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.

All My Random Thoughts on House of Cards, Season 3

Where do I start with House of Cards? I finished season three last night – that’s record binge-viewing time for me – and each time I think about it, new theories, thoughts and questions pop into my head. This was such an intriguing season, and it was definitely my favorite of the three so far.

I realized a few episodes in that this was my favorite season of HoC because it’s the season that can be most easily compared to The West Wing. This New York Times Magazine Beau Willimon profile from last year made a perfect connection between the two – that each generation gets the political show representative of its moment – and, yes, even last year as Vice President, Frank entered the realm of the White House. But now he’s really in the White House, and his supporting cast more closely mirrors that of The West Wing.

Throughout the season, I found myself comparing House of Cards characters with their West Wing counterparts. The Underwood-Bartlet comparison doesn’t amount to much, or at least it didn’t to me. The one I found myself thinking about most often was Remy (Underwood’s Chief of Staff) and Josh Lyman (Bartlet’s Deputy Chief of Staff). It actually didn’t dawn on me until right now, as I write this, that Josh is never actually Bartlet’s Chief of Staff – he’s only the deputy in that administration. But I think the comparison holds; Josh and Remy are more comparable than Leo and Remy, age-wise, so maybe that’s why it sprang to mind, but I also think Josh does more Remy-like things than Leo. Anyways.

This is where I couldn’t get it out of my mind: When it’s clear the hurricane has turned and the America Works program will die because Frank’s signed that bill, he leaves the situation room and asks Remy what can be done to stop it and get the AmWorks funding back. Remy doesn’t know what to do, and basically tells Frank it’s hopeless. Faced with the same situation and the same amount of time, Josh Lyman would have gotten the bill back, rescued AmWorks, and given Donna a condescending explanation of whatever Constitutional loophole he used to accomplish the previous feat.

On a more peripheral level, I’m always interested in the way different politically focused shows and movies concentrate on different players. I mean, I get it – each show chooses who they want to tell the story through – but I just wonder how those decisions are made, and why. There is no Toby Ziegler or Sam Seaborn in HoC (or at least no depiction of their counterparts, because the real Sam and Toby would probably flee the country if Frank Underwood was president). In the same way, The West Wing never had (if my memory serves) a U.N. Ambassador present during tense moments in the situation room.

Aside from the ease with which West Wing comparisons can be made, HoC season three was my favorite because for a long time, we don’t know where it’s going. Season one, these characters and this story are brand-new, and we don’t even know what we could assume. Season two, it’s fairly obvious Frank will become President. But season three, Frank is President. So where will it go?

I loved watching Frank struggle with the day-to-day issues of the presidency, rather than make the broad-strokes moves to get there in the first place, which we saw in the first two seasons. You remember he actually has a job to do. But even though that’s why I loved the season as a whole, it’s also why the ending left me dissatisfied. It felt like the finale concentrated on storylines that hadn’t been considered much at all in the previous 12 episodes. Of course Doug has to find Rachel, and of course we have to get some idea of what’s going on with the Underwood marriage (this Vulture piece articulates a lot of frustrations I had with the season’s end, as far as Frank and Claire’s relationship), but I was disappointed we didn’t get a closer look at how Heather Dunbar narrowly lost the Iowa primary, or get some idea where Jackie Sharp’s headed next, now that she’s done campaigning and admitted unhappiness in her marriage.

Slightly disappointing ending aside, though, I still thought this was a fabulous season. These are my other lingering, random thoughts:

  • End of episode two, when Claire cracks those two eggs into a pan. WHAT DOES IT MEAN.
  • Even if there weren’t direct comparisons to all the characters, there were some moments that reminded me of West Wing Frank’s visit to the bishop reminded me of when Toby went to chat with his rabbi. Heather Dunbar’s surprise announcement of her candidacy reminded me of CJ’s surprise when that awful Peter Lillianfield gave a surprise press conference about alleged drug use among White House staffers.
  • I liked Thomas Yates, the author Frank hired. But I will never love a writer on this show as much as I loved Janine Skorsky.
  • This scene – Frank sings a little ditty for guests after the Petrov dinner – is straight out of my fever dream.

frank singing!

  • The dialogue between Claire Underwood and Michael Corrigan, as they negotiate in his prison cell, is insanely good. As is the dialogue between Frank and Claire later that episode, when they’re fighting on the plane.
  • This show reminded me how House of Cards season one really introduced me to the greatness of Kevin Spacey, who is now one of my most beloved actors. I’d seen him in movies before this show, but I remember watching the first season and then wanting to know all of his other stuff. I watched L. A. Confidential not long after finishing season one, and it’s now one of my favorite films. I kind of forgot until this weekend how HoC was responsible for my love of Spacey.

So, I’m sure tons of other thoughts and theories will come to mind as I chew on this season and discuss with others. Here’s to season four.

“Boy, Those Were the Days, Huh?”

Thanks to the @sorkinese Twitter account – one of the best there is – I learned today is the 15th anniversary of The West Wing’s premiere. Sam, Toby, CJ, Leo, Josh, Bartlet, et al entered America’s living rooms on September 22, 1999. The show has only been part of my world for the last 18 months, but nonetheless, I celebrate its beginnings because I like thinking of people watching the show in real time, in an age when Toby’s airplane phone and Sam’s pager were actually technological marvels.

I know anniversaries are completely arbitrary, and why should we celebrate the 15th over the 14th or the 9th or the 37th or whatever. But since basically any day is an excuse for me to celebrate this show, I’ll do it today, too.

As someone with plenty of TV/movie/culture obsessions, I think a lot about what makes something an obsession versus just something I simply enjoy. I enjoy How I Met Your Mother. I am obsessed with The West Wing. Why is that? Sometimes I can barely make it through the first episode of something. Other times, I can just feel it, five minutes in. I am going to spend a lot of time with these characters.

It may not have been five minutes in for me with The West Wing, but I remember watching the pilot for the first time and when the President makes his entrance…I just knew. What was this show! He comes in with just a few minutes left in the episode. The whole time, you’ve been hearing about him – POTUS in bicycle accident? – but you don’t see him until much later. And the thing is, you don’t even notice! You’ve been swept away by all sorts of other stories. And then…oh, yeah. The President.

And it all comes together. This would not be the last impassioned Bartlet speech that brings the rest of his staff to its senses. It would not be his last cry against religious fanaticism. But it was his first entrance, and it was a great one.

As I went deeper into the show, characters other than President Bartlet became my favorite, but in my mind, that first episode is all about him (though Toby delivers some of his finest shouting in that first episode).

So happy birthday, West Wing. I do The Jackal in your honor.

 

The Brady Bunch is Messing with My Head

I am an idiot.

I read this whole story and never figured out on my own what it was really about.

(Spoilers ahead, which aren’t necessarily dramatic, but will rob the story of its full effect if you haven’t read it.)

“Here’s the Story,” by David Gilbert, is in this week’s New Yorker, its summer fiction issue. It’s a Brady Bunch prequel, but I never realized that until the author told me it was. I think this is partly stupidity and partly because I was so swept up in enjoying it at face value that seemingly obvious Brady-related hints seemed nothing more than colorful elements in the story.

It tells the story of Ted Martin and Emma Brady, the first spouses of Carol and Mike, respectively: How they met and ultimately how they died.

Brief synopsis: Ted and Emma meet by chance during one of the “love-ins” at Elysian Park in Los Angeles in 1967. Ted wanders over after attending a Dodger game; Emma takes her youngest son Bobby (!) to the park while dad and the two older boys are on a camping trip. Both feel trapped in life and in marriage. They recognize each other from being parents at the same school, and share a moment of mutual understanding and solace in the park. Nothing happens between them until a couple months later, when they’re unknowingly on the same flight the Monday before Thanksgiving. Neither had been able to keep the other out of his or her head since the park encounter, and they share an intimate conversation – even ponder running off together after landing in Cincinnati – on the plane before it hits some tree branches on descent and crashes.

Even without the Brady element, I was drawn to Ted and Emma’s plight. I’m always intrigued with stories about people who feel like their lives are stuck but who find brief solace in another person or experience. I found myself rooting for Ted and Emma, who seemed stuck with partners who didn’t truly appreciate them. I think that was also part of my shock when the ending was finally revealed – I’d just spent nine pages rooting against wonderful Mike and Carol Brady!

I also loved how the story moved and how specifically it described the true intention behind characters’ actions. One of my favorite lines described Ted imagining the disapproving comments his wife would offer about him walking through the love-in: “Much of the pleasure of being here was walking with the spectre of his wife, defining himself in opposition to her attitude.”

Not once until the final paragraph did the idea of this as a tale of the lost spouses cross my mind. I did actually think once about the show while reading the story, when I thought how Emma’s husband would have been another Mike Brady living in LA in the 1960s. I just never thought to assume they were the same Mike Brady. But there were so many other clues I should have noticed! Ted’s girls skipped going to the Dodgers game because they wanted to work on a Sunflower Girls project. Ted thinks about how his oldest loves Davy Jones. Tiger the dog is mentioned. Emma weasels out of the camping trip. For crying out loud, Bobby is actually a speaking character in the story and we learn Emma has another son named Pete!

(If it isn’t evident already, the Brady Bunch was a big part of my childhood TV routine. I watched plenty of shows made for my era, too, but I have enjoyed my fair share of TV Land and Nick at Nite Brady marathons.)

Aside from the way David Gilbert weaved subtle Brady Bunch clues into this otherwise unrelated story, I was also enamored with the idea of inventing a story for the lost spouses. It’s historical fiction, in a way. Questioning the facts we accept about something – albeit fictional – we thought we already knew. Or at least asking us to wonder why Mike and Carol’s first spouses were gone in the first place.

I love the idea that Ted and Emma’s “mutual demise,” as Gilbert put it in an interesting follow-up interview, is what brought Mike and Carol together, rather than two unrelated events that left them both without a spouse. But no one has to accept that or anything else in this story as fact. That’s what I appreciate about it. “Here’s the Story” hasn’t ruined the show’s premise for me. It’s just given me answers to questions I never thought to ask.

No Mandy, a Sam, and (for now) a Landingham

Twitter led me to something insanely wonderful this morning: A graphic designer explaining “17 People,” his favorite West Wing episode, in a gorgeous, infographic-style website, SeventeenPeople.com.

Seriously, take a look at it.

I came to the site through an interview with the designer, Jon White, on Vox.com. I was intrigued because it seemed White’s intentions were in the right place. This kind of project could easily be something that a person with too much time on his/her hands spends months on and then awkwardly expects everyone else to love and appreciate. White understood pretty clearly that most people would find this undertaking insane – “this is a micro-micro-niche,” he told Vox – but he just had to do it. The idea was stuck in his head, and designing “17 People” was the only way to get it out. He knew it wouldn’t necessarily be anything more than artwork for West Wing ultra-nerds to marvel at, but he had to make it anyway. I love that sense of determined passion.

In addition to the visual beauty of the finished product, I loved some of White’s own commentary on the show. Speaking to the perfection of this particular episode, he explained how this was the show at its golden age, all the characters familiar and developed. For West Wing fans who appreciate the purity of an early episode like “17 People,” this is a brilliant line: “We’re given 45 minutes in which there’s no Mandy, there’s still a Sam, and there’s still (for now) a Landingham.”

After obsessing over this all day, I watched “17 People” tonight because I wanted to be reminded of every little detail in White’s creation. What stood out to me:

1) CJ doesn’t appear at all in this episode. Not that it means anything. But after looking at the diagrams all day, I didn’t realize until actually watching the show that CJ was nowhere to be found in this hour.

2) I forgot how much I love Ainsley Hayes’ hatred for the Equal Rights Amendment. “A new amendment that we vote on, declaring I am equal under the law to a man? I am mortified to discover there was reason to believe I wasn’t before.” (Also, talking about Ainsley Hayes is the perfect excuse to fondly remember Lionel Tribbey and his cricket bat.)

3) The characters are so cute in their little cartoon forms! It makes me wish there was a West Wing comic book or video game.

4) All in all, this really is a phenomenal episode. After my first spin through the West Wing (season by season, show by show), I’ve jumped around to watch episodes with my favorite characters and scenes. Sometimes I forget what storylines were connected in certain episodes and how their connectedness makes for a wonderful hour of television.

Spoiler Alert!

For several months, I’ve been chewing on the idea of how a “spoiler alert” has changed in television now that we’re all watching whatever we want whenever we want to watch it. Since I finished the second season of House of Cards this weekend – fans of the show seem to be walking on eggshells to avoid having the show spoiled for them, or spoiling it for someone else – I thought about what the concept means for that show and for TV viewing habits in general. (Actually, this topic got some media play last month when Jennifer Lawrence had Homeland spoiled for her, but I still feel like there’s a lot to it.)

Not to be meta, but I guess this IS a spoiler alert if you haven’t finished House of Cards. In the very first episode, Zoe Barnes, a journalist who figured prominently in the first season, is pushed in front of a D.C. Metro train and dies. Just like that.

When I first saw the episode, I did not believe she really died. Honestly. I thought she was going to miraculously survive with severe injuries, or the show was going to take some strange supernatural turn and have Zoe come back as a ghost. Kate Mara had been everywhere promoting the show’s new season. On TV, in GQ…I thought there was no way Netflix would let her promote the show so heavily only to have her killed off in the first episode. How could she have done all that press and kept the secret to herself?!

(Seriously, props to Kate Mara. I could never keep a secret like that for so long.)

Technically, any show could use a star to promote a new season and then kill him/her off right away. House of Cards just seems even more prone to spoilers, with its all-episodes-released-at-once distribution model. I was talking about the show with friends tonight, and one person had to leave the room voluntarily because she hasn’t finished and doesn’t want anything to be spoiled. Googling “House of Cards episode recap” turns up dozens of articles with headlines that basically read: “SPOILER ALERT HOUSE OF CARDS SEASON 2 EPISODE 5 OH MY GOSH DON’T READ IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED BECAUSE SO MANY CRAZY THINGS HAPPEN!” Which, as a fan of the show, I appreciate, because I really would like to discover surprises for myself. House of Cards doesn’t air at 9pm EST/8pm CT like most other shows. Since no one really knows when others are watching it, people are taking caution not to spoil anything. With a show that airs on actual television, there’s little concern for spoiling because, hey, you could have watched it at 9pm EST/8pm CT like the rest of us. If you find out something you didn’t want to know, that’s your fault for not avoiding the Internet.

Spoiler alerts reach a whole new level now because Netflix, HBO Go, Amazon, etc. give us instant access to shows that ended months, years, or decades ago. Last spring, I started watching The West Wing and inadvertently had the show spoiled for me right off the bat when I looked at the show’s Wikipedia article. I knew from the get-go that the President had multiple sclerosis, that Josh and Donna became a thing and that Zoe Bartlet was kidnapped.

That, of course, was my own fault. I should have known the article would spoil a lot for me. But at what point do we expect that everyone has the same frame of reference for TV shows? Who’s already finished a series, and who’s just discovering it?

I don’t think every television review needs to come with a “SPOILER ALERT!” headline. I don’t expect anyone to keep The West Wing a secret from me because most people finished it eight years ago. This whole concept is just fascinating – the way it changes our viewing habits and the way it alters our conversations about what we watch. In one circle of friends, you could have two people who binge-watched House of Cards, one who’s halfway through the series, and a handful who don’t care at all and have a different TV obsession altogether. Instead of one big conversation about the same show, we’ll have a few tiny conversations about a few shows. And as long as the people who are still working through House of Cards don’t find out that FRANK BECOMES PRESIDENT, I suppose that’ll have to do.

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.