Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 15, 2017

Mr. Roosevelt

Filed under: comedy,Film — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

With the subject of male comedian bad behavior being discussed widely under the impact of Louis C.K.’s masturbatory aggressions, it is a relief to see what a female comedian is capable of. After walking away from C.K.’s tasteless and singularly unfunny train wreck of a movie “I Love You, Daddy” with a bad taste in my mouth, Noël Wells’s “Mr. Roosevelt” is a reminder that sexism in the film and television business is not only a crime against women but against all humanity for preventing the cream from rising to the surface. Wells is not only ten times smarter and funnier than C.K. but a welcome relief from the dyspeptic and misogynist strain that is found not only in C.K.’s work but across the board with male directors and screenwriters like Judd Apatow, Woody Allen, and James Franco.

Wells not only wrote the screenplay for “Mr. Roosevelt” but stars as Emily Martin, a young woman living in Los Angeles trying to make a career as a comic actor with mixed results. Rather than supporting herself as a waitress, she does film editing by day, a job that supposedly gives her the freedom to make it to auditions during working hours. This is essentially how Wells operated until she was discovered by SNL, where she became part of the cast in 2013 but not kept on after that. Another boneheaded move by Lorne Michaels, especially in light of Wells’s killer impersonation of Lena Dunham.

One day Emily gets a phone call from Austin, Texas, where her hopes for a career in show business began. After the call ends, she turns to her boss and says that a medical emergency requires her to fly to Austin immediately. In the next scene, we see her rush into a hospital and tells the receptionist breathlessly that she is there to see  Mr. Roosevelt. The receptionist informs her that it is too late to see him. He died earlier that day. It is only a minute later that we discover that Mr. Roosevelt was her pet cat and that he was at a veterinary hospital being treated for a kidney ailment. Since I have developed a deep affection for the Norwegian Forest Cat that is a guest in my apartment, I can totally empathize.

Mr. Roosevelt was not the only loved one she left behind in Austin. He was kept by her ex-boyfriend Eric (Nick Thune), who was trying to make it as a rock musician in a city filled with many such hopefuls. Perhaps being more realistic about his prospects, he stayed behind in order to weigh his options in a place where the arts were increasingly being replaced by high technology firms and real estate developers.

When she spots Eric in the waiting room, she runs up and throws her arms around him, partly to be consoled for the loss of her beloved Mr. Roosevelt and partly because of lingering affections. Within seconds he pushes her back for a good reason. Also in the waiting room is his new live-in girlfriend Celeste who symbolizes everything that she hates about the new Austin. Celeste works in high technology developing social media platforms for corporate customers and embraces the creepy New Age mentality found among the entrepreneurial class in Silicon Valley. Her yuppie values have even been embraced by Eric who now keeps his guitar stashed in a garage behind the house that he and Emily used to live in together. Music is part of the past. His new dream is to become a real estate agent and become part of Celeste’s world.

The clash between Celeste and Emily over Eric’s affections and over commerce versus art drives the narrative forward. Mr. Roosevelt is scheduled to be cremated in a couple of days and the couple iinvitesEmily to stay in their guest room until then. Over those two days, the confrontations between Emily and Celeste reach a comic crescendo during a brunch to memorialize Mr. Roosevelt’s passing. Drunk and sick of the new Austin, Emily grabs the urn containing Mr. Roosevelt’s ashes, runs out of the house, gets on her bicycle that had been sitting in the shed next to Eric’s guitar, and pedals away madly with the attendees in pursuit.

When Emily is not battling Celeste and arguing with Eric about his conversion to a New Age yuppie lifestyle, she is hanging with old Austin’s denizens who are depicted with great affection but with warts and all. When Emily has a one-night stand with a pothead, she takes umbrage at his comment about her being “quirky”. Why am I quirky, she asks. That is a word reserved for men. If I was a man, you wouldn’t call me quirky. You’d call me “eccentric”. He replies that maybe the right word is “bitch”. I’d give anything to see Noël Wells being interviewed about Louis C.K. and sexism in the comedy business.

“Mr. Roosevelt” will receive my nomination for best first film by a director in the NYFCO awards meeting in early December. It will also likely be nominated for best female actress and screenplay. Right now, it has a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and unlike most hyped films really deserves it.

In spirit, the film is closely related to Mike Birbiglia’s “Don’t Look Twice”, a 2016 film about the hardscrabble life of people in the lower tiers of the comedy business. Just like Birbiglia, this is a world that Wells knows firsthand. And just like Birbiglia, she has made it to the upper echelons. And, finally, like Birbiglia, she has not lost her humanity—unlike Louis C.K.

“Mr. Roosevelt” opens at the Arena Cinelounge in L.A. on November 17th and at the Landmark Sunshine theater in NYC on the 22nd. It is not to be missed.

 

July 24, 2017

Chapo Frat House

Filed under: comedy,sexism,social democracy — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

The Chapo Trap House boys from left to right: Matt Christman, Felix Biederman, Will Menaker

I am gay and I voted for Obama
I am a shill for the Clinton campaign and the leftwing mainstream press
I’m a pussy who gets fucked right up the ass

I am a cuck
I am a libtard
I am a fag who was blessed to live amongst us
And Arabs to have equal rights.
I have no love of country and the white folks are not all bad
And the Albright folks are tacky
It makes me sad

I am a cuck
I am a libtard

Don’t talk of Trump ‘cause nothing scares me more
I really should call him daddy
He could be the savior and will go down in history
And save us all from douchebags like me

I am a cuck
I am a libtard
A cuck has no fun
A libtard always cries

Choosing a Chapo Trap House podcast to listen to for the first time, I picked a show that featured an interview with Shane Bauer. Bauer is a journalist who has written for Mother Jones and who I follow on Twitter, partly because he has a very good understanding of what’s happening in Syria. Perhaps that’s a function of spending two years in an Iranian prison accused of being a CIA agent. He and two others were hiking in Iraq (don’t ask me why) and inadvertently strayed in to Iranian territory.

Bauer was being interviewed on his going undercover to gather material on rightwing militias for a Mother Jones article and for the first half-hour, I found nothing objectionable even if it was hardly the sort of radio (or podcast) that I would make a habit of.

At the thirty-minute break, the song above came on. Sung ostensibly by the Chapo Trap House principals, I wondered what was the point. Was this something in the spirit of Sasha Baron Cohen singing “Throw the Jew Down the Well” at a Texas roadhouse in “Borat”? The point of Borat’s exercise was to demonstrate that Texas was filled with anti-Semites but what was their point? Maybe they didn’t have any except to show that they were “bad boys”.

Ironically, in another podcast I sampled earlier, they were riffing on Bill Maher’s use of the “nigger” word to show how disgusting he and HBO were. So exactly what’s the difference? I don’t see any unless it is okay to call people “fags” as a joke but not to use the word “nigger”. What about “kike”? That might get a few laughs.

I first heard about this show from a puff piece that appeared in The New Yorker magazine on November 18, 2016 that quoted Matt Christman, one of the three men who started Chapo, on what the goal of the “dirtbag left” is: “to offend the sensibilities of ‘leftist’ language police whose only goal is sabotaging social solidarity in order to maintain their brands as arbiters of good taste and acceptable speech.” Oh, I see. How about throwing in some “kikes” and “niggers” somewhere along the line to push the envelope even further.

For me, the mystery was how Chapo ever got such a glowing testimonial in a magazine that hates the left. The New Yorker, for example, published an article by Jill Lepore trashing Howard Zinn, as well as one promoting GMO. The editor is David Remnick, a Sovietologist who Alexander Cockburn once referred to as “a third-tier talent who has always got ahead by singing the correct career-enhancing tunes, as witness his awful reporting from Russia in the 1990s.”

Like Jacobin, Chapo has the knack of getting accolades from the most powerful newspapers and magazines in the USA. The next big publicity shot in the arm came in the form of a July 5, 2017 New York Times Sunday Magazine article titled “Hated by the Right. Mocked by the Left. Who Wants to Be ‘Liberal’ Anymore?” The author was Nikil Saval, a founder of n+1 magazine that is often mentioned in the same breath as Jacobin—namely, a Young Lion pretender to the throne of Marxism. I generally enjoy reading n+1 but found Saval’s prolix account of working on the Bernie Sanders campaign pretty objectionable from a Marxist standpoint. As might be obvious, the Chapo/Jacobin/n+1 milieu takes Sanders’s “socialism” at face value.

The brunt of Saval’s piece is to call attention to liberal-bashing of the sort that Chapo Trapo House specializes in. Saval mentions that they spend a lot of airtime “making fun of liberal cultural life, with one common target being fervor for the musical Hamilton.” Well, with the price of tickets for the Broadway smash hit, most of their listeners would not be able to pay for a ticket so the jokes might have sailed over their heads. However, with the $70,000 per month the boys are making from their podcasts, I assume that they might want to go see it for themselves. I just hope they don’t yell any racial epithets at the performers even if they are tempted to call Javier Muñoz, the HIV-positive star, a fag.

Just this week a feud broke out between the boys and The New Republic’s senior editor Jeet Heer who faulted them for trafficking in “dominance politics”, which means using mean-spirited humor against the Clinton wing of the party that The New Republic identifies with. Heer advocates reconciling the Sanders wing of the party that Chapo belongs to with the centrist old guard, something obviously not on Chapo’s agenda.

In a Twitter war between Heer and the boys, Chapo host Felix Biederman tweeted that he is “not reading Jeet’s article about how rude we are until he takes David Frum’s dick out of his mouth”. Both Heer and Frum are heterosexuals, while Frum is a longtime neoconservative who voted for Hillary Clinton. It is really difficult for me to understand how in 2017 this kind of gay-baiting can take place. I was around to see the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969 and welcomed the rise of a Gay Liberation movement. In the radical movement of that period, you could have gotten expelled for using that kind of language unless, of course, you were in Avakian’s sect. Now it seems that it is not only permissible in the DSA/Jacobin milieu but perhaps helps to generate $70,000 per month. Other times, other manners, I suppose.

While not exactly an A-List bourgeois newspaper, the Guardian certainly has the readership that might pay for a Chapo subscription. Yesterday, they published an article titled “Leftwing Breitbart? Chapo Trap House is strong new voice in resistance to Trump” by Edward Helmore that took Chapo’s side in the conflict with Heer and The New Republic.

Helmore’s article has the benefit of placing Chapo into an ideological context:

The hosts, who are aligned with the Brooklyn arm of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), met on social media, gaining followers with their offbeat humor and views on what is termed “left Twitter”.

That led to a series of podcasts on the popular Street Fight Radio before the launch of Chapo Trap House, named for Sinaloa cartel head Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and the hip-hop term for a drug house.

One DSA member familiar with the thinking of the podcast producers offered the Frankfurt School of neo-Marxism as an ideological reference, and said the spat with the New Republic illustrated the resistance of neoliberals to warnings that a hard left turn is necessary to counter the rise of the so-called alt-right and avoid continued electoral defeat.

Yes, indeed. How did I miss the parallels between Chapo Trap House and Theodore Adorno, especially given the chapter on fags in “Dialectics of Enlightenment”. I should have realized that DSA members would have been attuned to the Frankfurt School, given Stanley Aronowitz’s role in the organization’s ideological journey. Maybe at the next Left Forum, the boys can do a performance of “I am a cuck”. I’ll bet it will go over great with the bitches and the fags. Oh, did I mention that in the closing moments of the Shane Bauer podcast there was an elevated discussion of the Trump-Putin connection with the new president being referred to as Putin’s “bitch”?

Helmore is also very astute in sizing up Chapo’s role in electoral politics, referring to John Mason, a political science professor in New Jersey:

“Who is the most popular politician in the United States right now?” asked Mason. “Bernie Sanders! The ground has shifted and this is really the centre of the Democratic party. The people who have been marginalised, especially after this defeat, are those who belong to the Clinton-Obama wing.”

The far left, Mason said, is articulating itself in new ways. He pointed to a recent meeting of Sanders and Al Gore and the emergence of anti alt-right groups such as Redneck Revolt. Last week, the DSA published an electoral strategy guide; it anticipates strong or record attendance at its convention in Chicago next month.

So, let me get this straight. The “socialist” wing of the Democratic Party is now its center and proof of that is Bernie Sanders meeting with Al Gore? And what about that electoral strategy guide? Written by Joseph M. Schwartz, a political science professor at Temple University and national vice-chair of DSA, it proposes the same “inside/outside” electoral strategy that not only defines social democracy in the USA but that of the Communist Party as well:

DSA should not be in the business of solely working to secure Democratic majorities for the purpose of pressuring them from the left. But many of our allies in the black, Latino, trade union, LGBTQ, immigrant, Muslim, and feminist communities will be mobilized in 2018 to flip Republican state legislatures, to expand Democratic majorities in Democratic states, and to take back, at least, the House at the national level. We can’t simply ignore what those constituencies who would constitute a multi-racial and class-based left will be doing.

Thus, in my view, DSA should deploy its limited resources primarily to build social movements and, where possible, shore up a progressive electoral pole (a more multi-racial and labor-based version of the post-Sanders trend) that opposes the corporate, neo-liberal dominance of the Democratic Party.

I believe that the best way of doing that is to run viable democratic socialist candidates either in Democratic primaries (see Ross Mittiga) or in local non-partisan races (see khalid kamau). But if the social movement groups we work with back a strong anti-corporate Democratic Party candidate of color or labor or another staunchly progressive activist, some locals will clearly consider working on those campaigns, too — particularly if they involve a primary challenge to a pro-corporate neo-liberal Democrat.

That’s what we are left with beneath all the “bad boy” shock jock humor at the expense of gay people. A business as usual orientation to liberal politicians like Bernie Sanders and Al Gore in the hope that the Democratic Party can serve as what? The vanguard of a socialist revolution? A return to the New Deal? Talk about utopian schemas.

I find myself in advanced years wondering what will take such people to break with the Democratic Party once and for all. If it wasn’t support for slavery, the invasion of the USSR in 1918, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Korean war and the Vietnam war, what will it take? At a certain point, you begin to wonder if maybe such people are not that opposed to the capitalist system, especially when you are making $70,000 per month sitting around making banal observations about American politics that relies on four-letter words to spice things up.

Update:

I have just learned on Facebook that “I am a cuck” was “a song by the comedian Tim Heidecker who wrote it to mock the alt-right kids who went after him for, among other things, siding against keeping an alt-right influenced show on Cartoon Network’s adult swim.” As I said, the song was likely meant in jest but so was Bill Maher’s wisecrack about being a “field nigger”.

December 7, 2015

Chester’s Zumbarg

Filed under: Catskills,comedy,repression — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

Yesterday’s NY Times Sunday Book Review had an article on Stephen M. Silverman and Raphael D. Silver’s “The Catskills: its history and how it changed America”. As someone who grew up in the southern Catskills in the so-called Borscht Belt and who went to college in Annandale-on-Hudson in the northern Catskills, the region has been a big influence on my life.

I had the good fortune to attend a talk by Stephen M. Silverman at a Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side just after the book came out. The audience, like me, came mostly for what he would say about the Borscht Belt. Many had memories of going “to the mountains” in the 1950s when it was still a vibrant resort area.

When I was in high school I had heard about a hotel called Chester’s that had a reputation for being leftist and culturally advanced, featuring string quartets rather than Mambo bands. I never made it over there but was keenly aware that it existed. As I have mentioned in my comic book memoir, there was a leftist underground in the Borscht Belt in the 1950s that included certain hotels and bungalow colonies as part of its “liberated territory”.

Michael Elias is one of the people who knew Chester’s well. Five years older than me, he was the son of a leftist physician in South Fallsburgh, a nearby town. Michael made it out to Hollywood after graduating college and became a very successful director and screenwriter with films like “The Jerk” to his credit. I had a brief chat with Michael about 20 years ago on a trip out to tinseltown but never had any idea that he was a red diaper baby.

A few months ago, after legendary novelist and screenwriter Clancy Sigal mentioned that he was a friend of Michael’s, we began exchanging emails about growing up in the Borscht Belt. This led to Michael sending me a copy of his play “A Catskill Sonata” that was based on a weekend at Chester’s with a character named Dave who had been blacklisted from his job writing for the Arthur Godfrey show, a popular daytime talk show. Michael describes “A Catskill Sonata” as a “serious comedy in one act”. The owner of the hotel is named Anne Rosen, an obvious reference to Ann Chester.

Here is a brief excerpt from Michael’s play followed by Stephen M. Silverman’s discussion of Chester’s.

DAVE

Actually, Godfrey and I…actually CBS and I…how to say this…

RAE

You quit?

DAVE

Actually, it was more of a mutual thing. The producers fired me and I went along with their decision.

RAE

What about Godfrey? What did he say?

DAVE

He feels terrible. His assistant gave me the message personally.

ERNIE

When did this happen?

DAVE

A couple of weeks ago. Costello called me into his office, said my wife gave money to the Communist Party. So that’s where it went, I said. I told him Madeline and I have a deal. She doesn’t try to convert me to Marxism and I don’t make her watch your putrid show. Which, naturally, didn’t go over too well. But, as you know, my policy is to be brave as long as the situation is hopeless.

ERNIE

Can you get another show?

DAVE

They made it clear that I am not employable in television. Wait. Maybe I could repair them. If only I knew how they worked.

RAE

I’m sorry, Dave.

DAVE

It’s not all bad. Now that I’m blacklisted I don’t have to subscribe to The Daily Worker.

RAE

Can’t you write for Godfrey under another name?

DAVE

I don’t write that much. I mainly whisper clever things in Arthur’s ear between songs. No, I’m dead. Wait. There is one thing: I could turn in my friends. Give their names to the FBI. That would get my job back. I could become head writer. It won’t work. I don’t have any friends. Okay, I know a couple of comics who don’t care about my politics. I’ll survive. I’ll have to keep this from my dope dealer. He’s a rabid anti-Communist.

Stephen M. Silverman:

A HIGHLY REGARDED WRITER of scripts for television and film, Walter Bernstein penned the 1976 The Front, in which Woody Allen plays a practically illiterate bar cashier and part-time bookie who during the McCarthy era in the 1950s poses as a “front” for blacklisted television writers. “There were a bunch of us in New York in the entertainment business that were writers and directors and musicians and producers who were blacklisted as a result of Red Channels,” said Bernstein, who in the 1950s was only in his early thirties. “There were eight or nine listings for me, all true. Supporting Republican Spain. Some Russian friendship thing. African-American civil liberties. Writing for the New Masses, a couple of times. They were all accurate. You were blacklisted unless you went and cleared yourself. And that meant going down and testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities…. You could go there and say, ‘I’m sorry I did this. I would never join the organizations again. You know, they’re all terrible people.’ But unless you gave names—that was the mark of your sincerity—you stayed blacklisted.”

For Bernstein, who did not name names, this meant being out of work “for about eight or nine years in movies, and another year in television before it ended. It was not easy making a living. It was harder for the actors and directors than it was for the writers, because we could try to find ways to survive. We stuck together,” he said.

“One of the things that was very nice was that several hotels in the Catskill Mountains, the smaller ones in particular, would invite blacklisted artists to come for a free weekend. And in return for which they would ask us if we would conduct seminars or panels or give speeches or lectures on our particular subjects. The hospitality was very open. There was either a swimming pool or a lake. And lots and lots of food, all you could eat.”

Bernstein found refuge in “one small hotel that I went to several times … Chester’s. The full name was Chester’s Zunbarg, that’s Yiddish for Sun Hill.” Located down the road from Grossinger’s and started during the Depression by Anne Chester and her family when their real estate business collapsed, the no-guest-capacity hotel catered to an intellectual crowd, offering chamber music, workshops, discussion groups, and meditation sessions. African-American entertainers like Josh White and Paul Robeson stayed there as guests of the Chester family. Roberson, who frequented Chester’s, was taken there in 1949 after the notorious Peekskill riots, when a crowd of racists and anticommunists stoned his car before he was to perform a concert on the Lakeland Picnic Grounds at Cortland Manor in Westchester County.

Long a figure of controversy for his social and political stance, Robeson had been targeted on this particular occasion for expressing his gratitude toward the Soviet Union (about which he said, “Here I am not a Negro but a human being) and for his belief that African Americans should not serve in the military of a racist Western democracy. During the melee, Robeson escaped from one car to another to conceal his exit amid a seven-car convoy. “He was told to lie on the floor in case somebody tries to kill him on the way out,” remembered Pete Seeger.

Seeger also vividly recalled how the Klan surrounded the dirt road of the country club as if it were a battlefield and that signs had goneup throughout Peekskill reading, Wake Up, America: Peekskill Did. “The very moment of the evening of the attack, [the signs] went up,” said Seeger. “They were on bumpers of cars. In gas stations In windows. In houses. In stores. And, in Europe, they were horrified. They said, ‘Don’t you know that’s the same sign that went up in Germany after Kristallnacht? They said, Wake Up, Germany: Munich Did.'”

“Chester’s Zunbarg was a small hotel,” Bernstein said. “The woman who ran it, Anne Chester, was warm and very hospitable. What I remember mainly was the warmth. ‘Kinderlach, darlings, children, come, eat, eat!’ You know you were constantly trying to cut that sense of isolation that was forced on you by being black-listed. You knew you were the pariahs. There were people who I knew who would cross the street when they saw me coming.” This was not the case at Chester’s. “We went up there several times. Go up on a Friday, come back Monday morning. And we entertained. Some of the actors did comic routines.”

One of them was Zero Mostel. “I remember going up there once with Zero. He was the big star of the weekend. They knew him from his nightclub work. He had played the Borscht Belt. One time Zero asked if I would drive him up to a hotel in the Catskills called the Concord. Big hotel. He had been promised five hundred dollars to appear. Before he was blacklisted, he was pulling down something like two thousand dollars a night. But he needed the five hundred very badly.” So badly that when Mostel showed up, the manager informed him that the fee had been sliced in half “Even the two-fifty at that time was more than rent money, and he needed it,” said Bernstein. Mostel took to the stage as planned, before an audience of at least fifteen hundred. “And he was wonderful. He did his act in a rage. He was so angry at what was going on. And he insulted the audience in Yiddish. He called them names. And the more he did that, the more they laughed. The more they liked him. He was a big hit. They called him back several times, and he cursed out everybody.” Bernstein wound up putting Mostel to bed that night, though not before the actor had downed half a bottle of whiskey. When it became time to shoot The Front more than two decades later, Bernstein wanted Mostel, who played a black-listed TV star in the movie, to re-enact the entire real-life episode, only Mostel would have none of it. “It was still too painful for him to re-create that. And so we just show a snippet of his thing and then he does get angry afterward and attacks the manager. But he wouldn’t do that thing which was so awful and extraordinary to see, of him performing his comic act on the stage in such anger.”

 

May 21, 2015

I said goodbye to Letterman long before he said goodbye to his viewers

Filed under: comedy,television — louisproyect @ 5:03 pm

When “Late Night with David Letterman” came on the air at 12:30am in 1982, I became such a fan that I was willing to put up with the early morning grogginess that came with staying up so late. The show came on after Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show”, something that I had little use for at the time since it was so predictable. I ha no idea at the time that Letterman’s deepest desire was to become the next Johnny Carson and host the same kind of show.

In 1982 I was three years out of the SWP, working for a consulting company called Automated Concepts that was run by an EST devotee named Fred Harris, and working with Peter Camejo on the North Star Network. I watched almost no television at all except for the Letterman show and football games. Most of the time I listened to WBAI, which was probably at one of its high points artistically and politically. Although it is hard to believe, the Letterman show was just as edgy in its own terms as a few clips from the early period should illustrate. They reflect a distinctly “downtown” vibe that was in its way the TV counterpart of the thriving punk rock, performance art, and underground Super-8 movie scene.

Brother Theodore (his last name was Gottlieb) was not just a comic genius; he was a genius period who led an extraordinary life as this Wiki entry should indicate. Can you imagine someone like that being featured on Jimmy Kimmel (not that I have ever watched that show.)

Gottlieb was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Düsseldorf, in the Rhine Province, where his father was a magazine publisher. He attended the University of Cologne. At age 32, under Nazi rule, he was imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp until he signed over his family’s fortune for one Reichsmark. After being deported for chess hustling from Switzerland he went to Austria where Albert Einstein, a family friend and alleged lover of his mother, helped him escape to the United States.

He worked as a janitor at Stanford University, where he demonstrated his prowess at chess by beating 30 professors simultaneously, and later became a dockworker in San Francisco. He played a bit part in Orson Welles’s 1946 movie The Stranger.

Chris Elliot was the son of Bob Elliot of the radio show “Bob and Ray” fame who certainly inherited his dad’s sense of absurdist comedy. He was a regular on the Letterman show for a number of years and always pushed the envelope. To give you an idea of the affinity that Letterman had with WBAI, long-time early morning show host Larry Josephson curated the Bob and Ray shows for an acclaimed CD reissue.

No commentary is necessary

Sandra Bernhard was a lesbian standup comedian who was by the far the best at making Letterman squirm even though he knew that this was essential for the show’s success.

What can I say? Harvey was my favorite guest on the Letterman show if for no other reason that he expressed exactly what I would have said if I had been on the show myself. Years later when I hooked up with Harvey to do a comic book about my life, I was more excited to be working with him than to be a guest on the Letterman show.

When Letterman moved to the 11:30 slot in 1992, I was happy to be able to watch my favorite show and still get a good night’s sleep. But within a year or so, I realized that it was a different show. It did not happen all at once but it no longer became a place for Brother Theodore but more for some idiot actor or actress to talk about their next film. On top of that, the shtick that remained like the “Top Ten List” grew stale.

What had happened?

I got the answer in Bill Carter’s 1994 book “The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night”. Carter explained in convincing detail that Letterman harbored a desire from an early age to be the next Johnny Carson instead of David Letterman. The 11:30 slot allowed him to drop the edgy guests who would have either bored or annoyed the people who expected the standard late night fare.

In August 2001 I posted some comments about Letterman to Marxmail that never made it to my Columbia University website (this was long before I began blogging or when blogs existed for that matter). This is the appropriate time to post them again.

Early in February, top CBS television president Les Moonves and six other top entertainment executives spent several days in Cuba with the approval of the U.S. government. The visit was capped by lunch with Fidel Castro. When news of the trip became public, Late Night host David Letterman began making fun of his boss relentlessly. Among the many rightwing jokes revolved around the “differences” between Moonves and Castro: “On one hand, you have a ruthless dictator surrounded by ‘yes’ men. And on the other, you have Castro.”

Another Late Night show pushed the envelope even further with a sketch titled “Lunch With Fidel.” And one of the entries on a recent Top 10 List was, “Last week, at Castro’s Grammy party, he let me beat a political prisoner.”

This follows a controversy surrounding the guest appearance of radical folk singer Ani DiFranco. Producers canceled her scheduled appearance tonight after the folk singer refused to substitute a more “upbeat” song for one about racism. DiFranco’s manager, Scot Fisher, told The Washington Post that the singer planned to perform “Subdivision” in the show’s final segment. The song begins, “White people are so scared of black people, they bulldoze out to the country.”

One can understand why Letterman would object to such a performance. Mostly what his shtick is about nowadays is projecting an out-of-towner’s fear and loathing of non-white New Yorkers to his dwindling audience. To preserve market share, Letterman makes sure to include at least one racist jibe each night about smelly foreign cab drivers or other aspects of its polyglot culture. The aging Letterman, who lives in Connecticut, is reverting more and more to his nativist Indiana roots. The state was home to the most powerful Ku Klux Klan chapter in the north throughout the 1920s. As the camera pans out to his sycophantic audience each night, you are hard-pressed to find anybody who is neither white, nor overweight for that matter. In his shift to the bland (and now racist) tastes of heartland America, he has attracted the audience he deserves: Corn-fed out-of-towners wearing fanny-packs, knuckle-head frat boys and visiting servicemen.

Letterman is a truly sad story. In the 1980s he was the inventive host of an NBC show that came on after Johnny Carson. Since this time-slot was traditionally (and still is) geared to a more adventurous programming, his bad boy creativity could find full expression. When he wasn’t interviewing quirky writers such as Hunter Thompson, he was skewering the pretensions of show business phonies like Cher. The rest of the show consisted of “found humor” like throwing watermelons off a 12 story building or “stupid pet tricks”.

When he made a bid for Carson’s time-slot after his retirement, NBC executives opted for Jay Leno instead whose conventional humor would satisfy the least common denominator and sell more beer and laxatives in the process. The jilted Letterman took a job with CBS in the same time-slot as Leno and vied for the same audience.

This meant changing his format. Instead of a Hunter Thompson, you would end up with some vapid B-movie actor promoting his or her next film. The conversation would inevitably revolve around how married life was treating them or what they did on their vacation. In other words, the same idle chatter that his audience has over dinner in their split-level homes in East Jesus, Nebraska. Nothing like making overweight white people feel at home. Meanwhile the “found humor” became ever more formulaic, following the same tendency found on Saturday Night Live. If an audience laughs at a sight gag, this becomes an invitation to repeat it every week until it becomes as irritating as a garden rake being dragged across a blackboard.

I suppose that Letterman’s turn to the right was inevitable. If you pander to middle-class fears and loathing about the NYC Casbah, you will naturally find yourself catering to the hysterical tics that define US foreign policy. Poor Letterman, he aspired to be the next Johnny Carson. Instead he has become the next Bob Hope.

March 1, 2015

Stephen Colbert, the modern court jester

Filed under: comedy,liberalism — louisproyect @ 5:36 pm

Episode one of season 3 of “House of Cards” finds Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) ensconced in the White House ready to focus on policy rather than killing the foes who had been obstacles to his rise to power.

In the video clip below, we see his chief henchman Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), who is recovering from the brain damage wrought by a brick to the head by one of those foes who escaped with her life, watching his boss on the Colbert Report. While one can never figure out what the real intention of screenwriter Beau Willimon was, it might be besides the point since the net effect is to demonstrate the ineffectuality of Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert satire, a toothless affair that hearkens back to the historical mission of court jesters in medieval times—namely to serve as lapdogs whose bark is worse than their bite. Wikipedia, quoting the Royal Shakespeare Company, states: “Regarded as pets or mascots, they served not simply to amuse but to criticise their master or mistress and their guests. Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558–1603) is said to have rebuked one of her fools for being insufficiently severe with her.”

In the video, Underwood is there to defend his new program that is called America Works—Amworks for short and hence the butt of Colbert’s joke about Amway. Now the interesting thing is how Colbert does not hone in on the real intent of Amworks, which is to slash “entitlements”, an agenda that Democratic Party presidents have been committed to since Carter was president. Colbert makes the axis of his satire Underwood’s unpopularity rather than the substance of a nominally liberal president. One can hardly imagine Colbert having the guts to drill Obama on cuts to food stamps if he can’t even put Frank Underwood on the spot. Furthermore, if someone as ruthless as Frank Underwood would go on the Colbert Report, how much of a threat could Colbert be? It was “House of Cards” stating, either intentionally or unintentionally, that such shows are just as inside-the-beltway as “Meet the Press”.

When a rightwing politician is on the Colbert show, Colbert’s satire has a bit more sting but only in the same way that Rachel Maddow exhibits. The idea is to lambaste the bad Republicans so that the Democrats can go on about the business of enacting policies that are “good for America”.

It makes perfect sense that Colbert is David Letterman’s eventual replacement. The Letterman show is a place where politicians can be gently kidded. The show will certainly give Colbert a bigger audience than he ever had on cable TV but to what effect? Did the man ever have any serious commitment to social change? That is open to question.

Even when Colbert supposedly went for the jugular, as was supposedly the case in his hosting the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in 2006, there was not much evidence that President Bush would find some reason to do to him what Vladimir Putin might have done to gadfly Boris Nemtsov, who was shot 7 times yesterday near the Kremlin. Here’s how the NY Observer reported on Bush’s reaction to Colbert later on that evening:

Stephen Colbert was asked, just after the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner on April 29, how the President and First Lady received his evening’s routine. He launched into an account of the pre-party they hosted before the dinner, the highlight of which was his opportunity to introduce one of his right-wing brothers to the President. The brother then turned to the Comedy Central star and said, “You’re the family martyr.”

Right, but how did Mr. Bush react, you know, after the performance? “Oh, he was very gracious,” Mr. Colbert said. He clasped a stranger’s elbow in a Bush impersonation and said, in a C.E.O.-style drawl, “Nice job.”

I recommend a look at Steve Almond’s article in the Baffler titled “The Jokes on You”. It is the most skillful analysis of how Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert function:

The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are not just parodies of news shows. They also include interview segments. And it is here that Stewart, at least occasionally, sheds his greasepaint and red rubber nose. With the help of his research department, he is even capable of exposing lightweight frauds such as Jim Cramer.

More often, though, his interviews are cozy affairs, promotional vehicles for whatever commodity his guest happens to be pimping. He’s not interested in visitors who might interrogate the hegemonic dogmas of corporate capitalism. On the contrary, his green room is often stocked with Fox News regulars. Neocon apologist Bill Kristol has appeared on the show a record eleven times since 2003. Mike Huckabee has visited seven times, Newt Gingrich, Chris Wallace, and Ed Gillespie five times, and so on and so forth on down the dismal demagogic food chain: Lou Dobbs, Ron Paul, Michael Steele, Juan Williams, Ralph Reed, Dick Armey. Stewart, who is nothing if not courteous, allows each of these con men to speak his piece. He pokes fun at the more obvious lines of bullshit. The audience chortles. Now for a message from our sponsors.

Colbert’s interviews are even more trivializing. While he occasionally welcomes figures from outside the corporate zoo, his brash persona demands that he interrupt and confound them. If they try to match wits with him, they get schooled. If they play it straight, they get steamrolled. The underlying dynamic of Colbert’s show, after all, is that he never loses an argument. The only acceptable forms of outrage reside in his smug denial of any narrative that questions American supremacy.

In this sense, Colbert the pundit can been seen as a postmodern incarnation of the country’s first comic archetype, the “Yankee” (a designation that was then a national, rather than regional, term). As described by Constance Rourke in her 1931 survey, American Humor: A Study of the National Character, the Yankee is a gangly figure, sly and uneducated, who specializes in tall tales and practical jokes. Unlike Stewart, whose humor clearly arises from the Jewish tradition of outsider social commentary, Colbert plays the consummate insider, a cartoon patriot suitable for export. But Colbert’s mock punditry reinforces a dismissive view of actual corporate demagogues. Bill “Papa Bear” O’Reilly and his ilk come off as laughable curmudgeons, best mocked rather than rebutted, even as they steer our common discourse away from sensible policy and toward toxic forms of grievance.

And Colbert’s own flag-fellating routine often bends toward unintended sincerity. His visit to Iraq in June 2009 amounted to a weeklong infomercial for the U.S. military. It kicked off with a segment in which black ops abduct Colbert from his makeup room and transport him to a TV stage set in Baghdad, which turns out to be one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces. Colbert is a brilliant improvisational comedian, adept at puncturing the vanities of his persona in the same way Bob Hope once did. (Colbert even brandished a golf club for his opening monologue in Baghdad, an homage to Hope, a frequent USO entertainer.) Still, there’s something unsettling about seeing America’s recent legacy of extraordinary rendition mined for laughs.

Colbert’s first guest, General Ray Odierno, commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, was treated to questions such as, “What’s happening here that’s not being reported that you think people back home should know about?” The hulking general then gave the host a buzz cut, as a crowd of several hundred uniformed soldiers roared.

Colbert himself acknowledged his reverence for the troops in interviews leading up to his visit. (“Sometimes my character and I agree.”) So it wasn’t exactly shocking that the shows themselves were full of reflexive sanctification of the military. Soldiers, by Colbert’s reckoning, aren’t moral actors who choose to brandish weapons, but paragons of manly virtue whose sole function is to carry out their orders—in this case “bringing democracy” to a hellish Arab backwater. This is an utterly authoritarian mindset.

November 8, 2014

Stupidity on parade

Filed under: comedy,Education,popular culture — louisproyect @ 3:54 pm

September 15, 2014

My life in politics

Filed under: autobiographical,comedy — louisproyect @ 12:31 am

This is an interview I gave to a graduate student in Texas on September 13, 2014. It is focused on my experience in Houston, Texas in the early to mid 70s but also deals with my prior experiences as well as those after I left Houston. The silent films will hopefully compensate for the uselessness and drudgery of my life in politics.

Some day, either after I croak or Joyce Brabner croaks, my comic book memoir will make its way on the Internet. In the meantime, this should do. I don’t think there’s much more that has to be said that can’t be said in an hour. This should be of interest to those who feel some affection toward me or to those who hate my guts. Those in-between will scratch their heads in wonderment about my wayward walk through the American left.

September 7, 2014

Can we talk? The unruly life and legacy of Joan Rivers

Filed under: comedy — louisproyect @ 8:55 pm

Can we talk? The unruly life and legacy of Joan Rivers.

So yeah, I think Joan Rivers was pretty great. But I also think she was a monster. She was a mass of unresolvable contradictions, someone who does not fit easily into neat little categories. The misogyny that was so essential to her act makes it difficult to claim her for feminism. But, in spite of efforts such as Peggy Noonan’s, it’s not any easier to claim her for conservatism. The way this loud-mouthed broad reveled in obscene language and sexually explicit humor — hell, the way her entire public persona transgressed every notion of proper female decorum — make it impossible to reconcile her with traditional values.

In the end, it’s precisely Joan Rivers’ darkness and her unparalleled gift for making everyone feel squirmingly uncomfortable that I find so fascinating. The woman never lost her edge. Yes, Joan Rivers deserves to be honored and remembered. But let’s be honest about the very mixed legacy she leaves. Rivers herself, who was capable of assessing her career with admirable objectivity (at gigs, she was introduced as “the best act in her price range”), and who tended to viewed ass kissers with contempt, would probably agree.

September 6, 2014

Joan Rivers

Filed under: comedy,obituary — louisproyect @ 3:57 pm

Like most people on the left, I found Joan Rivers’s comments about Gaza reprehensible just like Howard Stern’s. That being said, I admired Joan Rivers for most of her career and remain a fan of Howard Stern. Both are quintessentially Jewish comedians who, like me, thrive on self-deprecating humor—the same kind found in Rodney Dangerfield and Woody Allen (at least when he was still funny.)

I first encountered Joan Rivers in the mid-60s when she was making appearances on the Tonight show and Ed Sullivan. As a standup, her act contained sharp observations about middle-class Jewish life as the Youtube clip above indicates. Her shtick was all about undermining Jewish-American Princess (JAP) values. In making jokes about the pressure on Jewish women to be married, she was actually helping to show the absurdity of middle-class values. It was not just pressure to get married; it was also the pressure that Jewish women came under to procreate. A large part of this had to do with propagating the Jewish tribe, a value that I came to reject after hooking up with the Trotskyist movement.

Rivers was not a topical comedian. That is why it was unfortunate that her remarks on Gaza were given such play. I have seen her perform on television dozens of times and she never had much to say about the heads of state, except for this sort of thing:

On Nancy Reagan’s hairdo: “Bulletproof. If they ever combed it, they’d find Jimmy Hoffa.”

On Queen Elizabeth II: “Gowns by Helen Keller.” “Nice looking. Not at all like her stamp. Wears her watch over the glove, though — tacky.”

The NY Times obit, from which the two quips above were found, also mentioned:

Even the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center were not off limits. “A few days after 9/11,” Jonathan Van Meter recalled in a 2010 New York magazine article, “she called and asked me if I wanted to meet her for lunch at Windows on the Ground.”

Joan Rivers was no dummy. She graduated from Barnard College in 1954 with a degree in English. I don’t know if that was any kind of preparation for a career in comedy but her ability to wisecrack about anything and everything demonstrated fast-firing neurons.

The Times obit mentions that she was a member of the Second City troupe in Chicago in the early 60s. For those in the know, this was a breeding ground for some of America’s most accomplished comedians including Mike Nichols and Elaine May. To make it in Second City, you had to be really hip.

I lost track of Rivers over the years but more recently became a fan of her cable TV show “Fashion Police”. The show consisted of her and a panel making rude remarks about how celebrities were dressed. This is clip from that show and vintage Joan Rivers (“the first man ever to masturbate to a Madonna video just started collecting social security”).

April 25, 2014

Irwin and Fran

Filed under: comedy,Film — louisproyect @ 9:23 pm

Like “American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs”, another documentary about a long-time leftist, “Irwin and Fran” starts with its protagonist Irwin Corey walking down a city street with the aid of a walker. Each film is a deeply touching tribute to a personality who kept true to their beliefs over a lifetime at some personal risk. While Corey’s main emphasis was on making people laugh, there were some who did not find him funny at all. After performing at a fund-raiser for the Foner brothers, who were facing charges of being “subversives”, Corey ended up on the blacklist himself.

Professor Irwin Corey in his prime:

His wife Fran had more in common with Grace Lee Boggs although her loyalties were to the CPUSA rather than the Trotskyist movement. Made 5 years ago, when she was 92 and he was 95, they reminisce about the 1930s. She was out organizing demonstrations against Franco while he was performing in leftwing musicals like “Pins and Needles”. Seen smoking pot (she prefers cigarettes), Irwin says that the CP rejected his membership application. Taking a hit off his pipe, he says between coughs, “They thought I was an anarchist.”

The CP probably had a point. Like Lord Buckley, another comedian I grew up loving in the late 50s, Corey did not tell jokes. Instead he worked in what came across as stream-of-consciousness riffs on high culture, with the emphasis on high. As “the world’s greatest authority”, Corey could be relied upon to mangle references to Shakespeare or the Bible, mocking the sort of people who define the parameters of high culture. In one scene from this deeply touching documentary directed by Jordan Stone, we see Corey in his standard issue frock coat bumming a cigarette from an audience member and then smoking it as if it were a reefer. He quips, “I hope we don’t get arrested”. Considering that this was from 1958 or so, that took a lot of balls.

Irwin Corey was born to a poverty-stricken Jewish family in 1914. So desperate were they that they were forced to put him in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York, the same place that the Trotskyist Sol Dollinger and his brother ended up and for the same reason.

Lenny Bruce considered Professor Irwin Corey, as he was known in performance, as the greatest comedian of his age. When Thomas Pynchon won an award for “Gravity’s Rainbow”, he sent Corey to receive it on his behalf. According to the NY Times, his speech was “…a series of bad jokes and mangled syntax which left some people roaring with laughter and others perplexed.” Over on the Irwin Corey website, you can read a loving tribute to Corey by Kenneth Tynan, one of those people who the comedian likely had in mind when he was telling those bad jokes in mangled syntax: “a cultural clown, a parody of literacy, a travesty of all that our civilization holds dear and one of the funniest grotesques in America. He is Chaplin’s clown with a college education.”

“Irwin and Fran” opened last night at the Anthology Film Archives in New York. If you care about the left, popular culture, and America’s true values, don’t miss this wonderful documentary.

 

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