Let the Greasepaint Roar

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This is the look of the cast, although that seems not to be the actual set.

This is the look of the cast, although that seems not to be the actual set.

The 1960s were the last time music bled profusely across the border from Broadway to popular music. It was, paradoxically, not a very good decade for musicals, but, even so, a mildly musically literate person could hum a bit of “Sweetest Sounds” from “No Strings” or “Do I Hear a Waltz?” or “Love Makes the World Go Round” from Carnival (recorded, even, by the Everly Brothers) or “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” from “Bye, Bye Birdie.” Some of those shows were not even especially big hits, but their stand-out tunes made it onto the radio.

In fact, that was kind of the point. In the 1960s, you could have a relationship with a song from a musical without having any relationship with the musical.

And there were, of course, monster songs you could not escape if you had wanted to. (And you might have.) “Hello Dolly,” “Mame,” “Cabaret,” “The Impossible Dream.” And major musical artists were by no means through recording songs from the late 1950s. “West Side Story” songs were everywhere on the radio as were tunes from “Sound of Music.” Hell, John Coltrane’s most requested song in the 1960s was “My Favorite Things.”

By the 1970s, that was essentially over. There were outliers here and there, but the music on the radio wasn’t music from the stage and probably never will be. Consider that “Hamilton” is, on one level, the biggest thing ever and, on another, a show whose music has not crossed over in any meaningful way.  You don’t know a song from that show unless you have a strong relationship with the show itself.

In the 1960s, however, “The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd” was using the phenomenon I describe in a kind of reverse osmosis. Having failed to find a foothold in the West End, it came to America and, rather than leaping onto Broadway, went on a long national tour. Meanwhile, artists of many stripes sniffed around at its Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse score, which was – in the best possible sense – a musical bomb waiting to explode. The show contained three songs that would become standards, all of them still performed now, 50 years later and at least another two that got a lot of attention at the time. This was also an era when you might turn on the TV and see, oh I don’t know, Julie Newmar singing “A Wonderful Day Like Today” or Sammy Davis singing “Look at That Face.” (Those are the two secondary songs.)

But it was probably Tony Bennett’s version of “Who Can I Turn To” that guaranteed “Roar…” a turn on Broadway.  It was a hit before the show got to New York, and very quickly, artists and audiences discovered “The Joker” and “Feeling Good.” The latter song is still everywhere, usually in its Nina Simone form. It’s in a Virgin Atlantic commercial right now, and rappers have sampled it every which way, especially Flo Rida in “How I Feel.” “The Joker” was hit for Bobby Rydell and for Sergio Mendes. (Shirley Bassey, who had attained immortality right around then through “Goldfinger,” with a Newley-Bricusse lyric, repeatedly tackled this material but never got anywhere with it.)

The Broadway run was only 230 performances. It probably didn’t seem hip enough for the hip crowd and was too hip for the “Hello Dolly” audience. In 1965, Newley had a British music hall sound right after the Beatles made it unfashionable and right before the Beatles made it fashionable again. (Let the record reflect that the young David Bowie considered Newley to be a massive source of inspiration.)

Embarrassing detail: at age 11 – the sprouted seed of the heterosexual theater queen I would bloom into — I took my mother’s copy of “Sammy’s Back on Broadway” up to my room and listened to selected tracks of it about seven jillion times. Three of those tracks were “The Joker,” “A Wonderful Day Like Today” and “Look at That Face.” The biggest hit of that year was “Wooly Bully” so you could maybe argue I had a right.

Anyway, this is a long preamble to the news that “Roar of the Greaspaint” is up and running at the Norma Terris in Chester, the development wing of Goodspeed Musicals. I don’t want to say too much about the production because I’m not a theater critic and because I’m not even sure they’ve let the critics in yet.

They’ve made an inspired choice: transforming Newley’s abstract and Sixties psychedelic critique of the British class system into Mad Max – The Musical, on a blasted junk-strewn afterscape where an older man and a younger one play an arbitrary and sadistic human board game, almost as if Beckett had written an entire second play about the relationship between Lucky and Pozzo. The songs have been tinkered with ever so slightly. I would swear that “Look at That Face” has a tiny change in its chord progression.

The whole idea takes some getting used to, and the less adventurous souls in the audience on opening night probably never did.  But I could see this show having some legs, and it should go without saying that I, personally, love it. It’s kind of the first musical about Year 3 of the Trump Administration, although it ends on a comforting note of Bernie.

Frame #2: The War Between Datajournalists and Dinojornalists

by Categorized: Mass Media in the 2012 Elec., Politix, Uncategorized Date:

Nate Silver is tired of apologizing. Today, on the Nose, we’ll be talking about that.

He was Mr. Infallible in 2008 and 2012. During this cycle, he has often appeared to have roughly the same grasp of what was unfolding as these two numbskulls.IMG_1568

The same could be said for 99.9 percent of the people covering this race, irrespective of whether they were using data, shoe leather, political wisdom or ouija boards. But the struggles of the quants have elicited chuckles from some of the old school political reporters who felt dissed by the “Why Aren’t You Great Like Nate?” tenor or the recent cycles.

This month, the gloves came off.  It started with a piece by NYT media columnist Jim Rutenberg which was at least nominally a “nostra culpa.” “We got it wrong,” writes Rutenberg. But the column did seem heavily weighted toward criticisms of quants like Silver who were unfavorably contrasted by the author with reporters who occasionally get up from their laptops and talk to real people.

It didn’t go over well. On the Elections podcast of 538, Silver and his confederates — but especially Nate — tore into Rutenberg  as “snide and dismissive” and obtuse and unhelpful back in the days when 538 lived at the NYT. The tirade starts around 30:00 on the counter here and doesn’t stop for a while.

And then came Silver’s core dump: a 6,000-word treatise on what went wrong. One of his premises, amusingly, was that he and his datajournalists fell into the trap of thinking like dinojournalists, the kinds of pundits who eyeball a situation and attach a lot of certainty to their guesses. Who does that remind you of? Yes, the 538 gang momentarily succumbed to being the kind of fool they’re pretty sure Rutenberg is every waking minute. Another problem was extenuating circumstances, which seems like not much of a defense. One thing them circumstances do, pretty reliably, is extenuate.

Still, Silver is never not fascinating. I happen to enjoy both him and Rutenberg. His piece is a great read. But any time you have to write 6,000 words about your own performance, there’s a 92 percent chance that you have taken a wrong turn and gone 72 percent of the way up your own anus.


Frame 1: Have We Finally Arrived at a Too-Horrible Olympics?

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Today on the Nose, we love the Olympics; but we also know them to be soiled, by doping and by the corruption that inevitably accompanies picking a location.

23.11.2014.Mascotes. Forte Copacabana.But, as Juliet Macur aptly explains, even the latest round of doping scandals — which point at cheating that is even more widespread than we might have previously expected — will not dissuade us. Olympics = Brokeback. We can’t quit them.

Still, the Brazil Olympics, which begin in 79 days, might be different. The pollution is so severe as to constitute not one but a daunting array of health threats to the athletes.  That’s a long article. A few lowlights:

[Biologist] Mario Moscatelli stands astern, holding a Canon camera with a long lens. He points it at the water’s surface when he sees floating objects that appear to have the color and consistency of fecal matter. “S—. S—. A lot of s—,” he says later on camera, hitting the consonants like a snare drum….[A microbiologist’s] concern ramped up after reading a 2014 scientific journal article that said strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria — types normally found in hospital settings, the same ones she studies in the lab — had been found in single water samples taken from two Rio beaches, Flamengo and Botafogo. “They underwent genetic mutations to become resistant,” Vega says. “I always tell students, ‘You know, they’re much smarter than we are. They want to preserve their species.'”

And a paper trail:

Outside the Lines obtained a confidential U.S. Olympic Committee planning document written in October 2015 that states, “The USOC has ongoing concerns over possible existing viral and bacterial contaminants in the water. … The USOC remains hopeful, but we do not expect to anticipate major reductions [italics are the USOC’s] in bacterial or viral pathogen levels at the competition venues.

“There is currently no way to ‘zero out’ the risk of infection or illness when competition occurs in any water, and especially in Rio waters,” the document states.

Well, you get the picture:

[Olympic windsurfer] van Rijsselberghe called the conditions in Rio “disgustingly filthy and dangerous” in a blog written after he won the Copa Brasil de Vela event in Guanabara Bay in December…

“Raw sewage. The athletes do not talk about it. … They are not there to challenge the world’s environmental issues. But the athletes are all concerned and deeply worried…The contrast between Rio’s topographic beauty and the horrors in its waters shocked van Rijsselberghe in his first race there in 2013. “We had to slalom through the water to avoid plastic garden chairs, a refrigerator, [dead] animals,” he says in a phone interview. He saw fewer large floating objects this time and knows of no Dutch athlete who got sick, but he is still disturbed by the conditions. “It’s not as simple as putting a few filters here or there,” he says.

And that was before the extent of the Zika problem became understood:

But for the Games, would anyone recommend sending an extra half a million visitors into Brazil right now?  Of course not: mass migration into the heart of an outbreak is a public health no-brainer.  And given the choice between accelerating a dangerous new disease or not—for it is impossible that Games will slow Zika down—the answer should be a no-brainer for the Olympic organizers too.  Putting sentimentality aside, clearly the Rio 2016 Games must not proceed.

There are multiple equity issues at stake, ranging from the article’s speculation that wealthy Olympic tourists will bring Zika home to poorer populations in countries lacking sufficient treatment resources to the reality that women athletes and journalists will bear disproportionate risk at these games.

Lastly, Brazil is in the middle of something that looks like a coup. How often to the Olympics take place in the middle of unscheduled regime change?

Meanwhile, Brazil has at least $25 billion in sunk costs — a splurge whose benefits are unlikely to make it back to the favelas.

Jesus and J.R.

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OK, maybe I was a little harsh.

Not that J.R. Romano is the least bit justified in capriciously denying convention access to a member of the working press. (And I’ll get into some details of that down below.) (Click on Bruno for special .gif fun!)

But today in church, Pastor Liza Arulampalam (pictured here delivering today’s sermon in funny hat while other people in funny hats listen raptly) elizatalked about the little caesura in Acts 1: 4-8 wherein Jesus, back from the dead, tells his disciples not to go hastily out into the world to preach the Word. They’re champing at the bit like Nyquist, but he says, “Chill in Jerusalem.”

And part of the idea, says Liza, is wait a minute. (See above.) Allow things to ripen in their time. And I was sitting there saying to myself, “I teed up J.R. Romano way too fast and probably drove him down the fairway a little too hard.”

J.R., for his part, went way too fast. If he had thought this thing through more carefully, if he had said “Stop! Wait a minute!” he might not have done something so foolhardy. But maybe I burned him too bad and too hastily.

So, J.R., if you’re having second thoughts, let me promise you, there is no shame in saying so. I will applaud your sagacity, even if it’s on tape-delay.

I do, however, want to explain why this isn’t really Romano’s call to make (prompted by a comment on the previous post).

This convention is very much about the allocation of delegates based on the results of a primary whose cost was borne by the citizens of Connecticut. In fact, the 800,00 unaffiliateds and the 700,000 Democrats paid for more of the Republican primary than did the 400,000 Republicans. So we have a legitimate interest in reporting to all taxpayers on what the conventioneers do with those results. And maybe those 400,000 Republicans, none of whom participated in the choosing of JR Romano, want us to report on a convention they’re not attending. This convention is also about who gets certain ballot positions in the general election. Connecticut’s voters will only have two choices in many of the General Assembly and Congressional races. So maybe it makes sense to let the press report on how that sausage gets made. This is not a purely private debate. It’s a debate that affects everybody’s electoral choices. Only a few people participate in the convention.  The rest depend of the reporting of people like Niel Vigdor to know what happened.

Olive branch, J.R. Get Viggy wid it. And we’ll put all this behind us.

UPDATE: Ken Dixon is tweeting that JRR relented. Viggy in the House!viggy

Go Home, J. R. Romano, You’re Drunk

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Go-home-youre-drunkThat’s the most charitable explanation for the young Connecticut Republican state chairman’s utterly bizarre behavior on Seis de Mayo.

It began with the news that J.R. Romano was denying press credentials to Neil Vigdor, a  longtime reporter for Hearst Connecticut Media Group, which includes four large dailies in the west and south of the state. Romano has not, as far as I can tell, been specific about Vigdor’s reporting offenses. He non-specifically claimed that Vigdor is unfair and uses unnamed sources. (About what?)

This kind of thing doesn’t go over well. If you are a smart state chairman, if you are not under the feverish delusion that you are some kind of fourth-rate Donald Trump, you meet the reporter for coffee. You tell him you’d like to find a way to work with him. If that doesn’t fly, you still have a series of four or five other moves you can make before you even consider a stunt like pulling his credentials.  Which you don’t, ultimately, do anyway. If you are not an idiot. There may be some precedent for this in the history of Connecticut political journalism, but I can’t think what it is.

But it gets worse. Romano then sent out a bulk fund-raising email. He embedded a (broken, of course) link to Vigdor’s email address, urging his troops to “tell him you’re with me in this fight!  Tell him to treat Republicans fairly and equally, or he’s no journalist.”

Then, to cap off the evening, Romano tried to raise money. Off his fight. With a journalist. Over unspecified crimes. “After you’ve emailed Neil, could you chip in $5, $10, or even $25 to help us keep up the fight against liberal bias?” OK, I’m pretty comfortable saying this has no precedent.

The weird thing is, although I don’t really know Vigdor, I’ve never thought of him as some kind of gonzo journalist. Have I been missing some Taibbian assaults on the GOP?

Romano, on the other hand, has exhibited signs of being stupid and unscrupulous on at least one other occasion. Earlier this year, he fell for a crude internet hoax, issued a statement ripping President Obama under false pretenses and then, as far as I could tell, never apologized or retracted once his mistake became public.

Is this how it’s going to be? Have we entered the era of bozo Trump wannabes? Did DOTUS bite Romano when he blew through the state? I have a suggestion, dude. Before you throw your weight around, win something. Run a successful Congressional race or topple one of the constitutional officers. Then you can tell us how badass you are.

And if you don’t like this, you can tell people to email me. Have one of the interns help you with embedding the address, because that seems like another thing you’re terrible at.

Among the Trumpians

by Categorized: Politix, Uncategorized, Year in Review Date:

IMG_1484 IMG_1488 IMG_1489At Trump events, the press has to stay inside a pen made of crowd control barricades, starting 15 minutes before the speech gets rolling. Prior to the arrival of DOTUS*, we are free to move about the country.

There were three guys — late middle aged, white — lined up along one of the barricades at the Hartford Trump event Friday night, and I chatted them up. Only two were really talkative. They were both contractors. We had a pleasant, sometimes bantering, conversation. One guy, from Waterbury, kept trying to interview me. “What about you? Do you think It’s time for a change? What are you going to do.” I told them the candidate whose views were closest to mine is Bernie Sanders. That didn’t bother them at all. They didn’t think Bernie could get his agenda passed, but they seemed to think he was a good guy. They regard Hillary Clinton as the spawn of Satan, but that’s another story.

Those guys were pretty typical of the dozen or so Trumpians I spoke to on Friday night. They were pleasant. I didn’t have a nasty conversation all evening. (This is a reminder of how much nicer people are in person than they are on social media.) I made it a point to seek out black and Puerto Rican people in the hall, although they are not easy to find at what is, demographically, a Pat Boone concert with signs. People said the same things over and over.  They’re working hard but feel like the country is losing ground; they want a change; this guy is not a politician; he’s the only guy who could go to Washington and not instantly become a new manifestation of the same old beast.

They were not Cult of Personality people, although if I had burrowed my way to the densely packed front of the room, I surely could have talked to people who were. The closest I came was a young black man from Massachusetts who said he had “grown up on Trump.”  Some of them were almost process of elimination supporters. Nobody else makes any sense to them.

I want to emphasize one last time how pleasant all of my encounters were because of what comes next.

Mid-way into DOTUS’s speech, he regularly whips the crowd up against the press, pretty much the way Billy Joel**, mid-way through his set, plays “Uptown Girl.” It’s a hit. People expect to hear it. From his place on the Hartford stage, Trump pointed to all of us in the press pen and shouted, “These are the most dishonest people in the world!”

Immediately, several thousand heads swiveled toward us and several thousand throats opened up with lusty boos.  Including my contractor guys. My guys! We had been having such a nice time! The journo-phobic section of the speech went on for many minutes, with some digressions. (A Trump stump speech is like the “before” in an Adderall commercial. Thoughts begin in one spot and then, like kites in an updraft, go skittering through space. Pitch, roll, yaw.) Trump even pre-accused us of misreporting the crowd size. OK, I’ll play along. I think I’m pretty good at crowd-guessing. I’ve been doing it a long time. I would have said 3500. I’ll go up to 4000, but that’s my limit. Certainly not the 6000-7000 of the official police guess. (On the other hand, as we all departed, late and luckless people were still trying to clear security and get in.)

Trump’s speech was almost entirely about process — that is, the process of running. The press, the other candidates, the protesters, the delegate allocation, the escalator [it came up twice], the crowds he gets, the forces arrayed against him. The only moment that struck me as chilling was his statement that, if he is not nominated, many Republicans will not vote. “Hopefully that’s all,” he added. That seemed to be a variation on a Trump trope of being the one who plants the idea of mayhem in the streets while appearing to disclaim it. He didn’t start the fire.

There were many promises of days to come when we will win again, but startlingly few — even for Trump — specifics about how this will come to pass. Except for The Wall, tangible proposals in a Trump speech are needles in a smokestack. Demanding substance would be like yelling “Where’s the beef?” in a vegan restaurant.  It’s beside the point.

Random observation: I was struck anew by the degree to which vocal folds are destiny for the kind of politician who thrives on whipping up big crowds. Trump doesn’t have a nice voice, but he’s good yeller. He sounds like an especially appealing version of himself when he’s yelling, and he appears to be able to do it with very little vocal hangover. It’s like what Vonnegut said about big penises. You never know who will get one.

We should learn something every day, right? On Friday night, I hope I learned to listen less patronizingly to Trump supporters.  Many of them have poured their hopes and resentments into a badly cracked jug. The shoddy condition of that amphora is not necessarily a comment on the people and what they feel. You know the guy doing work on your house?  The two guys installing a new garage door? The owner of the small business who resurfaced your driveway or worked on the stone wall next door?  Nice people, right?  You always smile and wave at them, and they wave back. They’re Trump guys.

  • * Donald Of The United States
  • ** Billy Joel played at Donald and Melania’s wedding.




Why Is Trump Like the Busway?

by Categorized: Politix, Uncategorized Date:

Because both have used the Manafort family as general contractors.

Politico reports that:

Trump, who handed the reins of much of his campaign this week to strategist Paul Manafort in an effort to shore up his operation before the nomination slips away, was swept out of delegate slots up for grabs at Colorado’s state convention …

…Trump has begun mobilizing for a delegate push in recent days, empowering Manafort, a veteran of past convention battles, to lead his effort, but the 67-year-old lobbyist and political consultant is still playing catch-up.

That would be this guy.  His father was the three-term mayor of New Britain and the state public works commissioner under Meskill. Before that, Manafort Sr. was one of the principals of a huge family construction business. They have always handled lots of state work and have understood what it takes for that to happen. They were big Rowland donors –who wasn’t? — bundling at least $20K into his final campaign and now give to the Democratic party in the modern era, when contributions from contractors have to be pushed through the central committee.  (Periodic reminder: we taxpayers ponied up $33.4 million in “grants” during the election cycle referenced in the preceding link. The purpose of those grants was to prevent a system in which companies don’t do the exact thing they did: pay for political campaigns.)

Courant photo by Patrick Raycraft.

Courant photo by Patrick Raycraft.

The company did some of the major work on the Hartford – New Britain Busway. They are, on balance, fine corporate citizens except when they aren’t.

It’s a small world, is all I’m saying.



Anything Goes and So Should You (to “Anything Goes”)

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Rehearsal photo of DeRosa, Scott, Howes and Harris, all mentioned in this piece. From the Goodspeed site, by Diane Sobolewski

Rehearsal photo of DeRosa, Scott, Howes and Harris, all mentioned in this piece. From the Goodspeed site, by Diane Sobolewski

A few thoughts from not-an-actual-critic.

If you are on the fence about seeing “Anything Goes” at the Goodspeed, get off the fence and go see it. I see a lot of theater and am familiar with the experience of diappointment. Or, for that matter, the sensation currently known as “meh.” But is there anything better than an evening at the theater that tranports you? And is there any less guilty pleasure than a big, gaudy, goofy musical full of attractive, talented people and lovely music? Think hard, now.
Daniel Goldstein’s producton of “AG” starts with an interesting premise: a multi-racial cast. In fact, the first thing you see is a kind of stock Cole Porter character, a bibulous, gouty, amiable 1930s plutocrat named Eli Whitney, frozen
forever in a priapic salute to Mother Yale. And he’s played by the distinguished African-American Broadway actor Kingsley Leggs. After five seconds of cognitive dissonance, you realize this could really be fun, but you have no idea how much fun it will really turn out to be.
For that, you need to get a load of Rashidra Scott as Reno Sweeney, the louche, game-for-anything club singer who is somehow both the star of the play and the second female lead, in its romantic hierarchy. I could go on all day about
Scott. The first thing you notice is what somebody else called her “smoky alto” voice. I can’t improve on that description, but what’s more important is her attack. Keep in mind, this role was first played by Ethel Merman and later by Patti Lupone. That’s tantamount to a license to oversing, but Scott doesn’t. She leans herself into the melody and stays inside it. She lets Porter do the work. She doesn’t need any vocal stunts. She’s got great music and a 5,000 watt face. You can’t take your eyes off it. She has the type of vivid features that make her expressions scrutable from 25 rows back, a must in this business. It really isn’t until the end of Act One, that we find out the other thing. She can dance. Really dance. She leads the big tap number, and she’s large and in charge. (Our experience mirrors that of the Goodspeed itself. I’m told she was hired
for her voice, acting and vibe. She downplayed her own dancing chops, and the theater — this is not uncommon — probably figured whatever she couldn’t do could be covered up with skilled chorus dancers. Not necessary!)
What keeps Scott from putting the musical on her shoulders and running down Rt. 9 with it is Stephen DeRosa as Moonface, the play’s unlikely jester, a criminal who keeps genially offering to help out by killing inconvenient people. The script for this production is essentially the 2011 Sutton Foster revival, and it has been peppered up with Grouchoesque and Pythonian absurdities of the first rank. I think it’s safe to call DeRosa a Marxist. Without ever being in danger of aping Groucho, he channels that particular comic gestalt with his delivery, his physicality and his multi-phasic mood disorder, which allows him to pivot effortlessly into different states of mind. He’s so funny that he got his biggest laugh from me on a flubbed line. “Have you ever been in jail in Cicero?” he asks leading man David Harris. “I’m not talking about the old jail. I
mean the old, old jail!” That’s not how the line goes, but he found something crazy-funny in his mistake. I wasn’t the only one howling. There was a strange, protracted, honking laugh coming from three rows back, and it was emanating from Goldstein, the director. By the time DeRosa does his final number, “Be Like the Bluebird,” which could be kind of a throwaway, I was already laughing during the set-up. He had stripped away all my resistance by that point. Fans of
“Boardwalk Empire” will remember DeRosa as Eddie Cantor, a supporting part he mined for so many interesting shades that I began to think the writers were beefing up his role just to see what else he could do.

The rest of cast is a deep bench. Everybody can do his or her job very well. Wrong-footedness isn’t on the menu.
And then in the second act, Benamin Howes, as the foppish British peer, damn near stops the show with a tour de force on
“The Gypsy in Me,” which is a terrific meta-moment. It turns out there’s much more to that character, which is revealed just as we discover there is much more to this performer.
OK. I’ll stop. I should say something negative. The title dance sequence was under-lighted, and Goldstein should take the visual joke out of “All Through the Night,” which deserves to breathe on its own. That’s all I can think of.
Actually, all I can think of right now is whether I should go back and see it again.


Scalia: De Mortuis Nil Nisi Bonum (et Malum)

by Categorized: God, Politix, press criticism Date:

Back in 1994, there was no Twitter. Maybe that’s why the rantings of Hunter S. Thompson, upon the death of Richard M. Nixon, really stood out.

If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.

That was HST being HST. Nobody was much like him, and he was not much like anyone else. Two weeks before Antonin Scalia died, the NYT published this rather prescient essay.  Because in 2016, we are all gonzos on this bus.

We all know what happened on Saturday night. Twitter erupted in an obituary firefight. Partisans on both sides dug in and began shooting. A typical trope: “In Lieu of flowers, the Scalia‘s [sic] ask that you go out and kick a homeless person tonight.”

Some of the journalists I respect most made eloquent and persuasive-seeming arguments for pumping as many rounds as possible into the good justice before rigor mortis set in. Glenn Greenwald: “The ONLY reason we’re talking about him is because of his political impact. So of course it should be politicized.” Jack Shafer: “It would be particularly strange to withhold our opinions of a man, newly dead, who wrote opinions for a living.” Dave Zirin: “If you are unable to assign ugly truths and actual history to someone’s legacy after they die, you get airports named after Ronald Reagan.”

Yes but.

I love Zirin, but the notion that, if we had only crapped on Reagan harder in those vital 48 hours after his death, Americans would not have named stuff after him, rings false.

Speaking of false, Bianca Jagger or someone tweeting as her offered this: “I have never forgotten this quote ‘Mere factual innocence is no reason not to carry out a death sentence properly reached’.” This was heavily retweeted. It appears not to be real. Not far from his actual sentiment, but not words that really came from Scalia.

I was frequently appalled by Scalia’s opinions and shocked by the way he talked about his fellow Americans. It would be fair to say that he stoked the very blaze that is scorching his memory now. As we turned into “Animal House,” he was an avid food-fighter.

Yes but.

The counter-argument has less to do with the way we poison the market of expression and more to do with how we poison ourselves. Nobody would argue — especially after the Republican debate that followed Scalia’s death — that we suffer from a surfeit of decorum here in 2016. We have tiny little islands of decency in our stormy, venomous sea. You can argue that those islands just get in the way of what you want to do. Or you can argue for (at solemn moments) swimming toward those islands, hauling yourself up on the sand and taking a little breather. Death, for the dead, is the ultimate caesura. For the rest of us maybe it’s a smaller caesura, a tiny musical moment when we stop our bickering and remind ourselves to be human.

Jesus (I’m paraphrasing) says we can’t give up on anybody, even people like Scalia who appear to have given up on many others. Give yourself a few days to ponder the way you and Scalia are bound by forces more elevated than hate. If you really need to think about it this way: be a little better than he frequently was. Don’t worry. Nobody’s renaming any airports until the cold weather breaks.


Hang By Your Thumbs: Bye-Bye Bob Elliott

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This is going to sound a little name-droppy, but I was interviewing Paula Poundstone Wednesday, and we got on the subject of Bob and Ray. We both grew up as comedy nerds and we both owned copies of a book of B&R scripts which we read obsessively.

bobNeither one one us was aware that the death of Bob Elliott had just been announced, but producer Betsy Kaplan typed that news onto my screen and I shared it with Paula. (You’ll hear this interview — which sprawls all over the place — the week of the 15th.) So we had a moment to digest that news together.

The spoken material of comedians often doesn’t look that good on paper, but Bob and Ray were sublimely readable. One reason for this, of course, is that they never relied much on delivery. Someone once wrote that they looked like bank presidents. Their occasional attempts to do other voices sounded pretty much like their own voices. Contrast them to, say, Jon Stewart, the most vocally virtuosic comic of his generation, with that arsenal of whispers and screams and everything in between. The other reason is that Bob and Ray’s premises, when described, are intrinsically hilarious. To wit:

Among the hundreds of memorable characters Bob and Ray have created is Farley Plummer from Tulsa, one of their ”hard luck cases” who is 10 1/2 inches tall and has spent his life savings to come to New York to have his ”tiny little teeth” fixed. Bob and Ray give him a deluxe racing bike and Plummer complains. Bob cuts him off with, ”No thanks are necessary, sir. Just seeing the smile on your little face is enough. And now back over to Ray at our main anchor desk.”

Another B&R trope contained in that description was incompletely contained indignation. One of their bits involved a man who kept wild boars in his New York apartment and took them out into Central (a name he struggled to remember) Park to look for truffles. When the interviewer calmly raised the possibility that it might be cruel to keep wild boars in such a small space, the gentleman blustered, “I didn’t come here to be insulted!”

None of us do. The night before the news of Bob’s death came, I happened to be watching the PBS special on Mike Nichols, and Nichols said this amazing thing about comedy: There are two reasons to say something. One is that it’s funny. The other is that it’s you. By “you,” he meant universal. The best comedy scrapes against some bare wire in the human experience. Bob and Ray kept walking us into these hilarious dungeons in which somebody was impossibly inept or didn’t get it or was missing some giant piece of life’s puzzle. And the thing is, we live in these dungeons. Think about your week. I can almost guarantee you ran into one of their characters. We really do feel, a lot of the time, like a 10.5-inch man being given a deluxe racing bike.

Nichols is the right guy to quote because he and Elaine May were another important doubles team in the 1960s. Both duos did the opposite of today’s smash-mouth comedy. They made you do a little of the mental work. My father, another Bob, loved them for that reason. It hardly needs to be said the Bob and Ray did not traffic in profanity, sex or anything else that smelled cheap. They perfected the soft, placid tennis stroke that Garrison Keillor, at his very best, would later lob for game-winners.

Many of Bob and Ray’s bumbling characters seem to have arrived at the wrong place at the wrong time, which was a little bit of their own vibe as performers. Elliott famously said, “By the time we figured out we were introverts, it was too late to do anything about it.” They often seemed mildly perplexed to find themselves onstage.

They also kept at it, right up to Ray’s death. Their 1980s NPR show was full of treasures including, as I recall, a “name that song” contest. The song was always “Begin the Beguine,” but the characters who called up never seemed to know that. One week a man (Ray) called in and asked if it was the Star-Spangled Banner. No, said Bob, it was “Begin the Beguine.” How could the caller have confused the two? “I work in a machine shop,” said Ray. “It’s very loud here, and I couldn’t hear what you were playing, but there were some people across the way who seemed to be standing at attention, so I took a guess.”

Some of the Elliotts live, off and on, in Old Lyme. I’m always hoping I run into one, so I can thank them, on behalf of myself and Bob McEnroe, for stuff like that. And now…