Not Necessarily Not the News

logos and photos courtesy Comedy Central press relations, composited by BSL

I haven't been able to update the blog for a couple of weeks now, so it's a good time to polish and publish a post that's been hanging around for months.

The "fake news" block of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report on Comedy Central is a great one-two punch of laughter four nights a week — spiked punch, to totally mix a metaphor. The first act of last Wednesday's Daily Show is pretty much a perfect example of Stewart and his crew at work, eviscerating the bizarrely persistent idea that our current President was not in fact born in the USA.

I've put those quotation marks around "fake news" because the shows offer "fake" reportage and commentary in much the same way that Spinal Tap is a "fake band": Guest, McKean, & Shearer really compose songs, play instruments, record albums, and even perform in concert, but as characters whose attitude and subject matter poke stone-faced fun at the whole enterprise. While parody, they also entertain as accomplished practitioners of what they're parodying. Adding satire to that mix, Report's would-be conservative pundit Stephen Colbert (alter ego of actor/comedian Stephen Colbert) and The Daily Show's smug, stentorian correspondents are insightful as they're being inciteful, with anchorman Stewart really the only person among the TDS/TCR team who isn't putting on a persona.

[Update: Not long after the above was written I discovered that Spinal Tap — Blogger won't let me add the umlaut over the n, sorry — had serendipitously been on Daily earlier that night. As a bonus, the opening segment of the episode shows that Stewart is hardly a knee-jerk apologist for Obama. That night's Colbert then featured a visit from Orly Taitz, the attorney, dentist, real-estate agent, and Obama birth-certificate disbeliever seen via the clip two paragraphs up.]

Stewart and Colbert both embrace a conspiratorial relationship with their viewers. The punchily pontificating Colbert refers often to his Nation, echoing Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, while Stewart plays off of his live studio audience and to those at home more traditionally, akin to late-night brethren David Letterman and Conan O'Brien but without the monologue. After Craig Kilborn left Daily a decade back for the après-Letterman Late Late Show (where Craig Ferguson now resides), Stewart took the show in a much more political direction with writer/producers and The Onion expatriates Ben Karlin & David Javerbaum. Stewart entered as the lone voice of reason — sometimes nebbishy, sometimes outraged, often both — in a coterie of correspondents and special contributors who (pre)tend to be either outright clueless or self-absorbedly above it all.

The clueless contingent ranges from Greg Brady lookalike Jason Jones and recently departed doofus Rob Riggle to such successful alumni as Colbert himself, The Hangover's Ed Helms, and Steve Carrell of The Office and Anchorman fame. Among the above-it-all opinionators are the too-infrequent John Hodgman, Resident Expert, and generally bemused Senior Black Correspondent Larry Wilmore. The Daily Show's most surprising and most glaring deficiency has been its dearth of female and minority writers and performers, in fact, despite having been created by women (Lizz Winstead & Madeline Smithberg); Samantha Bee is the lone on-camera gal save for a recent handful of appearances by delightfully ditzy Kristen Schaal, and only lately have Wilmore's periodic color commentaries been supplemented by correspondent Aasif Mandvi (even more insufferable than his most unbearable actual-journalist counterparts) and now Wyatt Cenac. There's also the quite British, terribly white regular John Oliver and long-running contributor Lewis Black, Daily's angry, Jewish answer to Andy Rooney.

Stewart has belittled The Daily Show's importance in interviews and even on the show itself, believably frightened by the idea that anyone would rely on his telecast for the news. The truth is that you wouldn't get much of his or Colbert's humor if you weren't already informed, however, making even the sillier or slighter gags somewhat sophisticated in nature. Although the humor occasionally veers towards the juvenile, or at the opposite extreme Stewart often leaves guests whose position he opposes too little opportunity to respond, the show is laudable for its clever wordplay, willingness to engage real issues clearly, and humor that comes simply from lack of commentary, from observation, from connecting the dots to reveal how disingenuous or sometimes just plain dumb politicians and fellow members of the fourth estate can be.

Those who dismiss The Daily Show as just a longer version of Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update are off the mark; it has more depth than that or even than the BBC's pioneering Not the Nine O'Clock News, from whose American HBO spinoff, Not Necessarily the News, this post takes its name. The half-hour Thursday editions of Update that aired during last fall's Presidential campaign were quite welcome, but Stewart does more than read jokes based on news headlines, and there are no actors doing impressions in sketches. The Colbert Report, by contrast, can be seen as one long sketch that's been going since its inception. Colbert recently did a week's worth of shows for the troops in Iraq, while Daily correspondent Jones and producer Tim Greenberg found themselves freely exploring Iran just last month; in neither case were the shows merely, severely committing to the gag by going on location.

Colbert turns in a remarkable performance, and as a bonus often supports worthy charities amidst his blowhard buffoonery, but I find Daily more essential. Stewart tackles issues with both wit and great empathy for the average citizen, frequently actually making sense out of confusing stuff. Whatever real or concocted threats we face, from war to financial crisis to attacks on civil liberties, I can't help but feel that as long as this guy and his friends are out there deflating authority and speaking, as they say, truth to power, we'll be all right. How's that for a Moment of Zen?

Pros in Cons

Leverage is a delight of a TV show whose second season begins tonight at 9 p.m. ET on TNT. For maximum enjoyment you should record it and buy or rent the just-released first season on DVD, although I have a feeling you'll get everything you need to know from tonight's season opener. [Update: Yeesh... Not their best episode.]

When the pilot arrived as a screener last December I was impressed. The network hiatus of most new programming over the winter holidays and, especially, the summer affords basic-cable channels the perfect opportunity to hook hungry viewers on new series — and for many folks it's just icing on the cake if they're genuinely good. Leverage introduced its premise with a caper reminiscent of "rogues turned Robin Hood" heist movies like Sneakers and The Italian Job: Timothy Hutton is a former insurance-claim investigator whose bosses denied his son a potentially lifesaving treatment. Getting both mad and even, he assembles a gang of thieves to bring justice to those who've been wronged by the moneyed and powerful but corrupt (I say "but" instead of "and" again because, hey, the financial elite aren't always corrupt... Right?). For me the next episode was quite a come-down from the pilot, but I stuck with the series and enjoyed it on balance as more than just a guilty pleasure.

The well-intentioned scams and character interplay are equally satisfying, with slow but steady revelations about the characters' pasts and similar developments in the group dynamics. My favorite is Beth Riesgraf's kookily amoral master burglar Parker, baffled by conventional personal interaction and flirting to her own confusion with tech wizard Alec Hardison, played by Aldis Hodge. Rounding out the cast are Christian Kane's Eliot Spencer, a firearm-averse combat genius, and Gina Bellman's Sophie Devereaux, a grifter who has dreams of legitimate acting success as well as a complicated budding relationship with Hutton's Nathan Ford. Leverage's renewal early this year was very welcome news, and I look forward to another batch of cons in service of both the have-not underdog and these misfit malcontents' own redemption.

Waking on the Moon

last post was about the moon. This one is about the new film Moon, directed by Duncan Jones.

It opens with an in-story promotional video explaining that a Helium isotope abundant on the moon is now mined there to provide much of Earth's power. The lone man monitoring the collection of the isotope is Sam Bell, played by Sam Rockwell. A robotic apparatus called Gerty is his only company; with satellite communications down Sam can't even talk to his employers at Lunar Industries, let alone his wife and daughter, in real time. Thankfully his three-year hitch, darn near driving him crazy, is almost up. Or maybe it's driven him crazy already? (Gerty is voiced by Kevin Spacey in a tone akin to that of 2001's HAL, adding to its potential menace.)

The above is even more than I knew of Moon going into it, and it's best that way. I was expecting a meditation on extreme isolation in a speculative-fiction context, and initially got just that, but there came a pivotal plot development revealed by most reviews I've since read. (Another name for science fiction, or SF, "speculative fiction" is used by some to connote greater emphasis on realistic exploration of sociology or psychology within a plausibly fantastic or futuristic scenario; put another way, it's less about style and more about substance than much popular "sci-fi" today.) Even the film's official website quickly hits upon a central conflict that I think is better left hidden, although once it's introduced the viewer is still unsure of where the story is going for quite some time. After you've seen the film, there's much of interest in the press kit provided by Sony Pictures Classics.

If you've read anything about Moon you likely know that director Jones, who devised the story adapted for the screen by Nathan Parker, is the son of David Bowie; born David Jones, Bowie referred to Duncan during his youth by his middle name Zowie. Had this relationship not existed, Bowie's song "Space Oddity" would still have come to mind during the film, as both present us with a cloistered astronaut confronting a perhaps literal, perhaps conceptual paradigm shift in his reality. Another serendipity that struck was the discovery that Trudie Styler, wife of Sting, was one of the film's producers; The Police's "Walking on the Moon" was in my head on the way out of the theater and got tweaked for this post's title. (Sting's oevre also includes "Sister Moon" and "Moon over Bourbon Street", but they're not as literally lunar.) In the antonymic direction, Moon includes the most amusing usage of Katrina and the Waves' hit "Walking on Sunshine" in a dramatic film to date, but its actual score, composed by Clint Mansell, is as appropriately evocative as its sets and cinematography.

Spoilers are fine in the comments section for anyone who'd like to discuss.

Moon Shot

The moon was big and lovely the other night.

I didn't check, but it may have been at its perigee, the point at which its elliptical orbit brings it closest to us. That word and its opposite, apogee, refer to any planetary body in relation to Earth, not specifically the moon, and they've stuck with me since my highly enjoyable 6th-grade geology/astronomy class — along with the more euphonious terms for our proximity to the sun over the course of Earth's annual revolution: perihelion and aphelion (pronounced not "ap-heel-yin" but "ah-feel-yin"; think the Irene Cara number from Flashdance). Wikipedia gives terminology for the distances of objects orbiting various heavenly bodies at the entry for apsis, and there are a trinity of pairings variously used to describe something — a NASA lunar shuttle, say — in orbit around the moon.

Our full moon the other night was a Buck Moon, I learned from the 11 o'clock news, as July is when deer push out new antlers. The only full-moon nomenclature I'd known before this was October's Harvest Moon, thanks perhaps to its continued relevance or simply my affinity for the month of my birth. You can find a full list of the full moons' traditional titles and variants at the Farmers Almanac website or on the National Weather Service page from which the above image of a Harvest Moon was taken.

I referred to the low, big, golden-orange moon as a paper moon when describing it to my mother, thinking that this term came from its curious resemblance (despite its actual density) to the rice paper aglow in a paper lantern. This would seem to not exactly be the case; the term paper moon refers to a spherical paper lantern — meaning that the kind of moon we call a paper moon has, in life imitating art imitating life, been named after a paper lantern that resembles a moon! The film Paper Moon and popular standard "It's Only a Paper Moon" have also worked their way into our collective consciousness, of course.

The moon has given us numerous evocative songs, almost all of which, along with the haunting beauty of the moon in our sky itself, strike me as more moving than the desolation of the moon's surface, setting of the new film Moon. But more on that in my next post.

K-a Boodle

CAPA-Alpha superhero mascot sitting in plush chair pensively, by the drawing board, with large question marks over him

I drew the picture above 15 years ago for CAPA-Alpha #362.

'Bot Man

Transformers still
Transformers movie still © 2007 DreamWorks & Paramount; likeness is a trademark of Hasbro.

I was "oh-fer" in my last entries for The Late Show's online Top Ten Contest. Once I'd recovered from shock over seeing the actual winners, not at all bitter, I went into some kind of fugue state and came up with no fewer than a dozen submissions for the next week's edition.

My Top Twelve Signs You've Encountered a Lame Transformer

12. Only turns into other robots.

11. Is writing a tell-all memoir about its wild night with Jay Leno's motorcycle collection.

10. Keeps referring to your Obama bumper sticker as a "tramp stamp".

30 Days (and 17 Years) of Night

[Update, One Year Later: What a difference another 12 months make!
Some of the links related to the NBC shows, predictably, no longer work.]

Has it really been a month since Conan O'Brien's debut as host of The Tonight Show?

I took a look out of curiosity and respect — both for Conan and for
the institution. The filmed opening was funny, but the rest of the taped bits offered diminishing returns and my Will Ferrell saturation point was reached long ago, so the real take-away was just a vague excitement for the sake of the zeitgeist. One also has to wonder just what NBC has done to the TV landscape by slotting Jay Leno at 10 p.m. weeknights come the fall.

While it was past my bedtime on school days for most of its run,
Johnny Carson's tenure on Tonight was a comforting indulgence during summers and holidays. Our mother, an inveterate night owl, trusted my sister and me to get the sleep we needed, be up when necessary the next morning, and handle anything risqué that didn't fly over our heads. This might make her parenting sound more lax than it actually was, but we — or at least I, during that time when our 2.5-year age difference actually meant something — fondly remember not just Johnny but the early years of Saturday Night Live. I loved Steve Martin from his SNL appearances, The Jerk, and his record albums (still have my "King Tut" 45 somewhere), and to this day I mentally giggle at him opening up the couch next to Johnny's desk into a sofa bed one night so that he could feel as comfortable as he did watching the show at home. Johnny's final Tonight aired the Friday of commencement weekend my senior year in college. I had another semester to go, thanks to my migraines and a poorly timed bout with mono, and so was free to watch the elegant Mr. Carson "bid [us] all a very heartfelt goodnight." He was a class act.

I don't know if "class" is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Conan; then again, Johnny had his fair share of off-color bits for his time (and those silly Mighty Carson Art Players skits). Given the general coarsening of our culture it's hard to begrudge any of the late-night talk shows their blue humor — as long as it's funny — in the FCC's "safe harbor" hours, when explicitly naughty stuff still gets blurred and bleeped (as does normally mundane material in Jimmy Kimmel Live's hilarious Great Moments in Unnecessary Censorship). Seems to me that irreverence has been a staple of The Tonight Show since the days of Steve Allen, but so were flair and intelligence until we hit Leno.

My laptop's dictionary defines "a class act" as "a person or thing displaying impressive and stylish excellence," and after the woeful (yet undeniably popular) Leno it appears safe to say that with Conan we have the closest thing to that definition we're likely to get in today's world. I rarely watched Jay as Johnny's permanent guest host; once he took over Tonight, his utter lack of personal appeal to me combined with the way he got the job over David Letterman in the first place and his manager-turned-producer's subsequent dirty pool — like the threats of blacklisting talent who did Arsenio or Letterman's Late Show after Dave jumped from NBC to CBS... well, I soon realized that even when intriguing guests were scheduled on Leno's version of Tonight the only thing I actually liked about it was the saxophone theme that Branford Marsalis composed for the end credits; soon, Marsalis was gone as bandleader and I had Dave to watch at 11:35.

While I charged Leno in March with three strikes at the plate as a late-night host, according to reports he did have one quality essential to the job: work ethic. And to be fair, I'm not sure what NBC executives were thinking when Jay became Johnny's exclusive substitute. Did they assume that Dave would stay on NBC at 12:30 when Jay took the reins? Or did they figure that Jay would continue guest-hosting Tonight with Dave as headliner, despite their disparate styles? If Letterman was happy continuing his quirkier comedy at the later hour, then Leno's succession to the lead spot looked like a done deal given his frequent face time and favorable ratings as Carson's stand-in, but Dave had been perfecting his own brand of witching-hour wit — with the (understandable) understanding that when his idol retired he'd be stepping in; from a sympathetic perspective, it's as if he were penalized for not being available to sub for Johnny because he was busy providing NBC with another solid, critically acclaimed hour of programming. Could there possibly have been a scenario in which this played out cleanly? An excerpt from New York Times reporter Bill Carter's contemporarily infamous book about the affair, The Late Shift, is available online.

As much as I enjoyed Johnny's reign as America's golf buddy, uncle, or grandpa — and I remember the days of The Tonight Show running 'til 1 a.m. ("Kids," as Bob Saget intones in voice-over on How I Met Your Mother, "there was a time when a white-haired man from Nebraska ruled the airwaves with a softspoken manner, perfectly timed reaction shot, and effortless interviewing style") — it was Letterman or SNL that we talked about in high school. While the days of Dave outfitting himself in Velcro or Alka-Seltzer may be over, and I dearly wish he would drop things off the roof more often, his impishness has merely transformed, not vanished, with age. He's the establishment now, with Johnny's time slot and nearly three decades of hosting under his belt, but there was always some of the curmudgeon in his punk behavior; the ratio has simply flipped.

Just as Conan has spoken freely about his debt to Dave, from whom he inherited NBC's Late Night, so have his own successor Jimmy Fallon and ABC's Jimmy Kimmel. Their shows both have obvious Carson DNA — not just as processed by Letterman, but also through the nearly unbreakable codification of the talk-show format — yet tellingly neither of them cites Leno as an influence. The Daily Show's Jon Stewart, frequently mentioned in scenarios involving Letterman's retirement or Fox's bid for entry into weeknights, movingly referenced Dave in accepting an Emmy last year; he's quickly catching up to Dave in the Emmy count (plus, his show has two Peabodys, one more than either Carson or Letterman) and despite Comedy Central's relatively small audience compared to the broadcast networks' he may well be more comfortable doing his brand of socio-political satire than the more traditional sort of show he once hosted on MTV.

When it comes to my particular eyeballs, in fact, Fallon's
Late Night has actually been the biggest beneficiary of Conan's move. Craig Ferguson's incarnation of The Late Late Show after Dave is easily the freshest thing to hit the talk-show sphere in years, but even if I'm staying up to catch one of his interviews after the marvelously freewheeling monologue I don't have much patience for the bits between that and the guests, so I've hopped over to Fallon on occasion. He's the first late-night network host younger than I am, which is weird, but his unpolished interaction at the desk — a skill that I freely admit is harder to hone than most people would think — is often excruciating; I cringed just describing to my cousin Fallon's painful patter with Steve Martin and Paul Simon last month. The Roots are indeed the best band in late night, however, with all due respect to Max Weinberg's new Tonight Show crew and Paul Schaffer's CBS Orchestra on The Late Show, formerly known as The World's Most Dangerous Band. I tuned into Late Night last Friday to see Fallon and Cameron Diaz screaming mundane conversation at one another, and stayed for a crazy segment in which Diaz set a world record for sharing a hammock with rabbits, The Roots' tributes to Michael Jackson, and a performance from the compelling quartet Grizzly Bear, to whom I was introduced last year by Ferguson.

The recently naturalized Scottish American has invited his favorite authors on the show and devoted an entire hour to Ringo Starr just because he can. He speaks openly (and usually comically) about his past substance abuse, lending even more weight to the serious monologue he delivered last year explaining why he wouldn't be making jokes at Britney Spears' expense. David Letterman has similarly used his position as something of a bully pulpit, especially since September 11th, 2001, speaking frankly with journalists and newsmakers about issues faced by our country and the world, likely feeling new obligations since his late-in-life fatherhood. Whenever he decides to retire from
The Late Show, I hope he'll continue such conversations in some venue; perhaps he could switch slots with Ferguson and return The Late Late Show to the format it had when he hand-picked Tom Snyder — whose Tomorrow aired after Johnny Carson's Tonight before Letterman came along — to follow him at 12:30 upon his move to CBS.

I've probably seen more of The Tonight Show over the past month than I did during Jay Leno's entire stretch, and while Conan was fine I really don't need him. The month progressed with me very quickly forgetting to click over to check him out, even for guests I was anticipating, much as happens with Kimmel; there's always the Chelsea Lately roundtable to play back during commercials while watching Letterman, or when he's in repeats Stewart's Daily Show and its follow-up The Colbert Report — which are can't-miss for me but often get time-shifted to the weekend. I suspect that while folks older than my mother (who has just a couple of years on Dave) and a fair number of more conservative viewers in general will enjoy Leno at 10, perhaps to Conan's detriment, the hip ex-hippies of her generation who don't already forego chat-and-comedy for either Nightline, some before-bed reading, or sleep will keep Letterman at least stable in the ratings, having matured with him, while the perfectly affable Conan may come off as just a tad too strange or unfamilar even as he tries to open up his comedy tent to the greater number of guests and potential viewers that come with Tonight's territory.

What are your thoughts on the state of late-night television and my own loquacious contemplations thereof? The comments section is open!

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