James Tracy, Our Digital Martyr

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Dear Comrades:

James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing Academy, has a vision. While the academy has acquired a library of some 200,000 volumes over its 144-year history, Mr. Tracy believes that the future is digital. There is no need for the books.

To those who would deny the human species these bold and seemingly thoughtless steps forward in the name of progress, I submit that James Tracy is only scratching the surface. As someone who has been recognized by Wikipedia as “an expert in digital transition,” I have assembled a Committee to examine the purpose of James Tracy. The Committee has spent several hours paying continuous partial attention. It has illegally downloaded torrents, played several rounds of Left 4 Dead, and studied Mr. Tracy’s present life and sinecure. We are experts here. More importantly, we are correct. Do not argue with us. The Committee has multitasked and, in so doing, determined many viable solutions to the James Tracy problem. After some thought, we have concluded that there are presently very few reasons for the analog unit known as James Tracy to continue inhabiting this planet in his present form. We propose the following digital augmentations:

1. The removal of Mr. Tracy’s penis: The penis has served humanity quite well for thousands of years. But when I look upon the penis today, I see an outdated technology. I don’t wish to discourage Mr. Tracy from fucking his wife, if that is his choice. But this is an outdated form of sexuality. And our conversations with Mrs. Tracy, which were conducted in a sleazy motel room, indicate that she too is hoping to march forward with new digital possibilities. Moreover, there is a considerable hypocrisy to Mr. Tracy removing outdated books from the Cushing library while simultaneously maintaining his outdated penis. And the Committee recognizes that digital forms of sexual intercourse do not require anything as messy or as indecent as ejaculation. There is, of course, the problem of used condoms and Kleenex getting in the way of sleek digital efficiency. Since the machines (along with the Committee) have insisted that trivial feelings such as passion and lust often get in the way of the noble pursuits of knowledge and erudition, we must therefore conclude that Mr. Tracy should set an example and remove his penis. Furthermore, the Committee wishes to spend nearly $500,000 to create a “digital sexuality center,” whereby students and faculty members of Cushing will receive voluntary castrations and purge any lingering sexual instincts through flat-screen TVs projecting pornography from the Internet. These outdated forms of sexuality will be upgraded during the digital revolution.

2. An end to Mr. Tracy’s salary: It is now commonly accepted by the digerati that “the information wants to be free.” Therefore, why should Mr. Tracy expect money for his services? As Chris Anderson has suggested, a machine wouldn’t expect to be paid. No, let Mr. Tracy serve as headmaster on his own time and look upon his Cushing duties in the same manner that a hobbyist takes up stamp collecting. It is frankly insulting for Mr. Tracy to expect money for his human services, when he has clearly set himself up for the efficient and inhuman tasks that will be necessary in the new digital age. Let him find other ways to pay his mortgage. Our committee suggests that he take up a perch at an Arby’s drive-thru window.

3. An iPod permanently welded to Mr. Tracy’s brain. We want to ensure that Mr. Tracy continues to learn. And since those dusty analog books will no longer be available, we believe we can now control the precise conditions in which Mr. Tracy approaches literature. Therefore, the Committee allocates $15,000 to drill two eco-friendly holes into Mr. Tracy’s head so that we can transmit books in audio form and control the precise manner in which he engages with books. One of the Committee’s members had considered electrocuting Mr. Tracy should he fail to understand the audio piped into his head, but we were reminded of the unethical nature of Stanley Milgram’s obedience studies. Fortunately, when Mr. Tracy was hired as Cushing headmaster, he forfeited all of his individual rights, giving Cushing complete surgical control for a new digital tomorrow. We also plan to allocate $30,000 a year to employ two part-time students to beam books into Mr. Tracy’s brain 24/7, which will ensure that at least two bucking lads from Cushing don’t go hungry.

4. Burning all of Mr. Tracy’s books, papers, and mementos. It is unacceptable for Mr. Tracy to maintain analog books and papers in his office. It is also unsightly for family photographs and other needless personal trinkets to infect the forthcoming digital sterility. The Committee therefore recommends the complete incineration of any form of paper found in Mr. Tracy’s office. If Mr. Tracy is seen opening an unfolded piece of paper from his pocket, we will have the newly formed Cushing Fire Brigade incinerate it on sight. We realize that these steps may cause Mr. Tracy to obtain third-degree burns. But let’s not let a little collateral damage impede our necessary progress. You can’t have revolution without risk.

5. Legally changing Mr Tracy’s name. Let’s face it. The name “James Tracy” sounds like one of those outmoded characters from a Frank Capra film. And nobody who participates on a social network believes in Frank Capra anymore. Fortunately, the Committee has consulted a branding firm and we have decided that “Jimbo” — no James, no Tracy, just one name: Jimbo — is a better appellation with which Mr. Tracy can “get down with the kids.” The Committee has already confiscated the nameplate in Mr. Tracy’s office and replaced it with the $15,000 Jimbo logo that will make Cushing a standout among all East Coast prep schools. This will be followed by a legal name change. Any student or faculty member caught using “James” or “Mr. Tracy” will be instantly expelled from the academy.

We trust that these digital augmentations will be executed at the earliest possible opportunity.

Sincerely,

James Fennimore Coupland
Acting President, The Cushing Academy Committee

(Image: Mark Wilson)

The Bat Segundo Show: Dick Cavett

Dick Cavett appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #305.

Dick Cavett’s column, “Talk Show,” regularly appears at the New York Times.

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(PROGRAM NOTE: During the course of our conversation, a “Professor Robert Castelli from John Jay College” — who apparently has a background in law enforcement — pushed in Mr. Cavett’s chair, causing Mr. Cavett to accost him. This unusual social moment, which was resolved with bonhomie, can be experienced at the 38:04 mark.)

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Examining his birth certificate for potential Nebraskan roots.

Guest: Dick Cavett

Subjects Discussed: Books that Cavett may or may not have authored, jobs that Cavett has worked, being a professional magician as a teenager, Cavett’s brief career as a caddy, humorless Germans, James Ellroy, starting the Caddies Hall of Fame, Groucho Marx’s golf ball-enhanced hat, stalking Jack Paar in the bathroom, the dreadful cliche “It’s who you know, not what you know,” being drawn to living with showbiz people, Paul Douglas, meeting Groucho at George S. Kaufman’s funeral, Studs Terkel, being born with the showbiz urge, fame vs. ideas, whether or not showbiz people are “real” people, Nixon’s blue-suit adventures in Montauk, separating the real Cavett from the telegenic Cavett, Johnny Carson’s failure to remember his guest lineup that night, learning how to listen over the years, real listening vs. telegenic listening, Jimmy Fallon, on not relying on a catalog of quips, overpreparing for an interview, advice Cavett picked up from Jack Paar, the icky word “share,” Werner Erhard and est, “oversharing,” Twitter, on not getting Mike Nichols on the show, interviews vs. conversations, when Cavett had to telephone potential guests to get them on the show, Frank Sinatra, Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” secretly taping a telephone conversation with Marlon Brando, phrases that Brando used, Cary Grant, having to contend with armies of publicists, the worthlessness of many present talk show appearances, talent coordinators, allegations from 1960s Toronto journalists that Cavett was “attractively functional,” the bright orange shag rug on the ABC set, being bombarded by constant information and subwindows on television, TV as GUI, why Cavett didn’t renew his six-year contract at CNBC, the mispronunciation of “nuclear,” David Frost, the problems with occupying vacant rooms, Peter Ustinov, claims from executives that people won’t sit still for a long-form interview, the relationship between William Peter Blatty’s appearance and the success of The Exorcist, the number of panties that Cavett has received over the years, resistance from ABC, the infamous Norman Mailer-Gore Vidal show, the Mailer-Torn brawl, Of a Small and Modest Malignancy, Wicked and Bristling with Dots, the Lillian Hellman/Mary McCarthy feud, making sure that writers could talk on television, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart as “the most trusted newsman in America.”

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

cavettCorrespondent: I’m curious about this period of you coming to New York. Coming into town. You’re on the prowl trying to get work as an actor. Before you eventually become a copy boy for Time Magazine.

Cavett: That’s right. I finally made it. (laughs)

Correspondent: I should point out that your efforts to befriend numerous showbiz figures here in New York would in some cases, by today’s standards, be considered stalking. You know, Jack Paar in the bathroom and all that.

Cavett: Yeah.

Correspondent: I’m curious. Were you drawn by the notion of “It’s who you know rather than what you know” — or what was the impetus for this?

Cavett: I had heard that dreadful cliche, usually used in the same conversation as “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like” and “Some of my best friends are Jews.” In fact, two friends of mine used all three one evening and hit the jackpot. But anyway to get to your question.

Correspondent: Wow. And they’re still your friends?

Cavett: They’re both dead. So I don’t see them that often.

Correspondent: Using the phrase has killed them, I presume.

Cavett: It mighta. If cliches could kill.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Cavett: But what was the one we were working on?

Correspondent: Oh, we were kinda talking about who you know.

Cavett: Oh, who you know. Nobody ever says, “It’s whom you know.”

Correspondent: No, they don’t.

Cavett: Even though my father was an English teacher, I never did. And I was just drawn to famous successful showbiz people and wanted to live among them.

Correspondent: Really.

Cavett: Be one of them. And that took me to accost — on my first day in New York — Dave Garroway, who was out in front of the Today Show window. And speaking of making it around as an actor, one day, the great Paul Douglas — film actor for those of us older than 30 — was standing next to me waiting for a light to change waiting on Madison Avenue. And I said, “Mr. Douglas, where would you go to look for work today as an actor?” And he said, “I couldn’t answer,” and walked on. (laughs) He wasn’t impolite.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Cavett: He told the truth.

Correspondent: He probably had to get to an appointment. I’m sure it wasn’t anything personal.

Cavett: I still love him in the movies.

Correspondent: But you managed to coax Groucho into buying you lunch. And I’m curious if it was a scenario involving charisma or blackmail. I mean, what happened here? What did you attribute your ability to get on with so many people? So many bigwigs here? Or did you stalk them all like Jack Paar?

Cavett: Well, I’ve never given that much thought. I don’t know what it is. Something in me appealed to him apparently enough. I met him at George S. Kaufman’s funeral — or after it on the street. Groucho was starting to come down Fifth Avenue. Puerto Rican Day Parade booming along beside. And I said, “Groucho, I’m a big fan of yours.” Then he said, “Well, if we get any hotter, I can use a big fan.” I should have said “gets any hotter,” which is what he said. Retake. (laughs) And Groucho said, “Well if it gets any hotter, I can use a big fan.” There. That’s right, isn’t it?

Correspondent: Yeah, sure. Sure.

Cavett: Yeah. And the joke still works.

Correspondent: Yeah, it does.

Cavett: Even though it was years and years ago.

Correspondent: Actually, we should have six different attempts at this joke.

Cavett: Yeah.

Correspondent: Just to show the Cavett mind.

Cavett: Well, it shows the Groucho mind in a way. Because I never saw him misspeak a joke or a line. I only saw Hope, who I used to worship and watch and hang around when I was working for Carson/Parr. When we were out in California, I would watch Hope tape his show all the time. Once or twice, he would blow a monologue or a joke, and get a bigger laugh about doing that. As Johnny could.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Cavett: And really any good comic could. But where was I? Oh, Groucho. So we started walking down the street and chatting. Beautiful day. And I remember thinking, “This may be the best day of my life.” And I’m still not sure it was not. When we got all the way down the Plaza, where he was lunching — alone. And on the way down, he insulted every doorman. And then a Puerto Rican man in a bright suit happily enjoying his day saw Groucho and made a great grin. And he said, “Com-e-dy!” (laughs)

Correspondent: Yeah.

Cavett: And Groucho said, “Tell me. Is it true that you were cutting sugar cane only a month ago? You seem to have succeeded with that suit.” Well, anyway, it entertained me and the man. And we got to 59th Street. And he said to me, in the voice from the game show, “Well you seem like a nice young man and I’d like you to have lunch with me.” And I thought, “Am I going to awaken in a moment and find this to be only a dream?”

Correspondent: The question I have is why did showbiz people appeal more than, say, regular people. Like say the doorman, for example. I know that over the course of your show, you had a number of intriguing cultural figures and unusual people that wouldn’t be on other late-night shows. But on the other hand, it does make me curious why culture, in some sense, was the great prism for which you could conduct these many lengthy conversations with these people. Why didn’t you go the Studs Terkel route? I’m curious.

Cavett: How do you see the Studs Terkel route?

Correspondent: Well, he talked with everybody.

Cavett: Talking to?

Correspondent: He talks with writers. He talks with ditchmen.

Cavett: Talk to janitors. Or, in the politically correct age, custodians.

Correspondent: Exactly.

Cavett: (laughs)

Correspondent: I’m old enough that when I went to elementary school, they called them custodians back then.

Cavett: They did even then? Oh.

Correspondent: Yeah, they did. Back in the 70s.

BSS #305: Dick Cavett (Download MP3)

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Review: Extract (2009)

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There’s a Preston Sturges comedy trapped inside Extract‘s enjoyable mess. This is a movie that the New York critics did not seem to appreciate. But if they end up hating this film, don’t listen to them. Even if Extract is imperfect, this is the right step forward for Mike Judge. Extract doesn’t quite match the laughs in Judge’s two previous live action features, but Judge has atoned for this by growing up a bit.

Judge’s central character is Joel Reynolds (Jason Bateman), a married thirtysomething who manages an extract factory but who, like the many seemingly well-educated couples in Idiocracy, hasn’t yet sired children. Back in the day, Joel got lucky with an old family recipe and worked his almond innovations into a money-making winner through his background in chemistry. (The great joke here is that none of the supporting characters who dream of riches are interested in learning how Joel found his ostensible fortune. But with a potential buyout from General Mills, they do seem to think he has more money.) Joel is often sympathetic to his workers. He’s willing to attend one of his worker’s fusion guitar shows. But he’s clearly no Marxist. (While Joel tolerates his workers’ eccentricities, perhaps more so compared with present workplace realities, there’s no indication here that the workers are unionized.) He does, after all, live in a gated community. His house, rather amusingly, doesn’t resemble anything close to a McMansion. One can easily imagine a nearly identical home just outside the gates.

Joel’s home may be his castle. But the patriarchal remnants of English common law don’t stop with his mortgage. His wife, Suzie, puts on her sweatpants at 8:00 PM every night, tying them up like a 21st century chastity belt, and Joel needs to get home fast if he hopes to get some action. He never does. Their relationship and sex life is a mess. And Joel lacks the royal effrontery to tell Suzie that he finds the sweat pants distasteful. The two never think of communicating directly with each other. Dancing with the Stars is the bigger draw. Indeed, Bowling Alone author Robert D. Putnam would probably have a field day with this film, seeing as how most of the problems arise because nobody thinks of directly communicating with each other.

Is this a cartoonish depiction of American domestic life? Even accounting for Judge’s animation background, not quite. This is also a film in which the wonderfully lively character actor J.K. Simmons plays it straight. There are skirmishes with opportunistic interlopers who can’t use the English language. (One makes a sad attempt to use “referral” as a verb.) Well-meaning but socially inept figures try to hold onto a sense of community rooted in Eisenhower-era community. And these social throwbacks are the only thing left. Joel’s neighbor Nathan mercilessly (and hilariously) hectors the Reynolds into buying tickets for a Rotary Club dinner. David Koechner plays Nathan like a cross between Stephen Root’s Milton and Gary Cole’s Bill Limbergh. While the New York intellectual type may quibble with Judge resorting to such archetypes, the truth of the matter is that anybody who has done time in the suburbs has encountered a guy like Nathan. Nathan rattles off phrases like “a real loose bunch” and “You know how it is when the wives are talking.” But is Nathan really the problem? Or is Joel?

Much as we might be inclined to declare Nathan a rube, it’s doubtful that he would hire — as Joel does — an unqualified gigolo to impersonate a pool boy and make the moves on his wife to test her fidelity. (I don’t want to give away the results, but I will say that this plan emerges because Joel spends much of his time hanging around a spacey bartender played by Ben Affleck. And what is more pathetic? The seductive plan that mirrors the most cliched porn formula imaginable? Or the fact that anybody signs on to test such a bullshit hypothesis?)

The film’s view of middle-class life is presented as a flat series of unadventurous incidents centered around dull routine, and the apparent excitement comes through a con artist named Cindy played by Mila Kunis, who may be the most problematic character in the film. Her get-rich-quick scheme relies almost entirely on the fact that the people she exploits are stupid. And not just stupid, but stupid beyond stupid. We are introduced to Cindy stealing a guitar at the beginning and we are asked to believe that a guitar shop would not, as most guitar shops do, have a person at the front checking the merch. This exceeds reality.

But Judge isn’t entirely contemptuous of the slow-witted, well-meaning, and prejudicial naifs that are populating his films with greater frequency. His work here, much like Idiocracy, wavers interestingly between populist comedy and quasi-elitist sentiments. He can never entirely adopt a position one way or the other, and this is what makes Judge’s work intriguing. He’s the only film comedy director who can momentarily convert a populist audience into elitists, but without anyone feeling terribly bad about it. And that’s because his seemingly one-dimensional characters possess interesting ironies. Take Extract‘s Step, an employee at Joel’s factory who hopes to live up to his name by securing the coveted floor manager position. He seems to think that his many years at Reynolds Extract will count in lieu of his professional capabilities. But after he suffers an accident that splices half his manhood, he isn’t interested in suing the factory. Step’s litigious impulses emerge not because of his inherent nature, but because of Cindy’s coercion, as well as an ambulance-chasing attorney (suitably played by the obnoxious Gene Simmons).

It’s worth pointing out that if Idiocracy is the end result of the current American one-two punch of entitlement and stupidity, then Extract serves to chronicle the present conditions. Characters may wrap their lips around a two-liter bottle of soda and guzzle it down, even ordering more soda from Domino’s out of laziness. But can we talk to them?

In age in which desperate men carry submachine guns to town hall meetings, Extract suggests that part of the solution may involve listening to these alleged rubes, and even hiring them despite their glaring inadequacies. The elitists who think that this film may be another laugh riot at the expense of the unwashed masses may be greatly disappointed that Judge has the stones to defy their prejudicial expectations. That, in itself, may be the quiet and possibly unintentional riot.

Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project #3

hatemail3A few hours ago, a writer posted an email on the website HTML Giant. It appears that someone familiar with the writer Kyle Minor‘s work appears to have become hateful, due to certain words that the writer Kyle Minor uses within his fiction. Therefore, my audio series — Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project — must continue. The following clip represents my dramatic reading of the hate mail sent to the writer Kyle Minor, read in the style of a quiet socipath. I have also taken great care to send the writer Kyle Minor’s email to myself so that I could keep the “received in my inbox” aspect of the introduction true. I hope that sticklers for the authenticity of this series will permit me this slight digression.

I plan to continue reading more hate mail. Again, I will be happy to read any specific hate mail that you’ve received. (If you do send me hate mail for potential dramatic readings, I only ask that you redact the names of the individuals.)

Click any of the below links to listen.

Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project #3 (Download MP3)

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Previous Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Installments:

#2: A hate mail read in a muted Peter Lorre impression
#1: A hate mail read in a melodramatic, quasi-Shakespearean style

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Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project #2

hatemail2A few weeks ago, somebody forwarded me an email. The names have been changed, but it appears that someone grew especially hateful and oversensitive about how some organizer arranged an author reading. And so my audio series — Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project — must continue. The following clip represents my dramatic reading of this individual’s hate mail, read in a muted Peter Lorre impression that eventually mutated into Andy Serkis.

I plan to continue reading more hate mail. Again, I will be happy to read any specific hate mail that you’ve received. (If you do send me hate mail for potential dramatic readings, I only ask that you redact the names of the individuals.)

Click any of the below links to listen.

Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project #2 (Download MP3)

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