Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Satired



I had my life threatened once. Clearly, it wasn't serious, but for a few minutes it seemed possible. Piss off the wrong American and who knows?

I'd written an editorial in New York Perspectives, a Manhattan weekly I edited, titled "Sinead Eats Pope!" I defended Sinead O'Connor who, on the most recent SNL, ripped in half a picture of Pope John Paul II, adding "Fight the real enemy."

Partly a parody of NYC's tabloid press, rabidly fueled by Sinead's stunt, the editorial was also autobiographical. I shared some of my Catholic upbringing, my early disillusionment and eventual exit from what felt like an ancient death cult. This proved too much for a troubled young man.

He said he was calling from a phone booth down the block. As a Catholic, he was appalled by my editorial and couldn't believe I had the nerve to write it. He calmly informed me that he had a gun, and if I didn't explain myself to his satisfaction, he was coming up to kill me.

I was brasher then, pushing whatever buttons I could find. But here I spoke softly, confessed that perhaps I was wrong. I was trying to make sense of a confusing childhood, and besides, wasn't God in favor of free speech?

The guy backed off and began weeping for the Church. It hurt him that so many people mocked his faith. I suggested that perhaps his faith was being tested, that shooting writers was no way to honor God.

"Maybe you're right," he sniffled, and hung up.

I mentioned this to Christopher Hitchens who said, "It's the ones who don't call that you worry about."

Perhaps the killers in Paris didn't phone Charlie Hebdo to warn of an impending massacre, but the cartoonists and editors there knew that was a possibility every time they went to work. They literally played with fire.

By now, countless writers, pundits, bloggers, and Tweeters have scoured the scene, picking through racism, fanaticism, heroism, hypocrisy, and martyrdom. Previously unknown to most Americans, Charlie Hebdo instantly became the measure of creative freedom. Call yourself Charlie and march with the civilized.

I'm not going to argue whether or not Charlie Hebdo is racist; its humor does little for me. (Then again, I'm not its target audience, despite being of French descent.) What happened was obviously horrific and indefensible. The world is filled with bad images and even worse people. Communication is bound to get fucked up.

I'm more interested in the limits of satire, something I've thought about long before the Paris killings. How truly effective is satire? How far can you take it before it loses meaning? Is it a tool, a weapon, or a glamorized pose?

Dave Chappelle's case is instructive. Not since Richard Pryor has a comedian tackled race with such organic fury. Chappelle's Comedy Central show cut so close to the racist bone that Chappelle lost sight of the joke; all he could see was the pain and humiliation. He reached his satirical limit. That's when he checked out.

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert dance further from the fire, extending their satirical lines while softening their jokes (Colbert's White House Correspondents Dinner set notwithstanding). A necessary trade off if one is to survive in corporate comedy. Stewart gets solemn when the heat comes too close, but otherwise he plays the reliable jester who gives his fans what they expect.

Bill Maher has more or less moved toward direct advocacy, primarily against Islam. Indeed, it's all he seems to think about, though not too deeply. A nuanced understanding of religion and history isn't as much fun as making wild generalizations. Maybe Maher's playing a character, a Muslim-bashing Tony Clifton. But I doubt we're that lucky.

The Onion chugs along, churning out fake news that at times seems indistinguishable from the real thing. And the less said about Weekend Update, the better.

The problem may be that America isn't really built for satire, especially in this distracted age. Context and meaning can't keep pace with accelerated media, so the stage belongs to the loud, the literal, and the obvious. Satire requires reflection, not selfies. Education and knowledge help, too, but let's not get greedy.

Satire is an extension of will; it doesn't exist the way popular comedy does. Space must be carved out, grain gone against. In the wake of the Paris massacre, some say that satire is a universal right. In a corrupt, violent world, no right is guaranteed, something that earlier satirists recognized, and Charlie Hebdo's staff presumably understands.

Satire is not medicine, it's mockery; and when you mock those who deserve it, reaction is possible, though ideally not via bullets. Depends on who you're mocking. The smart response is none at all, leaving the jokes to wither. Corporate co-optation works as well. Ask a few SNL alums.

Attacking the powerless while calling it satire is perhaps the crudest approach. In many cases it's educated, fairly privileged humorists who find marginalization hilarious. The upside, I suppose, is that few of those under attack have any idea that they're being mocked. They're not part of the same, smart crowds. I've been in both worlds. Different oxygen.

In closing, I leave you with the only Muslim joke I've written, which was delivered by (surprise!) Bill Maher. It dealt with Mike Tyson's prison conversion, and it received laughter, a few stray claps and groans. My favorite combo:

"Mike Tyson was released from prison this week, and as you know, he is now a Muslim. Tyson is considering two opportunities: he's either going to fight Riddick Bowe, or kill Salman Rushdie."

That's my time. I'll be here all week, not answering my phone.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Downfall II: Oval Delirium



Watched NIXON BY NIXON: IN HIS OWN WORDS on HBO. If you need a reminder of what criminals presidents are, check it out.

I remember Nixon in real time. He resigned when I was 14, my liberal stepmother choking up and feeling sorry for him as he quit in self-pity.

Fuck him, I thought. I knew little about politics then, but I recognized nastiness when I saw it. (Plus, my mother and stepfather were big fans, as were their friends, so that added to the indictment.)

As American politics verged to the right, with Clinton and Obama appropriating and implementing reactionary policies, Nixon seemed in retrospect almost benign. But his taped conversations reveal him for the venal piece of shit he was.

Anti-Semitism. Misogyny. Racism. Queer bashing. A complete disregard of and active hostility to political pluralism. And perhaps most distasteful of all, bloodlust for the Vietnamese.

The blood on Nixon's hands hardened into crust. Kissinger's too; listening to his banal endorsement of carpet bombing is particularly sickening. But it was Nixon who set the bar.

He berates his generals for not being savage enough. He openly wishes he could wipe out Vietnam altogether -- "level it," as he repeatedly says. None of his aides dissent. All go along with the slaughter.

None of this brought down Nixon. However weary the country was with Vietnam, it was regarded as standard, if misguided, policy. Only when Nixon attacked a powerful target did his political career collapse.

Unlike antiwar dissidents, the Democratic Party had serious mainstream pull. It was one thing to spy on the Black Panthers and the Yippies; it was quite another to wiretap people connected to corporate and private wealth.

Early on, Nixon brushes off Watergate. At best it'll be a footnote. But after his re-election, more and more emerges about the operation. Nixon can't believe it. He rails like a madman in his bunker, seeing enemies everywhere.

They did exist. Nixon had baited powerful people for too long, and this was their revenge.

Of course, Nixon was never punished for his crimes. US presidents never are. He was allowed to retire and write books about grand strategies. His apologists appeared throughout the media, scolding us for destroying a great man.

Nixon destroyed himself. He became a cautionary tale for future presidents. (Iran/contra was much worse than Watergate, yet Reagan survived untouched. Appropriately enough, they named an airport after him.) Still, imagine how Nixon would enjoy Obama's NSA and drone wars.

He'd be right at home, along with the rest of us.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Other Johnny Ace

I loved Jonathan Winters. I share some of that love in my latest Splitsider piece. Or peace.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Here, Queer, Etc.



Un-friending someone on Facebook is the new Fuck You.

Social media has forged fraudulent ties. Relationships based on fantasy and nostalgia. A delicate ephemeral balance. Upset that, watch anger rain down.

I discovered this recently after banishing a handful of Facebook friends. Some for being boring. One for racist jokes. One relative (we've since reconnected). And my ex-wife.

It took her nearly two weeks to notice, but when she did, she expressed shock. Why?! What did it mean? It seemed to her an act of aggression.

Not quite. Fact is, I'm currently writing about her and us in JANITORGOD, my next book. My ex haunts me more than I care to admit. Getting it down is ripping me up.

This is a good thing. Necessary and long overdue. Dealing with her on Facebook clouded my creative judgment. So, click click, goodbye!

Many of you have asked if I've done the same thing with this space. For a time, yes. The idea of blogging bored me. What more to say?

I've put most of my creative juice into the book, with energy leftover for casual Tweets. This sharpened my focus and prose. I look at old posts, disgusted by the fat. Taking a break was the right move.

Does this mean I'm back? Maybe. Depends on my mood.

There's so much pious bullshit to counter. America has always been cracked, but the symptoms are getting worse. We truly are a lunatic nation.

Who wants to immerse themselves in that? There's no real escape, but one can lower the temperature. A bit, anyway. The flames still burn.

Speaking of friends, I've reconnected with Mark Neely, whom I knew in my early NYC days.

Mark was a working actor. Appeared on TV and in films (he's Julia Louis-Dreyfus' boyfriend in SOUL MAN). He introduced me to 1920s jazz. Had an intense, infectious laugh.

Mark and I laughed a lot together. His sense of humor was even weirder than mine.

He'd made several short films for his amusement. I must have watched them a dozen times. Then he suggested we make one together.

It was largely an improvised shoot. We were inspired by the early Keystone shorts. Comedies made in public with passersby staring into the camera and at the actors.

It's an odd little movie. Not much to it. Brings back memories of that time more than it raises laughs.

I lived on the Upper East Side with my girlfriend Mary. We were macrobiotic, which explains my rail-thin figure.

I performed improv in the West Village. Was about to write my first Letterman submission. Thought I was the shit.

Within a year, Mary left me. I moved to LA and wrote for Ray Combs, staying for a time with Mark. Life seemed more serious out there.

Hoo haw.

Anyway, here it is. Shot in September 1984. A few weeks before I turned 25. My Echo and the Bunnymen haircut was growing out. And at 1:18, I was nearly hit by a car. Art!

Friday, December 7, 2012

As SNL Fades

Last Monday, I popped up to NYC to attend a memorial for Tom Davis in SNL's Studio 8H. It was a very emotional evening, in more ways than one. Here's how I saw it.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Mystic Memory Chords



My hair smelled like ketchup for a week.

To animate a fifth grade history report, I staged a reenactment of Lincoln's assassination. Promises of stage glory snared fellow students; but since it was my script, I got to play Lincoln.

A girl I had a crush on was in this class. Janet was ahead of the other girls in overall maturity. She seemed like a woman to me. Impressing her required Method-like attention to detail.

It was a compressed production. I breezed through Lincoln's more memorable quotes, fake beard, construction paper stovepipe hat, and long overcoat adding to the effect.

Then came the action sequence. Sitting on a foldout chair watching an invisible play, my Lincoln nodded appreciatively, unaware of lurking doom. The kid who played John Wilkes Booth had trouble with the cap pistol in rehearsal, and I feared that his ineptitude would ruin the crucial moment.

Thankfully, the pistol fired, making a loud pop. Concealed in my hand was a glob of ketchup. I slapped my head in reaction to the shot, ketchup squirting through my fingers and onto the floor. A low ohhh came from the students. I caught a quick glimpse of Janet smiling.

Go to black. Battle Hymn of the Republic plays on a cassette machine. Behind a partition I wrapped my head in a white cloth soaked with ketchup. Lights slowly up. I'm lying on a bench serving as a death bed. The kid over me said "Now he belongs to the ages" as my head slumped to the side, ketchup dripping on the tile.

Dennis Perrin's Sam Peckinpah's Lincoln.

My teacher thought I'd sacrificed historical importance for special effects, but the kids seemed to like it. Until the next day and several days after that.

"Your hair stinks, Perrin! Ever hear of shampoo?"

Yes, but it took over a week to finally erase the smell. By then, whatever minor inroads I'd made with Janet vanished. But skinny nerdy Shannon with glasses and retainer followed me around for a bit.

Growing up, Lincoln was shoved in our faces, far more than any other president. At the time of my staging, Nixon was president, so Lincoln stood in even sharper relief.

No one I knew questioned Lincoln's greatness. It took Gore Vidal to show his darker side, drawn largely from Lincoln's law partner and friend William Herndon. This inspired nasty reactions from what Vidal called the "Lincoln priests," academics devoted to a more uplifting version of Honest Abe.

In the end, it seems the Lincoln priests have won. Obama's shameless evocation of Lincoln provided them fresh juice, and I suspected that Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner channeled this into their film.

Much of it is there. As others have noted, Spielberg bathes Lincoln in near-holy light. The monument made flesh. Lincoln's haggard, worn features seem to glow. He is man, myth, and deity.

But that's lighting and framing. Daniel Day-Lewis gives Lincoln unprecedented life. Not even Sam Waterston's 1988 revisionist portrayal comes close.

Day-Lewis' Lincoln speaks in a higher register than previous interpretations, rural twang evident but not overwhelming. According to Herndon, Lincoln and wife Mary Todd engaged in furious arguments. Day-Lewis and Sally Field's recreation is absolutely riveting. A pissed off Lincoln must have been intimidating. But it appears that Mary Todd gave as good as she got.

Hints of the reluctant abolitionist Lincoln are present, yet Spielberg and Kushner spend more time on the passage of the 13th Amendment than on Lincoln's view of slavery. This frees Day-Lewis to concentrate on personality instead of politics. And he does a damn fine job of it.

I ended up liking this Lincoln more than I'd imagined. He was, as Vidal showed, an ambitious, depressed, brilliant man. I doubt that many American moviegoers would enjoy or appreciate Vidal's version. But the thought of Day-Lewis playing that Lincoln entices beyond words.

As for the politics of the film, I recommend friend Corey Robin's essay and links. For me, Spielberg's Lincoln was an entertaining historical drama that stirred warm feelings I thought long ago dead.

The boy who loved American history remains. Ketchup bottle in hand.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Blood On The Wind



All state leaders are crazy to one extent or another. Part of the gig. Impossible to avoid.

But Benjamin Netanyahu enjoys his own personal brand. He's easily one of the most unbalanced men currently in power.

Netanyahu seems to enjoy his reputation. He takes great relish in meting out murderous violence, justifying it with a sly grin. His hatred and contempt for the Palestinians is unmatched.

A great number of Israelis appreciate and support Netanyahu's act, which is why he has no hesitation in terrorizing Gaza. It wins him votes, sharpens his renown.

The cruel irony is that every time Israel flips out, it further weakens its ultimate power. Without US protection, money and weapons, Israel would be in worse shape. It's not doing well as it is.

Would a humbled Israel behave more humanely? I've read arguments that say yes, but I doubt it. At least in the short run. It's hard to turn off a killing machine that essentially defines your culture. Changing a brutal nationalist mindset is tougher still.

So, for the time being, we have a heavily-armed rogue state doing pretty much what it wants without fear of serious repercussions. This forces its backers to beat and strangle the truth more than they usually do, primarily in the States.

Major media reporting on Gaza isn't just bad, it's macabre. To hear the New York Times, NPR or CNN tell it, Israel is the nation under siege. Like London during the blitz. Gazan firepower is relentless and forever deadly. How embattled Israelis hold up under such pressure is a testament to their strong values and national pride.

This narrative has been in place since I first wrote and spoke about the Middle East over 20 years ago. Time has not been kind to the official narrative; more and more people have studied the actual history, spread further by social media.

Instead of democratizing major media minds, this expanding awareness compels corporate outlets to pound harder the official narrative. The result is beyond ridiculous. Reporters and commentators appear as liars and fools. Since they serve interests more lucrative than truth, I doubt this keeps them up nights.

Also, anti-Palestinian racism plays a large role, but unlike the stale narrative, that hatred remains fresh.

Meanwhile, the slaughter continues on our dime and with our acquiescence. Reactionaries love Israeli violence, especially if it coincides with Biblical "prophecy." Liberals are too in love with Obama to raise their meek voices.

That leaves the rest of us. Whoever we are.