Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Only Good Thoughts

Been nearly a week, boy. Where your shit?

Working on bits for the next round of NYC stage diving. Roaming the house, flapping my arms, talking in various voices and accents. Of course, I've always done this, only now I have a reason.

Several posts litter my office floor, awaiting final assembly. But today, out of deference to an old Army buddy who dislikes my political rants and suggests that I stick to comedy, I'm letting YouTube do the work. Steve and I used to watch Fridays at his apartment off-base, and it remains one topic where we agree more than not. So Steve, to show you I'm not strictly an enemy propagandist, here are a few items you may remember.

This is a silly, absurd premise, something you might see on the current SNL, only without Larry David. These easily could've been recurring characters, something the current SNL would undoubtedly do, but to my knowledge, this was it. And frankly, what more do you need?

I've always liked this bit. Again, Larry David plays the lead, but it's cast driven and very physical, which is always nice for live TV. I rediscovered this sketch when I went through some of O'Donoghue's personal video tapes. Waiting for his appearance on The Midnight Special, Michael taped his channel surfing. He came to Fridays just as this sketch began and stayed for the entire thing. Don't know what he thought of it, but he didn't change the channel. Something must have grabbed him.

This is self-explanatory. The introduction was unnecessary; going straight into the bit would've heightened its weirdness. Anyway, another favorite. Melanie Chartoff and Larry David are joined by Father Guido Sarducci and Dawn, who appeared as a team in every sketch. Show-long concepts were a Fridays thing.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Radical Son

Stretched out in the back of a car, night flashing by, Norman Finkelstein meditates on another go-round with his antagonists. He seems weary, dejected. He finds solace in his atheism, that he won't be punished by eternity. He sighs and openly wonders if his efforts are even worth it.

Anyone who's debated or argued about the Middle East, specifically Israel and the Palestinians, knows this feeling well. Craziness, hostility, lies, and slander await those challenging the official narrative. And while it's not as bad as it used to be (I entered this world in 1988, during the first intifada, and those early gigs were brutal), Israel remains one of the hottest political buttons to press. You're going up against a nuclear-armed terrorist state with defenders who'll say or do anything to discredit critics. It's not for the meek.

Norman Finkelstein is anything but. He's deliberate and generally soft-spoken, yet serious passion boils just beneath the surface. Push him hard enough and Finkelstein will return fire, sometimes overreacting, which perhaps is his Achilles' heel. Savvy warriors know when to retreat, but not Finkelstein. He'll pound away well after the fact, flirting with his own destruction. Even his closest friends shake their heads when discussing it.

You see much of this in American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein. While not as creatively enticing as Manufacturing Consent, the celebrated documentary about Noam Chomsky, AR reveals enough of Finkelstein's world to make its point. The son of Holocaust survivors whose European family was exterminated by the Nazis, Finkelstein feels compelled to honor their memory by speaking truth to power whenever and wherever he can. He gets really pissed off when hecklers play the Holocaust card with him. His critiques of Israel are so blistering that his attackers feel no compunction about throwing the death camps in his face. At one event, even Finkelstein's parents are mocked. God knows what goes through his mind and heart in moments like that.

Finkelstein most resembles his mother, Maryla, whose voice we hear via audio tape and especially through her son. Maryla witnessed death and suffering in both the Warsaw Ghetto and the Majdanek concentration camp. Moving to Brooklyn after the war, Maryla provided Norman many lessons in political thought, action, and above all, morality. Finkelstein says that toward the end of her life, Maryla worried that he took her example too literally, that she had created a Frankenstein monster. An apt comparison, given the number of torch-carrying villagers who've chased her son over the years.

Finkelstein has earned many enemies, but the one he takes especial glee in tormenting and exposing is Alan Dershowitz. A supposed "civil rights" lawyer who defends Israeli torture and state terror, Dershowitz is a ripe target, made riper by the fact that Dershowitz revels in the spotlight. I doubt he's ever turned down a media invitation. He's well represented in this film, and Dershowitz makes the most of it, slandering Finkelstein every chance he gets. To be expected, as are Dershowitz's personal attacks. He either knows he's on shaky political ground or simply prefers character assassination. Whatever the reason, Dershowitz certainly loves dishing it out.

Dershowitz is fond of saying that if Finkelstein weren't Jewish, his critiques would be considered anti-Semitic. Dershowitz thinks that Finkelstein is anti-Semitic anyway, a classic self-hating Jew. But if we turn Dershowitz's tactic on him, he comes off as badly as he believes Finkelstein does. Essentially, Dershowitz accuses Finkelstein of blood treason, i.e. he's not a "real Jew." Were Dershowitz a gentile, he would sound like a white supremacist. Who else but fascists worry about race traitors? Yet Dershowitz lays it out as if it's a perfectly reasonable view.

But what really riles Dershowitz is how Finkelstein exposed him as a plagiarist, ripping him to shreds on Democracy Now. The look on Dershowitz's face during that debate speaks volumes. His arrogance led him into the lion's den, convinced that he had a winning argument defending Israeli aggression. But once Finkelstein got his hooks in, it was slow torture. He publically humiliated Dershowitz who, for all his bluster afterward, barely held his own. It was a short-lived victory for Finkelstein, however. When Finkelstein was up for tenure at DePaul University, with solid faculty support, Harvard-based Dershowitz campaigned to sink Finkelstein's bid, taking pride in helping to derail his tormentor's academic career. To date, Finkelstein has not recovered.

Was exposing and embarrassing Dershowitz worth it? Noam Chomsky says in the film that Finkelstein should've ignored the plagiarism and gone after Dershowitz's political arguments instead. I don't know if that would've made Dershowitz less vindictive, for even on that front, Finkelstein would most likely be merciless. In any case, this episode showed the limits of dissident intellectual engagement with a celebrated, mainstream, well-connected figure like Dershowitz. The privileged and powerful are interested in the facts only to the extent that they may further enrich themselves. But when protecting their privilege, anything goes, truth and facts be damned. Norman Finkelstein has learned this the hard way. Based on his life and career, that seems to be the only way he knows.

Here's a clip from American Radical. I hope that young woman isn't on a debate team.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Entre Sombras

Malcolm X would be 85 today, and naturally one wonders how he'd view contemporary events. Might he have mellowed and embraced Obama's presidency? Impossible to say, though Obama's circle would doubtless distance their meal ticket from someone named El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. White liberals would be typically confused, while reactionaries would howl, sputter and fume. Malcolm would be revered by most African-Americans, especially the young, and the developing world would most likely view him as an inspiring figure, like Mandela. But who really knows.

Fact is, Malcolm, along with King and Fred Hampton, were never meant to see old age. They represented Black political and cultural power and the possibility of revolutionary change, something the white imperial structure clearly feared and would not tolerate. So it was no surprise that they were eliminated in their prime, before they could wreak further damage. I'm not saying that the government had a hand in Malcolm's murder, but it sure was fucking convenient. Nefarious plots aside, Malcolm X fostered an evolving radical consciousness that reached beyond color. Unlike Obama, whose fraudulent appeal is fading somewhat, Malcolm was the real deal.

When a rightist relative went off about liberal PC Hollywood, I agreed there was truth to the cliché. But when you closely inspect the gears, Hollywood can be as racist as any other American institution. Example: Denzel Washington received a Best Actor nomination for Malcolm X, but lost to Al Pacino's "Hoo Ah!" Mr. Magoo from Scent Of A Woman. Clearly, the Academy felt that Washington's brilliant portrayal of a street hustler-turned-American radical was not Oscar worthy. Fair enough. But for what role did Washington eventually win Best Actor? A corrupt, violent cop beholden to the white power structure in Training Day.

Racist? Or simply more Hollywood bad taste? You be the judge, but I doubt the Academy wanted to honor a Black Muslim who desired to smash American racism by any means necessary -- unless the demographics supported it. Then we would get two, three, many Malcolms, Nat Turner fighting insectoid aliens, Angela Davis as Queen Latifah's sassy friend, Frederick Douglass splashing through time in a hot tub. With enough finesse and shrewd test marketing, Black radicals could be the next Na'vi.

Jay Leno spouts plenty of bullshit, but his statement about Howard Stern being no longer relevant is accurate. Moving to satellite radio made creative sense and was financially lucrative for Stern, yet it took him out of the limelight and into the margins. Much of Stern's fan base followed him to Sirius, but that seems to have leveled off, and Stern's show is rapidly winding down to single note status.

At its best, Stern's show resembled Jack Benny's. His staff used their real names but were characters in the larger narrative. The plotlines and gags revolved around their actual lives and personalities, with Stern as the neurotic, manic boss and occasional father figure. Despite his crude reputation, Stern possessed a very quick mind and kept the show moving at a fine comedic pace. He did this live for four, sometimes five hours daily. I once chatted with longtime Stern collaborator Fred Norris, and he told me that Stern had an innate sense of where the show should go, that his instincts were almost always correct. "Howard's the captain," Fred said. "He's got twenty different things going at once, and he handles it beautifully."

You don't get that sense anymore. Stern is incredibly rich, hobnobs with Hollywood actors and Hamptons socialites, has a young model wife devoted to vanity projects, and seems tired and bored. Losing Artie Lange hurt the show's balance, and basically he and Robin Quivers talk about American Idol and their personal diets. Occasional flashes of inspired humor appear now and then, but it's more a twitch on a decaying body. Howard Stern's Jack Benny period is past. He's becoming what he has long despised -- Don Imus. The captain's all but wearing a cowboy hat.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Future Plans

Jets boom overhead. Cloudy night sky masks their lights, but you can feel them. Another bombing run. We're getting used to this. Running to shelter is less chaotic. More courtesy before the shrapnel flies. Maybe being bombed out of imperialism is indeed civilizing. Worked for Japan. Who knew it would translate stateside?

Then again, I'm Mr. Glass Half Full. Being an apathetic people addicted to violence, it naturally takes violence to shake us from apathy. But I see it from an urban angle. I suspect suburbanites aren't as philosophically adaptive as city dwellers seem. The bombing may fuck with their rural heads the same way US B-52s shook Khmer Rouge minds. I hope not. Should average Americans lock, load and hunt, aerial assaults will be the least of our worries.

Sitting on the crowded Lex Line Spring St. platform, sipping water, looking around. Scattered nerves, but everyone's resigned to another round. The subway's held up remarkably well. I hear the lines in outer Brooklyn and Queens have minimal damage. Manhattan's the main target. Yet our tormentors have been very selective in their bombing.

They've spared the older buildings, the Empire State still standing. But they relish shattering the new glass towers. Reprisal and critique in one stroke. However, their razing of Times Square was pointless and brutal. Scratch that as a future tourist trap. Somehow the Paper of Record survived. Collaborators or cockroaches?

"Hey Perrin!"

Walls shake. Concrete dust falls from the ceiling.


A comic I know waves above cowered heads.

"What do you want?"

"You doing The Lantern next week?"

Massive vibration. Falling chunks.

"I'm on the list."

Several heads spring up, look at me critically.

"OK. Stand by."

Gotta dry clean this jacket.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Down A Gravel Drive

She was warm, young, quiet, serene. We collapsed on the couch in an old haunted house, stretched out, said little. She rubbed my arm as I tried to calm down, anxious about life after brushing with death, an angry spirit roaming upstairs. Electric vibrations hit me as I reached the top landing, cold patches, waves of regret. I never understood if this residual energy was conscious or aware, but it was tangible, and I've seen doubters turn pale upon exposure. You couldn't deny its presence.

I don't know who or where she was from, but she soothed me. Soft almond eyes framed by raven hair. Wide reassuring smile. I felt nothing sexual between us, which was good, as I'm confused enough as it is. But love cut through the ethereal fog. Others wandered the house in shadow, voices tangled, distant. They paid us no mind as I sank into her arms, eyes closed, mind drifting between worlds. Then she dissolved, her sweet scent lingering like a ghost. The mad spirits were gone.

Suburbia is a cancer. Blow it all up, irradiate the soulless architecture, burn the manicured lawns. Force the fucks content with this disease out of their holding pens and into the cul-de-sacs. Their isolation makes them refugees, so let's animate this condition. A block party of the sad and lost.

There've been a million parodies of suburbia, but what has it accomplished? The prefab bullshit keeps spreading, numbed inmates multiply, concrete horizons widen. But there is hope. Strip mall decay appears permanent, the first sign of possible renewal. It'll take time for aggressive plant growth to strangle what remains, but nature is a patient assassin. We age, foundations crack, roots break through sidewalks and basements. It's coming and there's nothing we can do about it. The real Green solution will doubtless be the final one.

I slink through crowds under cover of mist, but one-to-one I open up, usually with someone who looks like they could use it. This cashier did. She returned my smile and laughed. She scanned my items while flirting back, happy to be noticed. It doesn't take much to move past social banalities. Most people embrace it. Atomized lives lead to ritual exchanges, no eye contact, no warmth. But the heart still beats, desire burns. We aren't completely dead, despite efforts to keep us that way.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Wash In Time

Monday, May 10, 2010

Dry Against The Rain

The Terror Wars continue as our propaganda system tries to keep us afraid, off-balance, skittish. Given the coverage of the dud car bomb in Times Square, you'd think we were under siege, every unattended shopping bag or water cooler a potential mini-nuke. Of course, our dying empire needs all the fear and obedience it can muster. A tough task in an apolitical culture that thrives on immediate sensation. Would-be bombs frighten only so much: the boy who cried jihad. Serious bloodletting puts all on the same patriotic page. It also boosts cable news ratings. Such are American rallying points.

For all the clamor over Pakistani Taliban plots, you have to wonder: Is it so difficult to blow up a van? In a nation legally armed to the teeth, with underground markets for heavier munitions, how does a zealot fail to realize maximum firepower? Poor people in Iraq and Afghanistan have no problem wiring car bombs, IEDs and EFPs that lethally deliver. What's the deal stateside?

Maybe we're lucky. Maybe domestic bomb makers are clumsy amateurs. Maybe the FBI thwarts them (which, if true, suggests that this is more a police problem than a military one). Maybe these near-bombs are false flag operations. Maybe it's the fates. All this or none of this may be the case. One thing's for certain -- we're doing the bulk of the killing. All the jumping on chairs and lifting skirts over this or that potential attack cannot hide this grisly fact, though it can be ignored. And if nothing else, we Americans are experts at ignoring what is breathing in our face. Our silence over the corporate class war at home is a sterling example of this. If you refuse to confront domestic criminals who are robbing you, then why would you care about slaughtering people overseas?

Should a wanna-bomber succeed in turning Times Square or any public square into a killing ground, public passivity will boil swiftly to nationalist rage, with calls for revenge and kindred spasms. Our police state will further tighten, and worse, airports will become even more unbearable. Getting to the root of the madness will be the furthest thing from the public-media mind (though some gung-ho liberals are giving it a Yankee Doodle go, adding to the diversion). But that's the joy of being an American -- putting faith in fantasies. If only the Terror Wars came with 3D glasses. It would be almost life-like.

Betty White's SNL gig was predictably dreadful, the writers unable to get past their fascination with cheap sex/queer gags. White was clearly game, an old pro hitting her marks. But man, it was embarrassing watching her utter such dead lines, the Naughty Granny angle beaten to a pulp. Performing in NYC's club scene has exposed me to this mindset. Most comics I've shared stages with spout pretty much the same material, so seeing it on SNL makes perfect sense. Still, I'd hate to think that this represents a generation's comedy. Here we could use some real mad bombers, empty premises blown to piercing bits.

I talked with Betty White on The Golden Girls set long ago. She remarked on my youth (26 looking 15), winked to accent points, and had a flirty edge to her demeanor. I could see why Allen Ludden, among countless others, loved her. I didn't confess my sexual fantasies of her from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but it was sweet to feel her heat point blank. Oh Betty -- if only I wrote for you last week. My cheap sex jokes would have meaning.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Keep Moving

Criticism of Arizona's immigration law shows that many Americans are not crude nativists, grumbling about "illegals" while cramming down Gordita Supremes. Reactionaries haven't completely erased civil rights from the national memory, which is a positive if tenuous condition. Living in a global communications era helps rid us of nationalist conceits, at least on a capitalist level. Socially, tribally, there remain deep, hard-wired feelings about territory and borders. Arizona is but the latest example.

Defenders of the law say that the Mexican drug war is spilling into their state, affecting the economy and public safety. No doubt. Of all the wars currently waged, the drug war is hottest in that region, violence and corruption on all sides, cartels making mega-profits while police units become more militarized. I sure as fuck wouldn't want to live there. But granting added power to the police state seems short-sighted at best, and certainly dangerous in the long run. We've surrendered too much to our owners as it is.

Short of an all-out fascist state, the flow of Latinos into the country will not ebb. And frankly, I'm not sure what we expected, given decades of imperialism and interference throughout Central and South America. We crushed regional social movements and turned vast areas into low-wage zones for global capital, a bi-partisan production of our ruling parties. Turn the region into an economic basket-case, create conditions that fuel the drug trade (while supplying countless consumers north of the border), and you better fucking believe that people are going to migrate, "legality" be damned.

But then, our invasions of their native turf are not seen as a problem. As with so much else, we tend to rail against the ends while overlooking or justifying the means. This was also seen in the supposed-Pakistani terror operation in Times Square. We're aghast at such cold-blooded plots as we blithely ignore the Pakistani civilians we've murdered in the name of "security." You might think the former has something to do with the latter, but that would be self-hating and unpatriotic. I mean, why would the sons of a Terror War ally want to kill Americans?

Boycotts loom in the wake of Arizona's action, which is why businesses connected to the state are anxious to show their concern. The Phoenix Suns' "Los Suns" uniform display is the NBA's bid in this regard. There's nothing like potential revenue loss to rouse humanitarian spirits. But the real answer, to the extent one still exists, lies in structural realities, not public relations. Social pressure from below can expose some of this, but it'll require a wider awareness to even remotely begin shifting perspectives, much less put critical ideas into action. In a sense, we're all migrants renting our daily lives from private power. To them, we're no more citizens than those crossing the southern border. I don't know what Arizona thinks it's protecting, but it sure as hell isn't democracy. You needn't wander the desert to see that.

Monday, May 3, 2010


Conan O'Brien must be the most talked about showbiz exile in memory. Before his 60 Minutes segment last night, Conan's post-Tonight Show odyssey has been heavily-covered by the entertainment press, including the New York Times' Bill Carter, who seemed concerned for Conan's professional future. There was little doubt that Conan would find another outlet, but the way he was dumped by NBC pushed people into pro and anti camps. It was a feeding frenzy over a rich celebrity's fate, another American feature that separates us from lesser nations.

To Conan's credit, he didn't make a big fuss about his status, though it had to be embarrassing for him. He's the Jean Doumanian of Tonight Show hosts, the only one let go before he relaxed into the room. He toned down his act for 11:35, which led to some truly boring and dopey bits, but even that didn't matter. When Jay Leno's breathing over your shoulder, reminding the network of his high ratings and profits, you're more or less fucked, regardless of how time-slot friendly you're attempting to be. With Leno sucking network peacock (his "slams" of NBC bullshit cover), Conan never had a clear shot.

So now Conan takes his absurdist act to TBS, a smart move, albeit the only real option he probably had. TBS is so ecstatic with their coup that they'll doubtless allow Conan free reign, and perhaps we'll see some inspired comedy as Conan re-establishes his brand. What we won't see is anything terribly topical, certainly nothing outside TV's fixed parameters. Which is fine with Conan; he has long maintained that his act is meaningless, that comedy itself should avoid "preaching" (i.e. having a political/social viewpoint). As he told Mike Thomas in The Second City Unscripted:

"People increasingly want comedy to mean something, and they want it to be relevant to what's happening in the world, and I've always believed the opposite, which is it should be irrelevant. It shouldn't mean anything. You shouldn't look for meaning in comedy. That's my religious conviction, and I'm orthodox about that."

I believe that Conan's sincere. His comedy certainly reflects this thinking. But this is an extremely limited, parochial view of an expansive art form. To say that your comedy means nothing will certainly not hurt you professionally or financially, as Conan, Seinfeld, Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon, and countless others have shown. To insist that all comedy must be pointless is mere hubris, though it does send a clear message to struggling comics looking for their shot. Keep it dumb. Don't challenge the audience, or worse, make them reflect. The main goal is wealth and celebrity. Anything else is toxic to the mix.

This has been borne out in my early NYC sets. Most comics I've met or brushed against are extremely hostile to political/social material. And the thing is, I've yet to really get rolling. I'm dealing with general cultural themes from an autobiographical standpoint, and since much of my adult life has dealt with politics on one level or another, I cannot avoid discussing it. I can, however, make it funny, satirize it, reduce it to its ridiculous roots and rip out the punch lines. This won't win me a spot on Conan's new show, no matter how many masturbation jokes I tell (and I have my share). That's not The Project's goal -- at least, I hope not. As John Lydon told Tom Snyder about Public Image Ltd., I don't know what it is. It doesn't need a category or a label anymore.

That's the beautiful thing about comedy: it encompasses everything and nothing. It can be serious, silly, weird, absurd, satirical, physical, aggressive, passive, pointless, meaningful. At its best, comedy reveals and makes you laugh along with the truth. But it also releases tension through the dumbest gags. Comedy can do it all. There's no reason to limit its reach or hollow out its meaning, unless you're looking to control others. Then it ceases to be comedy and becomes something else, something with a definite perspective. Decry "relevance" all you like, but everything is relevant because everything is connected. It's how you deal with or define those connections that creatively marks you.

Some may point to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as "relevant" comics, the chief satirists of our age. I've shared my thoughts on this front, and see no need to change them, though apparently Stewart's writers helped with Obama's White House Correspondence Dinner routine. First, genuine satirists don't write gags for heads of state committing war crimes. But they especially don't write jokes that treat mass murder as fun, helping said mass murderer appear delightful and witty. (Friend Jon Schwarz is all over this.) Define predator drone jokes anyway you choose, but don't tell me that it's meaningless. Save that noise for Conan and whatever over-sexed animal characters he has in development.