Why a lot of comics won’t work colleges …

Saturday Night Live: Weekend Update - Season 1
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE: WEEKEND UPDATE — Episode 102 — Pictured: (l-r) Tina Fey, Colin Jost and Michael Che at the Weekend Update desk on August 17, 2017 — (Photo by: Will Heath/NBC)

This latest twitter storm over Tina Fey is why. Or an example of why. And one reason why humor these days – in general – feels constrained, cautious, afraid.

It’s not conducive to art of any kind to live in fear of offending someone … having a joke taken the wrong way … upsetting the irony-challenged … pissing someone off because they don’t understand your historical or cultural reference … or just plain fucking up. By fucking up I mean actually crossing the line, saying something that might be or actually is offensive, racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. Saying something that even you – upon reflection and when no longer in the heat of comic battle – might well be offended by.

Comedy is hard. Making it up on the spot … or under network deadline … is harder. And mistakes happen when you try.

If fear consumes you, you won’t be able to write or tell jokes. You won’t be a comedian. Or not the kind of comedian I admire, anyway. Here’s a brief and very incomplete list of older humorists I admire: Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Nichols & May, Dick Gregory, Lily Tomlin, The Smothers Brothers, Richard Pryor, Richard Lewis, Sandra Bernhard, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Paula Poundstone, Chris Rock, Bill Hicks and back through movie time to The Marx Brothers, Mae West, W.C. Fields on back through literature to Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain and Jonathan Swift. Oh, and that Shakespeare guy.

I don’t know what the answer is. I just know what I do. If I hear a joke I don’t like or understand, I don’t laugh. Comics, especially, stand-ups, are like card counters. They can tell you exactly how many laughs they got that night and which jokes fell flat. Don’t laugh and they’ll hear you

I’m good with that. Only that. I don’t need to tweet about every joke gone awry. Or call on the global small town to assemble with torches and pitchforks. Or eat cake. Unless Tina’s buying.

“I told you, Kellyanne! They all know each other.”

over-office-receptionThis is an amazing photograph, an immediate candidate for the Hall of Fame of “What’s wrong with this picture?”.

Setting aside the happy child’s body language, the delusional Donald probably imagines he is Atticus Finch, who has just finished defending poor one-armed Tom and is receiving a standing ovation from the segregated balcony. Which, unfortunately, makes Kellyanne an aging Scout with miniskirt and cell phone. Oh, well, I guess that’s what passes for grrl power these days among GOPers.

I won’t ascribe thoughts or feelings to the other folks in the picture, but I sure would like to hear them. Not just the angry ones but the derisive ones, too, hear the laughs over drinks. Oh, to be a fly on the wall, later!

This photographic record is yet more evidence why  “surreal” is the OED Word of the Year.

Yes, I do want to take your guns …

australia-enacted-one-of-the-largest-gun-reforms-ever-nearly-2-decades-ago--and-gun-deaths-plummeted.jpg

Pretty much all of them. Just so we’re clear. And I’m willing to repeal the 2nd Amendment if its imprecise wording continues to provide fodder for NRA propaganda and cause confusion for a few dumb-as-rocks Roberts Court Justices. Then legislate your guns out of existence.

I will take your guns. Nearly all of them. And the nation needs you adolescent Tin Solders to stop playing war and find other, less lethal games. With less dangerous toys. That don’t massacre innocent people. Your fellow Americans. That don’t slaughter children.

We’re coming for your guns, weekend cowboys and cowgirls. Your mindless fun has become our nation’s nightmare.

And, you know what, kids? You probably won’t miss them.You might even breathe a sigh of relief. When your guns are gone, you won’t have to repeat lies, twist history, nitpick statistics, and strain logic past the point where it can ever again assume its rightful shape.

Most important, when your guns are gone, you can stop having blood on your hands. The blood of innocent Americans. Of babies.

My wish for you is that you will recover your sense. Use your mind again. Breathe. For a long time now, you have been slaves to your guns. It’s time for us to set you free.

We will take your guns.

Randall Smoot's photo.

Forget the Maine!

On this date – in 1898 – an explosion sinks the USS Maine in Havana Harbor

First, some facts. On February 15, 1898, a massive explosion aboard a U.S. battleship – the Maine – killed 260 American members of the approximately 400-member crew and sank the ship in Havana Harbor. The USS Maine was one of the first commissioned American battleships in what would become the world’s largest Navy. It cost more than $2 million to build (back when a cool million was a lot of money) and weighed 6,000 tons.

Ostensibly on a “friendly” visit, the Maine was parked in the Cuban harbor as a kind of Big Hello to Spain that American “interests” – meaning, of course, almost 100% private American business interests – would be protected during the ongoing Cuban revolution and its suppression by Spain.

In 1976, a team of expert investigators concluded that the Maine tragedy was most likely caused by a below-decks fire that ignited the battleship’s own ammunition stocks. At the time, it was announced that a mine had sunk the Maine and the blame put on Spain. The full version of the public battle cry was, “Remember the Maine! The Hell with Spain!”

maine-sank

So why did we really go to war?  Well, and I’m only slightly exaggerating, because then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Teddy Roosevelt (and assorted friends and politicians) wanted to go to war. With somebody. Somewhere. And Teddy (I’m again only slightly exaggerating) wanted to go to war for the same reason he liked to shoot big animals. And stick his chest out. ‘Cause, you know he’d been sickly as a child and he didn’t want anyone to think he was … you know. Read the wonderful recent political history by Evan Thomas called The War Lovers (2010) for a fuller and more responsible explanation.

The result was a three-and-a-half-month charade called the Spanish-American War that set the mold both for 20th and 21st century American imperialism and for the attendant series of mostly bullshit wars by which U.S. business and domestic political interests have been served. The pretexts for these wars are grossly exaggerated or made up altogether, the real reasons for the wars are not the stated reasons, U.S. businesses nearly always make shitloads of money at public expense, and politicians earn Street Cred or Buy Time to weather a crisis in the polls by distracting a significant portion of the population (which always now includes FOX viewers) from America’s real problems, generally caused by  the same folks who beat the war drums. And if a current war is lacking, politicians and pundits make do with Soon-to-Be Wars and Rumors of War.

Spain wasn’t much of a combatant in 1898: yellow fever and the heavy losses already sustained from the Cuban revolt had pretty much done them in by the time Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders set foot on Cuban soil with their hand-picked embed reporters and their film crews.  Which also established a pattern for future American history: go to battle with great fanfare against an outgunned and outmanned opponent you know you can whip in your sleep (at least to the point where you can declare “Mission Accomplished”) … act like it was really, really hard and created lots of Real American Heroes … hand out shiny medals and make speeches and do musical tributes. And don’t forget the flags and the fireworks.  All that patriotic stuff helps drive away the doubt.

flag celebration

“Tell Mike it was only business”

Abe Vigoda (February 24, 1921 – January 26, 2016)abe vigoda as tessio in the godfatherActor Abe Vigoda was fifty years old when he was cast as Salvatore Tessio, a crime family capo, in The Godfather (1972). In that film, Vigoda’s long face and mournful eyes appeared to conceal a world of thoughts and feelings that were rarely so much as hinted at, which seemed nearly impossible to read.

We believed Tessio’s long years of faithful, unprotesting service to the first Don. But we also – like Tom Hagen in the movie – received without surprise the revelation it was Vigoda’s character who had betrayed the new Don, Michael. We weren’t surprised because in the moment of revelation, we remembered Vigoda’s growing weariness in the part and knew it derived from the feeling of not being given his due. Yes, it was the smart move, as the character Tom Hagen said. And “it was only business,” as Tessio himself told Tom. But Vigoda’s weary expression and stooped shoulders gave us the deeper truth: Tessio had simply grown too tired not to be brave.

Abe Vigoda’s life as an actor had a similar beginning to the man he portrayed in his first widely noticed role. He had spent decades acting in New York theater and doing bit parts in TV and film, managing somehow to support his wife and child. But the part in The Godfather suddenly made him – in middle age – a recognizable name and all but seven of his 94 film credits were still to come. Vigoda was probably best known – in later work – for his role in the popular TV series Barney Miller and its spinoff series Fish. The other thing that long face and those mournful eyes had concealed was a wonderful sense of humor, put on full display in Vigoda’s comedic TV work.

The son of a tailor, Abe Vigoda grew up working class in Brooklyn. News of his death have been greatly exaggerated – and erroneously reported – since as far back as 1982, when CNN mistakenly referred to him as the “late” Abe Vigoda. While there is no reason to believe this most recent report is a hoax,  one can always hope. Vigoda is 94 years young.

That Time Aretha Sat Down to the Piano

Aretha Franklin records in Muscle Shoals, Alabama  – January 24, 1967

No, not that time.  Yes, it was great to see Aretha perform at the most recent Kennedy Center Honors and to watch Barack and Michelle bop along. Those two have earned a fun night out if anyone in America ever has, the shit they’ve had to put up with these past nearly eight years. Although – in terms of the show itself – I could have done without all the cutaways to Carole King waving her arms and acting amazed, just amazed!

(Amazed at what, Carole, that Aretha’s still alive, still bringing it? I mean, she hasn’t been in exile in a faraway land, she didn’t just get released from stir. But I’m being petty. And I shouldn’t blame Carole. I should blame the cameraman, who I’m guessing was on loan from CBS Sports, where he’d covered archery and darts. Or the producers, who think they have to “build a narrative” for everything, so all the folks at home know what they’re watching and how they should feel about it. Will we ever again just have basic coverage of an event, of the thing itself, so we can just, like, watch it? Instead of watching people in the crowd wave their arms? And act amazed.)

No, the time Aretha sat down to the piano that I’m talking about was nearly 40 years ago, in 1967, when Aretha finally got free of Columbia and was able to sign with Atlantic Records instead. Columbia Records then was run by Mitch Miller – of insipid “Sing Along with Mitch” fame – but, at Atlantic, her producer would be Jerry Wexler. Among other things, Wexler had coined the marketing term “rhythm & blues” to replace the execrable “race music,” which had ghettoized black American composers and performers since the beginning of radio play. So there was at least a chance Aretha’s new equally-white producer would be more in tune with her than Sing-Along-with-Freaking-Mitch.

What Wexler suggested to Aretha was a session at FAME Studios in tiny Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  The recording studio – with its tremendous roster of backing musicians – had scored rhythm & blues hits for local artists such as Arthur Alexander,  Jimmy Hughes, and the Tams, but it was Wexler (and the Atlantic artists he brought in) who would help it reach the next level. If you haven’t seen the wonderful documentary about FAME Studios called Muscle Shoals (2013), treat yourself. Not the least of its many pleasures are the present-day interviews with Aretha Franklin.

muscleshoals1000v2When Aretha arrived at Muscle Shoals, what Jerry Wexler suggested she do was sit down to the piano and play. Where Columbia had cut off her gospel roots and tried to mold and popify Aretha into someone she wasn’t, Atlantic was interested in hearing what Aretha herself wanted to be. By Aretha’s own account, the music poured out of her.  They settled at the session on “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)” as her first recording in Muscle Shoals. Sadly or understandably (depending on who’s doing the telling), it would also be her last.

Something happened at that recording session – something besides the obvious thing of an incomparable artist finding her true voice – and its mostly agreed-upon lineaments include a) a horn player getting fresh with Franklin; b) her husband at the time insisting that the horn player be fired; c) the horn player being fired but that proving insufficient redress for the husband, who insists Aretha leave Muscle Shoals; and d) Aretha leaving.

I’m good with that version. Or any other version that someone cares to put forth. It’s all water under the bridge at this faint remove and, besides, FAME had done its work – or rather Aretha had been able to do her work there – and the greatest period in one of the finest careers in American music history was underway. The single recorded at Muscle Shoals became the title song of Aretha Franklin’s first album at Atlantic. And that album, among its other great songs, included covers of Otis Redding’s “Respect” – Aretha’s first monster hit – and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Chew on that last a moment.  The newly confident Aretha not only took on Otis Redding and made one of his signature songs her own – but also recorded a thrilling, hurt-you-down-to-the-bone version of Sam Cooke’s last and most personal song. Which song, by the way, just happens to be one of the greatest American protest songs ever written.

Chew on that and … so long as the cameras aren’t rolling … go ahead and wave your arms.

aretha on tour uk

I blame Henry Miller

Henry Miller (December 26, 1891 – June 7, 1980)

When I read one of the new formless, plotless, sexually candid, confessional I-did-this-bad-stuff-but-that-was-then-and-I’m different now/ sober now/ sorry now, pretentious while pretending to be just folks, supposedly true but obviously fallacious (or, more to the point, perhaps, delusional) yapping barking so-called memoirs, I blame Henry Miller.

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He started this. The fake memoir business. Well, not started it, some ancient Greek or Roman did that and possibly some Cretan before them. But Miller continued it, popularized it, made it American and modern, and helped to inspire a new generation of poseurs and a profitable new niche in what’s left of the publishing business.

A number of writers who’ve been caught bullshitting in recent decades – trying to pass off their mediocre fictions as truth – did so at the urging of their agents or editors, who believe “truth” sells better. Which is no excuse for the writers, but does provide a nice barometer of where we’re at on the whole truth thing. We Americans seem to like veracity best when it’s mostly lies, as evidenced by everything from the topic at hand to infotainment to heavily scripted and alcohol-fueled “reality TV.”

“These novels will give way, by and by, to diaries or autobiographies – captivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences and how to record truth truly.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

In Henry Miller’s defense, he labeled his fake memoirs “novels” and didn’t claim they were anything else. But he placed the Emerson quote at the front of his first Paris book, Tropic of Cancer (1934), and the implication was clear. He wanted us to believe Tropic of Cancer and his later books were diaries or autobiographies where he’d merely changed a few names – for legal reasons or out of politeness – but which still recorded truth truly. And Miller hoped, of course, that we’d find them – and him –  captivating.

In his defense, too – and in contrast to his obsequious contemporary offspring – Henry Miller never apologized. In books or life. One reason, of course, might be because he never changed and, therefore, never saw the need. Another reason could be that, for a writer – and, especially, a self-confessed “confessional” one – he doesn’t appear to have felt things very deeply. Miller was famous for keeping his hat on during sex. He seems to have kept it on while writing as well.

Not that Henry Miller was an unlikable man. By all reports, once you got past the barking and the bullshit, he was charming and fun. He wasn’t dumb. And Miller could write. Bring the poetry at times, no question. I think of Miller’s books as the books Walt Whitman might have given us if he’d had a propensity toward the novel and been straight rather than gay, if old Walt had crashed in Paris garrets instead of rural hayricks, if he’d had a better-looking hat. But Whitman couldn’t write a novel.

I’m not convinced Henry Miller could write a novel either. A novel with a story, a theme, a purpose, a novel with interest generated by something other than energetic self-celebration and hyperbolic sex. Whenever I decide to give Miller another try, my reading begins with a happy burst of enthusiasm – man, how could I have neglected this guy, he’s great! – then it’s the fifth chapter and the pretend Henry is still picking nits from his memoir buddy’s hair, drinking cheap wine, trying to make this girl or that. I start skipping the sex, look ahead for the character I liked so much in chapter 2, but he or she never shows up again. Halfway through, I quit.

Miller wrote the books he wrote because they were the ones he could write. That’s okay, too. But they aren’t really novels and they’re not memoirs either. Not truthful ones, anyway. Just like ninety percent of the so-called memoirs we get today. For which I blame Henry Miller.