RIP David Carr

It is sad and apt that David Carr, arguably the snappiest turtle inside the New York Times newsroom, died on the job at the age of 58. Only hours before, he’d been moderating a panel with Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, and Glenn Greenwald. He had ascended to the nation’s foremost newspaper after a rocky battle with crack cocaine and alcohol that he chronicled in his journalistic memoir, The Night of the Gun.

Perhaps it was this personal odyssey, revealing the way that Carr weaved empathy and accuracy into a bright and highly readable bow, that helped mint David Carr as the journalist you could trust. He was a vivacious reporter who could be counted on to follow through with an opinion and cross-examine it, whether it meant contacting Jayson Blair to remark upon Mike Daisey’s theatrical deceit or gently implicating Julian Assange’s dramatists long after the Wikileaks founder had become a punchline.

Carr never had to exaggerate or embellish a detail, whether it was about himself or a subject. He was committed to finding the idiosyncratic absurdities in the real world and he had the stamina and the fortitude to hunt his stories down honestly, no matter how long it took. Where other critics opted for the nuclear takedown or the overly fawning profile, Carr carried out his columns with a fine finesse that rarely tilted to either extreme. He had a nail-hard knack for pounding rivets into people he liked and advocated, such as in this 1999 assessment of Washington Post writer Henry Allen:

Florid? His ledes have more bouquets than a Mafia don’s funeral. Overwritten? Twelve monkeys couldn’t kick up this much racket. But it’s astonishing stuff, the kind of writing that makes you leave the morning coffee untouched. Allen’s probably not going to get a Pulitzer, but he deserves some kind of goddamn medal for arguing all of those wacked-out tales past his editors.

And he turned this highly scrutinizing eye to himself in his remarkable book, The Night of the Gun, posting documents and video interviews on a website to hold himself accountable.

Carr’s sudden and surprising death not only serves as a vital reminder for journalists to do their best work today, but reveals how much the Times relied on Carr’s maverick energy. What other rocket can travel so fluidly between the Times‘s dowdy atmosphere and the crackling human universe? What reporter can possibly replace him?

The answer, of course, is nobody.

An Elegy for Robin Williams and a Plea for Compassion

When you feel the earnest desire to kill yourself — as I did for about five minutes during the evening of June 26, 2014 — you truly believe that, no matter how kind and sharp and talented you are, there just isn’t a place for you on this planet. That none of the solicitude or the careful work or the unique qualities you offer the world can ever atone for the concatenation of persuasively exaggerated sins buttressed by a dark and singular and unforgiving demon who wants to pull you down, one smashing away at the beatific inner town that you’ve spent decades carefully constructing.

Who knows how many beasts and wraiths Robin Williams confronted? One was too many. This was a terrible and needless loss that, irrespective of Williams’s talent and stature, demands that we take several steps back. We know that Williams was trying to sell off his Napa Valley estate, that he had suffered an unsuccessful return to television (The Crazy Ones was canceled after only one season), and that, sometime in July, when he was trying to seek help for his pain in Minnesota, a picture of Williams at Dairy Queen made the rounds on on the Internet. He’s standing with his hands crossed, the obliging professional trying so hard to sustain a dutiful grimace when there were bigger stakes. All Williams wanted was an ice cream cone, one small step back into the hearts of those he entertained for decades.

There’s a moment at the end of World’s Greatest Dad, a highly underrated film by Bobcat Goldthwait containing one of Williams’s last great performances, in which Williams played an aspiring writer named Lance Clayton who covers up the embarrassing death of his son Kyle. Nobody cares about Kyle’s suicide until his note, penned by his father, is discovered and published in the school newspaper. Lance pushes the lie further by writing a phony journal, which attracts the attention of the prospective publishers that he had been coveting for years. It’s the devilish fatalism that happens far too often in America: the fifteen minute fluke propped up instead of someone who works eighty hour weeks and pays his dues, the middle-aged man pushed aside for the young life unlived, an act of unpardonable deceit promulgated for a notch up the ladder after years of honest labor.

In the film’s final scene, Lance confesses the truth to the school, saying via voiceover, “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.” What makes Goldthwait’s film and Williams’s performance so meaningful is how this declaration forces the audience to sympathize with the disgraced outcast nobody wants to deal with. Philip Seymour Hoffman, another formidable talent who killed himself, was also good at playing these pariahs, whether Allen in Happiness or Truman Capote. There are also resonances with David Foster Wallace, who also killed himself. One is reminded of the story, “The Depressed Person,” in which Wallace’s titular character sees her group of supportive friends vanish as the depression continues to corrode her core. There was something essential that these three mighty artists hid behind their humor, the understanding that America’s alleged desire for misfits inevitably collides against a hard and self-protective barrier. That all three suicides are as cruelly permanent as the emotional impact of their best work says something, I think, about what we now demand of artists and people in America.

Suicide doesn’t allow for heroes. Nor do the less tragic cousins: the attempt or the ideation. The person wishing to help, even when she likes the person, can often feel a begrudging duty or guilt that she does not care enough. The person who comes close to killing himself, which is a feeling not unlike being swallowed by a buckling whale with other concerns on his mind diving without mercy into a chilly deep sea, accumulates endless emotional debt that he can never repay, even as he seeks help and works very hard to stay positive and understand his illness, often with the callous stigma that he is permanently damaged. All parties come to know these terrible contradictions.

But the only truly common bond that all parties can have is compassion.

There has been a goodhearted clarion of calls on Twitter after Williams’s suicide, entreaties to anyone on the edge to call a hotline and know that they are loved. But suicide and depression aren’t nearly so pat, especially in a hungry and vituperative digital world that awaits some flawed figure to expose some chink in the armor (an appearance at Dairy Queen or, in my case, two deleted tweets reflecting a great deal of pain that I have spent much of the past six weeks sobbing out of me).

Williams will have the comedy. He will always be remembered for seizing the day, whether in the only Saul Bellow film adaptation ever made or as John Keating in Dead Poets Society. But I’ll remember him for the indelible, self-loathing characters he played so well in Cadillac Man, Death to Smoochy, One Hour Photo, and World’s Greatest Dad. There was a dark and tormented man inside those performances that wanted to reveal the contradictions of our nation and that demanded a grander compassion, one more vital to our humanity than shouting some feel-good catchphrase while standing at the top of a desk.

Fred Phelps, Hateful Homophobic Monster, Dead at 84

Fred Phelps is dead at 84. He claimed to be working on behalf of a religious deity, but he had more poison flowing through his veins than half the diamondback rattlesnakes in Florida. Like most venomous reptiles who live to be beheaded by the end of a shovel but that somehow elude that pragmatic instrument, Phelps found his greatest pleasure swallowing innocent mice whole. The small mammals that could not find their way down Phelps’s giant gullet became his willing accomplices and did his bidding through the Westboro Baptist Church.

Phelps was capable of striking at a distance of five states. “Troll” seems too miniscule a word for this craven and atavistic monster, who memorialized his words by picketing funerals of those he deemed immoral. There will be those, even those who stand against Phelps, who will play the “respect for the dead” card, but Phelps deserves neither esteem nor veneration. Let’s not sugarcoat the horror show. He caused insufferable grief to the families of men who served our country and those who struggled to come to terms with their natural identity. His hatred was so electric that it was capable of powering small towns in Kansas and turning innocent people into malicious beasts. Pissing on this ruthless hatemonger’s grave is a rare humanist act.

On the other hand, maybe Phelps’s repugnant conduct was needed to ignite a movement, to get America closer to a less bigoted society that accepts LGBT people as good and vital souls. In 1998, Matthew Shepard was a 21-year-old man who was tortured and killed because he was gay. He was tied to a fence and left to die. It was an unspeakably barbaric act that only a sociopath could fail to shed tears over. Fred Phelps arranged for his followers to picket Shepard’s funerals and this was the beginning of his despicable actions. When Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, was asked how she felt about Phelps, she replied, “Oh we love Freddy. If it wasn’t for him there would be no Matthew Shepard.” And look how far this nation has come in the sixteen years since. Sixteen states that issue same-sex marriage licenses. 59% of America supporting gay marriage, according to a March 2014 Washington Post-ABC News poll. Phelps’s life and legacy raises the unsettling possibility that some extremism may be necessary to make a more tolerant nation.

There was a time in Phelps’s life in which there was a part of his vicious core committed to doing the right thing. As a lawyer in the 1960s, Phelps devoted himself to civil rights, taking on cases that no other counsel would touch. But some baleful piece stirred inside Phelps’s tormented spirit and turned him evil in the subsequent decades. But here’s the thing about intolerance. It has a way of courting intolerance in others. I felt guiltless relish in writing the first two paragraphs of this obituary. I had many friends of varying sexualities when I lived in San Francisco. I hated Fred Phelps with every fiber of my being. The fear he stitched into the American fabric, the insurmountable pain he summoned inside people who did nothing wrong. But I also resent Phelps for summoning these vengeful impulses in the name of humanism. It all makes me want to take a cold shower, yet I feel compelled to stare fearlessly back into the beast.

Near the end of his days, Phelps was excommunicated from the Westboro Baptist Church. He was too much even for that abhorrent entity, which will no doubt get a ride of free publicity in the forthcoming weeks. A snake is said to be a solitary beast when it isn’t mating. But it does not back away from confrontation. Its rattle is loud and aggressive, but slightly softer when it scuttles closer to humans. Time will tell if Phelps serves as an inspirational figure for more willing to saunter down the low path or just another poisonous coil dead in a forgotten cave.

RIP Harold Ramis

On Monday morning, Harold Ramis passed away after a four year battle with autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis. He was 69.

Much like the subtle and unassuming presence he exuded through his crisp form of comedy, Ramis stayed quiet about his illness. He was such a reliable bedrock in any film that he wrote, directed, or appeared in — whether as Ghostbusters‘s Egon Spengler, one of Ramis’s many doctors, or as Ben’s dad in Knocked Up — that comedy feels inequitably barren without him.

While Ramis worked with many Canadians, he was an American, Chicago born. In his early days, he had the tall hair and lanky mien of someone born to play scientists. Yet he brought an odd gravitas and clarity to his scripts. Of the three men who wrote National Lampoon’s Animal House, it was Ramis who was the one to write Bluto specifically for John Belushi. And it was Ramis’s knack for apt casting on the page that led him to become a natural director, where he restored Rodney Dangerfield’s flagging career in his first feature film, Caddyshack, and coaxed Imogene Coca to appear as Aunt Edna in National Lampoon’s Vacation, despite Coca’s reservations about the character being too vituperative.

As both writer and director, Ramis had a formidable dexterity with ensemble comedy. Aside from co-writing Stripes (it was Ramis who reworked the script for Bill Murray and himself) and Ghostbusters (Ramis was the one to balance Dan Aykroyd’s affinity for the paranormal within the rooted world of New York), he was also enlisted to direct four episodes of The Office, including “Beach Games” and “A Benihana Christmas.”

If his comedy films floundered a bit near the end (Analyze That, Year One, and an ill-advised remake of Bedazzled), Ramis atoned for this by attempting a blend of film noir and dark comedy with The Ice Harvest — a script written by Richard Russo and Robert Benton. But his directorial chops were very much alive in the energetic episodes he helmed for The Office. If the vasculitis hadn’t nabbed him, what would he have accomplished if he had been given a television series like Christopher Guest’s Family Tree?

We still have the summer camp heart of Meatballs, the carefully realized underbelly of road trips gone awry in Vacation, and the overlooked Stuart Saves His Family, among many others. Much like a John P. Marquand novel, Stuart managed to celebrate its subject without resorting to cheap ridicule. That human quality was what made Harold Ramis’s subtlety so masterful.

A Few Words on Lou Reed

“But if you think that you get kicks from flirting with danger / Danger, oooohh / just kick her in the head and rearrange her” — Lou Reed, “Wagon Wheel”

“What does Robert Christgau do in bed?” growled Lou Reed during a performance of “Walk on the Wild Side” on Take No Prisoners. “I mean, is he a toefucker? Man, anal retentive, A Consumer’s Guide to Rock. What a moron! ‘A Study’ by, you know, ‘Robert Christgau.’ Nice little boxes: B+. Can you imagine working for a fucking year and you get a B+ from some asshole in The Village Voice?” Christgau would later review the album, awarding it a C+ and thanking Reed for getting his name right. But Christgau apparently did more than that. He nominated Reed for a MacArthur Foundation grant, which Reed never received. Reed never forgot the early slights. When Christgau was introduced to Reed at a Sire luncheon, Reed sneered at Christgau when the critic offered his hand.

To dismiss Lou Reed as a mere irascible motherfucker, as Christgau did last night in his obituary for Spin, severely discounts the ferocious spirit that Reed took with him to the grave: an unapologetic artistic commitment, alive in all those great records, that is ever more in short supply in our conformist age of crowdsourcing, +1ing, and an unhealthy compunction to always be liked. Reed’s death was not strange in its police blotter statistics. 71 is a remarkable tally for a man who lived as hard as Reed did. But the great gaping cavity that has opened up is unquestionably weird. Some wailing mirror has squealed long and loud into the night, a force demanding new and dangerous innovation on all fronts.

What artist today name-checks Saul Bellow and Yeats on stage? Or calls for a full-scale sexual revolution while masterfully weaving in a tuba line? (That’s “Make Up,” from Reed’s solo album, Transformer.) How many lives did Reed save by singing about subjects that no one else did? And is there any performer today, one so artistically ahead of the curve and never flinching from experimentation, who can inspire a thousand musicians to start new bands with one new track?

Reed’s commitment to sparsity (“One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.”) was such that he was able to write two of The Velvet Underground’s finest songs (“Heroin” and the magnificently raucous “Sister Ray”) without a bass guitar, paving the way for The White Stripes.

It’s possible that the chalky apocalyptic atmosphere of the early 1970s, fluctuating in the wake of crushed 1960s idealism, allowed Reed to do what he did. He was unquestionably aided in his early years by Andy Warhol, who spotted The Velvet Underground in the East Village, and Delmore Schwartz, who taught him at Syracuse University. Would Reed have found the courage to write “Heroin” without Schwartz? Would he still be toiling as a tunesmith for Pickwick if Warhol had not stopped by Café Bizarre with filmmaker Barbara Rubin and incorporated Reed’s band into the Exploding Plastic Inevitable? More than four decades later, Reed’s essence remains so indomitable that it’s easy to see him as someone who could have easily mowed down all resistance to his vision. But he needed eccentric and caring benefactors. And maybe that’s one truth we can take away from Reed’s passing in our crowdfunding age. Lou Reed is irreplaceable. But patience for the pugnacious innovators, for the scrappy workhorses toiling assiduously in odd corners, may be what we need to keep tomorrow’s culture as elastic and as indelible as Reed’s contributions.

The Culture Novels of Iain M. Banks

This morning, the BBC reported that Iain Banks had passed away from cancer. In 2008, I was commissioned to read all of Banks’s Culture novels, which had been reissued by Orbit in the United States, and I wrote the following essay for another outlet. The publication rights have reverted back to me. I am reprinting the essay here. My condolences to the Banks family.

* * *

In an Iain M. Banks novel, you will find sour antiheroes sweet-talking corpulent cannibal kings, erratic robot drones so caught up in lending a helping hand that they overlook the telltale traces of emotional breakdown within those they serve, and a febrile zeal for blowing things up which suggests that Banks isn’t so much an author of bawdy and exciting adventures as he is a giddy eight-year-old with an elaborate train set scattered across a football field.

When not committing his considerable energies to such intense Bildungsromans as The Wasp Factory or bleak-humored narratives like The Crow Road, Banks inserts an M into “Iain Banks” and writes science fiction novels. Most of these speculative volumes concern the Culture, a utopian-anarchist society that extends across a sizable cluster of the universe. These Culture vultures gambol across the galaxy in ships with such eccentric names as Don’t Try This at Home and Serious Callers Only. Culture citizens live for centuries, and can even change their appearances if they grow discontent with their corpora. These conditions encourage these civilized sybarites to have more fun than a flighty Dalmatian discovering a chiaroscuro sea of spotty companions. Never mind that there’s always an intergalactic war going on.

Red Smith once suggested that writing involves sitting down at a typewriter and opening a vein. But Banks’s unique form of bloodletting appears more modeled on the Black Knight’s stubborn persistence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He writes one book per annum, devoting three months of the year to writing and the remaining nine months to “thinking” about the narrative. And while Banks’s idiosyncratic approach has resulted in twenty-two novels, his methods aren’t entirely foolproof. When writing Matter, Banks became so addicted to the real-time strategy game Civilization that he blew his deadline. One can detect the video game addict within the book’s early descriptions. An army is described as “a single giant organism inching darkly across the tawny sweep of desert.” Sid Meier should be proud.

Part of the fun in reading a Banks book involves watching this boisterous Scottish author figuring out his elaborate plots as he goes along. There’s a moment in every novel in which Banks eventually meshes his anarchic energy into the needs of a narrative. At the onset of Use of Weapons, a reworking of an abandoned 1974 manuscript that Banks once claimed “was impossible to comprehend without thinking in six dimensions,” the reader can’t entirely pinpoint just where the book is heading. One series of chapters depicts a Culture agent attempting to recruit a non-Culture mercenary named Zakalwe for a “Special Circumstances” mission for a planet that the Culture hasn’t yet contacted. The other chapters unfold in reverse chronological order, depicting Zakalwe’s previous assignments. But as Banks stitches together these threads, he ends Use of Weapons with a devastating insight into the consequences of following authority without question.

The early Culture novels were inspired by grand space opera and Larry Niven’s Ringworld books. The first, Consider Phlebas, begins with its hero, Horza, standing shirtless in a prison cell, his hands tied above him, as murky liquid rises to his nostrils — a scene that might have come from Flash Gordon. But as Banks carried on writing, he began to imbue his universe with moral quandaries. In the second Culture novel, The Player of Games, Banks’s protagonist, Jernau Gurgeh, is a galaxy-renowned gamemaster who cannot seem to find an amusement worth his while and has grown bored. (There’s also a wry symbolic motif throughout the book of Guregh stroking his beard, as if to suggest that he’s constantly in doubt of his smarts.) Gurgeh sets off on a deranged adventure in which his very life becomes the wager, and the pleasure that Gurgeh takes for granted is juxtaposed against the realities of a three-gender species with severe class and enslavement problems. When Gurgeh witnesses just what this species is up to, he returns to playing, but with a newborn chill and intensity: Banks describes Gurgeh’s face as “a flag hoisted by a soul that no longer cared.”

Excession (1997), perhaps the most elaborate and entertaining of the Culture novels, sees Banks probing into the Minds that control the many spaceships in the Culture universe. Anticipating the frenetic outburst of instant messaging and blog commentary by only a few years, Banks includes elaborate communication transcripts between these Minds within the text. Each speaker is separated by the infinity symbol, suggesting that there isn’t an end to the constant chatter. But Banks also makes his Minds more empathic and personality-driven than his pleasure-seeking Culture characters. Some of the ships even go “Eccentric,” turning unpredictable. Status, contingent as always upon who one knows, appears to matter even when a ship or character inhabits an unfettered anarchy. But as one Eccentric ship, the Shoot Them Later, tells another, “Just because I’m eccentric doesn’t mean I don’t know some big hitters.”

In this novel, it is technology that shapes the Culture’s social equilibrium. Banks even anticipates Linda Stone’s idea of continuous partial attention when he has one Culture diplomat named Genar-Hofoen bond with an obstreperous, four-limbed alien named Fivetide Humidyear VII. As Genar-Hofoen is in the middle of a diplomatic game with Fivetide, he is interrupted by an urgent message in his mind. He is forced to use a “quicken” gland and performs “the mental equivalent of sighing and putting his chins in his hands while…everything around him seemed to happen in slow motion.” Likewise, Genar-Hofoen considers transforming into an Affront (Fivetide’s species). But this technological panacea is juxtaposed against Genar-Hofoen’s existential plight. He’s escaping the entrails of a previous relationship — a woman named Dajeil, whom he impregnated and left after being unfaithful to her. So while Genar-Hofoen might find plentiful distractions within the Culture’s plentiful baubles, they remain distractions that are not unlike narcotics. One is left with the possibility of the Minds inevitably adopting similar temperaments. But at what cost to the freewheeling libertinism sustaining the Culture?

Banks’s willingness to address these ethical issues while keeping his books brisk and enjoyable makes one wonder why his name isn’t often uttered in the same breath as Kim Stanley Robinson or Greg Bear in this country. While Banks’s reputation has soared in the United Kingdom and Europe, he is sometimes overlooked in the United States. Perhaps with the Culture novels now being reissued by Orbit, there’s a good chance that American readers will at long last be seduced by his magic touch.

RIP Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury was America. He knew our hopes and our aspirations, and he was able to convey all this in beautiful economic language.

Bradbury spoke to us because there was something entrepreneurial in the way he unleashed his high concepts. He had so many great ideas that it is astonishing to recall that he was able to turn out a short story every week.

Many of these stories became classics. There was “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl,” in which a man’s efforts to clean up a murder transform into a new obsession, leading one to wonder what went wrong in the first place. There was the heartbreaking tale “All Summer in a Day,” in which the sun shines on rainy Venus every seven years and an incredible act of cruelty prevents one young girl from seeing it. There was “A Sound of Thunder,” in which a time traveler strays off the path and crushes a butterfly and returns home to find his present irreparably changed. The “butterfly effect,” coined by Edward Lorenz from this story, became part of chaos theory.

Ray Bradbury didn’t waste words. He knew we needed wonder and, with such indelible parables as “The Pedestrian” (a man taking a walk in a world where everyone was expected to watch television at night) and Fahrenheit 451 (a future in which books are destroyed), he wasn’t afraid to expose humanity’s dark underbelly. “The Flying Machine” sees a Chinese emperor burning a flying machine because he is concerned it will be used by those who “have evil in their eyes.”

But Bradbury’s tales weren’t just about the ideas. Comb through nearly any Ray Bradbury story to see how it was done. The impeccable balance of nouns, the clear emotional resonance demanding that we read further.

I want to be clear on this. I wouldn’t be reading today if I hadn’t found Ray Bradbury as a small boy in a library. And I know that I’m not alone. Ray Bradbury gave us the okay to believe in stories and the hunger to find more of them.

It is unspeakably awful that there will be no more fiction from Ray Bradbury. The world has lost a literary giant.

Here are some samples of what Bradbury is leaving behind:

“William Acton, whose fingers had stroked typewriter keys and made love and fried ham and eggs for early breakfasts, had now accomplished a murder with these same ten whorled fingers.”

* * *

“The dark porch air in the late afternoon was full of needle flashes, like a movement of gathered silver insects in the light.”

* * *

“It was a day to be out of bed, to pull curtains and fling open windows. It was a day to make your heart bigger with warm mountain air.”

* * *

“It was a dim undersea place, smooth and clean and published, as if something or other was always coming through and coming through and nothing ever stayed, but always there was motion and motion, invisible and stirring and never setting.”

* * *

“Silence lived in every room like a light turned off. Silence flowed like a cool wine in the tunnel halls. Silence came through the open casements like a cool breath from the cellar. They all stood breathing the coolness of it.”

* * *

“Birds lingered upon gigantic trees that took a hundred, two hundred, five thousand days to grow.”

* * *

“A wall collapses, followed by another and another; with dull thunder, a city falls into ruin.”

* * *

“He stopped the lawn mower in the middle of the yard, because he felt that the sun at that moment had gone down and the stars came out.”

* * *

Vital Facts About Richard Dawson

Richard Dawson, host of Family Feud and arguably the osculating Caligula of the late 20th century game show scene, passed away on Saturday in Los Angeles. Here are a number of facts about Richard Dawson, presented to aid others in etching Dawson’s legacy into the grand volume of American history.

1. It is estimated that Richard Dawson kissed about 20,000 women during his run on Family Feud. He regretted nothing. In response to the kissing criticisms, Richard Dawson replied, “I kissed them all for luck and love, that’s all.” (Source: The Associated Press, May 17, 1985)

2. Erma Bombeck offered a more reliable metric for Richard Dawson’s kissing quota. She watched a 30-minute episode of Family Feud, noting that Richard Dawson dispensed 23 kisses. (Source: The Milwaukee Journal, January 18, 1981)

3. Richard Dawson was fearless about contracting disease from kissing all those women. Dawson did not fear mono. He did not fear herpes. He did not fear any disease that stood in his path. “That has never crossed my mind,” said Dawson in 1984. His associate added, “He makes two million a year, and two million buys a lot of salve.” It is unknown if Dawson vigorously washed himself after a hot day of taping. (Source: The Durant Daily Democrat, May 27, 1984)

4. Fran Lebowitz had a lifelong dream to appear on Family Feud. Lebowitz called the show “relaxing…the minute I hear the theme, I perk up.” In 1985, Lebowitz’s agent Mort Janklow received a call from Cathy, Richard Dawson’s husband. The plan was to dedicate the March 4, 1985 episode entirely to Lebowitz, because Lebowitz had said many nice things about the program. Unfortunately, Lebowitz’s mother refused to do it. (Source: The Deseret News, March 8, 1985)

5. Richard Dawson did not shy away from politics. He marched for civil rights in Selma, Alabama and campaigned on behalf of George McGovern. When co-hosting a local television show, he was branded “a far-out liberal.” Yet Dawson remained against Communism, maintaining an unabated faith in Western democracy. As he told an interviewer in 1973: “You tell the midwestern housewife that for the good of the state she’ll have to give up her washing machine and dryer and dishwasher and her electric conveniences and take to scrubbing clothes against a rock in a stream and she will have none of it. No one is going to take away her washing machine, least of all for the good of the state.” When asked about becoming a U.S. citizen, Richard Dawson said that he was felt incapable of assuming the responsibilities of casting a ballot. (He would eventually become an American citizen in 1984.) (Source: The Phoenix, July 20, 1973)

6. ABC once offered Richard Dawson a situation comedy involving two priests in a ghetto. Dawson replied, “There’s a lot of humor there, counseling young girls about abortions and heroin.” The conversation ended quickly and the offer was rescinded. (Source: The Pittsburgh Press, June 4, 1978)

7. Richard Dawson was a night person and felt the happiest when the sun was setting. He would stay up writing or reading, and read about five books a week. It remains unknown whether he practiced vampiric tendencies. (Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal, August 18, 1979)

8. As a young man in the merchant marine, Richard Dawson started out as a laundry boy and worked his way up to waiter. But this was not enough income for the young strapping Englishman. So he started boxing his mates on ship to bring in some extra cash. But Richard Dawson’s hustling didn’t stop there. When he transferred to the Cunard line, he slipped the maitre’d some cash to make sure he was waiting on the high-tipping tables. (Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal, August 18, 1979)

9. Dawson nabbed his first role by making up Shakespeare quotes on the spot. (Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal, August 18, 1979)

10. Dawson also secured employment in London by claiming to be a famous Canadian comic on vacation, looking for a few weeks work. A year later, Dawson was playing the Palladium. (Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal, August 18, 1979)

11. Richard Dawson had perforated eardrums. (Source: The Phoenix, July 20, 1973)

12. When it came to exercise, Richard Dawson was a real man. In 1966, he went for a brisk 15-minute daily walk. He also managed to get in a swim six days a week in weather foul and fair. (Source: Universal Press Syndicate, July 17, 1966)

13. Richard Dawson spent much of his time shooting pool. In the 1960s, he converted one of his five bedrooms into an antique poolroom, with the table acquired from Tommy Noonan. (Source: Universal Press Syndicate, July 17, 1966)

14. In the early 1980s, TV Guide wished to profile the top six game show hosts in the country. Richard Dawson was not profiled. The reason? He would only agree to an interview if he, and he alone, appeared on the cover. It is unclear whether Richard Dawson continued to make such bold editorial demands for the remainder of his life. (Source: The Leader-Post, February 1, 1985)

Wayne Shannon: A Video Tribute

A few days ago, I reported the death of Wayne Shannon, whose legacy as a broadcasting innovator and precursor to Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and and Michael Moore had been needlessly overlooked in recent years. Wayne was also a friend. And last night, the cause of Wayne’s death was revealed to be a suicide. Wayne’s body had been found by two hunters in Northern Idaho. His body had been there for many months.

As of Friday morning, the San Francisco TV station (KRON) where Wayne worked for many years, has not acknowledged Wayne Shannon’s death in any way. Last night, I contacted KRON by telephone. I spoke with Bonnie Hitch, who was kind and who offered me a few minutes of her time. Ms. Hitch told me that KRON still hadn’t decided on whether or not it would recognize Wayne Shannon, but that they had learned of his death. KRON had not been aware of Wayne’s suicide.

I also asked Ms. Hitch about how well the KRON news archives were preserved. What was the state of Wayne’s numerous commentaries? His segments in the field? His body of work? She informed me that there wasn’t even an archivist employed at KRON these days. “It’s a very different news station,” said Ms. Hitch. KRON culture had changed. Ms. Hitch wasn’t even sure that the airchecks had been preserved. She told me that she would put me in touch with the person in charge of the news archives, and it is my hope to contact someone at KRON who is even remotely interested in preserving KRON’s long legacy as a major news station.

In his final years, Wayne had assembled a disc containing a small handful of his work. Was this all he had? Unfortunately it was. This disc was all that remained of his considerable work. “It took me months to pile through boxes and boxes of old tapes,” Wayne had written to me. “You got the best of what was available…and some of that — as you have doubtless noticed — is well below par.”

Shortly after talking with Ms. Hitch, I went through my files and located Wayne’s disc. It contained this note:

Yo Ed:

A few weeks before Noel Coward died he held an intimate soiree at his home during which, by all accounts, he performed for the very last time.

Those in attendance, if memory serves, were Lunt and Fontanne, Oliver and Leigh, Oscar Wilde, Jascha Heifitz, the Raymond Masseys and the Rex Harrisons, the latter naming their first born son after Noel.

We are assured that it was an exquisitely memorable night of much wine and laughter and tears born of same, along with a game that developed whereby participants challenged their memories by trying to match some of the more obscure lines of dialogue from his plays — with the titles of his many Broadway and Piccadilly triumphs.

This was followed by a medley on the piano of Coward’s many hit songs, accompanied by Heifitz, which naturally concluded with his immortal, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.”

I am, of course, no Noel Coward and, unfortunately, have more years to live than I doubtless deserve. However, I wanted you to know that to me…you are not only to be numbered among the “luminaries” he had about him that evening those many, many decades ago…but, had I been able to do so…you would have been invited to such a gathering — though you may very well have had the good sense not to attend or, perhaps, admit to it later.

However, if you had done so, you too would have seen my final performance — from virtually my first words ever on American TV — to undeniably my last, “Yahoo!”

I cannot accept Wayne’s work falling into obscurity. I cannot accept his self-deprecatory nature refusing to understand, even in this note, that people loved and respected what he did. And I cannot accept his work not getting its proper due.

So I have uploaded nearly all of the video I have so that people can see how Wayne was ahead of his time. The twenty-one segment salute below reveals that Wayne, who won six Emmys for his work, was a wily reporter, a witty commentator, a skilled performer, a gleeful satirist, and a man who was very good at talking with people.

Star Wars: This is one of Wayne’s earliest television appearances, in which he talks with Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher. He even asks Carrie for a kiss, a move that would be unthinkable in today’s junket climate.

Rocks (1980): This is a great example of the muckraking multipart series Wayne was known for during his days in Detroit. (Indeed, as I learned in a 2008 radio interview I conducted with Wayne, many of Wayne’s pioneering concepts during these days would be stolen by Michael Moore and used in Roger & Me.) Wayne fearlessly took on many of the auto manufacturers and was run out of Detroit for this (despite the fact that his segments greatly improved the evening news ratings). And the “All by Myself” montage where Wayne abandons his “rock” on the freeway and rollerskates away is an unusual break from the hard journalism that local television news was then known for.

Lemons: In Philadelphia, Shannon was known as the “TV 2 Troubleshooter.” His coverage, as we learn here, could be hilariously epic (in this case, the segment above is “part three of his ten part series on lemons,” as Robbie Timmons introduces) — almost as if he was working on one giant documentary film split into neat segments for the evening news. Wayne’s ability to combine consumer advocacy with comedy is in great form here, especially with the concluding Rocky homage.

Hedgehogs: This “TV 2 Troubleshooter” segment sees Wayne fleshing out his satirical journalism. There’s the opening sound gag, along with some folksy banter with a stamp collector (“Ever been took?”).

The Box Top Rebellion: In this segment on coupon clippers (which contains some eerie parallels to post-2008 economic life), we see that Wayne was very keen on highly theatrical introduction sequences. But he was also very good about learning how a system worked, as seen from the fascinating clips inside a coupon clearing house (“where old coupons go for that big redemption in the sky”).

Magic Nails: Not only do we get a quick glimpse of a young Maury Povich, but we see Wayne taking on “Magic Nails” — a dangerous toy manufactured at a Burger King restaurant. Wayne’s journalistic rigor is on display. He talks with pediatrician Alan Freedman and updates the story with some shoe leather reporting.

The Vent People: I don’t know if the success of Wayne’s consumer advocacy had Channel 3 assigning Wayne to more hard reporting. Perhaps they didn’t quite know what to do with him. But this segment also shows that Wayne was a good journalist. He reveals efforts to uncover how the homeless sleep on the steam vents at night, along with the reasons why others aren’t allowed to help the vent people.

Wayne-Bo and Tom: The first part of this clip is rather baffling. It features “Wayne-Bo” entertaining kids and talking with Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski. Was this a bona-fide children’s show hosted by Wayne which aired in Philadelphia? The second part features a clip of Tom Snyder extolling Wayne at the end for an episode of The Tomorrow Show, which Wayne made an appearance on. (Note to self: A trip to Paley is in order.)

Santa and Thermatron: The Santa bit is from a bizarre 1981 program that Wayne did called Santa and Son. I have no idea if it even aired anywhere. Then there’s a “Thinking Out Loud” segment on the Thermatron, a precursor to the commentaries that Wayne would be known for during his KRON days.

KRON Clips: Wayne, now at Channel 4, talks with Jonathan Winters. There are three additional segments: (1) a Wayne commentary on how laser beams are being used to cut through clogged arteries (and how Wayne has sought “a revisionist nutritionist”), (2) a closing credits monologue of Wayne on the road, and (3) a Wayne commentary on how to celebrate California adventure (with some inside dirt about then Carmel Mayor Clint Eastwood).

The Merv Griffin Show: Merv Griffin, who lived in Monterey, was a Wayne Shannon fan and invited Wayne to appear on his program. Wayne reveals the trouble he got into for suggesting that dumping atomic waste into the ocean might be a possible solution. “I guess you don’t hear that viewpoint that often.” “Why would you advocate that?” asks Merv. “Well,” replies Wayne, “because everybody else isn’t.”

Claim to Fame Promo: Wayne appeared on another locally produced KRON show called Claim to Fame, in which an assembled panel tried to guess who the person was based on their vocation. Wayne was one of the regulars, along with Ann Jones, Charlie Haas, and Sylvia Brown (later with an E). This promo for the show features Wayne prominently. There is also a ten second clip from the show attached.

Claim to Fame: Here’s a longer part of Claim to Fame, which features a more spartan set than the one with the FAME lights. (Budget cuts at KRON?)

Bay Area Minute: This short KRON segment features Wayne rhapsodizing about the Bay Bridge.

Three KRON Commentaries: In these collected clips, Wayne offers a commentary on Tanzanian chimpanzees getting high on leaves, another commentary on pesticides, and a third commentary on Fleet Week.

CNBC: In these clips from his CNBC days (featuring some charmingly retro graphics), Wayne provides a commentary on Norplant, sits patiently at the ACE Awards (for which he is nominated), co-anchors a Real Estate Report, and interviews Ken Hakuta, the inventor of the Wacky Wall Walker (and self-styled “Dr. Fad”), with absurd results.

TV 25 Vancouver: In this TV 25 Vancouver segment, Wayne investigates a post office branch in Vancouver, Washington, discovering how postal workers toil and the impact of a holiday package influx.

TV 49 Portland: In the first clip from Wayne’s TV 49 Portland days, Wayne probes Nick’s Famous Coney Island, talks with owner Frank Nudo, and contends with hot dogs. The second clip features Wayne’s movie reviews of Mad Love, Judge Dredd, and Crimson Tide>

TV 6 Portland: In this clip from TV 6 Portland, Wayne goes out in search of white deer in Redland.

Ask the Weather Guru: This interview with Wayne Shannon (just after his television days) has Wayne coming out as the “Ask the Weather Guru” man at Yahoo. He attempts to explain what an occluded front is. But I can’t help but focus on just how small his apartment is at this time.

The Memorial Wall: Wayne’s last appearance on television, from August 2011. He was in Idaho, visiting the Vietnam Memorial Moving Wall and wanting to know if three people from his hometown of Moses Lake, Washington had been killed during the war. He didn’t see their names. Months later, he would walk into the woods and never come out.

Remembering Wayne Shannon (1948-2012)

In September 2006, I wrote an essay about a local television commentator by the name of Wayne Shannon. Shannon appeared frequently on KRON 4 Evening News, in the San Francisco Bay Area where I grew up, in the 1980s. I was to learn later that Shannon had an illustrious career, with stints in Philadelphia and Detroit. I wondered why there was no online record of a man who had touched millions, a man who was a little ahead of his time with his acerbic television commentaries. Two decades later, there had been something about Shannon’s approach that had caked its way into my noggin. Was it his common sense arguments? His acid barbs? I remember that he had been so funny that even the guys behind the camera couldn’t suppress their laughter. Yet nobody had thought to memorialize him or write about him or upload video clips so that future people could see what he was all about.

I was able to piece together some information, learning that Shannon had left KRON in 1988 when news director Herb Dudnick became tired of his commentaries and after Wayne had tried to negotiate a new deal unsuccessfully with the appropriate brass. I learned that he had a stint on CNBC. But there was no real luck with the San Francisco Chronicle archives. Richard Grayson was kind enough to check LexisNexis, but that only went back to 1990. Shannon had been supremely popular in the San Francisco Bay Area, but he represented someone who had needlessly slipped through the cracks — the victim of being professionally active during an era that, from the vantage point of the last five years, allows some of its more localized and esoteric figures to slip.

So I put up my post and discovered that I wasn’t the only one searching for Wayne Shannon. There were a few emails and comments. And then Wayne Shannon himself showed up, leaving a comment (partially quoted below):

Hi Edward:

Wayne Shannon here. About once a year I get on the web and type in my name and see what I do/do not get.

And there you were. Thanks for remembering me at all, web failure or not.

My privacy continues to be paramount in my life, so, unfortunately, the email address above no longer exists. Sorry about that, but I’m not inclined to divulge the one I use these days.

An entry that had started from a single question turned into a veritable Wayne Shannon party. Other people named Wayne Shannon showed up, including an Atlanta-based arborist who wrote, “I am still around. You didn’t search hard enough.” But soon more people from Wayne’s life appeared, all of them remembering Wayne fondly. Wayne showed up intermittently. And I opened up another thread for Wayne to talk with his fans.

Wayne and I began corresponding. He graciously offered to send me a DVD featuring some of his clips (or as he called it “hatest grits”), and I said, yes, absolutely, send it my way. I’d love to see it.

My partner and I watched all the clips in one sitting. We couldn’t stop. It was absolutely clear that Wayne Shannon was a television talent, somewhere between consumer crusader and comedian, who was decades ahead of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. He took on auto manufacturers over epic ten part segments (and I would later learn that Michael Moore would pilfer some of Shannon’s comedic approach with Roger & Me). He would assemble homages and parodies to popular movies on the local evening news during a time in which such experimentation was unthinkable. (But in an age in which The Daily Show pours out a steady stream of satirical graphics, this is now commonplace.)

What happened to Wayne Shannon? The biggest question I had was why this man had stopped.

My partner and I did some additional research and made sure that Wayne got a Wikipedia page. We made sure some of the clips found their way onto YouTube.

I asked Wayne if he would appear on The Bat Segundo Show. He agreed. You can listen to our conversation here.

He threw himself into his work, recording commentaries at a flurrious rate to keep what remained of his family together.

He had been through a brutal, an especially brutal divorce.

His kids had been taken away from him. His soon-to-be ex-wife demonstrated no quarter.

He suffered from low self-esteem for most of his life.

I learned all this from the interview. Listening to the conversation now, after hours of wrapping my head around a world without Wayne Shannon, I’m not only condemning myself for my journalistic detachment. I’m wondering if I should have done more. Wayne was crying at the end of the interview because I had dredged up terrible personal revelations. And I quickly put an end to our talk. Who the hell was I to push further? What good was this nostalgia? My efforts to tell the world about Wayne Shannon? Wasn’t the man in enough pain?

But Wayne and I still emailed. Wayne thanked me for “what will likely be my last interview.” He insisted that Wayne-Bo, the personality he had created for his commentaries, was dead.

I sent Wayne information on how to pitch NPR. I tried to persuade him to get on Twitter. I insisted that he needed to write. It was not the time for goodbye, but a time for revival. Surely there were other tapes of Wayne’s segments. We could get the entire video collection up somewhere.

No, Wayne reported back to me. The disc I had was all that remained. “It took me months to pile through boxes and boxes of old tapes,” Wayne wrote back to me. “You got the best of what was available…and some of that — as you have doubtless noticed — is well below par.”

Wayne was needlessly self-deprecatory to the end.

What I didn’t count on was that Wayne’s children would discover him on the Web — thanks to my page. He was able to send all of the information that chronicled and collected his life to his kids, including the “surprisingly accurate bio” on Wikipedia that my partner and I had assembled.

For a long time, he wondered if his children had been figments of his imagination.

For a while, I thought Wayne had been a figment of my imagination.

This was not the case.

* * *

The last time we contacted each other was a few years ago. His health was going. He said he was in pain. But he was cracking jokes to the end. He said that he was packing up his computer. That he was going offline for good. Well, wait just a goddam minute.

The last words he wrote: “Write like you’ve got less time than you think you have. It worked for me.”

I tried emailing Wayne back. The email bounced. I tried the phone number I had. It was disconnected.

I never heard from him again.

And then on May 1, 2012, I learned from his son that he had passed away.

* * *

It started with a question. Basic curiosity. Is there some marginalized figure who isn’t getting his due? Someone who Google can’t pick up?

Sometimes the difference between remembering and forgetting someone is what gives that person a new reason to live.

I miss Wayne Shannon.

[5/3/12 UPDATE: More information here. Wayne appears to have taken his own life. I’m utterly gutted about this.]

[5/4/12 UPDATE: For this unfamiliar with Wayne’s work, I have assembled a video tribute, featuring 21 videos from throughout Shannon’s career.]

[5/6/12 UPDATE: A new Tumblr, Wayne Shannon: What’s It All Mean?, has been started, featuring Shannon’s many commentaries.]

Andrew Breitbart, Pillar of Hate and Distortion, Dead at 43

Shortly after the stroke of midnight, the last spasms of hate and homophobia flooded through a nasty man’s body. Or, to put it another way, Andrew Breitbart died of natural causes.

Breitbart was a malicious pontificator who liked to run websites which featured the word “big” — the three letter modifier existing in counterpoint to Breitbart’s small and shallow ideas. Big Hollywood, Big Government, Big Journalism, Big Peace. It was all bright and doddering fodder for Breitbart, who spent much of his career desperately seeking legitimacy from a mainstream media that enjoyed quietly pissing into his face. This was the only way to treat a man who was so subsumed with venom that, on the day Ted Kennedy died, Breitbart called him a “villain,” a “duplicitous bastard,” and a “prick.” This Tourette’s-like bile was appealing to a certain type of aggrieved and angry white male seeking a myopic demagogue during a time of political and economic uncertainty. Andrew Breitbart wasn’t terribly special. Yet if Breitbart did not exist, it would be necessary for Grover Norquist to create him.

The most frightening facet about Breitbart is that so many people believed in him. Did Breitbart ever have a nice thing to say about anybody? Why, yes. To Matt Drudge, the very man he sought to emulate. He liked to refer to himself as “Matt Drudge’s bitch.”

“I thought what he was doing was by far the coolest thing on the Internet. And I still do,” said Breitbart in a 2005 CNET interview. Yet Breitbart seemed confused about what real journalism entailed. “I guess I do a lot of new media,” said Breitbart during a 2009 C-SPAN appearance. “I have a website. Breitbart.com. Which is a news aggregation source. In all the years I’ve been on the Internet, all I’ve heard about is newswires. I figured out that that’s where the action is. When you watch CNN and FOX News, and somebody breaks in with a story and they act like somebody in that building actually discovered that story and reported on that story.”

Through such painfully simplistic observations, Breitbart erected a one man media empire devoted to loud eructations. He savaged political careers with unmitigated deception and selective editing — most notably, Anthony Weiner and Shirley Sherrod. With Sherrod, you could almost hear the self-satisfied swish of Breitbart hoisting his own private Confederate flag up a proud pole. In 2010, Breitbart posted two video clips of Sherrod, who was then the Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the United States Department of Agriculture.

The videos suggested that Sherrod had deliberately discriminated against a white farmer. Breitbart seized upon this apparent smoking gun with a theatrical glee comparable to William Shatner’s performance in Roger Corman’s The Intruder as a speaker who moves from town to town stirring up bigotry through lies. “Sherrod’s racist tale,” wrote Breitbart, “is received by the NAACP audience with nodding approval and murmurs of recognition and agreement. Hardly the behavior of the group now holding itself up as the supreme judge of another groups’ racial tolerance.” The controversy forced Sherrod to resign. Yet the full video and the timeline reconstructed by Media Matters demonstrated that Sherrod was offering a far more complex take on race. The NAACP, White House officials, and the Secretary for Agriculture were forced to apologize with considerable embarrassment.

How could such a louche loudmouth, who enjoyed marinating his racism in the stew of libertarian entitlement, be taken so seriously? Because FOX News had him on all the time and because outfits funded in part by Richard Mellon Scaife were fond of giving Breitbart dubious honors such as the Accuracy in Media Award.

Yet when confronted with serious questions about what Breitbart’s “accuracy” entailed, Breitbert preferred fuming to reason. When James O’Keefe, the young man whose selective editing and faux undercover videos helped give one of Breitbart’s websites a big start, was revealed to be a racist and a white nationalist, Breitbart demonstrated that he wasn’t quite so courageous when it came to confronting the truth.

Journalist Max Blumenthal calmly asked Breitbart at the very same conference where he received the Accuracy in Media Award about all this. Breitbart fulminated back, “Accusing a person of racism is the worst thing that you can do in this country.”

Breitbart could not see the irony in his own remarks.

“Why are you so angry?” asked Blumenthal later in the video.

“Because you’re a punk!” sneered Breitbart. “You destroy people! Because you’re trying to destroy people’s lives through innuendo.”

Breitbart was so guided by deranged mania, so without reconsideration or nuance, that his unhinged homophobia would flow like an alcoholic’s stool sample from his Twitter account over the slightest emotion. When Dan Savage made a foolish remark on Real Time with Bill Maher and later apologized for it, Breitbart resorted again to his tired tactic of accusing the other side of the very thing he was practicing.

When he was dumped from ABC Election Night coverage in 2010, you almost wanted to send him a sympathetic fruit basket or a plate of fresh cookies. You figured that something would have to calm the man down — especially since the elephants couldn’t use the tranquilizer gun to put down one of their own. But then Breitbart would work himself into a lather and accuse the people who canned him of cowardice. And you realized he was beyond repair.

The American political kitchen is filled with pots that are fond of calling the kettles black. The American right is populated with leaders who not only refuse to compromise, but who refuse to understand that the beloved Republicans who came before them were forced to compromise to get things done. Andrew Breitbart represented the worst of them. Yet even as I write these words, this baleful pox is being lionized rather than lambasted, fondly remembered rather than coldly resented, even vaguely considered as a hero by the mainstream outlets. These lamentable results represent the nadir of present-day politics, but they also reveal why a gutless political fool placing bullying and spite before reason and might should be thoroughly denounced.