Outside Reading — You’re Better Than All These Fuckers edition

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America Punished Elizabeth Warren for Her Competence by Megan Garber

Given the harsh realities of the political landscape, Elizabeth Warren’s withdrawal from the presidential race was the right choice and the right time. But it still stings, and Megan Garber, writing for The Atlantic, explains why in the best of the many pained postmortems I read. In my opinion, Warren was far and away the best person for the monumental tasks of cleaning up the wanton destruction of the four years of the current criminal enterprise masquerading as a presidential administration, and I desperately hope whoever has a D next to their name on the official November ballots will ask permission to use her “Restoring Integrity and Competence to Government After Trump” policy as the instruction manual for their first days in office. Although I’m not enthused about either of the septuagenarians still duking it out for the nomination, I am mindful that the gag political signs offering support to “Any Functioning Adult” in the 2020 election remain pertinent. I understand the righteous fury that comes from seeing your passionate political hopes dashed in the name of mealy compromise, but I also plan to keep the following Twitter thread handy for the next several months.

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I told my story about Chris Matthews. I’m celebrating that he no longer has a platform. by Laura Bassett

While we’re on the subject of casual chauvinism, Laura Bassett noted a different ending this week, reflecting on the “retirement” of longtime Hardball host Chris Matthews, a departure seemingly inspired in part by her recent GQ article addressing his yucky, lascivious behavior when she was a guest on his show. For The Washington Post, Bassett penned a new essay in which, among other things, she recounted the online vitriol she received in response to the assertion of the host’s transgressions, most of them presumably coming from people who don’t actually give a damn about Matthews (and likely complained about him on prior occasions when he wasn’t sufficiently slathering praise on their political figure of choice) but feel immediate fury against any women who dares to speak up and say she deserves to be treated with dignity. It’s a reminder of the enduring truth of Lewis’s Law, which states, “the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.”

Golden Words — 30 Rock, “Cooter”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

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Ahead of its debut season, 30 Rock was preemptively considered the less prestigious of two new series set behind the scenes of a sketch comedy program clearly modeled on Saturday Night Live. Co-created by and starring Tina Fey — before the Sarah Palin impression, before the Mark Twain Prize, before Mean Girls became a perpetual entertainment machine30 Rock was seen as the cute little cousin to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Aaron Sorkin’s television follow-up to Emmy vacuum The West Wing. Instead, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was widely derided as a creative disaster and canceled after its first season and 30 Rock raked into prizes like a gambler on a lucky streak.

30 Rock won Outstanding Comedy Series for its first season, but the only other trophy it claimed that year was in the guest acting category, for Elaine Stritch’s inaugural turn as Jack’s ferociously intimidating mother. The second season cracked open the dam. In addition to repeat in the top comedy category, Fey and Baldwin won in their respective gender-specific acting categories and comedy legend Tim Conway was awarded for his guest spot. The Emmys also provide the first of several writing wins, bestowing the statuette on series co-creator Tina Fey for the season finale, “Cooter.”

Unlike some other recipients of Emmy’s writing award, “Cooter” isn’t some crafty reinvention of the form or even a particularly notable episode of the series it represents. “Cooter” did close out the second season, but it didn’t subsume the personality of the series in order to set up some dazzling cliffhanger. It slips the characters onto story threads like beads, generating the comedy from well-established comedic traits: the frazzled weirdo loneliness of Liz Lemon (Fey), the impatient authority of Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), the friendly bawdiness of Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), the showbiz neediness of Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), and the rube innocence of Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer). The particulars of the plot matter less than the slick firing of the comic machinery.

What’s maybe most impressive about “Cooter,” and this whole era of 30 Rock, is the sheer density of jokes. At least four separate stories, each told start to finish, coexist in the episode, and the punchlines come like a torrent from a toppled dam. 30 Rock is in a photo finish tie with Arrested Development as the live action series that comes closest to The Simpsons in terms of quantity of comedy packed into a single half hour. In that respect, “Cooter” is a perfect episode for the Television Academy to highlight. It doesn’t reinvent the form, but it does decisively show off why 30 Rock was special each and every week.

The Art of the Sell — Ethics Training with Kim Wexler

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Now that Better Call Saul has an officially announced endpoint, it’s the appropriate time to start campaigning for a new spinoff called The Kim Wexler Chronicles, right?

Given the thrust of this feature, I should tap out a few words enthusing over the cleverness of this promotional video, but I’ll instead use my digital bandwidth to note that it’s completely ludicrous that Rhea Seehorn has never earned an Emmy nomination for her performance on this series.

 

Outside Reading — My Empty Dish Mocks Me edition

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The Most Important Comedy Writer of the Last 50 Years Finally Gets Her Due by Elyssa Goodman

I am among the quickest to co-sign any declaration celebration the broad cultural impact of David Letterman. But I’m also keenly aware that his distinct comic sensibility — arguably the defining comic sensibility of an entirely generation — was significantly shaped by Merrill Markoe, the first head writer of Late Night with David Letterman. I assume that’s a well-known fact, at least in comedy nerd circles, but Elyssa Goodman makes a persuasive case that even those in the know undervalue Markoe’s contributions. Tonight, Markoe receives the Writers Guild of America West’s Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for Television Writing Achievement, and the immense honor is thoroughly deserved and indeed overdue.

 

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Pompeo Called Me a ‘Liar.’ That’s Not What Bothers Me. by Mary Louise Kelly

It’s an exhausting process, this constant cataloging of the current executive branch’s procession of grotesque, previously unthinkable attacks on basic national norms (abetted by the obsequious and cowardly legislators who long ago chose party over country). Is it even possible to identify a new low when these monsters dwell so deep in the chasm? Mike Pompeo’s ham-fisted attempt to bully NPR Mary Louise Kelly after she dared to ask him a question about a matter highly pertinent to his current role as a public servant would be a small embarrassment if it didn’t represent the toxic imperiousness that is endemic to the current leadership. And that quality is a major factor in the pure corruption that we now know for certain will go officially unchecked. In a response published by The New York Times, Kelly address the incident with class and clarity, characteristics that are entirely absent from the White House officials she’s charged with covering.

Outside Reading — America’s Press Conference of the Air edition

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The Christmas Eve Confessions of Chuck Todd by Jay Rosen

Earlier this week, Rolling Stone gave a platform to Meet the Press host Chuck Todd, interviewing him about an upcoming special edition of his venerable program. Todd and his producers have apparently come to an epiphany about the intellectual dishonesty employed by several of the politicians and political commentators booked as guests on his program. For those of us not drawing obscenely large paychecks as network news figures but actively paying attention to the right wing’s strategy of flooding the public  with easily debunked distortions (often propagated on Meet the Press, where the lies too often go unchallenged), Todd’s newfound astonishment is embarrassing. Luckily, NYU professor Jay Rosen writes a properly savage appraisal of Todd’s comments in the interview, detailing exactly how current stewards of journalism like Todd are entirely unprepared for the current era. More worrisomely, that lack of basic ability to meet the moment helps perpetuate the ruthless opportunists who are spreading their destructive toxins throughout society.

 

Little Women (1868, 1869) by Louisa May Alcott

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To the best of my recollection, I’d never previously read Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s book that’s one of the cornerstone works of U.S. literature. It’s possible that there was a school assignment at some point, and it’s equally possible I stupidly dismissed such an assignment because it was a “girl’s book.” Although clearly pitched at younger readers, the novel is rich with offhand insight about the ways in which people move around one another, striving to make and keep ahold of connections. It often reads more like a collection of connected short stories, reflecting the time when it was written and first published. Through it all, the measured mastery of Alcott is evident. There’s no confusion as to why it’s a classic.

Golden Words — Frasier, “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

 

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Frasier was dominant presence at the Emmy Awards, outperforming every comedy series that had come before, include Cheers, the all-time classic it spun off from. Blessed with crack comic timing honed on its preceding series and buffed up in displayed prestige by the cultured intelligence of key character, Frasier took the Outstanding Comedy series trophy five straight years, a record eventually matched by Modern Family. Suiting the highly literate quality of the comedy, Frasier was also uniquely successful in the comedy writing category, besting the competition in each of its first three years. Only The Mary Tyler Moore Show boasts a longer streak in the category.

After a couple years in which the Academy felt obligated to honor flashier episodes in the writing categories, voters circled back to Frasier to bestow the show with a fourth and final writing prize. The episode that claimed this particular bit of shiny glory called upon both the program’s deftness with farce and the antagonistic sentimentality of the show’s family dynamics. And it’s a Christmas episode.

“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz” finds Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) in the early days of a romantic relationship with Faye Moskowitz (Amy Brenneman). When Faye brings her mother (Carole Shelley) over to Frasier’s apartment on Christmas Eve, she unexpectedly discovers that Frasier isn’t Jewish, which she believes will be a deal-breaker for her mother. Ever acquiescing to potential paramours, Frasier agrees to briefly participate in a masquerade, which is complicated by the a ham roasting in the over and a Christmas tree delivery. The ruse gets even more difficult to maintain when Frasier’s brother, Niles, dresses up as Jesus, an unexpected outcome of helping his secret crush, Daphne (Jane Leeves), stage a holiday musical revue.

As Frasier and his family members clumsily feign Jewish cultural investment, the episode skirts precariously close to uncomfortable stereotypes. The iffiness of the comedy is mitigated — but not eradicated — by the knowledge that the episode’s writer, Jay Kogen, is joshing his own heritage. The real strength of the episode, however, is the way it sets up a comic conclusion that draws on character dynamics solidly established over the course of five prior seasons. After watching Faye and her mother work out feelings of antagonism toward one another in a fiercely flaring argument that immediately gives way to comfortable, casual affection, Frasier and his father (John Mahoney) try the same tactic in addresses a conflict, discovering they don’t have the emotional resiliency for it.

The best part of the episode demonstrates a vital, yet often undervalued, component of television sitcom writing. Kogen is successful mostly because he figures out a way to write to the strengths of the show’s incredibly skilled actors. On paper, “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz” is fine. As performed by Grammer, Mahoney, Pierce, and the others, it resembles holiday magic.

Other posts in this series can be found at the “Golden Words” tag.

Laughing Matters — Monty Python, “Upper Class Twit of the Year”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

Sometimes I think the main thing our current comedy is lacking is some good old fashioned hostility directed at the obscenely wealthy buffoons who effectively preserve the reprehensible status quo at the expense of others.