Tuesday, July 28, 2009

That Jonathan S. Leibowitz guy is funny

Jersey is known for a lot of things. Some good, mostly bad. I grew up across the Hudson, the good side of the Hudson (snap), and took in the view that Jersey deserved its second tier status, the smells of Elizabeth, the problems in Newark, the decay down in Atlantic City, and the distance and challenge it took to get into the city from just about anywhere.

But then there was Bruce Springsteen, Jersey’s Bard. Hell, probably America’s Bard, as at least we can understand him better than others who carried that mantle for years prior. In the mid 90’s there was breakthrough music by the Fugees. And then at century’s end we began an intense relationship with that remarkable television drama brought to us by David Chase. Where would we all be today without the Soprano’s, Jersey’s most favored drama, and a show that may have singlehandedly both reinforced the worst of a range of stereotypes while similarly documenting the reality of this existence for those either allied or related to it.

But all of them, and, yes, I mean all of them, may very well have been lapped by the short guy from suburban Trenton, America’s most trusted newsman, Jon Stewart.

Celebrated last week by TIME for this honor, Stewart acknowledges he’s not in the news business. But America may differ. Pretty soon Comedy Central may be able to supplant ABC News with the tired line ‘more Americans get their news from Jon Stewart than from any other source.’

Across the board, across the country, across even the political spectrum, Americans turn to Stewart, and his angry doppelganger, Stephen Colbert, for more than just some late night yucks.

Stewart is now at the point where he has transcended political comedy, leapt ahead of established news figures, and enshrined himself as a monumental force in our popular and civic culture.

A few years back ‘The Daily Show’ was pretty damn funny. Some cracks about politics, some easy laughs at George W. Bush’s expense, and then on to a celebrity interview. The show wasn’t all that different from the other late night fare, though it was shorter, and required cable.

Today, and this has been the biggest difference for this show over the competition, Stewart consistently books policy wonks, academics, and authors, and accepts their humor, or lack thereof, even as he seeks to probe how human these folks can be, and how willing they are to take a skewering.

Barney Frank was on last week. The Massachusetts Congressman is probably the funniest guy in the House of Representatives, and arguably the smartest. But it’s always tough to be on in someone else’s world. Look at what happens to politicians on Bill Maher’s show. Look at what happens to CEO’s when they come to Capitol Hill to testify. It’s tough on people to be on parade outside of their safe zone.

But Stewart manages to both make people comfortable enough to be willing to appear, comfortable enough to sit with him on the set, and comfortable enough to provide answers that feed back to a zinger, or to a substantive followup.

Frank held his own with Stewart. Hell, he’s from Jersey too, though that’s besides the point. What’s important is that Frank, the Chairman of an important House Committee, a representative of the Democratic leadership, a person who needs more media attention the way Jon and Kate need more kids, came on the show, handled his appearance admirably, and both pleased the host and the audience, a dual challenge that is not always met.

Last night William Kristol came on the show. He’s not your typical Daily Show viewer, or even the kind of person you would expect to see on the show. Kristol didn’t hold back on his politics. He discussed the subject of last night’s show, the woman who just didn’t quit as Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, in favorable terms, and parried with Stewart in an informed and amused way. Stewart worked with it. The line about Palin doing Stewart went over well. Stewart’s well timed response about having Cheney do him was one better, but Stewart gets paid for the humor, Kristol for the analysis, after all.

So it’s nothing new to hear kind words about Stewart or the Daily Show. It should be new and refreshing, though, to hear of this show as a seminal program, marking a transition from the days of stilted evening news anchors and traditional late night show hosts (Uncle Walter, Johnny, to name the best of the lot), and from the Letterman’s and Leno’s and even the Conan’s of the world, past the network and even cable news anchors, into this brave new world in which we live, where we are informed online throughout the day, and by late night, want to see all the substance processed and synthesized into tasty morsels of comedy, samples suitable for all in the family.

We’re in slightly unchartered territory here, and whether other television entities will seek to join the fray with similar programming remains to be seen. But watch what happens to Nightline at ABC News once the summer ends. Going tabloid and cheap might not hold up against the consistent humor and truth-telling that goes on each night at 11, and then again at 11:30 with the Colbert Report, over at Comedy Central.

Methinks they’re more than on to something. In fact, they’ve redefined late night, and indirectly are going to be changing the way news is seen and delivered for all.

Friday, July 17, 2009

the things people ask one another

We live in a pretty decent community in our neighborhood abutting Washington, DC. It’s decidedly upscale, close to things you need to live, like the subway, movie theaters, decent restaurants, and enough bank branches and coffee shops that you can caffeinate and withdraw every 5o feet.

One other thing we have is a very robust list-serv for our area public schools. It starts with the elementary school, then there’s one for the middle school, and one for the high school. We’ve graduated to the high school stage, so we’re getting postings about drivers ed, and college prep classes, and shared rides to tennis lessons, the usual suburban shit you would expect.

Every so often there’s a posting on this listserv that just stops you dead in your tracks. Up until earlier today, that one had been amusing, in a perverse way.

You see, everyone who posts is obligated to note their connection to the school. So once you post your query, or your comment, you add your name, and then the name of your child, or children, if your wish, and the year that child, or all your children, will ostensibly be graduating from the public school system.

Pretty simple, easy to understand, all comments are signed, basically, so you are accountable for what you say, what you ask, and if you are seeking a response, each respondent knows to whom their comment is going.

Now the amusing one was such because it was the sort of thing you just don’t think you would put out in the street. Sure, we all go to the doctor from time to time, or even regularly, if you have decent health insurance, a lust for people in white coats, or suffer from hypochondria. But this one person, this one woman in our neighborhood, someone I know, once posted that she was looking for a gynecologist, and was seeking recommendations from the listserv.

Now I’m all for vaginal examination, mind you, and even considered suggesting that I had a degree, and would take all sorts of insurance. But propriety, the law, and a disinterest in this woman’s 40 year old snatch kept me from responding, in any way.

Still, to me at least, it was pretty damn funny. Doesn’t she have friends to ask? Doesn’t she have a primary physician to run this by? In this case, this person had recently posted that her sister in law lived in the community, so you would think that might have been a person to turn to, privately, for a suggestion. No, apparently was the answer to all these questions.

But enough digressing.

Today, we have a winner, and perhaps all time listserv posting. Someone for whom reality is not a concept, but a guess. For whom no question is beyond bounds, no inquiry can be too naïve, no solicitation too bold. And, yes, this is verbatim.

“We will be driving to Buffalo in August and are trying to figure out the best way to get there (there is no direct way to get there on the interstate system). A friend has recommended taking US 219 part of the way, rather than the mapquest route. If anyone has experience driving to Buffalo and can recommend a good route, I'd appreciate your replying to me directly.”

Of course I have removed the name to protect the innocent, even though this person can hardly be considered innocent given how stupid she is (yes, I know the gender of this person, and no, she was not the person seeking a gyno), and how totally ignorant she is of anything from highway maps to AAA guides to I-95, the Pennsylvania Turnpike system, and the New York State Thruway.

So let’s make a game of this. What do you think the reason is for this person’s apparent inability to navigate arteries traveled by hundreds if not thousands of American motorists every week. And one I drove two years ago, so I know it is possible. Though I did it in reverse, which may be confusing to the inquiring mind.

Here are our options, though feel free to offer option (F) on your own:

A) too much termite spray when they moved into the house, and it has had a long term effect on their mental competency?

B) inbreeding

c) got hit in the head with a backswing at a corporate golf outing, suffers short term outages

d) never heard of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system

e) never been north of the Mason-Dixon line, ever

Respond accordingly. There may be a prize in it.

Monday, July 6, 2009

While you may laugh at the comics page, you can learn from the obituaries

I have been reading newspapers just about all my life.

I recall poring over the sports pages of the New York Times, memorizing batting averages (how did Alex Johnson with the Angels win the 1970 AL batting title with a .329 average, and why do I still remember that nugget?) before I reached 10.

And at the same time, I leafed through sections other than sports to read the obituaries.

Back then only famous dead people were recognized. The mainstream papers are a little more democratic these days, and just about anyone with a life story, or with a good cub reporter on your tail, or corpse, is profiled. And this is all a good thing, for any number of reasons.

From Aunt Millie being recognized for raising a brood of kids, and being patient with her husband, and moving about the world every few years in response to her family’s every changing employment, or the sad story of a death way too soon, even on to the 1000 word pieces on celebrated figures from history, sports, and the arts.

Hell, just think about the attention we are giving the gloved one now in the third week following Michael Jackson’s death, and you know what I am talking about.

And every so often, something comes out from one of these obituaries that either reinforces a long forgotten memory, or a moment from history, or even just provides context to an old political fight, or a battle, or a court case.

An obituary from Sunday’s Washington Post provides a wonderful illustration. I had never heard of William Hutchinson. Didn’t know that he was living in Honolulu in 1941, that he was an editor for one of the city’s papers that fateful December morning when the American fleet was bombed by Japanese kamikaze fighters. Didn’t know that the Honolulu Advertiser was not able to publish on Sunday, December 7, 1941, due to broken equipment. That sure must have been frustrating. Imagine having an outage today that lasts for hours, rendering us unable to post for what seems like an eternity.

But that’s not the educable moment.

Remember back to September 11, 2001. For those of us living in DC, there were widespread reports of attacks and fires and detonations all across the downtown area. Rumors abounded of an attack at the State Department, on the National Mall, and up on Capitol Hill. Of course those reports turned out to be inaccurate, but they were reported nonetheless, and amidst all the hubris and tumult, were not knocked down until mid-day, several hours after first being reported.

For those among us who think the media just got it wrong with some facts on 9/11, note what was included in William hutchinson’s obituary.

The Advertiser was finally able to publish on December 8, a full day after the Pearl Harbor attack, and several editions behind their competition, a paper that had run several EXTRAS that Sunday.

And what do you think the headline was on December 8? Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor? Thousand of Sailors Killed in Japanese Attack? Pacific Fleet targeted?

No, “Saboteurs Land Here!” was the headline for the Advertiser. Notwithstanding that no saboteurs did land in Hawai’i that day, or that the story had details that turned out to be way off.

Mistakes are often made under the pressure of crisis. We all need to continue to work to avert them, to confirm, via multiple sources, the validity of what we’re hearing, and to do what we can as journalists to avoid freaking out the public. That’s never a good thing.