Thursday, December 30, 2010

Hugs Not Drugs

We fucked away lost feelings. Beat talking about it, stumbling at dawn, clawing at mist. You can forgive stupidity but sadness never surrenders. So we watched days melt, smiles and harsh drinks on the floor. Love in lunatic form. Screaming punching vows of fidelity. It was the only way we knew to do it. Fuck if I remember the lyrics.

She fed crows from her hands. Dumb brutes shitting on the porch. They reminded me of James Whitcomb Riley, late fall Hoosier rhymes and cemetery fences. She believed in their souls, but I knew better. As a kid I saw some feed on a bloated dead sow. My grandfather, driving past, admired them. But there was hatred in my young heart. I rolled up the window to muffle their cries. Braggarts tearing swine.

Flying through my yard, neighbors sweeping driveways. They wave, ignorant of my powers. A look and they're ash. I casually fly by, dogs running in my shadow. Reach the end of the court, hover, blue cape rippling. Soon this will be gone. For now, I soar.

She squeezed my nipples for the first time. They burned and it was beautiful. Finally, real feeling. Bullshit words and promises hid from this heat. Her small fingers and thumbs played me raw, ruining me for life. Everyone after her paled, some hands hotter than others, but the cherry had popped and rotted away. Like sin, original touch is a rumor.

Bo is buried near the road. Toy collie coarsened by burrs. Bo was the happiest being I knew. She ran at you sideways, back end wagging, long face smiling. She chased balls and killed rabbits, preferred the garage to the basement. On warm days she slept in the yard. For two days she slept, unmoving. We went out and turned her over. Other side crushed by a car. A goddamned shame, said my uncle. We buried her and wept until dusk. I visit her grave now and then.

All floors collapse in this house. Yet it stands. Erosion, illusion, luck of the draw. You can wish and blow out candles, or stay quiet and hear the cracks. That floor's giving way. Welcome home.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Maybe Next Time

The New York Times says that Jon Stewart is the next Edward R. Murrow.

Damn. I wanted to be the next Edward R. Murrow. Stewart has his own TV show, adoring fans who'll assemble to watch video of cars going into a tunnel, numerous Emmys, roles in classic American films like Big Daddy. He gets to be Edward R. Murrow, too?

After a two-hour screaming fit and promises of retribution that I have no intention of delivering, I drank some vodka, settled down and thought: Hey, I don't have to be Edward R. Murrow. He's not the only revered journalist around. I could be . . . Eric Sevareid! Yes! Sevareid was the same generation as Murrow, cut his teeth during World War II, also worked for CBS. But he never got the glory that pretty boy Murrow received. Sevareid was the real deal. That's who I'll be the next as.

"Sorry pal. Sevareid's taken."

That voice again. I thought I'd killed him in a ritual murder in the woods. But ritual murders, I've discovered, rarely take. Or maybe I shouldn't have left him laughing at my efforts. Whatever the case, the voice was back, clucking his tongue in defiance.

"What do you mean Sevareid's taken?" I asked.

"Stephen Colbert's the next Sevareid," he replied. "Didn't you know?"

How could I possibly know that? But I didn't want to reveal my ignorance, so I played along.

"Of course I knew," I said, pouring another vodka. "But I'd heard that Colbert turned it down. He wants to be the next Cronkite instead."

The voice was skeptical. "Where did you hear that?"

"Oh, you know, friends in the biz."

"Is that right?"

"Yep. Colbert's got a big hard on for Walter Cronkite. Religiously watches old tapes of the guy. He even does a tribute show about Cronkite announcing JFK's assassination."

The voice smiled. "You're lying."

"Oh?" I drained the vodka. "You in the mind reading business now?"

The voice leaned back, crossed his legs, filed his nails. "Okay, I'll humor you. If Colbert's Cronkite, then who's the next Peter Jennings?"

I chuckled as if this was the dumbest question I'd heard all week. But the voice had me. I tried to bluff my way through it.

"Jennings? Please. That's easy. The next Peter Jennings is -- "


"Craig Ferguson?"

The voice erupted in derision. "Ha! I knew it! You're so predictable!"

It took every fiber to muster a veneer of dignity. "Well then," I replied, head held high, affecting a fleeting English accent, "who is the next Peter Jennings?"

"There is no next Peter Jennings. He's not up yet, not for another two years."


"And when he is, Jimmy Fallon gets him."

"That doesn't seem right."

The voice rose, put on his overcoat and hat.

"Right has nothing to do with it. These are secret arrangements. God, you're clueless."

I pondered the implications. If Fallon's the next Jennings, that means Chelsea Handler's the next Connie Chung, which could only lead to --

"Jay Leno as Jesus Christ."

The voice was correct. It all made sense now! Leno came back from the network dead to judge the living and usher in the End of Days. How could I have missed that?

"Because you watch false gods," the voice answered on his way out the door. "I'll be in the woods if you need me."

What I needed was another drink. I looked to my Bobblehead collection of local news anchors for comfort, but all I received were cold, motionless stares. So I went to a movie. Reese Witherspoon as a perky bear baiter. Looked to be good.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Viewing

(Above) Strikebreaker Santa (1983) Santa lays a fiscal ass whuppin' on picketing federal workers. Mr. T, Nancy Reagan.

Ant Claus (2000) Disgraced Senator saves the larval stage of Christmas. Rip Torn, Iggy Pop.

Burn All Trees! (1966) Mexican Christmas dance gets out of control, threatening regional stability. Cantinflas, Rita Moreno.

Son of Goy (1980) Daredevil pilot believes he's Jesus, then decides he doesn't need the aggravation. Albert Brooks, Dolly Parton.

It's Judgment Time (1971) Irradiated Nativity scene settles scores with local atheists. Geraldine Chaplin, Danny Bonaduce.

Ho Ho Hold It Right There (2003) Climatologist claims that snow causes lupus and is rightfully ignored. Vince Vaughn, Mariah Carey.

Commie Yuletide (1957) Beleaguered elves resist the Soviets until the State Department re-opens after the holidays. Tim Considine, Dean Rusk.

Ahoy In A Manger (1988) Jesus is born during the Battle of Midway and tells everyone to knock it off. Macaulay Culkin, Jeff Goldblum.

Christ Needs A Haircut (1969) Drunken ranchers invade a Christmas love-in and are besieged by chiggers. Slim Pickens, Beau Bridges.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Winter Pill

Ack. What's the use of drawing it out? I've written hundreds of words in a concluding post about Bill Carter's The War For Late Night, and I simply can't finish it. Well, I could if I put this morning drink away, bore down and hammered it out a la James Agee on deadline with The Nation while a perturbed Diana Trilling taps her tiny foot impatiently, waiting for Agee's copy. Then again, Agee drank while he wrote. Smoked a lot as well. He died of a heart attack in his late 40s. Maybe Agee's not a good example.

My holiday pseudo-depression is darkened this year with my marriage nearly over and me moving into a new life. I've tried to stave it off with long pieces about comedy and related passions, but it creeps back into my head, smashing mirrors and ripping up the floorboards. This transition's gonna be harder than it looks on paper. And it doesn't help that I burned the paper in a drunken offering to the lunar eclipse the other night.

Divorce for me is a Claymore mine. My parents' split was truly awful and hateful, filled with blood curses, character assassination, and cries for vengeance. And my father seemed pretty upset, too. They went their separate ways, remarried, and I got tossed back and forth between crazy houses before I settled with my father and his second wife. I wasn't present for their eventual divorce, but I did witness the build-up, and again -- loony tunes! I was amazed what people put themselves through, and swore it would never happen to me.

Good thing I didn't put serious money on it.

Our split is pretty amicable, at times tense and mostly sad. Mix in the holidays and you can see why I say Fuck It when the urge to write hits. But I hate promising a follow up and not delivering. So, here's a capsule of the rest of Carter's book.

Jay Leno, whom no one seems to understand, was pissed he lost the Tonight Show to Conan O'Brien. Yet he remained with NBC, smiling, shaking hands, which proved to be a savvy move as he got his old show back. Conan refused to push Tonight back thirty minutes to make room for Leno, and this cost him the show. Conan didn't hide his anger. He thought the network owed him for his many years of service, and was genuinely shocked when NBC didn't feel that way at all. David Letterman enjoyed the whole thing, sniping from the sidelines.

Letterman can do whatever he wants, and CBS won't touch him, regardless of ratings. Jimmy Kimmel does a Letterman-lite show. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert retain their loyal audiences. Jimmy Fallon scores high with college kids. Chelsea Handler serves straight lines to gay gossipmongers who trash celebrities. Craig Ferguson plays it loose, improvising his opening monologue. Jay Leno still does a boring show, and will until he drops. And Conan looks to have a happy home at TBS, though NBC never seems far from his thoughts.

That's pretty much Carter's book. I glossed over the corporate machinations and executive double-dealing that Carter presents in great, gray detail. Consider it my Christmas present to you. Have a Merry Happy!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Giggle In The Beast

While I disagree with his comic philosophy:

"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 like it that Conan O'Brien is a True Believer. For him, comedy is everything; it defines his very essence. Which is good, given his exclamation point body, intellect and id. He'd be wasted as a sales rep, ridiculous in politics. The fates selected him as a clown, and few embrace their destiny as energetically as Conan.

Problem is, Conan sought meaning in the corporate abattoir. He really had no choice, since his lifelong dream was to host The Tonight Show. The gleam in his eye blinded him to the blood-splattered walls, or at least softened the horror. So when he finally realized his dream, Conan wasn't fully prepared for the big hammers swinging his way. He still admits to being stunned by it all.

This is the picture Bill Carter paints in his latest media insider book, The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy. While not as entertaining as The Late Shift, which covered the scramble between Leno and Letterman to succeed Johnny Carson, Carter's follow-up depicts an even darker corporate atmosphere, where new media threatens and frightens aging network execs who have no idea what the hell's going on. This leads to grand ideas, broken vows, constant lying and ass-covering, bitterness, anger, bruised egos and bottom-line hatchet jobs. Why any comedian would seek work in this world astounds me. If you score, the money's great. But there are countless unseen costs.

Though many famous names and off-stage powerbrokers populate Carter's book, this is really Conan O'Brien's story. Carter gives us Conan's deep background: an overachieving student from Brookline, Massachusetts, in love with showbiz, influenced by shows like SCTV, becoming the first two-term president of the Harvard Lampoon since Robert Benchley. After college, Conan wrote for a couple of LA-based shows; but his true desire was to work for David Letterman, whose style of humor Conan revered (along with Chris Elliott characters like The Guy Under the Seats).

Unfortunately for Conan, Letterman had his fill of Harvard writers, and hired an advertising copywriter instead of him. Conan landed at SNL, a great gig, but not what he wanted. Late at night, working on sketch ideas, Conan and his writing partner Greg Daniels would sneak into Letterman's studio, Daniels sitting in the audience, Conan behind Dave's desk. That's where the serious career bug bit.

Carter delves into Conan's evolving brand of comedy, a silly/surrealist mix of high concepts and broad gags. As strong and respected a writer as he was on SNL, Conan wanted to perform, but his persona didn't fit that show. He appeared in numerous sketches, mostly as an extra, small speaking parts here and there.

During the 1988 writer's strike, Conan and fellow SNL scribes Robert Smigel and Bob Odenkirk put together a stage revue in Chicago, The Happy Happy Good Show. By all accounts a very uneven effort, Conan's performance received respectful notice. It pushed him to eventually quit SNL in search of his ultimate purpose.

SNL was barely behind Conan when The Simpsons came calling. Again, it wasn't what he had in mind, but The Simpsons was too hot to pass up, so Conan joined a first-rate writing staff, his material soon making a mark. Around this time, the battle for Carson's chair was raging, won by Leno, sending Letterman to CBS. NBC asked Lorne Michaels to fill Letterman's Late Night slot, and Lorne considered numerous comics (Jon Stewart among them) as Letterman's replacement. None clicked. There was a serious effort to hire Garry Shandling, and had he said yes, Conan's improbable ascension would never have occurred. But Shandling declined, and the rest, as they say, is television.

I remember when Conan was picked to replace Letterman. The media went crazy, thinking the whole thing as a massive joke. It seemed like it at the time. A friend who hung around the SNL offices filled me in on Conan, how he was the most theatrical writer on the show, acting out routines while other writers simply read from their scripts. He was a natural performer, said my friend, so Lorne's gamble could well pay off. After watching a test show/audition taped on the Tonight Show set, NBC agreed that Conan offered something fresh, if raw and not fully formed. Several years after his rejection as a Late Night writer, Conan O'Brien was hosting the damn thing.

On paper, it was an unenviable task to succeed a legend like Letterman. But Conan and his creative team (which included Robert Smigel, Louis C.K. and Dino Stamatopoulos, a truly wild and original comic mind) embraced the challenge, moving away from Letterman's anti-talk show premise to a more conceptual area where anything went: fake guests, puppets, animation, puppies and kittens dressed like Hitler and Charles Manson.

NBC execs weren't thrilled with Conan's humor, which they considered more weird than funny (and many wanted sidekick Andy Richter fired). Before long, their hostility to Conan's comedy grew into outright disdain for the show. Low ratings didn't help, and there was growing talk that Greg Kinnear, whom the suits loved, would replace Conan. Fortunately for Conan, Kinnear chose a film career instead.

Carter shows us just how close Conan came to cancellation. It was NBC Entertainment honcho Don Ohlmeyer who provided the oxygen the show needed to find its audience, which it eventually did. More and more people were discovering that Conan's Late Night was one of the purest comedy talk shows ever aired. Its energy and inventiveness remain unmatched. So it was no surprise that once Conan's show took off, other suitors would call, big cash in hand. In 2001, Fox made Conan a major offer. This rattled NBC, and set in motion the next round of late night shuffling and betrayals.

NEXT: Conan walks into the big blades; Leno and Letterman continue their passive/aggressive dance; Kimmel, Ferguson, Stewart, and Colbert come into focus.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I For Insanity

Clay Duke, the Florida man who opened fire on his local school board and somehow missed hitting any of them, is the latest specimen of a system gone berserk. Not that Duke's actions were laudable: there are better, more creative ways to register one's disgust for our wretched conditions. But it seems that Duke craved martyrdom and believed, correctly, that this was his final living act. Whatever his intentions, Duke will soon be forgotten, save for family and those who literally dodged a bullet.

Duke's V For Vendetta fetish adds to the confusion, showing that even in one's darkest moments, pop culture plays a major part. Were Duke truly faithful to this narrative, he would have picked off government targets individually, privately, away from cameras (except perhaps his own), leaving cryptic notes about his lethal reasoning. But that would require serious work, and luck, to achieve. Clearly, Duke's public freak out and death was all he had the energy for. He didn't even bother to wear a mask.

On his Facebook page, Duke cited Warren Buffett's boast, "There's class warfare, all right, but it's my class, the rich class that's making war and we're winning." After Duke's wife lost her job and benefits, sentiments like Buffett's must have burned into Duke's brain, lighting his fuse. According to reports, Duke had a history of violence, serving four years in prison for aggravated stalking and shooting. So the fuse was always there, only this time Duke made it political.

Tragedies like this are bound to occur in an asylum like ours. But with the class war from above getting nastier and deadlier (recently fortified by President Change), how many more working people will publicly snap, unleashing violence as an answer? Thing is, many if not all of these angry populists target people who are either small fry or have no power at all. They rarely if ever go after the big dogs, which on one level makes sense, since they would be immediately crushed. Yet if assisted suicide is part of the plan, then why not exit by attacking large institutions instead of local functionaries? Your point is made and death wish granted. It's so simple, it's stupid.

Any hope of stemming the corporate assault must come from organized political resistance, not individual acts of personal violence. But it's painfully obvious that most Americans lack the stomach or desire to fight back. They prefer symbolism over tactical action, and if they bother to lift a finger, it's usually in the service of our corporate owners, Tea Partiers and Obama liberals alike.

The confetti liberals tossed at Bernie Sanders as he delivered a Senate tirade against Obama's tax cut collusion with the GOP was cute, but as meaningless as Sanders' endless speech. With no chance to veto the Bush/Obama attack on working people, Sanders was free to star in his own Frank Capra film. Liberals lapped it up. The rich still won. It'll take more than YouTube hits to change this ending.

Unlike Clay Duke, Richard Holbrooke rarely missed those he was trying to kill. Holbrooke's recent passing inspired typical encomiums from standard outlets like The New York Times, who respect war criminals with good table manners. I would say that The Nation's parting kiss to Holbrooke surprised me, but given what Katrina vanden Heuvel has done to that once decent magazine, I merely nodded as Barbara Crossette (a Times vet, natch) applied rouge to Holbrooke's cheeks.

Among several howlers, Crossette's claim that "[w]ithin the UN system, Holbrooke had some achievements that were not often widely recognized. One was ending the pariah status of Israel, a cause of much American criticism," stood out. I'm not sure which planet Crossette is describing here, but her sympathies on this front are open and clear. Yet this is nothing compared to what Crossette omitted: Holbrooke's key role in arming and backing Indonesia's genocidal violence in East Timor. Were Holbrooke a Serbian state functionary, this alone would have landed him in the Hague along with reams of official vilification. But in The Nation -- y'know, the progressive magazine that's on YOUR side? -- Holbrooke is seen as a triumphant, if controversial, American patriot, his greatest crime airbrushed away.

I wonder if when making out his will, Holbrooke considered The Nation. They certainly deserve a cut.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Shaky Accent Video Presents

Friday, December 3, 2010

Ghost Me

In my Chelsea hotel room, beautiful skyline to my right. No matter how lost I feel, NYC lifts my spirits and lowers my blood pressure. Walking the streets for hours is the best therapy I know. I normally hate crowds, but here the mass is my security blanket.

The city is especially vital to me as my marriage ends. Looks like I'll be moving back, but this is being worked out. My professional and personal plates are spinning in various directions. The transition has been exhausting and anxiety-ridden, but inspiring as well. I'm emerging from a decade of janitorial isolation and Midwestern provincialism, older, heavier (genes and Michigan diet tag-teaming my gut), focused on the next phase. You've seen some early evidence. Now The Project kicks into higher gear.

More soon. Time for a long walk through lower Manhattan.