Spring Things

I haven’t posted anything here in awhile, and quite honestly, I’m not posting this because I’m brimming with inspiration, but I had a good conversation with a friend last night about having to do creative-ish things – or at least indulge your creative habits – even when you don’t feel like it.

There’s not a whole lot of creativity going on here, either. Just a few podcasts and documentaries and articles that have made me think lately. It’s for the exercise.

Sleepless in Seattle is on TV right now, and it has me thinking about the Nora Ephron documentary, Everything is Copy, which premiered on HBO in March. I’ve watched it once in full, and probably 3/4 of the way through it again, and I know it’s going to be one of those works I keep coming back to. Not even because it is so brilliant (though it was extremely well-done) but because it tells me truths I know I’ll need to remind myself of down the road.

I didn’t really know who Nora Ephron was when I first watched When Harry Met Sally my freshman year of college, but as soon as Sally said, “The story of my life? The story of my life won’t even get me out of Chicago. I mean, nothing’s happened to me yet. That’s why I’m going to New York,” I knew Nora Ephron was for me. The person who made characters who said things like that must get me. That deep connection to those words, though, did not turn me into an expert on the entire Ephron catalogue. I have seen all her Meg Ryan movies, plus Julie and Julia; I’ve read I Feel Bad About My Neck and saw Lucky Guy on Broadway; I know I’ve read assorted other works by her and about her (actually, earlier this year, apropos of nothing, the New Yorker posted this Ephron essay from 2010 to their Facebook page; I’d never heard of it but it was a delight to read).

It was not until Everything is Copy that I felt I had a complete sense of her. The documentary reminded me of her sensibility, and how badly I want to be her. She was a writer, she was funny, she chased adventure, she had an interesting life, she herself was interesting, she was an adult in New York.

I never realized until the documentary how much the subject matter of films like When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail was a departure from her journalism of the 1970s. I loved hearing David Remnick explain how Nora and the “wised-up, New York comic seriousness” of her Esquire pieces taught him, as a teenager in New Jersey, about feminism. I loved watching Meg Ryan remember her fondly. And even though their marriage didn’t end well, I loved learning about how she met and fell in love with Carl Bernstein.

There are lines I want to remember, yes, in the context of Nora Ephron, but also just as generally great writing advice, or as ideals I want to aspire to as a writer and a New Yorker:

Nora saying, “writers are cannibals,” always stealing from their friends’ and families’ lives and experiences.

Mike Nichols on Nora writing Heartburn following her divorce from Bernstein: “She wrote it funny, and in writing it funny, she won.”

And this is not so much advice but rather a line a want to steal: Nora calling Julie Nixon “a chocolate-covered spider.”

Other items on my mind:

Marc Maron celebrated 700 episodes of his tremendous WTF podcast last month with what he deemed a two-part episode, but was really two full-length WTF interviews, one with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and the other with Louis C.K. I picked more specific takeaways out of the JLD episode, but listening to Maron and Louis C.K. talk about comedy and life is a treat, too. Both episodes were masterclasses about how TV and the entertainment industry operate.

What I loved about the Julia Louis-Dreyfus episode was not just her own stories, though they were great (I never noticed that was her in Hannah and Her Sisters!); what I really loved about it was its function as a testament to Maron’s skill as an interviewer. At one point, she told a story about something she did with her teeth as a kid, when she would be out in public, because she thought it made her seem older and more adult to others around her. It was something of an afterthought, but she explained the full story. At the end, she said a little wistfully, “I’ve never told anyone that story before.” I think that’s a testament to Maron’s power. The conversation and the atmosphere naturally guided her to something of a revelation.

I was just about to type, “that’s it,” but I thought of one more recent, fantastic Maron interview. Rob Reiner did WTF just a couple weeks ago and the conversation is exactly what any fan of movies, comedy and showbiz wants it to be. He talks about his dad’s friendship with Mel Brooks, his own friendship with Albert Brooks (“Three generations of Reiners and Brookses, and all of the Reiners were Reiners but none of the Brookses were Brookses”), growing up in Hollywood, making movies, and more. It’s a warm and funny 90 minutes.

Ok. That’s really it. I think there’s some inspiration cooking now. Thanks for reading.

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Letterman and New York

I was babysitting some old neighbor kids in the summer of 2008. That summer I was also going to New York with my family.

One afternoon, probably a week before our New York trip, I took the kids to a free summer concert or show or something at Bridgeport Village, an outdoor shopping center in suburban Portland. I remember my dad calling me to say he’d won tickets to a taping of The Late Show with David Letterman for one night during our New York visit. I freaked out. I had an iPod touch at the time, and remember furiously trying to connect to whatever Wi-Fi network Bridgeport might have in order to research who the guests might be.

I would go with my dad to the taping. I turned 18 a few weeks before so I was just barely old enough to even attend; plus, my mom and sister, Hope, had plans to see some Broadway shows together when we were in town, so my dad and I would do this.

I remember how excited I was at the prospect of seeing Letterman live. The excitement stemmed from multiple sources: The fact that I was just barely making the age cutoff made it seem especially thrilling, like I was really getting to do an adult thing. I loved New York even then, and the idea of going to a Big Cool Event like that in the city seemed incredible. And, there was the guarantee of seeing at least one or two celebrities in person.

And then there was Letterman. I know at 18 I didn’t fully appreciate Letterman’s greatness, but I knew he was a big deal, and I knew he was hilarious. My parents did not religiously watch late-night TV, but they certainly had Letterman on every now and then. Never Leno or anyone else.

Letterman always made me laugh, even when I was little and didn’t get the joke. I knew enough to know I wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) get the joke. I have a very clear memory of being in a hotel room with my parents and sister when I was little, pretending like I was asleep but actually laughing at whatever Letterman was saying on TV. I vaguely remember it being about the 2000 Presidential election, but that could be wrong. Even when I’d watch it with my eyes open, it became the show that I maybe wasn’t supposed to watch, but that I loved being part of.

I may be overstating this, as I didn’t sneak away to watch Letterman every day of my childhood; nor do I have very clear memories of specific guests or segments (besides “Will it Float,” which I loved). But I think that sense of this is for adults but I’m in on it stuck with me and contributed to my excitement about getting to see the show in 2008. It released some pent-up reminder of how subtly influential Letterman had been in my life, up to that point.

The guests that night were Donald Trump and a comedian whose name I do not remember. There may have been a guest between Trump and the comedian, but I do not remember him/her, either. Our show was being taped to air the night of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies, so I know there were some broad jokes in the monologue about that. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had just died and there was also some gag about inappropriate Solzhenitsyn book titles. I can’t remember the theme of the whole thing, but one of the fake titles was “Slut Beach,” and I’m not really sure why that’s the only specific thing I remember from this episode.

Actually, I remember one other thing: The song playing over the loudspeakers as they loaded the audience. It was Maroon 5’s “Won’t Go Home Without You,” a song which ever since has made me think of New York.

The Letterman taping was something of a seminal moment for me. It made Letterman more real (as I imagine anyone who sees a show or celebrity in person may feel). A year later, Paul McCartney appeared on the show and I loved being able to imagine where I had stood in relation to where Paul stood atop the Ed Sullivan marquee.

Since moving to New York after college, my Letterman appreciation has deepened – partly because my understanding of the TV landscape and Letterman’s place in it is deeper, and partly because it feels pretty cool to turn on the Late Show and know it’s all unfolding 40 blocks away from me rather than from the opposite side of the country.

Superstorm Sandy happened four months after I moved to New York City and while I suffered no personal damage or discomfort from the storm, it hit the city hard, disrupting a routine I was just getting used to. I was alone in my apartment watching Letterman the night he played to an empty audience.

It was a weird end to a weird day at a weird transitional time in my life, but Letterman was a comforting presence. I’ll always associate that show with the storm and my early days in the city.

When Letterman announced last year that he was retiring, I was devastated, primarily because he was the last tie to childhood I had on late night TV. He wouldn’t be around for me to feel cool about watching. It was all changing.

The only major upside to his departure is the natural opportunity it’s created for people to share their best memories and stories of Letterman.

I, for one, had no idea Norm Macdonald had been such a fixture on the show. He re-entered my consciousness thanks to his Twitter poetry after the SNL 40th anniversary special, and his final interview appearance on Letterman not long after was equally brilliant. (He asked Ken Tucker of Yahoo! to live-tweet the appearance and his reflection on the whole endeavor was a great reminder for me of what is unique and necessary about Letterman.)

As far as reflections go, it doesn’t get better than this Times interview, which features too many good Letterman lines to count (“You don’t find yourself filled with some kind of emotional longing? Are we emotionally stable?”).

And while written too early to be a tribute, this short story by David Foster Wallace, recently reposted by Vulture after originally appearing in Playboy in 1988, is my favorite Letterman reflection. I love stories like this that put fantasy characters into reality situations, and this story, imagining an actress’ appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, proves Letterman’s importance and channels his persona (I think the imagined Letterman-Paul Shaffer banter is especially spot-on).

I stayed up to watch tonight’s show, with Bill Murray as Dave’s final guest. It was a typical wild and weird Bill Murray appearance (favorite line, when Letterman asked how he’d been: “I’ve been all kinds of ways. Which ones would you like to hear about?”) but it was also a sad reminder. Only one show left.

When Life Gives You Lemmon

Whenever I’m not feeling well, I have this compulsion to watch old movies. I don’t know what it is. An expected level of comfort, of relatively uncomplicated plot? The idea that something might remind me of a happier time? I can’t diagnose it. But I know I felt pretty awful on Sunday, so I watched an old movie.

Said movie was The Apartment, Billy Wilder’s 1960 film. I don’t know why I chose that title specifically for my sick-day viewing, but I’d scrolled through it on Netflix so many times and always said, “oh, I’ll get around to it.” Sick days are made for watching the stuff you never otherwise get around to.

I absolutely loved every second of The Apartment, and it was pretty much all because of Jack Lemmon’s performance. It was a sight to behold.

When I think about why I love the movies I love, I gravitate toward a film’s overarching theme, or a certain funny scene, or a quirky character, or the way a movie channels history. I’m trying to get better at appreciating performances – recognizing when an actor is just going for it, and it is not the character I love but what the character is because of the performer.

Does that even make sense? Well, it’s all I could think of when watching Lemmon play C.C. Baxter. I loved his physical comedy, not just the way he moved about a space, but his facial expressions, too, and quick gestures. And I loved the way he played Baxter’s sweeter, softer side. That it never came on too strong, but was always a believable part of his whole character.

Actually, I loved that about Shirley MacLaine’s performance, too. Sometimes with older movies, it’s hard for me to buy the way characters turn on a dime to realize this person they despise or simply tolerate is actually the person they love. With Kubelik and Baxter, I totally believed it. I’d seen them weather enough together and apart to believe their story could happen.

Watching The Apartment made me realize how long I’ve now been cheated out of appreciating Jack Lemmon. I think I have a pretty solid knowledge of old Hollywood stars, but Lemmon actually falls outside the window of time inhabited by the ones I knew best, like Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. If Jack Lemmon came up in conversation before Sunday, I could say, “Oh, yeah, I know who he is,” but I couldn’t have pointed to his photo.

But now I can, and I can’t wait to become well-acquainted with his work. Actually, when I reading about him after the movie, I realized that day – February 8 – would have been his birthday. I’m choosing to view that as a sign from the movie universe that I need to watch more of his stuff. And I will, once I’m recovered from my obsession with The Apartment.

Feeling Sad About Robin Williams

I didn’t expect to feel like this, but the news of Robin Williams’ death has gutted me. I still can’t exactly put my finger on why. It’s partly because everyone knows him. (At some point in your life, you’ve laughed at something Robin Williams did. And now he’s gone. No new laughs.) It’s partly because someone who made us all laugh was, at the same time, facing such a scary set of demons.

The root of my sadness, though, might be my realization that Robin Williams’ genius and talent was wasted on me. I’ve been reading and watching a lot about Williams in the last 24 hours, and nothing has articulated my feelings better than this Deadspin piece by film critic Tim Grierson – well, maybe it didn’t so much articulate what I felt as it did expose the true reason I was heartbroken.

Grierson’s larger point was that he regretted ever being disappointed in Williams for doing movies like Flubber and Patch Adams, and that he didn’t appreciate until after the actor died how “different audiences loved him for different things.” “Now,” he says, “I realize the greater disappointment: There will be only so many more Robin Williams movies left to come.” Perhaps my personal disappointment stems more from the fact that I never paid Robin Williams much attention at all – though he was one of those actors who always lurk in the back of your mind, who are present enough that you never see them and wonder, “huh, wonder where he’s been for 10 years” – and that now I’m having to come to terms with the fact that there won’t be anything else. I never appreciated the genius at the height of his craft.

But even though I hadn’t seen enough of his movies or watched much of his stand-up, I (and everyone else) knew Robin Williams was a thing. He was famous. He was important. He was not a niche celebrity. The piece I’ve read since his death that best articulates his cultural importance is comedian Chris Gethard’s story about doing improv with Williams one night at UCB. He makes the most perfect illustrations and comparisons to describe what Robin Williams meant to this world.

He talked about how he and his friends would pretend to sleep while their parents watched Williams do stand-up. “…and we laughed even though we didn’t know why he sweated so much or moved so fast or referenced a thing called cocaine so often.”

I know it wasn’t Robin Williams stand-up, but I have a very specific memory of doing the exact same thing once when my parents were watching Letterman – we were in a hotel room on vacation, I was probably ten years old, and had my eyes closed while trying to stifle laughs about jokes I didn’t really get but still knew were hilarious. That illustration made sense to me. Robin Williams was that funny.

This analogy – Robin Williams is to comedy as Chuck Berry is to rock and roll – struck a chord with me, too (pardon the French):

To a crowd that loves improv, Robin Williams is like Chuck Berry. For a lot of them he is a little dated, or a guy their parents liked, or someone that they’ve heard the legend of but maybe never knew at his best — but when you listen to his solos and his spirit and his energy, there is no denying that he is rock and fucking roll.

 

Robin Williams is comedy, but he is also, in his own shy way, rock and fucking roll.

“Heard the legend of but maybe never knew at his best.” I know Robin Williams fifty times better today than I did when I first heard of his death. It all makes me sad. But I’m grateful for the words of others who articulated why losing him hurts so badly.

February 9, 1964

Fifty years ago today, the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time, and music in America changed forever.

black and white beatles ed sullivan

That day seems so magical to me. Part of the reason I love it is because it happened on February 9. What ever happens on February 9? It’s the dead of winter, and in 1964, the country was still reeling from JFK’s death. Some of the sadness was lifted when that British band took the stage on American TV. In his introduction of the band, Ed Sullivan said it best: “…this city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves The Beatles.”

The Beatles were different, and that gigantic television audience knew it. I think the root of my love for the band is that they were wholly different. They didn’t come along and play better versions of the same kind of music that had been around for years. They played music no one had ever thought was possible. No one had even imagined that kind of music existing. The Beatles created it, and everything was different afterwards.

Looking at February 9, 1964 from my vantage point in 2014, what really fascinates me about the Beatles’ first Ed Sullivan show appearance is that nothing like it could happen today. No one band, person, movie or television show could capture our collective attention anymore. Sixty percent of the American TV audience watched the Beatles’ performance. Today, you wouldn’t get 60 percent of people to tune in for live coverage of an alien invasion.

I was thinking about this earlier in the week after reading a fantastic New York magazine interview with Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels. Discussing the differences between how SNL did comedy in the 70s and how it does comedy now, he noted:

At that point, you had a complete unity generationally—in music, movies, politics, and sports. It’s much more fragmented now, so half the people watching Drake’s show, maybe 60 to 70 percent, didn’t know him. Even news is fragmented now. There used to be much more cohesion—everyone saw the helicopter take the people out of Saigon. I don’t know whether people know what’s going on in Fallujah right now.

We don’t have the same cultural touchstones anymore, but I don’t necessarily bemoan that. We have a wealth of amazing media options. I’ll watch my obscure TV show, you watch yours. Everyone’s happy. But with our fragmented media world, nothing will bring us together in the same way. You have to wonder if a band like the Beatles would break through with the same force in 2014, but it’s hard to put their music in today’s context because today’s music wouldn’t be here without them.

I’m kicking myself for not taking advantage of more NYC-based Beatles events leading up to this 50th anniversary, but I am definitely going to visit the Beatles exhibit at the New York Public Library before it closes in May. The Beatles popped up all over the place on TV this past week, though, including a segment on NBC Nightly News (it doesn’t get more perfect than Brian Williams talking about the Beatles) and David Letterman’s awesome week-long tribute to the band. Letterman’s show, of course, tapes in the Ed Sullivan Theater, where the Beatles actually played on February 9, 1964. When Paul McCartney visited his show in 2009, he talked at length about the Beatles’ first Ed Sullivan appearance:

This week, Letterman had all his music guests play Beatles songs. Lenny Kravitz’s “Get Back” was pretty great:

Fifty years later, the Beatles are still a cultural force, and their first Ed Sullivan appearance is still a television milestone. February 9, 1964 was quite the day.

Laughing

My weekends, I have come to realize, are defined by whatever place/person/song/TV show/movie I spend most of that weekend obsessing about. This year, I’ve had Royal Tenenbaums weekends, Kevin Spacey weekends, Boston weekends, West Wing weekends…I spend hours invested in the topic at hand, and realize with a weird sadness on Sunday night that I won’t get to spend as much time with it on Monday as I did the previous two days.

This weekend has been John Mulaney weekend.

I first heard of John Mulaney a few months ago when I saw a bit about him in New York magazine. I cannot remember the title of the story (it was something along the lines of “The Best Comedians in New York Today”) but it briefly described him as a former SNL writer and creator of Bill Hader’s “Stefon” character with a sitcom pilot in the works. For each comic featured, the story named a “representative joke.” Mulaney’s was:

Nothing that I know can help you with your car, ever. Unless you’re like, ‘Hey I’ve got a flat tire, does anyone here know a lot about the “Cosby Show”?’

That. Is. My. Life. More with 30 Rock or The West Wing, but having nothing but television quotes at your disposal, even in troubling life situations? I can relate. And even though the joke struck me and I memorized it for future reference, all I did after reading it was watch a few of Mulaney’s stand-up videos and move on with my life. I had not entered obsession phase.

Then – backstory: my friend Miranda, who lived across the hall from me for two years at U of O, is visiting New York this week. I am SO HAPPY she’s here because of all my closest friends at school, she’s the only one I haven’t seen since I’ve lived in New York – Miranda brought up one of his jokes on Saturday during a conversation about delayed flights. It was about a bad experience John Mulaney had with Delta airlines and I vaguely remembered the joke from my own YouTube trollings a few months prior. I told her I’d heard that before, and Miranda proceeded to tell me that his stand-up was the funniest thing ever and we should watch it immediately when we got back to my apartment.

So we did.

Please take a 40-minute break from reading to watch this – his latest stand-up release, New in Town:

It felt good to laugh really hard. The routine covered a lot of material about growing up and living in New York City, and I liked that he made the hard parts of those experiences something to laugh about – not something to rant about or wallow in self-pity about or think too seriously about. Weird stuff happens. May as well laugh about it. (Though the “When people order fries, they act like it’s a little adventure” bit hit a little too close to home).

Plus, it was laden with obscure pop-culture references. I don’t watch Law and Order: SVU and thus had no major connection to Mulaney’s jokes about it, but I love that he loves it so much and had watched it enough to make hilarious observations. I love when people let others into the dark little corners of their obscure obsessions and shine a light that lets you see how wonderful those obsessions are (and even if they aren’t wonderful to you, you get to appreciate how much they mean to the other person).

Since I had SNL on the brain, I was excited to see Lorne Michaels wrote a short piece for the October issue of Vanity Fair on television and the 1970s. It was a very personal story of Michaels’ start in New York, but he told it in the context of the decade’s dichotomous television landscape: Past and present were airing at the same time. Networks execs ruled the airwaves, but the young writers they employed knew change was afoot…or at least, they were ready to start making the change. You can read most of the piece online, but some of my favorite parts (like the second one below) came only in the print article.

A couple of favorite lines:

Michaels talking about his morning routine when he first moved to New York City:

I found a sublet on 57th and Seventh, in a building called the Osborne, which had a Chock full o’Nuts right on the corner. I began my day with a cup of coffee, The New York Times, and two sugar doughnuts. They were whole-wheat sugar donuts. I had learned about nutrition in California.

Michaels talking about the performers and artists he worked with in New York, and how their work reflected the decade’s culture:

Pretty soon we began to feel as if we were on to something new. After all, we were the baby boom – we knew television the way French kids knew wine. TV for us had been the miracle that brought us the world, and now we were determined to reflect the world we were living in on TV.

It was our turn. The 1970s, I realize now, were a time when things were both coming undone and being put back together in a different way. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that all of life is re-invention. Sometimes past and future can share the same time period. New just shows up sometimes.

“New just shows up sometimes.” I love that line. It’s a reminder to stay on your toes. As someone with an affinity for the 70s, I found the whole piece charming and funny; criticism on the decade in TV was fascinating.

I guess the moral of this post is that I hope you laughed this weekend. And watched New in Town.