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

meet the press

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

little women

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.

 

frasier

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.

Golden Words — Master of None, “Thanksgiving”

   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.

master

Thanksgiving is a time of family togetherness, which has its perils. Among the many traditions associated with the holiday is the sharing of rueful jokes anticipating the political arguments that will wriggle into being somewhere between a second helping of turkey and dozing off in front a football game. In an era when red baseball caps are an emblem of proud disregard for other people’s feelings, that spot of potential trouble is more fraught than ever. For some, gatherings of kin are further shaded by melancholy reminders of difficulty of being oneself, always on the verge of being rejected — or at least treated in an extremely uncomfortable manner — by those who are supposed to be founts of unconditional love.

The most unassailable accomplishment of the Netflix series Master of None, co-created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, is the way it gave voice to identities that were previously kept at the fringes of popular entertainment. And the show’s pliability format, built more on demolishing structures than maintaining them, allowed for creative people to step in with stories that arguably couldn’t be told anywhere else. Master of None cast member Lena Waithe had writing credits on four prior television series, but I suspect it’s accurate to say she didn’t have the space to truly shape her own history into fiction until she was given a late episode in the second season of the show where she played Denise, a friend of the lead character, Dev, played by Ansari.

Officially, Waithe and Ansari co-wrote the episode entitled “Thanksgiving,” but there’s little doubt as to its origin point. Told in vignettes of various Thanksgiving holidays over the years, which Dev typically spent with Denise and her family, the episode depicts an extended coming out process. Denise is attracted to females, but, as she explains to Dev, homosexuality is a touchy subject for a black family like hers. With precisely scripted interludes, the episode shows the gradual and tenuous acceptance Denise reaches, each setback and tentative step forward rendered with equal poignancy.

Waithe, to her immense credit, used “Thanksgiving” as a catapult. She took the acclaim rained upon the episode — including, of course, an Emmy win for its writing — and transformed it into the sturdy asphalt of a career path. shepherding at least three of her own television series to air, signing a lucrative development deal with Amazon, and penning a big screen feature directed by “Thanksgiving” helmer Melina Matsoukas. Those bygone dinners. Her recent explanation of how she stood fast to keep control of her various projects serves as a fine underlying reason for how her character Denise made it through the tests leveled against her in the winning episode: She knew her worth. That’s powerful, enviable knowledge.

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

Outside Reading — Thank You for the Chicken edition

succession

Filthy Rich by Michelle Dean

HBO’s Succession was amusing and sharp-elbowed in its first season. For the recently concluded second season, the series engaged a creative turbo boost that rocketed it to delirious new heights. Writing for The New York Times, Michelle Dean shrewdly analyzes the base appeal of the show’s gladiatorial bouts between conniving tycoons. She also pinpoints the true brilliance of Succession as its accurate cynicism about the likelihood of real justice against the wealthy narcissists who carelessly toss around obscene amounts of money in their efforts to build and cling to power. Dean’s closes the article — and her argument — with an observation that is pure, simple perfection.

 

prince

The Beautiful One by Dan Piepenbring

As I’ve acknowledged before, I usually come to New Yorker articles several weeks after publication, and therefore well after they’ve made the social media rounds. So forgive me if my timing seems astray. Dan Piepenbring writes about his experience as the hired co-writer of Prince’s planned memoir, recounting the unreal feelings that came with being drawn into the icon’s orbit. In Piepenbring’s rendering, Prince is beyond fascinating: clearly brilliant (he often seems to be barely keeping up with his own mercurial mind), sweetly generous, committed to maintaining authority over his own work, and deeply self-protective. As much as any other remembrance, this article makes me feel the profound loss of Prince.

 

Even After His Victim Forgave Him, the State Would Not. Until Now. by Dan Barry

eric pizer
(source)

This news article from The New York Times details the case of Eric Pizer, a Wisconsinite military veteran who became the first person in nearly a decade to receive a pardon from the governor. Although the framing of the story emphasizes that Pizer only threw one punch in the incident that led to a felony conviction, reporter Dan Barry doesn’t diminish the consequences. The person of the receiving end of Pizer’s blow endured two surgeries to his broken nose, still has trouble breathing, and suffers from migraines. And yet Pizer emerges as a convincing example proving the dismal state of the broader U.S. justice system. He’s worked hard to make amends for a singular incident, seemingly building a respectable life out of hard work and earnest attempts to simply do better. The felony on his record stood as a practically insurmountable wall, and it stayed in place in part because the state’s actively idiotic Republican governor decided he wasn’t going to pardon anyone — not a single person — throughout his entire tenure. Presumably meant as a proof he was “tough on crime,” the practice instead ignored the reality that systems are fallible and occasionally merit. More to the point, the pardon moratorium is part of the ongoing, mostly right wing–driven fetishizing of incarceration that has created a desperately broken approach that incubates criminality rather than creates a pathway to rehabilitation. A few weeks ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was maliciously mocked for her comments on the need for wholesale reform of the U.S. prison system, but, as has usually been the case, she was was completely correct. We’re doing justice wrong.

Laughing Matters — The Ben Stiller Show, “Cape Munster”

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.

After tapping out a whole mess of words about Martin Scorsese yesterday, including a digression about unlikely fare he could direct, my mind has spent most of today idly drifting back to this sketch from The Ben Stiller Show. It’s pure silliness, but I do recall that I could never again take Juliette Lewis’s performance seriously after seeing Janeane Garofalo’s expert mockery of it.

Outside Reading — Hard Court edition

supreme court

Why I Haven’t Gone Back to SCOTUS Since Kavanaugh by Dahlia Lithwick

For a long time, Dahlia Lithwick was my favorite writer on the Supreme Court beat. Reporting on the goings on at the last depot for the nation’s rickety train of judicial reckoning, Lithwick always had a smart take on the open deliberations of the justices, and she always laced her writing with a sharply insightful humor. I usually sought out Slate — Lithwick’s main employer and the outlet that published the linked essay — to find her latest story whenever there were oral arguments on a particularly big case. I noticed she’s been ceding the case-by-case responsibilities to a different writer, and now she’s offering an explanation for that choice. It’s a wrenching read, not just because it again recounts the infuriating disregard for survivors of sexual violence shown by Senate Republicans during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, but because it gets at the way the narcissistic grifters currently presiding over the executive branch have sullied almost every governmental institution that preserves the liberty-and-justice-for-all part of our fragile national society. It’s gone to take a long, long time to undo the damage.

 

Ten Years Ago, I Called Out David Letterman. This Month, We Sat Down to Talk. by Nell Scovell

nell

Nell Scovell wasn’t the first person to call attention to ludicrous gender disparities in the writers’ rooms of late night comedy shows, but her pointed essay largely centered on her unhappy experience as a staff writer on David Letterman’s old Late Night show, published by Vanity Fair around a decade ago, has to now be seen as a major turning point. Although the chauvinistic defenders of a testosterone-heavy status quo certainly didn’t disappear, a sincere evaluation of the problem clearly started taking place in all the right offices. As Scovell points out a somewhat unexpected follow-up piece, matters have improved enough that all of the nightly talk shows nominated for a writing Emmy this year had for more respectable ratios of women to men on staff (and at least one show addresses the outdated prominence of white males in the hosting chair in a dandy recurring segment that offers a shared star turn for a couple of the female writers). The real impetus for Scovell’s new article is an on-the-record conversation she had with Letterman, who reached out after finally reading her earlier article. Scovell is admirably fair-minded in her characterization of the meeting, and the whole essay feels like a testament to the value in speaking truth to power. And Scovell has the grace to note that it’s commendable when power finally listens.