Thursday, July 30, 2009

#14 Stephen Colbert and the Double-Reverse Zeitgeist

I can't leave Jon Stewart's (MM #12) partner in crime at right, out of our discussion of late-night TV journalistic satire. How come we're so lucky, lo these politically-fraught last five years or so, to have these two guys back-to-back, four hours a week? (Need to do a little DVR-ing to get the mandatory "Letterman-fix," however.) Both shows are based in media satire, both are on the side of current moral/social/civil consensus ... if not the angels. But here's the difference: Monsieur Colbert pretends to be on the OTHER side. The irony is thus double-edged, and about twice as funny for it. This is all best illustrated in their divergent takes on the "Birthers," which I'll get to in a minute.

Colbert models his persona on Bill O'Reilly, in fact, whom he defers to as "Papa Bear," but it could be any other self -righteous, opinionated, wing-nut pundit like Hannity or Beck (not the rocker). He assumes a parodic character: you might call him UberConservativeMensch--who satirizes himself at the same time he's taking right-wing ideas over the top ... reductio ad absurdum style... while not once breaking character, or revealing the true liberal bent of the show.

(Even his name is invention: it pretends to somehow connect with the Huguenots of his Charleston SC upbringing and hence the Frenchified pronunciation of "coal-BEAR," when in actuality the man himself is of Irish-Catholic stock born in the nation's capital, no less; and the rest of the family pronounces the name as spelled. In a funny but revealing moment on a recent show, Colbert asks his guest, none other than younger brother Ed, how he pronounces his surname. Answer: "COAL-burt." "See you in hell," responds "coal-BEAR"--not dropping his mask for a moment)

We can clearly see the difference in satirical mode between Stewart and Colbert in the treatment of the Birther movement this week. His boss had the easier task: as mentioned in that earlier post, Stewart can for the most part let the video clips speak for themselves and expose the Birthers for the fools they are--punctuated with a few incredulous grins and disapproving grunts. On the other hand, when Colbert took up the topic yesterday, he became one of them. Perfect irony. His guest was Orly Taites, a Russian emigree' and so-called "mother" of the faux Obama-birth-certificate movement. As introduction he played a clip where she declaims that "You have to have two parents who are citizens; Obama's father was not a citizen of the US." Colbert "agrees"--"Yes, everybody knows both parents must be citizens. It may not be in the constitution, but it's a basic fact taught to every school-child growing up with Ms. Taites in the Soviet Union."

When she enters and sits for the interview, Stephen assures her that he's on her side; that Obama is a bad President; and we need to get him out of office "by any weird loophole we can make up." She proceeds to make her case, which is weird enough to allow Colbert to sit back and let her self-immolate for a time. After her inevitable comparisons to Stalin and Hitler, which he declares to be "fresh and new," he takes her point into woo-woo land. "We wouldn't want another Chester A. Arthur [whom she'd never heard of--perfect again] would we? Mutton-chops [as he gestures along his face] and all that. His father was not a naturalized citizen when he was born. He was a terrible President. Do we really want a return to mutton-chops."

The Zeitgeist will out-- no matter the guest or subject: Colbert will hyperbolically OVER-agree on the right, and illogically DIS-agree on the left. Case in point for the latter--Arianna Huffington, who was his very next guest after Orly Taites. The HuffPost lady-in-chief was on to plump the newly updated re-issue of her 2003 Pigs at the Trough, which chronicled corporate greed and political corruption in and around the Enron era--this edition uncovering even "more bacon" in and around the Washington DC beltway today.

"We can't let these guys go back and do business as usual and ruin the country," says she.

"Yes," says he, "but it was working so well ... for awhile. I made so much MONEY ... for awhile. Why can't we just let them go back to what they were doing and then everybody just jump out before it all goes to hell? A red flag or something."

When asked earlier about her own citizenship status (since she, like Orly Taites, has an "unbelievable, ridiculous accent," according to Colbert), the Greek-born Ms. HuffPost captures the essence of Colbertian Irony in appropriately ironic form. She claims that

"Actually, I was born in the United States and cultivated this accent to give the air of a minority, which is very, very big now."

"Well, wait a minute, how do you really talk?"

"No, no, I never break character. Just like you, I never stray from character.

"You never break character ... that must be hard."

"I learned from the best, Stephen."

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

#13 Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll--Caveman Style

Well, maybe not drugs ... no evidence yet. I'm pretty sure, however, given our modern proclivities, that our ancestors were probably chewing hemp and popping poppy seeds far longer even than they were blowing the flute pictured at right. Dated 35-40,000 years ago, this is the earliest musical instrument, carefully crafted out of vulture bone, yet discovered (as published in Nature magazine late last month). I'm guessing, though, as a an erstwhile percussionist, that more perishable rhythmic devices--hollowed-out logs, drum-head skins, gourds, etc.--were in existence long, long before, which would have provided meet accompaniment to our own natural-born musical tools: the voice, whistle, and slap.

But what excitement must have ensued when Murray the Caveman announced his new invention to his fellow Cro-Magnons watching their evening schedule of cave-paintings. "Listen, it does my whistling for me! ... And what a gig we got cooked up for tonight!--with Marty on gourd and Mary the Cavewoman on voice-box." And you know there would have been dancing. Probably this fossilized instrument had it's own lengthy provenance, however, because of its "high-tech" craftsmanship.

When assembled, the vulture-bone flute is about eight and a half inches long, and has five finger holes. There are fine lines cut into the bone around the holes, suggesting that the flute's maker was calibrating the holes' placement to produce the nicest tones. One end of the flute is cut into a V shape, and the musician probably blew into that side of the flute.

Truly amazing. It's a modern flute!--complete with mouthpiece and measured fingering. Yes, a fine evening would have been had by all in Hohle Fels cavern in southwestern Germany, where it was discovered. And after music and dance, everyone may have been had by all in the darker reaches of that festive grot. For discovered lying a scant 30 inches from the flute was one of those prehistoric "Venuses," whose plump and headless form grossly exaggerates female primary and secondary naughty-bits. The most famous one is the so-called "Venus of Willendorf" (randy, those early Germans), found a century ago, and most often politely characterized as a religious amulet honoring some fertility goddess or another. You've seen pictures of it, I'm sure.

All in all, the excavation (literally) at Hohle Fels presents us with a fascinating picture of very "adult" and highly sophisticated entertainment probably dating back a hundred thousand years or more. No wonder the earlier cave-peoples couldn't compete, when these smarter and fun-lovinger Homo Sapiens Sapiens came on the European scene. After a hard day's work of hunting and gathering, our extinct cousins, Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis, just didn't have enough to come home to--like the "Cro-Magnon Follies"-- in their caves. A mystery solved: they died out due to clinical depression.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

#12 Jon Stewart and the Zeitgeist

Speaking of the late great Walter Cronkite over at the Daily Mosteller ... his popularity was pitted posthumously the other day (sort of) against the proportional popularity of present pretenders to his pedestal of premier presenter (somebody stop me) of the news on our TV machines. Jon Stewart won. The Time magazine poll gave him a 44% plurality over Couric, Gibson, Williams, et al. A poor showing, really--Cronkite in his heyday would have scored in the 90's, I'm sure.

The criterion was "most trusted newscaster," inspired no doubt by the death of the "most trusted MAN in America." You see the difference. Never could Stewart aspire to the "Uncle" honorific attached to Walter, nor could he hope to have the the kind of moral authority to sway a nation, as Cronkite assuredly did over Vietnam and Watergate. Nonetheless, Huffpost pictured them side by side under the headline.

Their methodology of influence was/is very different, though. Cronkite was a journalist; Stewart, a satirist. The former was so trusted because he was perceived to be scrupulously impartial. In deference to that, for the very few times he lowered his personal boom on a controversial issue (honestly, I can't think of any but the two above), he was careful to label it an "editorial"--and boy-o-boy was he believed. Stewart, on the other hand, has never been accused of impartiality. He always hedges his bets by calling the Daily Show a "fake news" program, grounded in comedy and entertainment. Fair enough, but it's so often so very earnest in its satire, and always on the right side of the popular Zeitgeist--the moral/social/political consensus of thinking people. And that's where the "most trusted" business really comes from.

For instance: yesterday's show. The first segment lampooned the "Birthers"--that wingnut cabal (supported even by some southern congressmen!) which believes against all evidence that Obama is somehow a Kenyan. As Jon ran the clips, hardly any sarcastic commentary was needed: res ipsa loquitur. These folk are so far behind the "curve" that they make fools of themselves. In one, Liz Cheney is seen exploiting the so-called "controversy" to impugn Obama's overseas posture as "appeasement"--an unwillingness to properly defend the country against foreign threats. Because, after all, he's a foreigner.

The second segment was typical, and as usual salutary, as Stewart took off on his own medium, television journalism--this time for its coverage of Michael Jackson's death, and its aftermath. Of course it was over-covered. But here the satire gets sweet and subversive: he showed a montage of clips wherein mainstream reporters report on themselves reporting too much on Michael Jackson! This included soul-searching Q&A's about how they might be short-shrifting more important news, while at the same time interviewing the groundskeeper at the Jackson gravesite. Very funny.

Today he went after Fox News for misrepresenting Health Care Reform in "Candyland" maps that would confuse anybody. The bias was obvious: scrap reform. Waaay askew from the current Zeitgeist curvature. The American people, to their credit, overwhelmingly favor universal health care in one form or another. Polls reflect it, and so does Jon Stewart. Otherwise, Q.E.D., he wouldn't be the most trusted.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

#11 Warning: Smoking Can Be Hazardous to Soldiers' Health

Tell me, what else can Lieutenant Richard Widmark offer the dying young Marine, Robert Wagner (his screen debut), in "The Halls of Montezuma" ... but a butt? Think of any one of those cold-war, patriotic, ethnic-microcosm, combat films of the 50's, and you'll recall the iconic scene of the officer or good buddy placing an already-lit cigarette between the stuttering lips of a guttering soldier with his guts falling out. No need to list them; anyway "Halls" (1951) typifies the genre, and was my favorite war-film at the old Avalon Theater (see DM #68ff). The movie brings us not only depth in casting (playing fellow marines alongside Widmark and Wagner are pre-Desire/Waterfront Karl Malden--dead just last week--Richard Boone, Jack Palance--early typecast as "the boxer"--Jack Webb, Martin Milner, and scraggly Neville Brand, fitting his part perfectly, because as a real-life soldier in WWII he came in third among combat medal-winners--Audie Murphy #1, incidentally) ... but also brings psychological depth to the depiction of hyper-stressed men at war. Widmark, for instance, constantly pops pain-pills prescribed by the "Doc" of the cast to alleviate his "migraines."

But to the point: What's the Lieutenant gonna give poor Robert Wagner in his death throes ... one of those headache tablets? Sure, a sip of canteen-water first, but then always the lighted cigarette from one mouth to the other--a kind of manly farewell-kiss between warriors. No other prop will do the trick. Are we about to rob our troops in the field of this great cinematic experience? Not on your life, says Van Gogh's "Skull with Smoking Cigaret." (Full disclosure here: the Blogman's a pipe-smoker) And so also says the Pentagon today, despite commissioning a study by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences which came back recommending a smoke-free military.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates rejects the recommendation, he says, primarily because soldiers in a combat zone [or a movie like "Halls of Montezuma"] are under enough stress already. Well, I should think. "Hey, those people are tryin' to KILL our ass!" On the other hand, Americans really shouldn't be smoking on a foreign battlefield, because they shouldn't be on a foreign battlefield in the first place, dammit! But that's a different color hobble-horse. Anyway, Secretary Gates says he "doesn't want to add to that stress by taking away one of the few outlets they have to relieve it." Worse things can happen on the field of war than second-hand smoke, I understand. But beware of "three-on-a-match."

Thursday, July 9, 2009

#10 Late-Night TV--"Tonight" and Beyond

Bringing us up to date from the obscurity and burlesquery of "Broadway Open House" at the turn of mid-century, Pat Weaver tried again with Steve Allen in 1954 and this time hit the mother load. Titled "Tonight," the format has remained the same ever since: talk/variety of decidedly after-prime-time-hours adultitude. Allen was the precursor of sharp-witted masters like Carson and Letterman, and later (before launching his great prime-time show) he shared hosting chores with THE avant-garde comic of early TV, Ernie Kovacs--before Jack Paar took over in 1957.

All of this self-indulgent TV nostalgia was triggered by the death of Carnac's old side-kick, Ed McMahon (off-camera stage left, above, setting Johnny up), but the larger point is that the "Tonight" show and its spawn provided the ONLY true, topical, hip, and grown-up entertainment on television ... not only then, but really all the way up to the post-"All in the Family" era. Setting aside some of the live drama on such programs as Studio One and Playhouse 90, most of the so-called "Golden Age of Television" was just enjoyable kid-stuff. For my generation and beyond, Late-Night was a kind of acculturation for pre-teens and semi-adolescents into the more sophisticated ways and thoughts of the adult world. The hosts based their monologues mainly in social commentary and political satire, and the guests included--along with the usual media celebrities, of course--newsworthy authors, scientists, politicians, even Presidents, as often as they could get them. In this sense these programs really did subtly educate as they entertained.

Steve Allen's stint was a bit sillier than later host's, but that's all right--he introduced us to the comic genius of regulars Don Knotts and Tom Poston, guests Lenny Bruce (one time, and then I never saw him on the tube again--wonder why ...), and ELVIS (first time, not Ed Sullivan, as is popularly thought). Cutting-edge stuff. Allen's successor, Jack Paar, stirred up controversy whenever he could, it seemed--much to the delight of a super-loyal fan base--such that in a famous episode he walked off the set in a dispute with NBC censors, leaving his poor sidekick, Hugh Downs, holding the bag for the rest of the show. A real shocker for its time, and I remember it well. Paar was back by popular demand within the month. 1962 began the reign of "King of Late Night" with Ed the court jester and Doc the royal minstrel, and the rest is history now.

David Letterman should rightfully have taken over after Carson's record-setting 30 years. Dave was part of the NBC team after all, hosting the precedent-setting after-Johnny show, and filling-in for his idol on many occasions. But not. Now he competes in the 11:30 slot for CBS. There are some who appreciate Leno, and now Conan, but in my opinion they haven't quite lived up to "Tonight" standards ... without going into a detailed critique. Let this suffice: What fun it was to see old Dave get into "trouble" over some satirical barbs vis a' vis Sarah Palin recently. So it's been Letterman for the Blogman since Carson relinquished the throne. Hey, you can only watch so much television.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

#9 Late-Night TV Through the Ages (& Wimbledon)

My ages, that is. Speaking of Ed McMahon in last post, I got in on the late-night TV phenomenon right from the beginning. We got our first set sometime in 1950 when I was seven years old. For a couple of years before that I had been able to watch "Howdy Doody" at a rich Jewish friend's house (sorry, but they got 'em first in my neighborhood), as "religiously" as I could, week-days after school. I was already hooked by the time my father got jealous enough, I'm sure, to avail the whole family of this new invention. Meanwhile and beyond, it was "Radio Days" (pace Woody Allen***) at the Mosteller household--the likes of "Lone Ranger" and "Inner Sanctum" for me, and maybe Fred Allen and Bob Hope for the parents (at least that's what thought I could hear when they thought I was asleep), because ... there just wasn't enough programming to watch (the "test patterns" were just fine, however, for awhile in between) on the fledgling medium for several years to come. We supplemented with old reliable radio. Strange as it sounds today, my father and I could watch "Gunsmoke" when it started-up on TV in 1955, and still listen to the ongoing radio show starring later "Fat Man" William Conrad as the voice of Matt Dillon! Many of the radio scripts, in fact, were re-worked for television.

As for late-night TV--maybe Van Gogh's "Starry Night" above will set the mood--for some reason I was allowed to watch some of it before the truly revolutionary newness wore off. Not really TOO late, though, because late-night programs started an hour earlier in CST Chicago--10:15, after the local news. So in 1950-51 I was privileged to witness the first great experiment in what was to become the "Tonight" show format. It was called "Broadway Open House," and invented by a then-boy-wizard at NBC named Sylvester "Pat" Weaver (father of Sigourney, believe it or not), who later tried again and wildly succeeded with Steve Allen's "The Tonight Show" and all its later incarnations, after creating the daytime counterpart and Mosteller family staple, "Today," originally with Dave Garroway. (For a news program, still kind of "burlesquey"--he was often upstaged by his sidekick, J. Fred Muggs ... a chimpanzee.)

The short-lived, talk/variety show was hosted on alternate week-nights by Jerry Lester and Morey Amsterdam. The latter's cello-accompanied, rapid-fire one-liners I didn't quite get (I was seven, after all), but Jerry Lester did such a good job mimicking the other popular Jerry of the day--physical comedy, slapstick--that he was funny enough. Pure vaudeville and burlesque--all the TV comics (Berle, Silvers, etc.) in the early days of television came from that background. Great fun for kids then, but unwatchable now by anybody but the Brits. I remember in particular that the show always opened with "The Bean-Bag Song"--the audience/viewers were loyal bean-baggers (much like comical GOP tea-baggers of late), encouraged to have their beanbags at home, so that everybody could join in the bean-bag comedy bits involving bean-bags going this way and that. If the show got more sophisticated ... by then it was probably past my 10:30 bedtime. But not before I got see DAGMAR, at least once.

Yes, the show did break ground on one level (a hyper-adult one at that), however, by introducing a comic side-kick for the host. Not quite an Ed Mahon though--she was a tall, bosomy blond, whose two principle charms were "barely" constrained by her low-cut evening dresses. "Dagmar"--of the contrived sexy-Scandian name (she was actually from the hills of West Virginia)--played the burlesque-inspired, dumb-blond role, but with sly flashes of wit. Even at seven I could tell. She was a sensation, and became more popular than the show. She made the cover of Life, and cameo appearances everywhere for many years after. Including my dreams.

***Can't resist: shortly after typing this post, I began to watch the Wimbledon Gentlemen's Finals. At a pause in the action, the camera duly focused-in on a special guest: Woody Allen! Not surprising ... he did a couple of movies there, one of which set in and around the tennis world called "Match Point" (on which I'll reserve comment for now). See last post for a Johnny Carson afterthought.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

#8 One More Dead Icon--Ed McMahon (& Wimbledon)

His iconic status has slipped in the last few years, mainly because he lived so darned long--he was 89 (and about the only prominent person who ever shared a March 6th birthday with me)--unlike Farrah and Michael, who died more notoriously later in the same week. But in his heyday and beyond Ed McMahon played the nonpareil Sidekick, Second Banana, Straight Man--many names here--Announcer, Spokesman, and above all Court Jester to the King of "Late Night" Johnny Carson.***

To the right is an "icon" of Henry VIII's comic sidekick, Will Sommers, almost as famous in his day as his boss (the re'all tennis guy from MM #4). With H(enry) R(ex) on his outwardly sober vestments, he revealingly clutches an antic tool of his trade--I'll call it his "razzberry" horn, which he doubtless tooted in full embouchere to punctuate his jibes at Henry when the king was getting too full of himself--the traditional role of the jester or "fool.". McMahon would toot his horn at Johnny on occasion, to comically deflate him a bit. Usually it would be a semi-snide reference to their perennial marriage/divorce problems or to past drinking escapades.

Most importantly he was an always jovial, counterweighted comfort-zone for the edgier Carson, and for us. His "iconic" Heeeeere's Johnny! invited us for an hour or so into the relaxed company of friendly people proffering a measure of sleepy-time purgation of our work-a-day cares. (Unless you were Shelley Duvall in "The Shining") For thirty years! An amazing run that no one before or after could match.

Unlike today (and long before DVR's), "Tonight" was the only quality game in town at that time of night. ABC's duo of Joey (Bishop) and Regis (yes, that Regis) stole some rating-points from Johnny and Ed for a short while in the late 60's (and they're the only failed competitors worth mentioning), but if you wanted to produce a successful TV talk/variety show, better do it during day-time hours. They were invincible at 11:30 pm. It was a bedtime ritual for most TV-watching Americans, and Ed Mahon's ever-familiar, comfy-cozy, welcome-to-the-show voice-over... helped make it so. Hi-Yo!

***This is a post-Wimbledon update: when I saw Woody Allen in the stands yesterday (MM #9), I was reminded that another celebrity, Johnny Carson, has been missing from his perennial spot for some time. Of course ... but for twenty years or so and even for a while after his retirement he would schedule his summer break around the All England Club thing. Always good for a roving camera shot, like Jack Nicholson at the Lakers' games. He was an avid tennis player in his middle and later years. And spectator. I can understand.