Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A tricky treat from Washington OR "..just another rally monkey..."

“What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?”—Nick Lowe

The epigraph above is one of those quotes/taglines that came out of my generation (don’t care about actual dates—if you danced to it at a high school mixer, party, or nightclub, it passes) that needs a lot of heavy rotation with respect to what follows below.

I forget who said something about happiness being calamity viewed at leisure (Santayana?), but it is probably safe to say they probably would have felt the same if they were attendees at the Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear. It was only after we arrived home on Sunday Night, taking the long slow cruise down Seventh, through the West Village and the remains of the Halloween Parade, that the TiVO would tell me how much fun I was having.

At three blocks from the stage, you could hear about three-quarters of what was going on and see nothing. The only Jumbotron repeaters were at the second block. We could see bits of it, but only if I held my video camera overhead, rotating the screen down. And that was only effective as long as—at arm’s length, mind you—I held it in the exact, precise position to get the secondary image.

What I got from the home viewing was pretty much what I remembered from those snatches. The signs were, as touted elsewhere (like HuffPost), all gems; MadAve/Superbowl-airtime, slogan-level good. (Wish I could’ve written them down but, see above.) The costumes (where you could see them) were also fine—like standard New York parade-level: not commercially-reproduced and with as much attention to concept and presentation as to execution. The peak, down at the bottom of the entertainment well, was the Cat Stevens/Ozzy song-duel (a pan-cultural tribal tradition from Inuits to Amerinds to pygmies to streetcorner soul circa 1955) that was solved by the advent of the O’Jays bringing “The Love Train.” Even in that place, which was the National Mall turned into a gigantic mosh pit, people sang along or hummed, and shook their hips to Sweet Philly Soul.

The only other salient point of the experience, that I can bear witness to and make any sense of, was the crowd itself. Woodstock was half a million over three days. This was half that in three hours. And not spread out over the rolling hills of Bethel, NY but packed into those few acres between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Anywhere you wanted to go there—anywhere!—you had to squeeeeeze and oooooze. The best way was to hold onto your sugar’s hand and press gently, preferably with a humorous aside to the sides through which you sidled and slid. But here’s the kicker: it was much the same in Woodstock as—in my experience—nary was heard a discouraging word, nor even did anyone cop an attitude.

Here’s the telling detail. The Mall is a flat, straight piece of ground, but off by the National Gallery are an allele of trees, just high enough and sturdy enough to support about two-to-four people on the bottom branches. That’s where a bunch of younger guys decided to become birds for an afternoon. And every time a newcomer would try to shinny up one, there would be a rising tide of “whoooo”, as if for an aerialist at a circus, ending in a cheer and applause when they made a successful perch…and sounding a cartoonish “aawwww” when they missed at their attempt. You just can’t avoid comparison to that old stage announcement, “It’s a free concert… But that doesn’t mean free from responsibility… That person next to you’s your brother and you’d damn well better remember that, but we got it, right there—" And yes, it does sound hideously na├»ve in 2010…it just wasn’t on Saturday. In the spirit of co-operation, in its broadest sense, you did manage to get along without hurting anybody’s feelings, invading their “space” or depriving them of rights. The big kicker was this was EXACTLY STEWART’S CONCLUDING MESSAGE—a/k/a “the zipper merge”.

And no, I did not know that particular traffic pattern for entering the Lincoln or Holland Tunnels had such a specific designation that it could acquire its own neologism, unless it is some tech term in the people-moving industry. I got it from one of the pundits circling the event’s scent like internet vultures, picking off the weak prey among the conceptual herd of ideas. This guy (though from HuffPost) was very much akin to the rest; the tone of the media being almost unilaterally harsh. Across the board, the pundits (even the one’s I thought were the good guys) have laid into him for being too left and not left enough—which means he was doing his job right.

I haven’t mentioned Colbert because he is the perfect foil and, therein, they are one and the same--a team. They may not be the present version of Hope and Crosby or even Abbott and Costello, but they are, again, about all we have close to that. What it is, however, goes way beyond comedy. In point of fact, I was beginning to think of Mark Twain, but even moreso a figure from the past only known to unredeemable fans of the ancients: Will Rogers.

Rogers was an Oklahoman of Cherokee descent who found fame as a cowboy performer (doing riding and rope tricks at rodeos) and got into vaudeville at a time when a horse could be a co-star. In 1915, he got into Ziegfield’s Midnight Frolics, and then graduated to the Follies in 1916. It was then, when he went Broadway, that he began to cross from home-spun, folksy, twangy vignetting into political satire. If you don’t know him, you know his quotes: “I don’t belong to an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” “I don’t know any jokes. I just watch Congress and report the facts.” And, of course, the one on his tombstone: “I never met a man I didn’t like.”

FYI, I herewith freely copy a couple of bits from the Wikipedia article on him. (I have that right: I actually contributed $50 to their organization.)

Rogers thought all campaigning was bunk. To prove the point he mounted a mock campaign in 1928 for the presidency. His only vehicle was the pages of Life, a weekly humor magazine. Rogers ran as the "bunkless candidate" of the Anti-Bunk Party. His only campaign promise was that, if elected, he would resign. Every week, from Memorial Day through Election Day, Rogers caricatured the farcical humors of grave campaign politics. On election day he declared victory and resigned.
Asked what issues would motivate voters? Prohibition: "What's on your hip is bound to be on your mind" (July 26).
Asked if there should be presidential debates? Yes: "Joint debate--in any joint you name" (August 9).
How about appeals to the common man? Easy: "You can't make any commoner appeal than I can" (August 16).
What does the farmer need? Obvious: "He needs a punch in the jaw if he believes that either of the parties cares a damn about him after the election" (August 23).
Can voters be fooled? Darn tootin': "Of all the bunk handed out during a campaign the biggest one of all is to try and compliment the knowledge of the voter" (September 21).
What about a candidate's image? Ballyhoo: "I hope there is some sane people who will appreciate dignity and not showmanship in their choice for the presidency" (October 5).
What of ugly campaign rumors? Don't worry: "The things they whisper aren't as bad as what they say out loud" (October 12)

If that doesn’t sound familiar, you are in no need of a primer on the events of today but might want to subscribe to Modern Troglodyte magazine for decorating tips on curved stone walls.

So, to close, two points of comparison: both are unfailingly honest and both preach nothing more than good humor,civility and common sense.

Now as for the epigraph? A vast number of the pundits were excoriating Stewart for his skewering of them, and a lot mocking him for both presenting lukewarm comedy and open shtick before lapsing into sincerity and compassion (one step above the last refuge of a scoundrel—a/k/a: patriotism); basically for the values delineated above. He is also of the generation just after the Boomers, that juncture where New Wave met Old School, not necessarily of either; like he may have (like a lot of other guys I knew) found Patti Smith because Bruce Springsteen wrote a song for her. As for Nick’s tune, which was really an Elvis Costello anthem, that was another of those strange hybrids: crafted by a cusp hippie, recorded by aggressive arriviste and placed among his sneers and jeers like a flower among a bunch of roadside IEDs. (Which is why it could cross-over rearranged as a saxophone instrumental on the soundtrack album of Whitney Houston’s sole movie role, and thus making Lowe so independently wealthy on publishing that he could retire, more or less.)

Nevertheless, Stewart is solidly ID’ed with Generation X. Starting in the ‘70s and made in the ‘80s, playing a lot of bad gigs--from his early MTV misfires down to his abortive movie career—he took a while to find a niche. And if you saw any of his earlier talk show formats, tried over the course of the ‘90s, you’d say that he wasn’t going anywhere.

But he did get here. And, as much as any Borscht Belt tumbler, glad-handing and working the tables in a Catskills resort, whatever he picked up, he used. Over the years, he’s dropped enough hints to the fact that he remembers ‘60s television as well as, if not better, than a lot of his elders, and probably was no less into some flavors of the Psychedelic associated with them—at any rate, associated more with them than him. (The drug jokes aside; that belongs to any post-Vietnam graduating class.) Yes, he may have wanted to ride “The Peace Train” but is most definitely associated with a ticket for the “Crazy Train”. Which makes it funny (-odd, not funny-ha-ha) to have a rally about sanity.

Humor is universally associated with The Edge—manifest in contradictions, sharp juxtaposition, and high relief contrasts that cause the vital cognitive dissonance which demonstrates the distance between the real and the ideal, resolving into sudden, shocking truths that explode into laughter. It is only found in the middle of the road, today, if you have corporate backing and are named Leno. So then, to come from the extremes towards the center makes you a sitting duck for both.

Generally speaking, “Peace Love and Understanding” falls into the category of banality. On this basis alone, it is simple to make the argument that proceedings were less Comedy Central and more like Comedy Peripheral. Hence, the use of it here: to ask the musical question and to answer it without music. (Well, any audible.) “What’s so funny…?”—well, apparently, for a lot of commentators, not a lot. Period. Yet, that’s what happens when you take OTHER kinds of chances. Not the “will-it-offend-you-if-I’m-racist/homophobic/pro-life-gun-Tea/sexist-ageist-etc-ist?”, but the more dreaded “moonbeam-warmy-fuzzy/Deadhead-wavydance/therapist-office-vulnerable”. You wear your heart on your sleeve and you’re begging to have someone accessorize you. And if you fail to entertain to everyone’s satisfaction, you’ve failed all.

And this is where angels fear to tread—but not anyone who’s been heckled at the Improv. The one thing that stand-up’s have over the rest of us are bullet-proof hides. That which can’t be deflected by an ad-lib or a short retort can be chalked up to a learning experience, and later incorporated into the routine. If you followed the meteoric career of Bill Hicks, you saw the whole package—and the High Wire act as well. Like George Carlin, he could have gotten away with conformity, and, like almost every other male with an HBO hour, dick jokes. But he went for his own. And, after the news of his impeding demise, he let the guard down enough to show his ultimate humanity as well—and was still funny...if not quite as hilarious.

Which is part of the present case. It may be speculated that, for a lot of the critics, they might also have the teeniest, tiniest bit of resentment for someone who made such a leap of faith to embrace the glory, rather than stick with the shtick. It requires the desire to overcome everyone’s natural instinct to protect a safe and secure sinecure and step up to that dizzy precipice where the moral imperative takes over from self-preservation. Some have done it in the past, and Edward R. Murrow somehow comes to mind, who would only qualify as the driest of dry wits in any political climate, anywhere. But his act was bold if only because it was a direct mission to speak truth to an entrenched and physically dangerous power structure. I used to compare Olberman to him but have had cause to admire that worthy more for his taste and erudition than courage; it’s no sweat to bang out derogatory commentary on villains. Stewart’s a different animal however. Unlike a lot of pundits, he resisted the urge to go for the easy kill, and looked for the greater good.

So what was Rally, really? In form and substance, a pageant and a USO tour in one, but, as well, a much older form of quasi-entertainment: an allegory. Right. Don't mistake this as some sort of excuse for the whole shebang: this was entertaining the troops, and in a format that could be suitable for any home, sure. Then again, you don't make huge assertions on broad concepts out of one-liners; it takes a long time for most people to get into the overarching scheme. For a person who hates the sanctimonious, I confess to a juvenile astonishment when NET produced a one-hour, updated version of the medieval morality play "Everyman" (with David Hemmings as the pilgrim) way back when. It was then that I knew it wasn't wrong to look to theater to teach as well as amuse. Further, this is something I learned in my first high school forensics class: charm, flatter, lead, seduce, then--slam it home, which takes a little time. Real basic stuff to present a position, but one not employed much these days when a soundbite is the medium of choice. I'm sure that Aesop was more popular than Homer, and, yeah, no one ever accused Bob Hope of being avant-garde, or expected a parade down Main Street to be equal to NYC at Halloween, but it can happen. And it happened here.

Once more into the Wiki…
One of Will Rogers' most famous lines, "I have never yet met a man that I didn't like," was part of a longer quotation and it originally referred to Leon Trotsky:
"I bet you if I had met him and had a chat with him, I would have found him a very interesting and human fellow, for I never yet met a man that I didn't like. When you meet people, no matter what opinion you might have formed about them beforehand, why, after you meet them and see their angle and their personality, why, you can see a lot of good in all of them.”

This is why even though I like Rachel Maddow less that Keith, I love her genuine passion to engage in civil discourse with those whom she has a diametrical opposition. Someday, I’d like to meet one of those guys who likes to say “My country right or wrong” and see what he thinks about the entire quote. I really would. Despite the fact that that’s not likely to happen unless we can talk to each other, a situation that the present climate is not exactly conducive to, I still have hope.

It could happen.

And, in the interim, I still enjoy that song as a New Wave anthem, and the last gasp of flower power.

But I can’t stop humming “Love Train”, and that’s fine too.