Monday, January 31, 2011

By The Week

The manager insisted on No Smoking. "Gotta keep it fresh for the next stranger," he said, pushing his shoulder into the stuck door.

The website said hotel, but this was decidedly motel, a roadside Norman Bates joint. The manager was older than Bates, more engaging, but he thought himself funny, kept trying to make the guy laugh. Short riffs off his bad jokes was all he got back. The guy was in no mood to laugh, especially at an amateur.

Still, the guy felt empathy for the manager. Was this how he envisioned his life twenty years ago? Ten? Maybe the manager was happy renting out dank rooms. He seemed content. It could also be resignation, make the best of it. The guy had no real standing to judge him. Sooner or later we all surrender.

The second-floor room smelled of mildew and dirty carpet. The furniture was worn, patchy. It probably hadn't been redecorated since the late-80s. A large framed print of Gauguin's The Siesta hung over the couch. Some old show at Met in New York. The guy smiled. New York. This dump was light years from there.

"This is one of our best suites, probably the best," the manager boasted. It was essentially a one-bedroom flat, small kitchen attached. Plenty of space. Not that the guy needed it. The manager modeled the rooms, arms waving, pointing. He sure loved to talk. The guy nodded, thanked him and yawned, hoping the manager would get the hint and leave.

"Well, if you want anything, anything, just dial zero. I practically live here."

The manager finally left. The guy wondered what that second anything meant. He bolted the door and went into the bedroom.

No Smoking? Menthol would sweeten this air. The guy checked the bedroom ceiling. No smoke detectors. Just one in the front room. Perfect. The window looked over a snow-covered vacant lot. The guy opened it, lit a fat roach, blew smoke into the frigid air. Unlike the room, this weed was clean, pure. It lightened his dark mood. He clicked on the TV, surfed, stopped at a Christian station airing shows from the 1970s. The burnt orange/peach/turquoise dresses and leisure suits matched the room's decor. The guy knew not to fuck with a theme when he saw one.

Christian television had barely changed in three decades. Same sermons. Same smiles. Many of the same songs. The guy popped a beer he brought with him, took a deep swig, laid back to hear how Jesus would better his life. Jesus lived in worse conditions and kept his spirits up. What was the guy's excuse?

A line of white Christian women with feathered peroxide hair spread across the screen, broke into Put Your Hand In The Hand. This delighted him. The guy bounced off the bed onto the stained floor, singing along.

"Put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the water
Put your hand in the hand of the man who calmed the sea
Take a look at yourself and you can look at others differently
By putting your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee."

Two singers looked delectable. Cute Christian girls aching to sin off-camera. They were probably in their fifties by now. He'd still take them.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Street Wise

Egypt erupts, and in an earlier day I'd be all over it. This uprising is especially riveting, given that the Egyptian people are openly resisting a US/Israeli client state. Everyone from Joe Biden on down are sweating it out, for in essence these protests are also against the US (Made In The USA marks the tear gas canisters and shotgun shells littering the streets). The corporate tap dance between showing sympathy for the protesters and hoping that Mubarak can quiet things down is beautiful to see. Were this Iran, there would be no confusion about how to react. But the fairy tale about "democratic" Egypt is fading by the hour, requiring improvised assessments by propaganda outlets.

In my media activist youth, I specialized in Middle East politics, primarily how the American press dealt with Israel and the Palestinians. (As I then put it, Palestinian dead were buried in shallow, two paragraph graves.) Watching events in Egypt and Tunisia takes me back to that time. Fortunately, there are plenty of younger writers and activists covering these uprisings, and friends tell me that Al Jazeera offers the most in-depth coverage. Good. Anything but the chimp chatter from the cable news networks. My heart is with those struggling to break imperial shackles, yet my personal life is experiencing seismic shifts as well.

I've moved into the hotel-staying phase of my divorce. The papers are signed, the search for a local apartment is on, a new existence emerges. It's not easy, and my son, who's been pretty steady so far, is showing signs of sadness as his mother and father finally split. This absolutely kills me, but it's inescapable. I've become what I swore I'd never be: a divorced dad arranging times to see his kid. I went through this at a younger age than Henry, and it sucks on both ends. I can't imagine ever getting married again.

Happily, Henry's staying with me tonight. We'll take an indoor swim, order room service (the food here is pretty good), watch classic Simpsons episodes and the original Star Trek, which Henry loves. I showed him Star Trek: The Next Generation, and he made snoring noises. "I like some of the plots," he said, "but it's so boring. Kirk and Spock are much cooler."

That they are, son. Live long and prosper.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Return Deposit

Barry Crimmins warned that I could never go back, that once I'd worked a better room, open stages would repulse on sight. I didn't doubt him, but had to see for myself. Barry's right -- it was like watching bum fights in some cluttered vacant lot.

The Village Lantern is as close to a home stage as there was for me in the past year. Much of this was tied to Ray Combs, who helped me navigate unknown stages across the city, tipping me off to emcees and the moods of various rooms. But Ray's hosted shows at the Lantern weren't like any of the others. I've written extensively about them. They remain among the most cherished if crazed moments I've had since The Project began.

Ray took a break from stand up to work on a documentary about his father; but when I came into town, we decided to hit the Lantern's Wednesday late show. Like old times. In theory anyway. Upon walking in, I felt nothing but dread. Ray kept asking me, "Doesn't the room feel weird?" I nodded while looking around. The packed place had a distinct insect vibe, a deleted scene from Cronenberg's Naked Lunch. We grabbed some drinks and sat in the back.

I'd seen many of these comics before, and none seemed to have evolved at all. Same dick/cunt/cum material. Same ragged delivery. One young guy with McCartney hair delivered a fevered rant about children as Big Pharma sheep and the lack of real political options. "Hurry up, 2012! Why the delay?" This naturally silenced the room, yet I liked it. He wasn't funny, but he pelted us with open contempt. It's a start.

A couple of ringers slid through, including an Upright Citizens Brigade regular who emceed and mocked my Muslims-on-acid set when I performed there. He read from a notebook and stumbled over a few punch lines. After him, more Lantern regulars, more my-life-is-garbage musings. Then came Ray's turn. He polished off his drink, flashed me a smile, took the stage.

Ray is so fucking at home up there. I think it comes too easily for him, which is why he disdains much of it. Where's the challenge? This pushes him into darker areas than he already occupies. This night Ray went right for the sore spot: the Arizona shootings. "How can you shoot someone point blank in the head," he shouted, eyes blazing, "and not kill them? Does competence matter anymore?" This sent a series of shocked gasps all the way to my table, something I'd never felt before at the Lantern. Ray surged on, observing that today's would-be assassins are rank amateurs compared to pros like Charles Manson. "Think Manson would've fucked up that shooting? Quality meant something back then."

It takes a lot to put off self-hating stand ups, but Ray did it within seconds. I loved it. Only thing is, Ray's set was nearly identical to what I had planned. As Ray tore up the stage, my mouth dropped. Fuck! I thought. There goes my bit. Mine wasn't as angry or intentionally tasteless as Ray's. It was more a parody of American nostalgia, in this case for assassins. Whereas Ray winged his material, mine was written with a definitive close.

"How was that?" Ray asked afterward.

"You did my set, dude."


"Close enough. But I can work around it."

While I thought of a new opening, the show steadily declined, the comics grinding out crap as the audience thinned. I waited in vain for my name to be called. Finally, I asked the emcee what was up. "Oh, you're on near the end," he casually replied. By now the Lantern had moved into Weimar cabaret territory, masked midgets whipping obese transvestites. Not for me. I told the emcee fuck it, I was leaving. I put on my coat and walked.

Ray asked me to reconsider. "I can get you on right now," he said. No doubt, but after playing to full, paying houses in Boston, I had zero interest in closing to a handful of bored, drunk stragglers.

Barry nailed it.

Ray and I went to the Olive Tree Cafe above the Comedy Cellar. He spoke of his film project, asking if I would be interested in writing a book about his Dad. I informed Ray of publishing's woes, how there would be little to no money to finance a book. Ray Senior's story has plenty of ripe angles -- small town kid who scored big in Hollywood, the lure and lies of celebrity, the emotional and financial beatings he took, the scramble to recover, the private hell, his suicide. Ray Senior lived a strange showbiz life. I was there near his peak. I could turn it into a fascinating book, but not for free.

Later, Ray and I walked up Sixth Avenue. The weather had warmed, the wind's teeth not as sharp. When we came to 16th Street, I asked Ray if he wanted to see where Michael O'Donoghue lived.


We strolled down the block to Michael's old brownstone, the site of his glory years with the Lampoon and SNL, as well as his career slide and early death. I spoke about the countless hours I spent in that place, hanging with Michael and poring over his voluminous files after his passing. I can still see his many dioramas enclosed behind glass. His masked dolls. The paintings and pencil sketches by John Wayne Gacy and Richard Speck.

"You miss it, don't you?"

At one time I did, especially during those early Michigan years when anger and regret stomped my spirit into the mud. Now, in the midst of another shift, I see that time for what it was and how it nourished me. I'm happy to have lived it, but that period is long gone. Another life awaits.

Congrats to IOZ and his Steelers. My Jets fell short yet again, something we fans are used to.

The Jets' defense shut down the Steelers for most of the second half as the offense slowly came back, scoring 19 unanswered points. But some dodgy play calling at the Steelers' one yard line and Ben Roethlisberger's late game improvisation sealed the Jets' doom, five points shy. And yet I still love the Jets. Rex Ryan has changed the team's culture for the better, madness and stupidity included, but I wonder if they'll have the same fire next season, assuming there is a season. Until then, Joe Namath remains the Jet king.

Friday, January 21, 2011


Doug Lain and I discuss mentors and other breath mints. Snuggle close to the radio, kids.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Gridiron City

IOZ can kick up dirt and play victim, but most football observers are picking his Steelers to defeat my Jets. Few people take the Jets seriously, many Jets fans included. The Steelers are the critics' darlings, as IOZ well knows, so worrying about their chances is a pose. Should Big Ben lay down a righteous ass whipping, IOZ will have suspected as such all along.

I can't blame my friend. When you've won two Super Bowls in the last five years, you must find fresh ways to remain interested. IOZ is more imaginative than most, and funny in the bargain. Jets fans have endured far longer stretches of failure and mediocrity, which is why we tolerate Rex Ryan's sideshow. He has walked the talk. A friend who's a Patriots fan calls the Jets the Island of Misfit Toys. He means it as a put-down, but I embrace it. The Jets are indeed misfits; name a more entertaining NFL team this season.

If you believe in conspiracies as Steelers fans tend to do, then a Jets victory on Sunday should be a no-brainer. Clearly the league would prefer the Misfits in Dallas, as that would attract a larger crowd. The Steelers offer nothing save the same old grind and win. Every institution has its biases and flaws, and I doubt the NFL is capable of an effective pro-Jets fix. But hell, this is America. If you can steal elections and economies, what's sixty minutes of football?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Flying Speed

Of the few blog pals I have left, only IOZ writes as if blogging still matters. Granted, he's much younger than me, so his energy level surpasses mine. And I'm happy to see his stuff linked to and praised by Jim Wolcott at Vanity Fair. I trust that IOZ's true energies are focused on his fiction, and that soon we'll see the first of many novels. If IOZ can animate a dying form like blogs, then imagine the life he'll inject into dead wood.

IOZ exhibits fine taste in many areas, but his choice in football teams is baffling. The Pittsburgh Steelers are an unimaginative franchise, a rigid specimen of the Rooney family, a phony blue collar distraction for rust belt survivors. That IOZ is a Steel Town native makes his allegiance even more unattractive, for what's worse than provincialism? I'm sorry, but IOZ can do much better than the Steelers.

Normally, I would overlook such lapses in a friend. But since his Steelers are playing my New York Jets in the AFC Championship, there's no avoiding it. So let me lay it out there.

The NFL-AFL merger in 1970 was the best thing to happen to the Steelers. Until the AFL came along, Pittsburgh was a football backwater, a professional dead end. They couldn't compete with the Giants, Packers, and Bears; not even expansion helped the Steelers. Within a few years of their creation, the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings surpassed the Steelers, making the playoffs, and in Minnesota's case, the Super Bowl, though they lost to the AFL's Kansas City Chiefs. It wasn't until the AFL forced the older league to the table that the Steelers had any hope of on-field success.

Though loyal to the American Football League, the most influential sports alternative other than baseball's American League, I'm not blind to its weaknesses. Even by 1970, a decade into the project, many AFL teams were not on the same plane as their older NFL cousins, and this showed once inter-league play began.

In order to level out the new conferences, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle had to bribe the Colts, the Browns, and the Steelers to move to the AFC. Like the rest of the established league, the owners of these teams despised the AFL for crashing their private party. How humiliating it must have been for Art Rooney to slum among the upstarts. Neither Wellington Mara nor George Halas would ever dream of such a move. But it was precisely what Pittsburgh needed.

Unlike the old NFL, the new AFC provided Pittsburgh room to strengthen and grow. They built a dominating team led by Terry Bradshaw, Jack Lambert, and Mean Joe Greene, won four Super Bowls, cementing their legacy and importance. And who do the Steelers have to thank for these riches? The New York Jets, of course.

In 1965, when the Jets outbid the Cardinals (acting as a front for the Giants, who didn't want to be seen haggling against their hated in-town rival) for Alabama QB Joe Namath, paying him an unprecedented $400K upon signing, the NFL knew that the AFL was serious and there to stay. Soon after, merger talks began. When the Jets became the first AFL team to beat an NFL champ, the one-loss Colts, they further opened the door to subsequent Steelers success in the emerging conference. History may be a hallucination, but certain facts remain. Pittsburgh owes the Jets big time.

This is not to say that the Jets "deserve" to win on Sunday. They'll have to earn it like their two previous victories. But since Rex Ryan's arrival, the long-dormant Jets legacy is revived: back-to-back AFC Championship games against all doubters and naysayers. It's time to reclaim what Namath's Jets set in motion. Only IOZ's black and gold tourists stand in way.

Oh, one more thing -- thanks for Santonio Holmes. Here's to another Super Bowl MVP game.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Golden Shower

Bad boy comic Ricky Gervais took no prisoners at the Golden Globes Sunday night, and Hollywood's still reeling.

"I questioned my own mortality," quipped Steven Spielberg.

"He's white phosphorus in black tie," added Anne Hathaway.

"I fell off the wagon immediately," said Robert Downey Jr. between Meth hits. "He's that good."

Truly, Ricky Gervais reigns as Tinseltown's Sadist of Ceremonies. But despite the stings, slights, slams, jabs, stabs, tweaks, fleeks, dreebs, crogs, and character assassination, Gervais actually withheld harsher fire.

"It could have been much worse," confessed RG's nutritionist. "I have no idea why I'm sharing this with you, but here are some of Ricky's notes. He loves to write while taking a dump. Promise to give them back?"


"Tonight we honor Hollywood's elite. Or as some people call it, Jared Loughner's Bucket List."

"Remember Scientologists -- Justin Bieber's a minor. So no sex after 11 PM."

"Scott Caan's hair still has his Dad's jizz from a Playboy party in 1974."

"January is Hollywood's traditional dump month. Or as we call it in England, Judi Dench."

"Natalie Portman was born in Israel. So if she wins, we'll know it's stolen."

"Colin Firth is nominated for a character with a speech impediment. Funny -- when he was sucking my dick, I understood every word."

"Thank you Alec Baldwin for being fatter than me."

"Laura Linney's nominated for The Big C, which made sense to me until I learned that the C stands for cancer."

"Steve Buscemi looks like my balls covered in shit."

"Give a big hand to Michael Douglas! After all you've been through, it's inspiring that you still swallow."

Toward the back of his notebook, Gervais scribbled random observations.

"Life remains a lie. Yay me!"

"You'd think these twats would catch on. God how I fucking hate them."

"If I had any guts, I'd spray the room with a Glock. But the money's too good."

"Series about a rageaholic actor who's better than everyone else. See if I'm available."

"Who's reading this?"

Monday, January 17, 2011

Dream Nation

Happy Decapitation of Black Leadership Day. Hug it out, y'all.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Where's The Love?

Jared Loughner gave liberals something they desperately needed: a political distraction, and as an added bonus, a platform from which to proclaim their superior values. They haven't had such a gift since Oklahoma City. Prizes like this are rare, and liberals will rub it out long after the coating's worn off, cheap tin exposed to toxic air.

Loughner's murderous rampage, shocking and awful, is well within the American grain. He's not the first nor the last lunatic to snap and shoot up a room. Armed inhabitants of a declining imperial power where politics are privately owned are bound to be itchy, if only a handful bother to scratch. In a brutal sense, public assassins provide the few flashes of reality left in this country.

After JFK's death, Malcolm X observed that the chickens had come home to roost. Malcolm, vilified from all corners, was correct. JFK was bombing South Vietnam while backing death squad violence in Latin America. Oswald, or whomever, brought some of that bloodshed back to the source. For a few minutes in Dallas, there was little difference between a US president and his puppets in Saigon.

Of course, politics were more in play in 1960s. Young liberals and radicals openly, actively challenged their Democratic elders, from LBJ and Hubert Humphrey on down. JFK's assassination did little to alter their course. Today, most liberals embrace those who despise and use them. No amount of Dem "betrayal" (i.e. performing their systemic function) will loosen liberal grips. The Arizona shootings justify liberal surrender while reactionaries seek solid footing between "respectful" discourse and their own ballistic fantasies. The corporate media reinforce these scenarios, feeding on the dead for whatever ratings they can grab.

Same shit, different day, as the Stoics put it.

It may be gauche to point out that those trying to politically exploit Loughner's madness care nothing for the anonymous victims of Obama's foreign policy, death scenes far grislier and more common than what was seen in Tucson. Besides, IOZ got there first.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Family Way

The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach's film about a family dealing with divorce, is probably not the best thing to watch when your divorce is nearly final. Especially when you have a teenage son. Especially when your family once lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Mercifully, the comparisons end there. When I told Nan that I feared Jeff Daniels' character might be too close to home, she wrinkled her nose. "God, you're nothing like that guy! He's an egocentric jerk."

That's a relief. Daniels' Bernard Berkman and I sport thick graying beards, longish hair, and published a few books that some people remember. But Bernard is emotionally distant, condescending, snide. He lords over his oldest son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), expecting reverence and obedience. Walt mostly complies, looking up to his father in confused awe, parroting his opinions, seeking his approval. Henry and I have a much different relationship.

My son and I are very close, and I've been there at every critical stage since his birth. Far from trying to indoctrinate him, I share my passions with Henry, no strings attached. He can, and does, take them or leave them. If anything, I grew up with Henry. I'm not the same man I was when we left New York for Ann Arbor. Henry was three and doesn't remember the move, which is good. It was a dark time. I was incredibly angry about coming here, filled with guilt and remorse. This didn't help the marriage, and Nan and I nearly split a few times back then. Somehow, we kept it together.

I simply couldn't leave my family, and I really couldn't leave my son. I still lug my own tattered baggage with fathers and father-figures, and to abandon Henry at such a young age would've meant I learned nothing, tossing him on the same rocks. So I stayed. Fell off the career grid. Worked as a janitor to help make ends meet. Some of you know the story.

My son turns 15 in May. He's pushing 6'3", has a deeper voice than his Dad, and will soon need to start shaving. By staying, I lived through his young life, watching him grow. He got to know his father, for which I remain grateful. He's much more balanced than I've ever been, and hopefully this will feed a happy, prosperous life. He's doing extremely well in school.

Sadly, I won't see Henry on a daily basis. We've talked about what this might mean, and he's been open and accepting about it. In fact, Henry gave me the green light to pursue The Project. "You shouldn't be mopping floors," he said to me. "You should do what you're supposed to do." When I show him videos of various sets, he beams, though some of the references elude him.

"You're not like my friends' Dads," he said, watching me on stage.

"Is that bad?"

Henry laughed and shook his head. Being Weird Dad has its privileges.

The other family members in The Squid and the Whale bear little resemblance to Nan and Trina. While Trina certainly had her troubles, she never matched the turbulence of Frank (Owen Kline), whose anger and attempts at getting attention are alarming to say the least. Trina lives back east on her own, brewing coffee for hipsters to support her music and songwriting. Her songs make me cry. I'm very proud of her.

Like Joan Berkman (Laura Linney in one of her best performances), Nan is a writer whose spouse was published first. Her work at Nanarama is first-rate, and has become a favorite of James Wolcott of Vanity Fair. (In a post about our marriage, Jim wrote "[Nan's] reflections at Nanarama are far more profound and elegant than any exercise in settling scores would be -- the sentences seem laid across the screen like pressed leaves, tiny veins of remembrance that you can run your thumb over.")

Unlike the film, where Joan's book deal and excerpt in The New Yorker leaves Bernard bitter and envious, I fully support Nan's efforts. She's a wonderful writer, and her novel Fly deserves to be published. When it is, I'll lift the first glass to her success. We can't be husband and wife, but we can be colleagues and friends.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Broad Sides

Joan Rivers saddens me. I shouldn't care, doubt that Rivers would return the feeling; but after watching A Piece of Work, all I felt was sadness.

Granted, I've been in a sad mood of late, so that affects my emotional curve. Yet Rivers at 75, scrambling for any gig, regardless of quality, made me wonder if comedy means anything anymore. Rivers is a legend, or at least a serious comic figure. She plowed into the men's stand up world and staked her claim, one of the few female comics to earn Johnny Carson's approval. Her energy was infectious, her timing frenetically keen. Rivers began in theater and it shows. As she puts it, she's an actress playing a comedian.

Maybe so. But the character long ago consumed the actress, encasing what remains of Rivers in a surgically-altered state. Now she's viewed as a freak, which is her own doing, a vanity junkie who never tired of the needle. Throughout the film, Rivers bemoans her age and health, claims that she's broke while riding in limos and private jets, sees various conspiracies aimed at taking her down, and throws self-pity parties at the slightest provocation. I'm sure others are put off by Rivers' behavior, and rightly so. Yet all I see is damage and debris.

If nothing else, Rivers deserves credit for surviving Carson's wrath, keeping her career afloat by any means necessary. Not many comics could do that. Seeing how it affected Rivers as a person, that's probably a good thing. Her bitterness and anger can be extreme even for a comedian. If Rivers has a philosophical core to her humor, A Piece of Work doesn't reveal it. She simply plugs along because that's what performers do. As she constantly reminds us, she needs the money. "She'll do anything" her manager tells a prospective employer as Rivers nods her assent. Showbiz is usually over compared to prostitution, but you rarely hear it put so plainly.

Carrie Fisher has seen her share of showbiz destruction. In Wishful Drinking, she offers a more playful tone than what Joan Rivers seems capable of. Not that there isn't anger, sadness and regret. Fisher's story is well known to entertainment buffs, and her stage show covers a lot of old ground. Growing up with Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, with Elizabeth Taylor as a stepmother, was not a traditional childhood, perhaps not even by Hollywood's twisted standards. Fisher grew up extremely fast amid varied madness -- drugs and booze heavily included -- becoming famous at 20 through Star Wars. She then receded from the main stage as a supporting actress, script doctor, and novelist.

Fisher recounts each phase, relaxed but pointed, smiling as if knowing that her story is too crazy not to be true. Unlike Joan Rivers, Fisher doesn't seek sympathy; she seems to have made a rough peace with her life. This frees her to be funny, most often in self-deprecating ways. Everyone in showbiz is a candidate for victimhood. Carrie Fisher could easily play that card, but she opts for humane surrender. If you can't conquer your demons, co-opt and make them work for you. If nothing else, you'll have plenty of ripe material.