Friday, May 27, 2011

Toodles

A favorite and a friend tosses in his towel.

Who Is IOZ? ends, its author moving on to more serious writing projects (God help him). IOZ's energy, style and tone will be missed by me, his streaming sentences most especially. Few online whip the language like IOZ. Thoughts critiques bits rants recipes spilled across his site, commenters guessing at his ultimate point, if there was one. Yet IOZ's pyrotechnics, entertaining as they were, barely concealed his sensitivity to the surrounding madness. IOZ cracked wise because he cares. Too fucking much.

Maybe that's why he's stopping. Maybe he just got bored. Blogs are passé. New forms emerge, ideally offline. I look forward to IOZ's writing on a tangible surface. He's got the gift.

Happily for you, I'm still around, during lulls in the longhand and in between benders. It's nice to shout into the ether when needed. Beats my last therapist.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Where The Sharks Laugh



Kinescope remains the most intimate time machine. Its ghosts perform in tight corners, emotion, action filling limited space. Old films and radio shows are vast in comparison. Early video flat but dense. Filming from monitors captured live productions that would otherwise be lost. Kinescope may seem quaint, even ridiculous to modern eyes. But its tiny package packs a distinctive punch.

Of the Kinescope classics, my favorite is The Comedian which aired live on Playhouse 90, February 14, 1957. Rod Serling's script, based on an Ernest Lehman story, exposes the backstage ugliness of network comedy in the age of Gleason, Caesar, and Berle, all of whom Serling mentions. These broadcasting giants oversaw mini-empires -- actors, writers, dancers, directors and floor crews dependent on their celebrity and comedic power. That they weren't pussycats to their staffs is well established. But they also showed generosity, seducing the battered back into the fold.

Such passive-aggressive behavior is shown early in The Comedian. Sammy Hogarth, played by Mickey Rooney, hammers his cast for a lousy rehearsal, his writers for terrible sketches. Sammy's the smallest person onstage, but his voice and shadow dominate. As cast and crew break for the night, a cameraman thanks Sammy for helping with his child's medical bills. Sammy responds warmly, but as we soon see, this is a rarity. To pretty much everyone else, Sammy Hogarth is a monster. Manipulative, overbearing, cruel, most especially to his brother Lester, who appears catatonic when not on the verge of tears.

Mel Tormé's Lester is a pre-beaten man. Whatever happiness he may have enjoyed before we meet him has vanished. He flinches, mutters, sobs, asks for Sammy's permission to have dinner with his wife, which Sammy angrily denies. Lester is Sammy's punching bag onstage and off. His public persona is that of an useless idiot who deserves to be ripped apart. Lester's wife Julie, played by Kim Hunter, is tired of watching her husband be humiliated and gives him an ultimatum: either quit Sammy's show or she'll leave him. This added pressure is too much for Lester. Julie is the only good thing left to him, but Sammy pays for their comfortable life. Caught between love and financial security, Lester rapidly breaks down.

Lester's not the only one hanging by a thread. Sammy's head writer Al Preston (Edmond O'Brien) has run dry of jokes. He tries to squeeze what comedy is left in him, but nothing comes. His junior writers are no help, tossing around dated gags that make Al's block seem inspired. After Sammy threatens to fire him if the material doesn't improve, Al thumbs through old scripts written by a comedy whiz he knew who later died at the Battle of the Bulge. Al kept the scripts, either out of loyalty, for good luck, or as a reminder of creative days. As the deadline looms, Al surrenders and steals a couple of sketches, the theft known only by the show's secretary Connie (Constance Ford), whom Al is dating and hopes to marry.

Rod Serling's dialogue runs from rat-tat-tat exchanges to sullen confessions of failure. At times his love of language and varied rhythms seem too clever for the characters, yet nothing feels false. A hell of a balancing act. Serling would become best known for The Twilight Zone, but his Golden Age work (which included Patterns and Requiem For A Heavyweight) puts Serling in the same company as Paddy Chayevsky and Gore Vidal.

John Frankenheimer's direction is simply awe-inspiring. I don't know how many cameras he used for The Comedian, but there seem to be dozens at the oddest angles. Remember, this was a live, 90 minute show. I can only imagine the frenzy in Frankenheimer's control booth. Given the number of cuts, swift close-ups (cameras roll right up to the actors' faces which seem pressed against ours), and long dolly shots where characters walk casually in and out of frame, Frankenheimer's effort becomes more impressive with each viewing.

But it's the cast that truly shines. This is easily Mickey Rooney's best performance. He gives Sammy Hogarth every awful showbiz trait while hitting his marks and sailing through crowd scenes with a light, brutal touch. Rooney saves the real brutality for the one-on-one scenes. You're sickened by his sadism as you marvel at his timing.

Mel Tormé and Kim Hunter remind us of what live TV acting was once like: raw emotion, intensity, commitment. No cue cards or teleprompters: memorization and direct eye contact. Their arguments are hard to watch, but you do, however awful you feel witnessing a crumbling marriage. Edmond O'Brien acts as if he's on death row, which essentially he is. If a sadder comedy writer ever existed on American television, I'd be hard pressed to name him or her. The Sammy Hogarth Show is a literal meat grinder. Alan Brady's writers wouldn't survive the first commercial break.

If you live in the States, you can watch The Comedian on Hulu. For those outside our envied shores, you can order The Comedian from the good people at The Criterion Collection. I avoided revealing spoilers so that you may enjoy this time capsule personally. Absorb some brilliant energy from over a half century ago.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Blow Me Down



O'Donoghue surrounds me. I've compared writing this book to writing Mr. Mike, only I'm more in control and this one is better written. Still, Michael's spirit is present.

I saw him recently in a vivid dream. I haven't seen Michael since the Mr. Mike years, when he appeared in my dreams to help with problems, answer questions. (He even visited Nan, who was stressed about the process, telling her that the book would be fine.) We met in the wings of a theater featuring some comedy show. He looked to be in his forties -- short hair, light beard, clear plastic glasses. He wasn't smoking, which surprised me. He was very genial, upbeat.

"How you doing, Dennis?"

"Michael! I have so much to tell you!"

"I already know."

Michael's voice soothed me. His snickering laugh reassuring. He seemed not to have a care. We caught up, hugged, then he disappeared through the curtains. I awoke right after, his presence tangible in the room.

Michael's visit wasn't the only reminder of earlier days. I've been getting more O'Donoghue mail than usual, mostly younger guys asking questions, one of which is, How would O'Donoghue view today's America? I have a pretty good idea, but people change, even influential humorists. I do know this: Michael couldn't stand Dennis Miller when he was considered "good"; I doubt that Michael would embrace Miller's current reactionary act.

Yesterday on my Twitter feed, the gifted comic actor Michael McKean wrote "Someone needs to hunt up a copy of Michael O'Donoghue's letter to the LA Herald-Examiner." I replied that I had several copies. MM asked that I post it. So I am.

Some background.

When Lorne Michaels returned to SNL in 1985, he brought along several veterans from the original show. Al Franken and Tom Davis were producers; Jim Downey head writer. O'Donoghue was also hired, but Michael didn't want to write for the live show. His battles with Lorne and Standards led him to leave after the third season. He desired no more of that. Basically, Michael wanted to be paid to stay home and write short films, a la Albert Brooks and Tom Schiller. The producers accepted. Michael's name appeared in SNL's closing credits.

As SNL geeks know, the 1985-86 year was a disaster. Tom Davis called it a Death Ship. The first show, hosted by Madonna, tanked on all fronts. Critics sank their yellow teeth into the episode, taking delight in how badly it came off. Gregg Kilday, a TV writer for the Los Angeles Herald-Tribune, saw O'Donoghue's name in the credits and assumed that he contributed to the mess. Most critics called the Madonna show tasteless, and who was best known for tasteless comedy? Problem was, Kilday's assumption was wrong.

One sketch received particular attention -- National Inquirer Theatre. It featured Madonna as Marilyn Monroe being attacked by John, Robert, and Ted Kennedy, with only Elvis Presley to protect her. The King fails, and Marilyn is smothered to death by a villainous JFK. When O'Donoghue read Kilday's column, he reached for his typewriter. Here's the letter in full.

* * *

Nov. 22nd

Listen dickwad . . .

You made two mistakes in your Tuesday 12th review of Saturday Night Live on page two of the L.A. Herald-Examiner:

Mistake #1 -- I didn't contribute a sentence, a word, a syllable, a fucking dust mote to SNL's opening show so don't blame me if it turned out to be a big bowl of fucking dog snot. Yes the Marilyn Monroe sketch was lacking in wit and so was every other sketch on the show but it sure as fuck was lacking in my wit because I don't work on the live show! I'm hired only to write and direct short films/videos.

On real newspapers -- as opposed to the tar-pit pennysaver you work for -- they have this novel policy of "checking the facts" before writing a story. Here are the facts --

FACT -- The Marilyn Monroe sketch was written by producers Tom Davis and Al Franken, head-writer Jim Downey and staffer George Meyer.

FACT -- Almost everything else on the premiere show was written by Davis, Franken and Downey.

FACT -- My agreement with Lorne Michaels is only to write and direct short film/videos.

FACT -- These short film/videos will begin with the credit "WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY MICHAEL O'DONOGHUE" so that mentally-challenged TV reviewers will be able to identify them.

FACT -- The only thing you did before shooting your mouth off was to pull out the donkey dong you were gnawing on.

Let me put it in upper case so that even a screaming jizzbag like you with a Bundt cake for a brain and the I.Q. of an eggtimer can grasp it -- I HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH SNL'S FIRST SHOW; I HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THE SECOND SHOW; I WILL HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH THE THIRD SHOW; AND, IN ALL LIKELIHOOD, I WON'T HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH SHOWS FOUR, FIVE AND SIX!!! Can you "dig it," touchhole?? Am I getting through???

In the great Southern California tradition of airhead journalism, I'm sure you don't give a flying fuck about "Truth" nor would you accept culpability (Look it up!) for your errors so I don't expect an apology or a retraction. I write this only as a Zen exercise. And you can return to your work in the flak factory retyping press handouts from the Amanda Foundation.

Mistake #2 -- You were much too easy on the show.

Let me close with the sincere hope that you and everyone you love catches rectal cancer and dies screaming.

. . .Blow me,

Michael O'Donoghue

* * *

The brutal irony is that Michael died screaming. Wishing painful death on others isn't karmically wise. Still, no one wrote a poisoned letter like Mr. Mike. Imagine anyone now connected with SNL attacking the press this way. Wouldn't happen. The corporate lock down is complete. That said, this outburst didn't help Michael back then. When he later told the New York Times that SNL '85 lacked heart, intelligence and that he gave it an F, Michael was fired. None of his films/videos were completed or aired.

Michael told me that writing for SNL was "hot," that he loved the money and access. It's fitting that his final SNL gig consisted of getting paid to publicly trash the show. Only Michael O'Donoghue could pull that off.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Again With The Hope



The sad thing about Donald Trump's announcement is that it makes him Obama's moral better. Unlike the incumbent, Trump has no stomach for the serious meat. Photo ops and bad television seem enough for him, and we can all be thankful for that.

When I posted this on Facebook and Twitter, a few wondered what I meant by "moral better." Do I believe Trump to be a moral man? Based on available evidence, no I don't. My point is that Trump lacks the fire, if not the money, to make a serious run at the White House. Instead of milking a charade for the cameras, Trump packed it in before he started. You can't say that about Obama who hungered for state power and allied with anyone who could boost him. Yes We Can was brilliant cover, conning scores of gullible Americans. Obama did this with eyes open and hand over heart. At least Trump spared us that disgusting sight.

Still, it's too bad that Trump and Mike Huckabee have bailed from the Sweepstakes. The entertainment factor dropped considerably. Sarah Palin's still around, but her act is tired, a winking cliché. The surprise factor is gone. Liberals try to inflate Palin's specter so they can puncture it, yet this too has been done. Gingrich is an even bigger retread than Palin. Ron Paul will attack the war state, which reactionaries and liberals will vocally defend. So, barring an unforeseen candidacy, this leaves us Mitt Romney, who scarcely inspires. The only possible friction between him and Obama might be over the health care shell game, but this would be more about authorship than the crisis millions of Americans still face.

It's still early and anything can happen, but Obama looks very hard to beat. His expansion of Bush/Cheney war powers strengthens his profile. His service to corporate rule guarantees elite backing. I'm not sure what Romney, or any Republican, can offer that Obama's not already done. This helps explain the paucity of the GOP field. The election is Obama's to lose; and judging by how much he enjoys the imperial perch, it'll take a serious domestic shift to unseat him.

Many American liberals love this. They haven't had such a lock since Bill Clinton in 1996. And as with Clinton, liberals aren't terribly concerned with Obama's actual policies. For most, having a Democratic president is enough. No matter how draconian, violent, or corrupt a Dem administration is, Republicans are always worse. They just are. This is why I question making "progressive" noises during a campaign. There's no need for it. Liberals unconditionally support the Dems in elections, regardless of what a candidate says. Jonestown enjoyed more dissent.

Obama's presidency is the next logical step in eliminating whatever challenges to centralized power remain. If "progressives" didn't balk at Clinton's cruder corporate model, they sure as fuck aren't abandoning Obama's sleeker version. At this pace, we'll eventually have a mass murdering lesbian president in a wheelchair. Liberals will rejoice (FDR and Eleanor in one!) while reactionaries curse political correctness. The country will be broke, but only nihilists will care. Politics is all about compromise, even if you have no power to negotiate. Freedom ain't free.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

New Tradition



I was wrong about Osama bin Laden's execution. Incredibly, stupidly wrong. Some moral defect in my bitter mind led me astray. I've struggled with this for years. I nearly escaped once or twice, but my jackbooted soul kicked what decency I had down a concrete stairwell. Stomped its head. Kicked its face. Urinated on the body. It was a mess. Aspirin didn't help.

Then something happened. Right out of a Terminator movie. I forget which one. I think Part III. Anyway, after a night of heavy drinking a dim light beckoned. I stumbled toward it. As I got closer I realized it was an Exit sign. I'd passed out in the bar. Driving home, I saw people smiling. Old Glory waving. Children chasing bubbles blown by Detroit Lions cheerleaders. For the first time in memory, Americans felt safe to go outside. To see the sun. To breathe free air.

How can one scoff at such beauty?

As I thought about bin Laden receiving justice, face blown away, brains on the wall, a celestial presence consumed me. Total peace. I realized in that sacred moment that division is an illusion. That we are One. United. No one, not even the evilest motherfucker with a stupid name and bad teeth can tear us apart. For we are Chosen. Anointed. Forged in the spirit of greatness.

"American" no longer serves as national identification. Too soft, hesitant. Leaves us open for counterattack. Instead, call us the Death Suckers.

Mark Twain suggested that we replace the stars on the flag with the skull and crossbones. Twain was satirizing US "imperialism," yet if it wasn't for the Spanish-American War, we'd all be speaking Spanish-American today. So Twain got that wrong, but his flag idea still has potential. Let's leave the pirate symbol to Johnny Depp and Disney and create something really twisted. Something that will send our enemies to their knees, weeping for mercy, which of course we won't abide because we love death and death hates weeping.

How about Uncle Sam gnawing the severed head of a Muslim? Literal-minded, yes, but its deterrent power is inescapable. One look at that and young Muslims will think twice about arming themselves, much less committing violence. They'll ask, "Do I dare attack a white cannibal wearing a star-spangled top hat?" As they ponder that question, we'll turn them to mist with some choice drone strikes. The flag's stark image will give us room to kill more Muslims. It works on various levels.

But flags are static things. Retro appeals to nationalism. Maybe what's needed is an HD plasma flag, a field upon which we project whatever images appeal to us while making our enemies cringe like the cowards they are. Here we crank up the volume. Ideally it should be violent imagery, nuke blasts, napalm drops, executions, children crawling over charred corpses. Then we cut to gay bondage porn, NASCAR fights, drunken frat boys chanting, cable news hosts bellowing. Bring it to a mad boil.

Then the quiet kill. Images of crumbling cities and towns. Infrastructure collapsing. People struggling to survive. Teens abandoning hope. Crystal meth and gluttony. Ignorance, fear, despair. We make it clear that if we choose not to kill you, this is your alternate fate. Oh baby, the martyrs will rush to the slaughter. Our only problem will be body disposal. Then again, who gives a fuck. Scavengers must eat, too.

Pledge allegiance to the Death Suckers. Your sorry ass is ours.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Sage Me



After enduring more American self-congratulation, I appreciate why H.L. Mencken was a Tory sniper.

I discovered Mencken through my friend Mark, a NYC stage actor who got a lot of TV/film work in LA. (He played Julia Louis-Dreyfus' boyfriend in Soul Man.) Mark's politics seemed libertarian, though he was skeptical of all faiths. He said I had the demeanor of "a cynical ex-communist," so reading the Sage of Baltimore might balance me out. He handed me his copy of The Mencken Chrestomathy, put a McKinney's Cotton Pickers 78 on his wind-up Victrola, sipped a beer and laughed.

At this point my political reading largely consisted of Hitchens and Cockburn in The Nation; Chomsky, whom I'd also just discovered; National Review editorials; literature from the Central American and South African solidarity movements; Maximum Rock and Roll, which kept the anarcho-punk vibe alive. Digging into Mencken gave me the weirdest kick yet.

He didn't seem to belong anywhere. He bashed capitalists, communists, socialists, reformers, farmers, tycoons, celebrities, Democrats and Republicans -- pretty much the American spectrum. His prose was archaic and electric. At times his critiques were so blistering that you imagined he was a sad and bitter man. Yet he appeared to be having fun.

Mencken made a serious impression on me. I spent months in the New York Public Library on 40th Street poring through bound back issues of The American Mercury, the monthly co-edited by Mencken and theater critic George Jean Nathan. The Mercury was early gonzo. During its heyday in the 1920s, the Mercury was celebrated, reviled, even prosecuted. In 1926, Boston banned the Mercury for obscenity, which inspired Mencken to visit Beantown where he was promptly arrested for selling a copy. It didn't stick. Mencken was released the next day, all charges dropped.

Not everything Mencken wrote jazzed me. I hated his characterizations of Baltimore's Black population, even though he embraced and promoted Harlem Renaissance writers. I don't recall him writing all that much on Jewish issues, though later he was accused of anti-Semitism, which may or may not have been true. (His closet friend was Alfred A. Knopf, but still.) Mencken despised nationalist organizations, singling out the Ku Klux Klan for special abuse. His scathing obituary of William Jennings Bryan influenced Hunter S. Thompson's attacks on Richard Nixon. Mencken was intelligent, rancorous, poetic. He was also an elitist who believed in natural hierarchies.

Underlying much of his commentary was a deep contempt for the general American population. Americans, by and large, were idiotic, ill-mannered, credulous, superstitious, petty, vain. They stomped on those below them and groveled before those above them. Americans were a mob of boobs, easily fooled by demagogues. At the time this disturbed me. I was also reading anarchist history and theory, the whole basis of which depended on the humanity and intelligence of average people. If the majority of Americans even remotely resembled Mencken's caricatures, then we were fucked. Bright-eyed mid-20s me didn't want to hear that.

While older me retains some faith in common intelligence and solidarity, it's not going to emerge in the United States. Not anytime soon. Reactionaries are crazy. Liberals cynical and craven. Radicals severely marginalized, scattered. Corporations run the show, bleeding us dry while fattening the One Percent. War is enshrined as a national virtue. Political ignorance and obedience are rewarded. Historical amnesia is at record levels.

Nobody seems to know what to do. So we drift along, finding glory in vengeance, believing what our owners say no matter how many times they change the official story. Chomsky claims that this is fertile ground for political organizing. Yeah, well, we'll see. Conditions are extremely different from the good old days of activism and agitation.

I'm sure that Mencken would have enjoyed the bin Laden circus. Favoring the death penalty, he'd have little problem with Osama's execution. Hating most religion, he'd doubtless rip apart Islam, though it would be better written than present-day Muslim bashing. Hating chanting mobs, he'd revel in coarse American self-righteousness as proof of his philosphy. Mencken would review it all with a knowing smile. Or maybe he'd be appalled by the current show and return to his grave. There's only so much a contrarian can take in life. Death must make it even more grating.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Killer Highs

The key piece missing from the photo of the dead Osama bin Laden was an Obama 2012 bumpersticker taped over his mouth.* But that would violate the equal-time rule, and we'd have to tape Trump, Romney and Palin stickers over dead mouths throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan. First we need new monsters to fear, then assassinate. Bin Laden's a tough act to follow. But I trust our owners to find suitable replacements.

Oh, do you think that the wars are coming to a close? That once bin Laden bit it, we were finished? It's a nice thought. Maybe in another dimension. As William Burroughs reminded us, this is the War Universe. We ain't stopping. Judging from the reactions to Obama's hit, that seems to suit many Americans just fine.

I always hear, usually from radicals, that Americans are largely antiwar. If so, I sure as fuck don't see it. As I noted in 2008, Obama would effectively kill whatever antiwar sentiment lingered after Bush/Cheney, and he's done just that. Whacking bin Laden all but guarantees another term (pal Barry Crimmins says that bin Laden's death is 9/11 for Republicans), which means four more years of war, torture, and plunder.

Oh, do you think that in a second term, Obama's "true" progressive colors will blossom? Well, every vote is sacred. Primarily those predetermined.

I didn't scan all liberal celebrations, but I caught a fair share. Amid the self-satisfied fist pumping was a lot of Bush/Cheney bashing -- which is fine by me, yet it seems odd. It's as if liberals miss the Bush era where a good number of them cut their political teeth. Going back in time feeds some dissident urge. Since Obama's largely off-limits, especially now, and the current GOP crop is weak, Bush/Cheney fits their needs. The joke is that Obama has continued and expanded the Bush/Cheney Terror War scenario. It's not a particularly funny joke, but death humor is tricky to pull off.

At Facebook I made the mistake of crashing a few death parties some "friends" were throwing for each other. A couple are feminist/hippie types, so their blood lust was confusing at first glance. Stupid me, thinking hippies can't hate. Call them on their twisted fantasies then watch out. Some of the shit they were saying bent my mind. How they'd love to personally kill bin Laden, how sexy the assassination makes Obama look, how Their President is manlier than the previous president. I suggested that all this boasting and crowing was unbecoming, that they were better than that.

Woo boy. That didn't go over well. How dare I question their elation at this great American moment. I was smug, insufferable, self-righteous, and worst of all unfunny (oh dear -- not that!). They really didn't address anything I said, but when you're smoking the death weed, arguments are moot. It was as if they were posing with bin Laden's corpse, a la Abu Ghraib and Kill Teams in Afghanistan. I doubt that's something you want reflected back at you, especially when you sober up. If you sober up. The ease with which many liberals were whipped into a nationalist lather was surely not lost on their Dem keepers. That vein will be tapped again.

For a Global Terrorist Mastermind, Osama bin Laden seemed fairly unproductive and quiet for the better part of a decade. If he was indeed the brains behind the 9/11 attacks, then he got in one lucky deadly shot at the infidels. Attacks like that are rare simply because they're nearly impossible to succeed. Calling bin Laden a Mastermind is hyperbole. It gives him too much credit. Of course, it does help keep powerless consumers afraid and prepped for vengeance. For this, large, inflated monsters are necessary.

So what does Obama do for an encore? Mr. Gaddafi, I'm looking in your direction.

(*Seems that the photo I saw is a fake. So there's still a chance that Obama's bumpersticker sealed his mouth before the big splash. Killer brand positioning.)

Monday, May 2, 2011

Grave Dance Party

Why can't we be more like Nelson Mandela or the Vietnamese people?

Mandela, imprisoned to hard labor for 27 years for resisting a racist state, forgave his jailers. His torturers. Those who wanted to see him hang. He did so smiling, laughing. It's one of the greatest moments for humanity I've ever witnessed. I'm still in awe of it and him.

The Vietnamese people even more so. You know the grisly record. What we did to their country. Jesus, it's still hard to get your head around it. Mind-blowing, genocidal violence. And yet, the Vietnamese people forgave us. Offered a friendly hand. Focused on a more positive future (whatever the geopolitical realities). How do you stay dry-eyed in the face of such beauty? I think most Americans have no idea what that means. If they did, we wouldn't be witnessing the present grave dancing.

We have a lot of growing up to do. We are spoiled children in a world where civilized people are considered our inferiors. I have more to say about the bin Laden circus, but I'm too sick and angry to do so now. Think I'll take a long walk. Hopefully, I won't be pelted by flags.