein better as Marty Funkhouser on "Curb Your Enthusiasm.") According to the other writers interviewed, Einstein, older brother of Albert Brooks, had the wildest ideas, some of which never saw the red camera light. But ultimate praise and credit goes to Tommy Smothers for assembling such a writing staff, and urging them to try anything.

Among the many things you notice while moving through the discs is just how tight the Smothers Brothers were and remain as a comedy team. Their timing is sharp, their chemistry undeniable. The audience loved them (and since Tommy wouldn't allow a laugh track on the show, what you hear is genuine appreciation), which is why they got away with so much for so long. By the third season, however, the Brothers were really pushing it, especially Tommy, who later admitted that his endless battles with CBS made him lose his comic balance, as he appeared less and less as the dopey brother character, and more as the politically committed satirist he actually was. Here's a fine example of Tommy balancing both sides, staying in character while sniping at then-California Governor Ronald Reagan.



A comic is only as good as his straightman, and Dick Smothers was easily one of the best, in the same company as Bud Abbott and Dean Martin. The one difference was that Dick's character was softer, seemingly less cruel than the standard straightman, even though he is continually frustrated by Tommy's inability to grasp simple concepts. This comic relationship transcended any political era, and still works today whenever the Brothers perform. Not many older comedians maintain their earlier personas, but the Smothers Brothers are a decided exception.

Among the many treasures you'll find in this set is the prime time special, "Pat Paulsen for President," which aired just weeks before the 1968 election. Head writer Mason Williams wanted to produce a satirical campaign, and thought at first about running the Statue of Liberty for president. Thankfully, he changed his mind and instead cast Paulsen as his mock candidate. Paulsen was already a well-recognized part of the Smothers show, delivering deadpan editorials about various social issues. But his presidential campaign took his character into the streets, where he drew large, enthusiastic crowds anxious to hear his proposals. As Paulsen put it, "If nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not serve." That set the tone for what proved to be a brilliant piece of political satire, so believable at times that the joke got lost in the madness of 1968 America. Given the surrounding chaos and fear, Pat Paulsen's campaign seemed as real as anything else.

Here are two clips from Paulsen's presidential run (what I could find online, anyway). The first is a brief look at Paulsen on the campaign trail.



The second is a piece produced for the Smothers show, a bit that would work in any era, this one especially.



Included in this DVD set is footage of Paulsen attending the 1968 Chicago convention, a violent, repressive four days that seemed beyond satire. When the Smothers' returned for their third season, they had Harry Belafonte sing "Don't Stop The Carnival" while images from the Chicago convention, still fresh in the public mind, played behind him. This proved too much for CBS, which cut the entire sequence from the broadcast. But here it is in full. Keep in mind that this was to appear on a Sunday after Ed Sullivan, then considered the "family night" of television. Also, note the passion of dissident Democrats, directly challenging their incumbent Party over imperial war. Another thing you don't see anymore.



There are so many other features to enjoy: the music (Ray Charles, Ike and Tina Turner, The Doors, Donovan, Joan Baez dedicating a song to her husband who was convicted for draft resistance, her remarks about militarism CBS naturally edited out); the comedy (George Carlin, Bob Newhart, Jackie Mason, Jonathan Winters, David Frye, who in one sketch plays Lyndon Johnson, George Wallace, Hubert Humphrey, and Richard Nixon, David Steinberg, whose comedy sermonette enraged so many viewers that his second appearance never aired, The Committee, the seminal San Francisco improv group who perform on several shows). Of course there's plenty of political material about war, racism, and censorship, the Brothers portraying CBS executives as frightened old men. And there's one remarkable segment where the Brothers interview Dr. Benjamin Spock, who at the time was on trial for assisting draft resisters. The candor expressed about the Vietnam war was something you just didn't see in prime time, much less on a comedy-variety show. And viewers didn't see it, as CBS cut the Spock interview as well.

CBS finally grew tired of all the controversy, and looking to appease the incoming Nixon administration as well as their sponsors, the network fired the Smothers Brothers, even though it had just renewed the show for a fourth season. Thrown off the air, the Smothers writing staff went on to win an Emmy Award, beating out perennial favorite "Laugh-In." The Emmy telecast is included in this set, and the happy disbelief expressed by the show's writers tells the final story. Well, almost. Not wanting to hurt the writers' chances, Tommy Smothers kept his name off the credits submitted to the Academy. But as everyone interviewed readily admits, Tommy was the show's driving creative force, and he more than anyone should've been up on that stage 40 years ago. At this year's Emmys, former Smothers writer Steve Martin awarded Tommy his long deserved statue. As you can see, the man hasn't lost his passion.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Things That Make Me Laugh

Parker Posey remains underrated as a comic actress, her work in Christopher Guest's films perhaps the funniest examples. The first scene below is an alternate take from "Waiting For Guffman," which was cut, as it didn't fit the tone of the entire audition sequence. Still, Posey nails it, as anyone who's been in the theater can appreciate.



Then there's this brief bit from the end of "For Your Consideration," one of the weaker Guest efforts (though not as dull as "A Mighty Wind"). Posey's character just misses being nominated for an Academy Award, so she returns to the stage in a one woman show, "No Penis Intended." God, this takes me back to those Lower East Side performance spaces long ago. Posey clearly saw her share of that world as well. How I love intentionally bad acting. It's harder than it looks.



And here's one of the strangest film scenes you'll come across this week -- from Tony Richardson's "The Loved One" (1965). Rod Steiger is excellent as Mr. Joyboy, an embalmer at a mortuary where the woman he's trying to impress, Aimee, works as a cosmetician. This bit was written by Terry Southern, whose talent for finding humor in the perverse never ceases to amaze me.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

As Ever Only Otherwise




Helicopters hovered over my frozen street this morning, stirring the standard anxiety. Whirlybirds give me the creeps, and not in a militia-black-helicopter-fear sense, though there's always a trace of that. They're usually police or military choppers, and I always wonder what the hell they're looking for. Helicopters can land pretty much anywhere in a matter of minutes, giving their air surveillance added menace. Of course, they have no reason to swoop down around here. We're all perfectly safe consumers, doing our part to keep this nation moving, or stumbling, as the case may be. No threats on this block. Still, the flying presence of the state irritates my libertarian nerve endings. Not that I need much to be irritated.

What does this all mean? How should I know? I only type what my brain feeds my fingers. I'm supposed to understand it as well? If there was a paycheck attached, then okay. But I must perform other tasks to get paid. Writing merely fills time between grunt jobs, and given the local economy, I should be happy to have those.

But who's really happy these days, apart from the Obamas and their cronies? The meth high enjoyed by liberals appears to be waning, as the Obama administration prepares to perform its institutional function. Hillary as Secretary of State? Oh man, that's just perfect. And why not? Obama's surrounding himself with numerous Clintonite retreads, so it makes sense to bring an actual Clinton aboard. How else do you deal with the political undead? Speaking of which -- Joe Lieberman? I can't stop laughing long enough to parse that "fuck you" to libs, who'll swallow it as they usually do, finding some agreeable flavor in the shit they choose to eat.

It's just been announced that Eric Holder, yet another Clintonite, has accepted the Attorney General gig. Beautiful. A corporate lawyer who, among other things, worked for Chiquita Brands International Inc., helping that company deal with some negative backlash from its involvement with Colombian right-wing paramilitary forces.

How does that old Bowie classic g-g-go again?

I'd planned to finish my little tale about Rick and Kyle, the Beltway wonks who use Obama's victory as an opening to chase black women. When we last left the boys, they were escorting Chanel, a Serena Williams-type, back to her apartment for what they hoped would be a night of interracial ecstasy. Instead, it becomes a Clockwork Orange scenario, replete with rape, beatings, extensive humiliation, and near-death. Yet in the end, our liberal heroes learn a few things about power relationships, not only preparing them for life at a higher professional level, but taking them to violent sexual areas they never knew existed, and wish to further explore.

Problem is, the post got away from me. This rarely happens, but when it does, I know better than to wrestle it into this space. The narrative became so graphic, so unbelievably vile, that I erased the whole thing and had a drink. What humor existed got mashed by ugly depictions of human depravity, each bit bleeding into the next until I was drowning in Guignol not so Grand. It was quite something. Sorry you had to miss it.

My insane attempt to satirize the early hours of Obama Time led to a dream where the anointed one appeared to me. It was very vivid, with Obama, sitting outside on stone steps, white shirtsleeves rolled up, necktie loosened, shook his head at my opposition to his coming rule. He flashed that smile, asking me what I was so angry about. I tried to answer, but was overwhelmed by his presence. He emitted a weird warmth that felt phony yet comforting. Obama then proposed that I write for him.

"You serious?"

"Sure. You wrote for Nader, right? I could use that kind of material."

"Sorry, Mr. President, but I don't think you want someone like me on your staff."

"Why not?"

"Well, look at my published work. My God, the press and the Republicans would crucify you!"

"Naw. They're too busy kissing my ass. Besides, you wouldn't work directly for me. You'd answer to Rahm."

I awoke in panic, barely able to breathe. The helicopters had returned.

My review of the Smothers Brothers DVD set should be up either tomorrow or Friday, but to give you a quick taste, here's what I've been immersed in.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Home Boys Get The Beltway

"There're some hot babes here tonight. Check those two over there . . ."

"Kyle -- we're practically the only white people here."

"Chill, Rick. Obama won. We're safe. Just make sure they can see your hat."

Rick readjusted his "Yes We Did!" ball cap, touching the Obama symbol for good luck. Kyle removed his blue sport jacket and puffed out his doughy chest, hoping that the bar's patrons would notice his t-shirt.




"Man, if this doesn't get us laid, I may have to go Latina," whispered Kyle.

"Well, I still have those Bill Richardson buttons."

They laughed, then ordered another round of Heineken Light.

Rick, a Cornell grad, worked as a Project Associate at the Brookings Institution, studying Near East policy with a principal focus on Pakistan. He hated Brookings, but understood the need to fatten his resume for future advancement, ideally in a second Obama administration. Kyle, a whiz kid from Princeton, wrote financial stories for various liberal outlets, primarily The New Republic, where he made the dullest topics seem interesting with an overuse of adjectives. His pieces on Obama's economic proposals earned him significant attention, most recently an offer from Newsweek. Yet Kyle would give it all away to direct Hustler DVDs and live near a topless, Caribbean beach, a secret passion he told no one about, Rick included.

Kyle did share with Rick a lust for black women. Rick's obsession began in his teens, when he masturbated to photos of Li'l Kim and Destiny's Child. Kyle's came later while at Princeton, where he fixated on a cafeteria worker named Rashea. He wrote graphic love letters to Rashea, but lacked the courage to send them, settling instead for amateur ebony porn, the "ghetto ho" genre his fave.

In the real world, Rick and Kyle's awkwardness and soft pale bodies made it hard for them to attract African-American dates. They became active Obama supporters, thinking that if he got elected, their quest for black pussy might be realized. On election night, Rick and Kyle wept with joy, immediately plotting which black bars would be safest to cruise, always certain to wear prominent Obama gear.

"What about that one near the exit?" Kyle nodded toward a bold, beautiful woman, late-twentyish, wearing a white silk blouse and tight red skirt. "She looks like Serena Williams. God, you know she'd ride you into next week without breaking a sweat. Should I talk to her?"

Rick hesitated. Since Obama's victory, they'd been rejected by at least a dozen African-American women, most of whom laughed at their pathetic come-ons, while a few threatened to hurt them physically. Kyle was fine with that, until Rick suggested their promised aggression had nothing to do with sex.

"I don't know, man. She looks tough. At least let's finish our beers first."

"Fuck that. It's getting late. I'm goin' for it."

Kyle strolled casually to the woman, straightening his t-shirt so that its message could be easily read.

"Hi!"

She turned to Kyle. "Well, hi yourself, baby. What can I do for you?"

She had a slight southern accent, seemed friendly, a first for Kyle, which excited and frightened him.

"Can I buy you a drink?"

She ignored Kyle's offer and stared at his shirt. "So -- Obama's your home boy, is he?"

"Yeah. I guess. I mean, he's more my home president than my home boy -- err, man." Kyle winced, expecting another harsh rejection.

The woman smiled. "That's cute. You like Barack, eh? And since you like Barack, you want me to like you, is that right?"

Kyle swallowed hard. "I think so."

"No need to be nervous. I like a little cracker with my soup. That your friend over there, with the hat?"

"Yeah."

"Well, bring his ass over! You boys came to party, and now you got one."

Rick joined Kyle and was introduced to Chanel -- "Savory smell, spicy taste" as she put it, licking her lips. Kyle nearly passed out. He bumped into Rick who held him up, nudging him with an elbow.

"So," said Chanel, "should we make this a private party?"

Both nodded yes, unable to speak.

"All right then. I live down the block. Y'all don't mind walking a lady home, do you?"

Kyle and Rick couldn't believe their luck. The possibility of actual sex with a black woman overwhelmed any anxiety they had about being nude next to each other. They perked up and walked briskly down the street with Chanel, anticipation growing with each hurried step. Living in a post-racial society was already paying off.

NEXT: Kyle and Rick's late night adventure, or "Let's Come Together For The Sake Of The Nation."

Friday, November 14, 2008

Collideascope




Dejected, anxious, bored. The weather's largely crap, and there's nothing more desolate than gray, barren Michigan landscapes. I can see why people flip out here, and if I wasn't already fucked up, I'd probably join them, ripping off my shirt in traffic, throwing rocks at the flying deer overhead. The general social mood ranges from continued liberal giddiness and wide-eyed expectations (tempered somewhat by "realistic" libs, who counsel that a centrist corporate war state is the best we're gonna get, so shut up and let Dr. Barack tend the machine without added stress), to bizarre right wing fears of an emerging Marxist junta. Some of my rightist relatives seem to expect a dictatorship or cultural upheaval or something unbelievably horrid-- exactly what, I'm not quite sure. None of them I know ingest hallucinogens, at least the kind I'm familiar with. Maybe the skies are relentlessly gray there as well.

I have plenty of thoughts about the state's new management, but lack the energy or interest to flesh them out here. I've stopped talking politics with my liberal friends, simply because I've said what I have to say and they don't want to hear anymore. They feel no need to defend their Obama love, impervious to criticism, indifferent to doubt. They Want To Believe, need to maintain whatever state of grace they're in. Fair enough. I know when I'm beaten. I've read Sun Tzu and less militarist Taoists. Only a blind fool would keep charging that Teflon wall, and my eyesight's not quite gone yet.

Amazingly, "Savage Mules" keeps selling, neither blockbuster nor bust. It's the most successful thing I've written, and I've done no serious promotion for it. From the look of things, that's not going to change anytime soon. Verso's publicity department, a dented tin shack on the edge of the East River, has been pretty vacant on the hustling front. Maybe it's their size. Or maybe they feel that since "Mules" is selling without ads and reviews and readings, why waste money and effort on finding a bigger audience? Radical publishers. Blah. You think they'd treat Karl Marx this way?

Just as well. I've returned to the Large Project, the mega-whatever I'm sketching out and writing in bursts. This is gonna be either the strongest, strangest book I've ever assembled, or it's gonna be the Director's Cut of "Heaven's Gate." Too early in principal photography to tell. I recently watched "Hearts of Darkness" for the first time, the documentary about the making of "Apocalypse Now," and I completely relate to Francis Ford Coppola's rising madness as the film overwhelms him. His rants to his wife about how he's making a piece of shit and wants to kill himself resonates with the ranting in my head, only I don't need to be in the jungle to lose my mind. In the end, Coppola found a way, however ragged. "Apocalypse Now Redux" is a masterpiece of sorts, at least to me. If I can approximate the visual energy of that film in this book, it would be a Director's Cut I could happily live with -- with fewer helicopters, of course.

I've developed a dreadful habit that I have no intention of quitting. Yes, you guessed it: I enjoy "Californication," the Showtime series starring David Duchovny, about an asshole novelist, Hank Moody, and his misadventures in decadent LA. While I share much of Jim Wolcott's disgust for the show, unlike my friend, I revel in its shit all the same. I honestly don't know why. The dialogue oftentimes is so gawd awful that it makes me laugh out loud. The plotlines are preposterous. The acting's usually over the top. Yet I find a certain peace when watching "Californication." The only explanation I can cough up is that the concept of a novelist -- not a screenwriter or a producer but a novelist, pushing 50 no less -- getting so much Hollywood pussy is so extreme that I've bought into the fantasy. And unless single women have gotten dumber and less selective, the lines Duchovny's character uses to get laid would probably get you slapped in the real world. But in Hank Moody's world, the ladies fairly cream at every crude one-liner. I don't think I've ever picked up a girl by guessing her clit size. Does that really work these days?

Speaking of dumb and crude, I happened to catch about a half-hour of "Employee of the Month," an alleged comedy starring Dane Cook and Jessica Simpson. Now, as much as I disdain Cook's stand-up, or jump-up or mug-up or whatever the hell he does onstage, he has a decent film presence, and with the right material and director, could actually become an agreeable character actor. Simpson on the other hand is just plain bad. Utterly beyond repair. How she got to be a celebrity I have no fucking clue, but then, I'm clueless about many things. Her attempts at comic timing are pitiful, almost non-existent. It looks like she's trying to wriggle something out of her nose, her eyes expressing confusion. Simpson is so bad that Leonard Pinth-Garnell should introduce her every performance. She's too late to work with Ed Wood, for whom she'd be perfect, but she'd blend in nicely on "Californication."

My dear friend Jim Buck, who also knew Russ well, found this Barq's commercial featuring The Poster Boys. I was hesitant to share it, since you get no real sense of the Boys' unique comedy style. But what the hell. After all, they're just selling root beer. Jim's (not Buck) on the left, Paul's in the middle, and Russ is wearing the shades.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Goodbye, Absurd Spirit




When I heard that Russ had died, I wasn't surprised. He battled diabetes, was at times in frail shape, and usually smoked when I saw him, which I'm sure didn't boost his health. He always seemed anxious, tense, pumping his leg up and down while sitting. Russ never appeared at peace. So the fact that he died relatively young didn't faze me. That he died four years ago and I recently found out did throw me, however, like a delayed time wave slamming me into a wall.

An old mutual friend emailed me the news after I asked about Russ, whom I hadn't spoken to in over a decade. How is it that I didn't know this? As with much of his life, Russ' death was a secret -- at least to me. Back when I knew him, Russ would disappear for weeks at a time, leaving behind no word nor any trace of his whereabouts. Everyone assumed that he was hiding out in his parents' apartment, a huge place on the Upper East Side around the corner from Elaine's. He lived at home for the bulk of his life, occasionally spending time in his sister's apartment, or in another small apartment that his family owned. Russ was a native Manhattanite, and I knew few people as comfortable with the city as was he. In my early years there, Russ helped me adjust, that is, when he decided to appear publically. After every absence, Russ would suddenly pop up and act as if he saw you the night before. Whatever movie was playing in his head seemed strictly geared to him.

I can't remember exactly when or how we first met. It was around 1984-85, when I was living with my girlfriend Mary. I was writing for comics and performing improv wherever I could, while constantly trying to snag a spot on SNL or Letterman. I might have met Russ through an ex-Letterman writer I knew, which would make sense, since that writer was very old school when it came to comedy, the complete opposite of the Harvard Lampoon vets he worked with. Russ was old school, too, but he didn't live in that world like so many others I came to know through him. When he referenced Snub Pollard or Harry Langdon, he used their comedy as a springboard for his strange, contemporary bits. And anyone who knew Russ expected the odd, the bizarre, coming from him. Not in any off-putting or anti-social way -- Russ offered his perspective subtly. Sometimes it flew under everyone's radar, including mine. It isn't often that you meet someone as weird as yourself, though in many instances, Russ took it to places beyond my understanding. It wasn't an act, it was simply him.

In a sense, Russ was a lot like Joe Ancis, the off-stage legend who influenced Lenny Bruce and Rodney Dangerfield. Ancis rarely if ever performed due to serious stage fright. But he was reportedly the funniest guy at the bar, setting the tone for those younger comics who cribbed his style and outlook. I don't know if Russ directly influenced other comics. He was too idiosyncratic for that. He was fun to have around, especially late at night, whether in a club or a diner. Occasionally he would go onstage and join some improv game. But this didn't happen often. His humor wasn't meant to be shared via the traditional showbiz routes. There was a time, though, when Russ gave showbiz a serious shot.

He teamed up with two other comic actors, Paul and Jim, who were as different from Russ as they were from each other. Paul was a short-haired, muscular presence, resembling a college linebacker with the energy to match. Jim wore his hair in bangs, speaking quietly while slouching, as if he didn't want to get in your way. Mix in Russ, with his wide Irish face and pompadour, and you had The Poster Boys, one of the funniest anti-comedy teams I've ever seen, equally at home in experimental spaces downtown, or at Caroline's, venues the Boys regularly played.

They didn't perform sketches per se, nor delivered jokes as traditionally understood. They were always themselves, even while "in character." Sometimes their bits abruptly ended, no punch line or blackout gag in sight. The Poster Boys were absurdist, surreal, and very slapstick. Routines where two of them beat the third mercilessly usually made no linear sense, which made it extremely funny, since it was rarely connected to a set-up. Their verbal interplay was at once comic and casual -- seemingly rehearsed yet off the cuff. They worked hard on their act, polishing it to a point where it appeared thrown together at the last minute. This yanked the audience into their world, a scene much different than the standard comedy of that time.

The Poster Boys came close to breaking through, but could never get over the top. What made them unique also limited them as they rose through the comedy ranks. They did a Barq's root beer commercial, which contained none of their humor but gave them national exposure. They hosted a Comedy Central July 4th marathon, performing quick bits between the commercials and endless stand-up specials. (My favorite was them shooting pedestrians from a rooftop, while Paul yelled down "Salute the flag!") They always seemed to have some TV deal in the works, but it never panned out. They performed at a theater in LA while working on a comedy pilot for Fox starring Rachel Sweet, a former teen singer for Stiff Records who moved into acting. I don't recall if that pilot was ever shot or considered for broadcast, but like so much else, that too faded away.

Once, while in Tom Schiller's apartment, I noticed a storyboard on his wall, with several Polaroid's of The Poster Boys tacked here and there. Apparently, Tom was going to direct them in a film called, "The Poster Boys Meet Frankenstein." When I later phoned Russ and asked why he didn't tell me about this project, given that I knew them and Tom, he replied in his typically Russ way: "I thought I did tell you. Huh. Well, now you know."

Sadly, the Boys never got to meet Frankenstein. Another project that fell to the wayside.

Russ and I professionally collaborated just once. A TV agent who liked my material got me a submission to Letterman. I had three weeks to deliver a comedy package. I was working alone at the time, and when Russ discovered that I had a shot to write for Letterman, he wanted in. I was reluctant, but convinced the agent to push us as a team. Problem was, Russ had no discipline as a writer, at least around me. His attention wandered, and sometimes he'd stare out the window, smoking a cigarette, while I was left wrestling with a premise. Whenever Russ contributed, he'd throw out the wildest ideas, some of which were extremely strange and hilarious, but not right for Letterman. I kept telling him this, but it made no difference. In the end, I wrote pretty much the entire submission myself, adding a few of Russ' sight gags which I made fit. Part of me felt used, and if we did get hired, how would Russ survive in those cutthroat offices at NBC? He'd be great to riff with, but I could see disaster if the head writer, at that time Steve O'Donnell (who now works for Jimmy Kimmel), expected him to sit down and write 30 Top Ten jokes on deadline. That wasn't how Russ operated. I'd probably have to cover for him, and that kinda pissed me off.

The opening on Letterman went instead to some Harvard guys. Go figure.

When I drifted out of comedy and into politics and media activism, I saw less and less of Russ, but we did stay in touch. After I got the editor-in-chief gig at New York Perspectives, Russ began phoning me with numerous suggestions, none of which I used. Again, he didn't understand the venue. Then he recommended a single mother he knew as a possible contributor. He had worked with her in an early comedy group he was in (Firing Squad, from which The Poster Boys emerged), and said that they were dating. I saw Firing Squad once, and didn't recall the woman he was talking about. But then, I was pretty loaded that night. So I replied, sure, send her stuff over. I'll take a look at it. If I hadn't done this, Russ would continue to call me until I relented. When her package arrived, I put it in a lower desk drawer, unopened. Yeah, like I was gonna feature some dimwit actress as a cultural commentator.

About a month later, one of my writers failed to deliver her copy, leaving me with a page of ads but no piece. Out of desperation I opened the package and read the actress's stuff. It wasn't bad. In fact, it was pretty fucking good, better than most of the material in that week's' issue. I phoned the woman, who was then living in Ohio, praised her piece and asked for more. Soon a regular, she moved back to New York where I fell in love with her. Naturally, she despised me from the beginning, which made me love her even more. She had every reason hate me, especially during that period of my life. Her perception was laser sharp, and it didn't hurt that she was gorgeous. I'll say this about Russ -- he did hang with some truly beautiful women. Funny guys usually do.

I actively courted this woman, breaking down her resistance with every scrap of charm I could find or pretend I had. It took awhile, as she was protective of her two-year-old daughter; but slowly, steadily, we became friends, then lovers, then I moved in with them. About a year after that, we married. Needless to say, this drove Russ over the edge. He believed that I stole the love of his life, and for a time he left hostile, sometimes threatening messages to me on our answering machine. That he and she broke up well before I made my move meant nothing. Whatever was left of our friendship ended then. I saw Russ once more, at a mutual friend's birthday party near Chinatown. By then I had a son and the "Mr. Mike" book deal, so my life seemed pretty solid. Russ recognized this and let down his guard. We exchanged a few pleasant, empty words while he puffed away on the building's front stoop. That was the last time I ever saw or spoke to him.

Russ is long gone now, and I feel a certain sadness. Part of it is about how our friendship ended. Part of it is imagining his final days, where there were amputations due to diabetes. Much of it is tied to those heady, creative days in our 20s, when comedy was everything, and I laughed harder and deeper than I ever did growing up in Indiana. Russ and I shared several recurring concepts, one of which was HeadProv, an improv group of actors sporting giant puppet heads. Sort of like The Residents meet The Groundlings. That never came to fruition, alas. Negotiating the stage while balancing a giant head and improvising would be difficult for even the savviest talent. Still, what an image.

Russ left his mark on me. I'll never forget him.

THE WIFE: Shares her thoughts on Russ.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Gipper Reborn




Success naturally attracts followers and hustlers looking to cash in. Mega-success rearranges worlds, and based on the early evidence, Obama's victory has everyone scrambling for definitions and hidden meanings. I've seen this once before, when Reagan won in 1980, seemingly changing, overnight, American political reality. I was a kid then, still in the Army, backing the losing campaigns of Ted Kennedy and John Anderson. So to my green mind, Reagan's win and the cultural upheaval that followed was the end of whatever world I understood or wanted to live in. But I adjusted, read, lived, learned. This time around, I'm a graying crazy fuck. As historic and potentially shattering as Obama's ascension is, I remain in my crazy space. This puts me on the outer reaches of our asylum, but I've become used to the peeling paint and soiled tile.

Since last Tuesday night, I've encountered, both online and in person, countless fantasies and projections about what President Obama will ultimately be. Nobody, not even humble me, knows how this will all shake down in the coming years, but this doesn't stop people from babbling all kinds of bullshit, from hopeful kids dreaming of a brave new world, to seasoned libs lecturing others on the "reality" of Obama while careful not to compromise their support for the incoming prez. Very few want to emit a non-supportive vibe, for flocking around and flattering the ├╝ber-successful is an American constant. And since Obama is the hottest celebrity on the planet, opinion-mongers, political charlatans, wannabe insiders, crowd-pleasing cynics, and various grifters in between all seek to feed off and exploit his heat. Some say it's for The People and Our Nation, while others simply try to pad their resumes. Everyone has an angle -- Obama most of all, and it will be interesting to see what commercial tone he sets for his followers and fawners.

I had planned a much longer post for today, primarily a response to professional white conscience Tim Wise, who recently tapped out some authoritarian-tinged thoughts on behalf of his Father Leader, all in the service of black "liberation," of course. I expect that this type of expression will intensify as Inauguration Day approaches, becoming a righteous din throughout Obama's first 100 days and beyond. So there'll be plenty of time to address all that, assuming I even bother. Because frankly, at this moment in time, who really gives a fuck what Mr. Savage Mules thinks? I didn't even vote for the man, a deep moral failing and constant source of shame. The political climate is more suited to the Tim Wises than to yours truly, which is fine. There are other topics to explore, and a big book to tackle, the content of which has some politics, but not the tit-for-tat variety so beloved by many. Politics are impossible to avoid, no matter how many masks you wear. Hopefully, this project will transcend the mere stating of preferences to expose the core of bias and belief. Plus, there'll be plenty of sex, gossip, drinking, and drugs. Philosophy and remembrance translate better that way.

I'll probably comment on the liberals' Reagan as events dictate. But until Obama actually begins his management seminar, I'll fill this space and your heads with images and thoughts from my wing of the shock corridor. Just follow the fractured accordion music, and try not to touch the walls.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Proud Pop




Caught this bit in the Jersualem Post. Our Savior-elect sure knows how to pick 'em.

"In an interview with Ma'ariv, [Rahm] Emanuel's father, Dr. Benjamin Emanuel, said he was convinced that his son's appointment would be good for Israel. 'Obviously he will influence the president to be pro-Israel,' he was quoted as saying. 'Why wouldn't he be? What is he, an Arab? He's not going to clean the floors of the White House.'"

Emanuel's dad must be tight with Sidney Zion.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Obama's Zombie Children

Very disturbing report about the post-election effect on Obama's supporters. Viewer discretion advised. (Thanks to Lou Proyect for finding this sad story.)


Obama Win Causes Obsessive Supporters To Realize How Empty Their Lives Are

Back To Scorched Earth




Near the end of "The Matrix Revolutions," Neo and Trinity fly to the Machine City, encountering massive firepower from Sentinels. To avoid getting blown apart, Trinity steers their ship through the electric storm clouds that cover the Earth, and for a brief instant, is exposed to blue sky and sun, a sight not seen by human eyes in over two hundred years. "It's beautiful," mutters Trinity, just before the ship drops back down into the grit and machine grime, crashing into a steel tower which kills her, leaving Neo stranded. He helps the machines cleanse the Matrix of a destructive virus, dying in the process. In return, the machines cease their war on the humans, allowing those plugged into the Matrix to leave should they desire.

I wondered how humans, who've lived their entire lives in a fantasy world, would adapt to, much less accept, the real world of darkness, misery, and struggle. We never find out. The final smiles are on the faces of the machines. Despite their generosity, they are still in control.

Tuesday night, many saw a bit of blue sky and sun, the effects of which spilled into the following day. I don't know what your experience was like, but here in Ann Arbor, most people I ran into on Wednesday were decidedly giddy. Especially African-Americans. A warm, convivial feeling all around. It was nice, but the reality of this savage world will kill that off sooner than later. For while the symbolism of Obama's victory will always resonate, the man was chosen to manage a corporate/military empire. And so far, our Manager-Elect has not gone against brand. His first cabinet move, asking Rahm Emanuel to be White House Chief of Staff, is concrete proof of that. Obama's followers may still be weeping, dancing, smiling, but the man himself is consolidating his new power, placing the cutthroat Emanuel in a prominent position.

How are you liking CHANGE so far?

I haven't read the liblogger reaction to this; it's too soon, and I don't need the aggravation. But based on my experience with that tribe, some will be pissed off or frustrated, more will shrug their shoulders and go along with it, and the truly committed will find a positive angle, hoping to morph, at least in their minds, Emanuel's pro-corporate, pro-imperial beliefs into something vaguely "progressive."

In other words, liberals will remain plugged into the machine.

For all of the reactionary howling about Obama's link to Bill Ayers, it's Emanuel who boasts some notable terrorist ties. In the 1940s, his father, Benjamin, helped smuggle weapons to the Irgun, Menachem Begin's right wing Zionist militia which not only terrorized and butchered Palestinian civilians, but bombed the King David Hotel in 1946. The son did not reject his father's legacy, establishing a tight bond with AIPAC, serving as a conduit between them and Obama, quelling any anxiety that lobby might have felt about the Illinois Senator. And, naturally, Obama said all the right things about Israel, Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah, ensuring that US policy in that region will remain as is, with perhaps some tweaking here and there.

Keep smiling, though. I'm sure that President HOPE has only our best interests at heart.

READ: Glen Ford's post-election take at Black Agenda Report. Also, my friend Alaya Dawn Johnson, who like me didn't vote for Obama, but had a similar reaction to his acceptance speech, for far better reasons.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Brief Bit Of Oxygen




If you're reading this, you're either lost, morbidly curious, or as marginal as I'm gonna be over the next few weeks. Whatever the reason for your visit, help yourself to leftover chips and onion dip. I think there are a few beers floating in the cooler near the door.

Before he left for school this morning, I told my 12-year-old son that this is his world now, not his old man's. When I was his age, something like this was science fiction or pretentious drama. I believed that someday it would happen, but I wouldn't live to see it. Our accelerated age ensured that I did.

I've felt for awhile that Obama had it locked up; but when it actually happened, I was blown away. The symbolism of a president of color was too strong and overwhelming to fight. I recalled all the racism I've seen in my life, then looked at the faces in Grant Park. I trust you will not think less of me when I confess to weeping. I teared up and trembled. Despite what I know in my head, despite what my instincts tell me, my heart couldn't resist the moment.

"Acknowledge it, you stubborn prick," I told myself. "Recognize it, then get on with the next phase of work."

Yes, I talk to myself in complete sentences.

What truly stuns me is that Obama won Indiana. He fucking took the Hoosier state. I'm a native son, and let me assure you that Indiana has countless outright racists -- open, proud, uncompromising. It was one of the reasons why I moved to New York and never moved back.

God knows what those losers are thinking today. Their shabby shitty worlds got rolled last night. I'm certain they don't know who to trust anymore. Did one of their neighbors, or worse, relatives, vote for that Marxist Muslim Supremacist? Somebody near them sure as fuck did. But who?

Oh man, picturing those assholes chasing their tails makes me smile. Part of me would like to say to them, "This is for King! This is for Malcolm! This is for Fred Hampton! How's it taste, motherfuckers?" Of course, Obama's not on the same moral plane as those murdered men, but most crackers don't know that. It's what ninjas call "naked kill" -- using the tools at hand. To them, President Obama is the biggest, scariest Black man they've ever seen. Take what you can get.

Does this mean that yours truly's going soft on Obama? As if. My opposition to his rule has already begun, for what it's worth. Let's not forget whose interests he truly serves. That Wall Street chose him over McCain. Worst of all, that Joe Biden is a heartbeat away. I know -- better Biden than Sarah Palin. Scumbag trumps psycho, one of liberty's many blessings. Again, you gotta work with what's lying around.

I have many thoughts about the coming managerial shift, but let's linger in the aesthetic, the conceptual, the What Ifs. Maybe soon, all those liberals and bookstores will feel safe enough to allow me to push "Savage Mules," a book that is more timely than ever. Remember all that talk about holding feet to flame? Let's see how serious you are about that pledge.

Monday, November 3, 2008

That Thing With Feathers




"Don't tell me! I don't want to hear it! I'm feelin' too good right now!"

Greg, a white liberal acquaintance, greeted me last week, trying to pre-empt any criticism of The Anointed One.

"I wasn't gonna say anything," I replied. "I'd rather talk about football."

"I know what you think. Why don't you give Obama a chance before you condemn him?"

"If you know what I think, then there's nothing to say. Besides, what power do I have? You're part of a winning team. Why not enjoy it?"

Greg smiled. "Yeah. He's gonna win, isn't he?"

"I think he has it nailed."

"Then why can't you enjoy it, too? Even for a day?"

"Dunno. Maybe if I was younger, or a lot older."

I've been getting that a lot lately -- "Can't you find anything positive in an Obama victory?" -- and it's all from white liberals, who increasingly feel history's weight pushing them toward the inevitable act. It's not enough that they avoid any serious discussion of the facts, content in their glazed stupors. They must insist that others, in the immediate case, me, share their pious enthusiasm. I guess I'm simply fucked in the skull, 'cause I can't do it.

I know all of the arguments and apologia. I see the cultural angle. I recognize the historical element. Still, none of this has swayed me to vote for or otherwise support Obama. For one thing, he's gonna win Michigan easily, so my vote is superfluous. But more to the point, I've actually read his proposals, listened to his statements, and separated all that from the soaring rhetoric that sends white libs to the ground, trembling with the holy spirit. Obama promises to be a competent manager of empire, expanding the Terror Wars abroad while fortifying the police state at home. He wants to give tax breaks to those making under $250K? Super. That seems a fair trade-off with shredding more constitutional protections while killing and starving more poor people overseas. Recall his supposed "surrender" on FISA? That was when his presidency was anything but certain, and he sided with the privatized state. What do you think he'll "surrender" next, once he's ensconced in the Oval Office?

I'll give Obama this much -- his campaign has been one of the most brilliantly conceived and cynically executed appeals I've ever seen. His propaganda team has ably exploited people's desire for HOPE and CHANGE, offering them empty platitudes which they can fill with any fantasy they choose. Even when Obama baldly states whose interests he actually serves, his followers either don't care or pretend not to hear. Besides, they bleat when pushed, Obama will be pressured to do the right thing should he stray too far from liberal concerns. The fact that he already has done this shows that claim to be as empty as Obama's speeches. The idea that libs are going to shift from genuflection to lighting fires under Obama's feet is preposterous, but fully in line with the general fantasia.

President Obama will be vigorously defended by liberals, who'll devote more energy to attacking and mocking right wingers than clogging the machine until Obama moves "left," or wherever he's supposed to go. I've repeatedly asked those few libs who bother to debate the issues what they will do when Obama sells them out, further strengthening the authoritarian legacy of Bush/Cheney. Will they demonstrate? Commit civil disobedience? Call for impeachment and criminal indictments? I've yet to get any firm answers to these questions, but the answers are already known. Besides, we gotta get Obama re-elected in '12, or it's President Palin/Romney/Monster Yet To Emerge. But once he snags that second term . . .

Some "independent-minded" friends of mine have predictably crawled back under the Dem tent in time to vote Obama. I saw this in 2000 with Gore, but it's happening at a much faster pace this time around. Again, why should the Dems change when they know such crawling will always happen? That they are all white progressives is no surprise, especially this year, when voting for Obama is an emblem of anti-racism. If for nothing else, I've been told, I should back Obama to show how much I care about black people. Which black people? I respond. I didn't know that African-Americans shared the same brain. One normally astute friend, who recently accepted Obama as his personal savior, actually told me privately that he cannot hope to sort out an impossibly corrupt system and then explain it to powerless people in a way that they can understand, so he's forced to go along with the Obama vibe as it's officially understood. This friend gave me permission to use his name, in order to "make an example" of him for my "strident" readership, but I wouldn't think of openly linking him to such asinine, condescending statements like the above. He's done too much good work, and I trust he'll return to his senses in due course.

The other night, I had a friendly but intense conversation with a young African-American acquaintance about the racial aspect of the election. Shane's fully behind Obama, sports a large Obama button, and is nervously excited about having a black president. I confessed straight away that I'm not voting for Obama, and find the man to be a smooth, studied hustler. Shane said he appreciated my honesty, given how his white liberal co-workers were stumbling over each other to prove their anti-racist credentials. Still, he asked if I understood the symbolism of an Obama victory. I answered that I did, but from a limited perspective. Being white, I couldn't fully grasp what this means to many African-Americans, nor would I pretend to. White Americans have a long way to go to get past our racist assumptions, no matter how minor or seemingly casual these assumptions may be. Electing Obama does little to advance that -- hell, if anything, it hinders that. As Ted Koppel told Charlie Rose, electing Obama would be a boon to US propaganda overseas, since nothing structurally will change once Obama's in power. That's how white elites see Obama. For them, the symbolism of his presidency lends a fine polish to their criminal operations. Obama understands this, and accepts his institutional role. That millions of powerless people see something else, something positive, in Obama's ascension merely confirms their passive state. Like I said, one of the most cynical displays I've ever seen.

Shane laughed, but conceded some of my points. At the end of our discussion, he asked, "So, who you gonna vote for?" I said that politically, I'm closest to Nader, but his candidacy is a fading echo of an earlier, more vibrant time. Voting for him would only deepen my depression. Later, alone, I came to the conclusion that if all we have are fantasy options, especially in states that Obama has won, then why not get creative? That's when I decided to write-in Eugene Victor Debs for president. Any candidate who would tell his followers this:

"I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition."

Gets my vote. Even though he's long dead, Debs' ideas remain timely, and further exposes Obama for the corporate shill he clearly is. Note, however, that this is a vote for Debs, not against Obama. In an election of phantoms, I choose the better spirit.