Dead Formats: Roasted Chickens

Hipster enthusiasts of thrift stores are generally motivated by varying combinations of the following possibilities: 1). discovering rare and valuable popular artifacts—first editions, scarce vinyl, obscure memorabilia, etc; 2). uncovering one-of-a-kind art/craft items that evoke some aspect of l’art brut;  3). reconstructing one’s wardrobe around the cultural dominant of the decade immediately preceding that of one’s birth;  4). marveling at the sad and sorry display of consumer cycles that have generated so much crap—much of it still eminently functional--now drained of the exchange/symbolic value that once made these piles of junk new and thus worthwhile.

As for possibility #4, Mike Kelley’s work with appropriated objects and “craft morphologies”  explicitly confronted this sense of melancholy, especially his several pieces that integrate orphaned stuffed animals into larger assemblages and installations.  More Love Hours than Can Ever Be Repaid (1987) is probably the best known—an abstract collage of craft figures and textures (and for full Midwestern autumnal-quilt effect—a pair of dried corn stalks on the top corners).  Kelley has described the work in Bataille-like terms of symbolic exchange—gifts imbued with “love hours” that cannot be repaid—the tyranny of an emotional potlatch, one might say.  Hoping to bring an end to the “stuffed toy” phase of his career, Kelley later created the installation Craft Mythology Flow Chart (1991).  Hand-made dolls are displayed face-down on a series of non-descript folding-tables, the items grouped for formal inventory and effect in an effort to disrupt the empathetic attachments typically evoked by these mass-engineered vectors of the adorable.   On the wall hang photos of the dolls, photographed—as Kelley notes—as if they are anthropological finds (see detail at right).  Of course, they also resemble mug-shots, giving the entire layout a forensic/morgue vibe as well (but this is perhaps a reading only enabled by the nation’s intervening obsession with police procedurals).  

But even more “anonymous” and overtly corporatized artifacts can carry this affective charge as well.  During a recent stop at a thrift store in Kalamazoo, for example, I found a cache of 100+ RCA Selecta Vision discs.  As my more tech-savvy colleague informed me, this was RCA’s ill-fated attempt in the early ‘80s to roll out a new format for home entertainment systems—a venture that eventually lost to Betamax and VHS tape.  The technical name for the format was the CED (Capacitance Electronic Disc), and they have much more in common with the long-playing record than with the laser-discs they superficially resemble in their packaging.  The Wiki-gods report that RCA lost nearly $600 million on the format, which was discontinued when GE and RCA made up and remarried in 1986.  As the discs at the Kalamazoo Salvation Army were priced to move, I bought three for the historical record—Disney’s Tron (1982), Saturday Night Live: The Best of Joe Piscopo (1983), and the Kenny Rogers’ film Six-Pack (1982).   These choices may seem motivated by the standard-issue ironic detachment haunting post-boomer culture, but I assure you each was selected to maximize the sad connotations of techno-cultural obsolescence.   Of the three, Six-Pack may well be the most complex in its layering of melancholia and misery.  

Six-Pack on Selecta-Vision is infinitely more depressing than the same film encountered on VHS, Laserdisc, or DVD (if the last object actually exists, God forbid).  Perhaps it is a trait unique to media historians, but I’ve always found “extinct” media formats profoundly sad.  One can only imagine the original hope invested in these discs as a definitive solution to entropy and thus the key to media immortality.  Here was an early attempt to transform the ephemeral experience of the movies quite literally into “records” (the Selecta-Vision system in fact uses a stylus)—the building blocks of an eventual media library.  Of course, those who invested in this format were out of luck by 1986, and if they moved over to VHS, they could only watch as a library of videotapes slowly decayed from age and magnetization.  Now Blu-Ray is in the process of displacing the DVD (which slayed VHS, obviously) as the new format of eternal transcription—but there really is no end to this anxiety as this obsession with formatting is less about creating a library that might actually outlive its owner than it is about repelling the intruding specter of mortality itself.  One has to give credit to the culture industries, which have somehow managed to take a century of wholly disposable media products and invest them with a sense of history, identity, and affect that make millions feel compelled to collect them and repeat—to the grave, apparently—whatever dated pleasures reside within.  At this point in history, does anyone who has seen Casablanca (1945) and knows Casablanca really need to own Casablanca?  Are episodes of Gilligan’s Island best encountered at random in unexpected moments during the course of life, or are they to be stored on the shelf in “complete seasons,” much like reading-copies of Moby Dick and Ulysses that one keeps on the shelf for a more contemplative rendezvous later in life?

In this respect, owning (and then cataloging and organizing) a body of continually re-formatted films, TV shows, and albums is a ritual that re-affirms the “immortal” flame of one’s taste even as that industrially-inscribed sensibility remains encased in a deteriorating body.  As the recent Beatles Box demonstrates, this symptom is particularly pronounced in pop-music fans (myself included), who appear hopelessly caught in a doomed attempt to rekindle whatever feelings of teenage omnipotence have been cathected onto Sgt. Pepper, Exile on Main Street, Never Mind the Bollocks, Nevermind, and whatever other records were considered crucial after I stopped paying attention at the end of the last century.   Happily, the Beatles Box may be the last great gesture in this regard as most people under 30 have little to no desire to own music as a material object, having chosen variety and portability over sound fidelity and cover design in circulating the music of the future. Perhaps this will make them less prone to corporatized fetishism, more willing to consume popular texts and then, as with Swiffer pads, be done with them.   Already we must celebrate the Net generation’s radical intervention in simply refusing to pay for most mass-produced music, having made the fundamental realization that very few artists are worth shelling out $18.98 (much less the hundreds of dollars needed to replace your copy of Revolver every 15 years).  Thrift shelves are now sagging under the weight of discarded CDs—former icons of sonic immortality currently taking their rightful place next to cassettes, 8-tracks, and that most distant and ridiculous of audiophile formats: reel-to-reel tape.   

Yes, formats and popular amusements all decay eventually, a process made particularly manifest in the pathos of a Selecta-Vision edition of Six-Pack.  Not only is the CED format itself dead, but so too is the cultural imaginary that would produce, enjoy, cherish, and collect a film starring Kenny Rogers.  It is a double dead-end of design and desire.   For those unfamiliar with Rogers, he first came to prominence in the late ‘60s as the lead singer for Kenny Rogers and the First Edition (“Just Dropped In (to See What Condition My Condition Was In)” was their big hit).  He is also known for his 1978 single, “The Gambler,” as well as participating in the landmark  “We Are the World” session of 1985 that—at last—brought an end to famine in Africa.  At some point he opened a chain of fast-food chicken shacks (Kenny Rogers’ Roasters—most famously a nemesis for Kramer in an episode of Seinfeld).  In 1994, a pitcher for the Texas Rangers with the same name threw a perfect game—which no doubt confused many—while in the late ‘90s Rogers became the object of a rather inexplicably brutal series of parodies by Will Sasso on MadTV (see video sidebar).  In other words, Rogers is one of those media figures who have proliferated across a range of media (and chicken enterprises) for over forty years—staying within the lexicon of popular reference despite having long ago ceased to generate any cultural product of relevance.  Whether we want to or not, we must co-exist in a world that also allows Kenny Rogers inordinate access to mass consciousness, either through music, parody, or poultry distribution. 

Six-Pack dates from a period when Rogers—like any efficient proto-convergence franchise--sought to expand beyond the then somewhat limiting domain of country music and capture the larger profits and attention to be found in the movies.  The film itself is a confluence of rather unfortunate genres--Smokey the Bandit meets the Bad News Bears—with Rogers playing a NASCAR driver who befriends a motley crew of orphaned children (6 to be exact—hence the title).  No doubt this craven calculation in genre/regional hybridization was apparent to many in the period—but with the passing of time, Six Pack becomes an even more pointed reminder of just how low and obvious our expectations are for popular entertainment.  Sure, you can say it was a film for kids or the even less demanding audiences that would eventually file into the dinner-theater death compounds of Branson, but that really is no defense at all.  If we pretend to befriend the hypothetical viewer who really liked (or likes) Six Pack, that only means we have ceased to struggle against the industry’s vortex of swirling mediocrity--giving up at last on all critical responsibility, holding our noses, and then going down for the last time (perhaps to buy the new Two and a Half Men box-set).  Really—and I’m speaking primarily to my fellow media scholars out there—did we put multiple years into a Ph.D. so that we might better understand, defend, and celebrate the pleasures of watching The Ghost Whisperer, having so long ago abandoned any challenge to the world of cynical sentimental crapestry that would create The Ghost Whisperer in the first place?

No doubt popular entertainment is always "great" so long as our technologies remain sexy and our tastes remain blissfully unexamined--but lurking behind this joyous proliferation of rat-holes into which to dump our money, time, and attention is the uncomfortable reality evoked by a Kenny Rogers on Selecta-Vision disc (Selecta! --even the name makes you stupider).  Like so much other thrift detritus, it is a reminder of objects and affect now utterly drained of all value--maybe eventually even of all ironic value. Such is the destiny of all that is ill-conceived, poorly made, and obscenely ridiculous--be it a Billy Bass Singing-Fish Plaque or the Blu-Ray copies of Norbit that, even now, move inexorably toward their destiny on the future shelves of Goodwill.

Moreover, Six Pack is a reminder that the oft-celebrated move toward media/narrative convergence--beyond opening multiple paths to consumer ecstasy--is just as often (or actually, at the same time) only a guy and his corporation looking to branch out from shit-kicker radio to get a little taste of the Burt Reynolds market--or singing about poker fights he's never been in--or showing up next to Cyndy Lauper at a charity photo-op to keep his profile/brand relevant--or pretending to have expertise in chicken-roasting that he doubtlessly does not possess. And we do nothing about it.  Sad, sad indeed. 

For more on Mike Kelley's work, see Mike Kelley. ed. by John C. Welchman, Isabelle Graw, Anthony Vidler.  New York: Phaidon Press, 1999.

I am indebted to my more tech-savvy colleague Max Dawson for his knowledge of the Selecta-Vision venture. 

Rat Nation

 My friend Moya just sent me the link to this drama that unfolded sometime recently in New York City (and can be investigated further at:  It is hard to imagine an image so diabolically torn between "cuteness" and "heartbreak."  But beyond activating that part of our stupid mammilian brain that makes us want to help all small furry animals (even ones that carry thousands of diseases), the image is also a potent emblem of our nation's current plight.  The late 20th-century was such a party for the USA that even our rats got slow and stupid, and now they are also stranded alone in an uncaring world hoping beyond hope that someone, anyone, will forgive them for their disgusting history of gluttony, complacency, and colonialism.  Oh won't you please free me from this crack in the sidewalk?  I promise to never again bite your kids, shit in your corn flakes, or try to bring democracy to your attic.  

[A sad update to report--as noted by Moya in the comments section below, it turns out this poor critter was already dead at the time of the photograph.  I guess he decided to go out in a serene, uncanny pose that would spook New Yorkers one last time]

That Dude in Your Lit Class with the Backwards Baseball Cap Reviews: "Daisy Miller" by Henry James

So this story is about this guy in Europe called Winterbore who goes to visit his aunt because his cousin is a loser who drops the ball on that kind of stuff.  One day Winterbore is outside just chillin’ and taking in some sweet rays when all of a sudden who shows up but this bodacious American chick Daisy James, the girl for which the book has been titled.  She’s really a stuck-up bitch at first but Winterbore finally gets her talking and before you know it she won’t shut up.  But he still really wants to get with her because she’s so smokin’ so he asks her to go on a date to this old castle that’s across the lake.  Later on he’s asking around about Daisy and it turns out she’s from a rich American family that all the uptight Europeans hate because the family is all in your face about how great America is all the time, especially this hilarious little kid with no teeth who keeps telling everyone that their country sucks and he wants to get back to Schendectady asap.  They also don’t like Daisy because she doesn’t do all the shit girls were supposed to do back in the olden times.  So Winterbore takes her to the castle and I think they hook up or something because he pays the Castle guy to go away and leave them alone for awhile, even though all they seem to do is talk.  A lot!  After that Winterbore has to go back home for awhile and this makes Daisy mad because, like, the sun seems to revolve around her and if she doesn’t get what she wants she gets really pissed.  In my experience hot girls can get away with this kind of stuff because guys will put up with a lot of shit to be around them, and so it seems like this has probably always been the case.  Anyway,  later on Winterbore goes to Rome and runs into Daisy again, except this time she’s really running wild with a bunch of guys, especially this Italian dude who everyone says is handsome but still seems kind of skeezy.  Daisy still seems kind of p.o.’ed at Winterbore so she basically ignores him and keeps running around with the Italian dude.  Now everyone is really losing their shit over Daisy cause she walks around town late at night with no escorts, which apparently made you a real slut back then. One night there’s this big party and Daisy shows up late with the Italian dude, even though Daisy’s mom is already at the party and I think we’re supposed to think Daisy and this guy were doing the deed back at the hotel.  But she says they were just practicing some singing, and so Italian guy starts belting out some tunes even though no one asked him to.  The old bat who has the party is really mad, probably because unlike Daisy she isn’t getting any.  At any rate, she says Daisy should just stay the hell away because of her wanton sluttiness.  Then there’s another scene where Winterbore and the Italian dude are both walking with Daisy, because I guess Winterbore has heard all this slut talk by now and figures he still has a decent chance of getting into Daisy’s pants.  I mean, why not? It seems like it was really hard to get laid back then so I guess a guy had to hang around even if there was already another guy there in the off chance the other guy might do something stupid and have to leave.  But then that old lady shows up again and basically yells at Winterbore like he’s a little kid or something and tells him to get the hell away from her because she’s so trampy and such.  And he does it!  Finally, Winterbore catches Daisy and the Italian dude out at night by themselves in the old Roman Coliseum you always see on TV.  Winterbore gets all pissed now at the Italian dude because apparently American girls, even hot ones, can get bit by mosquitoes that have something called “Roman fever” and it can kill them.  And what do you know?  That’s exactly what happens.  Daisy drops dead from this fever. But that’s later. What’s weird is you would think after following this Daisy chick around for hundreds of pages that her death would be some big deal and everyone would come visit her and watch her die, even if she was kind of a slut.  But the book writer just kind of mentions it in passing like, hey, Daisy’s dead, no big deal.

Anyway, I think the book is supposed to make us think whether or not we think Daisy really is whoring it up or if she is actually kind of cool because like this old singer my Mom likes called Cyndy Loopner she's a girl who “just wants to have fun” and doesn’t give a shit what old European fucks think about her awesome Americanness.  Plus you have to remember that it was different times way back then and stuff we think is pretty much okay was really terrible for girls to do—even the smokin’ hot ones.

Next Week on "Dipshit Island"

How sad that the story of "Balloon Boy" now appears to be a hoax.  In trying times like these, the nation could have really used the inspiring story of an irresponsible family of "amateur scientists" accidentally allowing their son to float away in a giant mylar chef's hat--sending America on an emotional rollercoaster ride as it waited to see if  Lifetime  could cast the made-for-tv movie even before little "Falcon" became a skidmark on a grain silo somewhere in west Nebraska.  Everyone presumably breathed a sigh of relief when Falcon was instead found hiding (no doubt preciously) in a box in the family's attic, making a nostalgic nation recall the time they hunkered down in the tree-house for the afternoon after righteously pelting old man Johnson with a fusillade of dirt clods and crabapples.  

A mounting body of evidence now suggests the adorably freakish affair was staged (the biggest flaw in the Heene family plan would appear to be that Falcon is incapable of lying without also puking, as he did twice on national tv the following day).  
Of course, who but a simpleton wandering down from Walton's Mountain in search of magic beans could have possibly believed this story in the first place?  Americans are notoriously predisposed to believe bullshit, especially when it involves the preciousness or precociousness of children, but honestly, which of the following facts (all known while the balloon was still in flight) was not a RED FLAG big enough to forever plunge Pyongyang into full eclipse?
1.  A family of "amateur scientists:"  Today, allowing yourself to be called an "amateur scientist" is just about as insane as identifying yourself as a "professional alchemist"--unless of course you are a D.J. or some other craftsman using the term to capture your mad skillz through inflated metaphor.  Also, other than the "Flying Wallendas," has any other family ever had a collective vocation?  Is 6-year old Falcon a part of this team of "amateur scientists?"  Or is he only a bag of ballast (albeit a lazy and ineffective one)? 
The family's "science" of choice, meanwhile, appears to be the close analysis of Twister, the landmark Jan de Pont film of 1996 so pivotal in Hollywood's ongoing project of transferring all villainous affect to inanimate objects.  Even as Falcon was allegedly buffeting about in the jet stream, footage emerged of the entire family chasing down tornadoes (perhaps with the evil Dr. Jonas Miller cursing them from a trailing Hummer:"Damn you meddling Heene family!  I'll teach you to tangle with the professionals! Leave those tornadoes alone, you're not properly credentialed!").  In a way, you almost have to admire the effortless dementia that would release this footage to the authorities.  With any luck there will soon be additional video of the Heene boys removing their uncle's gallbladder, or siphoning nitro, or centrifuging heavy metals with their bike wheels, or something else amateur boy scientists not named Venture might do just before they are whisked into foster care.
2.  "Falcon:"  Who but disturbed hippies living at an inappropriately high altitude would name a child "Falcon?"  Odd, also, that it would be "Falcon" who would "take flight" and "soar" across the great plains.  Look soon for their other boy, "Nemo," to prematurely launch a Wendy's-dumpster-turned-submarine to the bottom of Lake Watanga. 
3.  The two most successful movies of the summer were Up and Transformers 2: Rust Never Sleeps. Obviously, converting the family Corolla into an ambulatory bot-beast that might plausibly kidnap little Falcon (or their third son, "Ignot") was an amateur science too far.  Much easier and more inspiring to rip off Pixar by raiding a hospital gift shop and sewing together all the "get well soon" balloons. 
4.  Finally, as reporters noted--again, even as the balloon was still in flight--the family had already appeared on Wife Swap--ABC's amazing reality experiment wherein men loan their wife-property to a neighboring tribe so that both clans might learn valuable lessons about picking up socks and occasionally taking the little woman to Applebee's so that she doesn't wake up one morning and pour rat poison over everyone's Cheerios.   
Now--in a perfect world--the second, I mean the very nano-second CNN learned the Heene's had already been on Wife Swap, Wolf Blitzer would have turned to the camera and said "fuck this, fuck them, and most of all fuck little Falcon--this story is clearly a steaming load of Colorado bison shit."  But, as the Heene parents no doubt already understood, because a small child was allegedly involved, there was no way the networks would abandon this story.  And so America had to endure another hour of this idiocy, made even more ridiculous when reporters discovered that in addition to Wife Swap, the Heenes had only recently auditioned for their own series on TLC--no doubt some manner of Swiss Family Twister vehicle. 
Given that such stunts are only likely to muliply in the future--especially as appearing on reality TV becomes one of the last remaining viable industries in the U.S., perhaps we need new laws and penalities to help protect the already highly diminished "real" at the heart of reality TV.  Why not grant these idiots their wish, Isle of the Alive style?  Make all reality-tv hoaxing punishable by permanent exile to an island populated entirely by fellow hoaxsters--Octomom, Spencer and Heidi, that crazy woman who said a big angry black man carved a "B" for Barak on her cheek--there they could all live out their lives for our amusement on TV 24 hours a day, but with no hope of book deals, tie-ins, or paychecks of any kind.  Most importantly, no hope of escape--just the bitter knowledge that America is at home watching in comfort as Mr. and Mrs. Heene try to build a makeshift raft out of old copies of US Weekly, People, and OK! Magazine, only to be quickly apprehended by their own children who, ten years from now, will gladly work as frontline security guards for Fox's breakout hit-- Dipshit Island.

Double Pits to Chesty

My bike leaves the ramp and I become weightless and sublime.  Flashbulbs pop from around the arena as I go into my X-treme backflip.   Suddenly, as if in a dream, my jersey gently falls away from my body and I am magnificently nude in the night air, utterly alone with my bodacious hang-time.  I only have a second or two, but that’s all I’m gonna need, bro.  Now completely inverted, I whip out the can and spray my left man-pit.  The aerosol feels awesome as it coats my skin, each droplet of spray settling in my pores and transforming my sweat into an alluring nectar, my armpit now a sultry oasis where harems of pouty biker-babes will soon gather to fight for my attention.  Now I’m upright again but still insanely high.  This is going well.  I take aim on my right armpit and cast a serene but stern look of domination over my adorning fans.  Fuck you.  Fuck you all.  I am with the Gods above.  They have graced me with knowledge of their potions and perfumes.  Heed the majesty of my Godly pits you miserable fucks, smell them now I say!   A cloud of sweet spray blasts into pit number two, creating a dense fog of pheromones that slowly drifts down to the crowd below.  Everyone is now marked by my manly scent as it settles on their popcorn and pretzels, mixes with their beer and soda.  Fathers who only a moment ago sat placidly with their families watching the show must now restrain daughters driven mad by a lust that will not be denied, their limbs and lips straining toward me--the Adonis of axle-grease suspended on high in this cloud of magical vapor.  I descend.  But before I hit my landing, I make a final, definitive slash across my chest—testament to the ultimate extremity of my being and the totally wicked magnitude of my accomplishment.  I have fulfilled my destiny. I have completed the double pits to chesty.  

But what’s this?  Suddenly I’m back on the ground and once again wearing my jersey.  I raise my arms to the admiring crowd.  They go wild, unable to believe their good fortune in having witnessed this supreme triumph in person.  Wait, is that Ashley, the hot blond from my chemistry class?  Dressed in a sexy blue tank-top, she seems to have her own Motocross show now.  That’s awesome! I had no idea she was into Moto-X.  Apparently the act of outstretching my arms stimulates the magnetic allure of my pits.  Ashley is intrigued.  Shy at first, she moves in closer to better sniff my musky glaze.  Not wanting to appear too interested, too forward, she retreats demurely.  But my wafting man-scent lingers on her microphone.  It is too strong for her to resist, and so beautiful Ashley draws the mike tenderly to her nose for a final, naughty whiff.

Yes, I will have her now.  And with any luck, tomorrow night I will dream of Oahu—shaving my junk as I shred major tubage off the coast of Diamond Head.

Please Dave, Don't Leave Me Alone with CoCo

If you love television—not TiVO time-shifting or lost weekends of DVD binging—but the more quotidian pleasures of coterminous transmission, then late-night TV has become a final refuge of sorts.  Stewart, Colbert, Letterman, O’Brien and the others present the only remaining opportunities to realize television’s original promise as a technology of divine torpor, a box that allowed you to simply zone out and participate in the illusion of real time and a real audience.  Mad Men, Lost, and other hi-falutin’ TV fare are “great,” I guess, but they all suffer from being a little too canned, exceedingly rare, and rather full of themselves.  In an ideal world, some network suit would realize it is in the medium’s best interest to bring back a few shows with plate-spinners, yodeling champions, and jumping poodles. You might be saying to yourself, isn’t that the very premise of the new Jay Leno Good Time Flashback Hour now on NBC five nights a week?  Yes, to some degree.  But for this to really work, the nets would need to turn those five hours over to someone younger with more talent and vision.  Sarah Silverman…Amy Sedaris… Zach Galifianakis…I can think of a dozen people who might actually do something more useful with five hours of improvised primetime other than force guests to sop up the entire D-block driving around a lame racetrack in a Ford "Green Car" Product Placement Promo.    

For fans of late-night, the schedule is once again in turmoil.  Stewart and Colbert continue to chug along (although The Daily Show is in dire need of some new correspondent blood.  What ever happened to Beth Littleford? Can’t she come back?) The jury still seems to be out on Conan O’Brien’s temporal and coastal shift to The Tonight Show.  I will admit to never being a huge fan of O’Brien.  Great writers, great prepared bits—but O’Brien continues to radiate the anxiety of a small terrier overly eager to please.  Even after almost two decades in this gig, he still steps all over his guest’s lines, over-explains every set-up, and is way too happy to get up from behind the desk for a wholly “spontaneous” mugfest.  Yes, he’s self-deprecating about it, yes he makes jokes about his awkwardness—but it all plays a little too hot for late night.  While that shtick did very well with highly caffeinated and Red-Bullied college kids up at 12:30 in the morning, I’m not sure how it plays with working folk trying to relax at the end of the day.  So far at least, the move to L.A. hasn’t seemed to help either.  For a show to pretend it is unambitious, amateurish, and a bit stupid, it really needs the cover of originating post-post-fringe from New York.  Once you’ve been given the keys to The Tonight Show (at the utterly edgeless Universal Shitty-Walk no less), it becomes very difficult to pretend you are incompetent while also serving as a prime agent for greasing the industry’s hype-machine.

Which brings us to Letterman, whose ratings will no doubt go through the roof this week (poor Conan, no sooner does he get some buzz by cold-cocking himself on stage, Dave ends up in a tawdry blackmail plot). I’ll be up front in my bias here: if Letterman ends up losing his gig because he and “Monty” were consensualizing in his office, or at a cheap motel, or even atop the grave of Ed Sullivan himself—I will be very, very pissed.  Anyone outraged at these exploits as “sexual harassment” really needs to take a couple Xanax or, even better, read Mary Gaitskill’s scathingly perfect short story “Secretary.”    Yes, I understand many subordinates, especially women, can face all manner of implicit and explicit pressures in the workplace to put out or go home—but that really does not seem to be the case here (after all, she got to be on the TV!).  Plus, I’ve never really understood how so many—especially on the progressive wings of the left—will promote all iterations of sexual freedom except when it involves disparities of authority and pay-scale, as if “power”—performed or promised—hasn’t been a major player in human sexuality since Ardipithecus ramidus.  And oddly, many of those outraged at Letterman will still tune in dutifully on Sundays to lust after or envy Don Draper as he spews his seed up and down the corporate ladder of Camelot, so go figure.  

But I digress.  If we lose Letterman, we lose the last remaining program to understand that it’s impossible to do five hours a week in television without embracing the fundamental banality of the medium.  Back in the early ‘80s, Letterman pretty much pioneered the deconstructed talk-show format (“Dave” is such an avuncular fixture now that it is easy to forget that generationally his peer group is Andy Kaufman, Michael O’Donahue, Bill Murray, and the other earliest architects of the smartass self-reflexive stupidity that remains comedy’s coin of the realm even today).  When the show moved to CBS (after NBC gave the Burbank kingdom to the depressingly more accessible Leno), Letterman settled into a less adventurous yet at times more subversive role as the cantankerous east coast curmudgeon—seemingly the lone high-profile celebrity to serve as a refreshing counterweight to Hollywood bullshit.  Cher called him an asshole!  His hosting of the Oscars was the biggest disaster ever, precisely because he wasn’t there to blow smoke up everyone’s ass.  Until their recent rapprochement, even Oprah—the nation’s healer-in-chief—hated his guts.  

True to his midwestern roots, Letterman is generally polite and hospitable.  But there is nothing more entertaining than seeing him go off on someone who truly deserves it.  He exhibits the comfort of a guy with two fingers of Scotch in the belly who remains for the most part loosely hilarious—but is just as happy to let a guest know s/he is full of shit, overhyped, and wasting everyone’s time.  Was there anything more beautiful, more cuttingly elegant, than Letterman expressing his regret to Joaquin Phoenix that Joaquin Phoenix was unable to show up for his own interview?  And I’m sorry, his joke about Sarah Palin’s daughter getting knocked-up during the seventh-inning stretch at a Yankee’s game was flat-out hilarious.  Letterman apologized, but if you watch closely, you’ll see that he still ends many monologues with Palin jokes, followed by the band playing him over to the desk with “Bitch” by the Rolling Stones.  He is an asshole—but in a TV-verse where everyone else endlessly compliments each other about how awesome and talented they are—we desperately need such an asshole. 

I’ve heard some express distaste for Letterman because the show so often runs certain gags into the ground, day-after-day, week-after-week.  But that is precisely what makes bits like “Will It Float?” so brilliant—a goofy schoolyard dare given its own theme song, dressed up with the gratuitous showbiz eye-candy of “Hula girl” and “Saw Girl,” and performed as equal parts bar wager and Mr. Wizard.  It’s a bit that doesn’t need a roundtable of recent Harvard grads in the writers room dueling each other to see who can mine the most obscure Punky Brewster reference, but hinges instead on the pleasures of repetition and, more importantly, Letterman’s ability to vamp amiably through almost anything as a host-comedian rather than a comedian-host.  If you didn’t see his “confession” last Thursday, it is really worth a look if only because it so perfectly showcases his ability to tell an open-ended story.  After revealing he has “had sex with people he works with,” he got a standing ovation from the audience!

As for the rest of them, what’s the point really?  I hear Jimmy Kimmel is still on ABC somewhere (in Chicago, he comes on after Nightline and after an Oprah rerun, so it’s easy to lose track of him).  There’s the loud Scottish guy that comes on after Dave.  I’m not really sure what his shtick is other than standing too close to the camera during the cold open, but it is a significant improvement over Craig Kilborn who managed to create a show solely for Ari Gold before Ari Gold even existed (Kilborn has all but disappeared.  Somehow I imagine him hanging out in whatever remains of the Farmers Market in L.A. insulting tourists for their cargo pants, bad haircuts, and cheap sunglasses).  Then there is Jimmy Fallon taking up the Letterman/O’Brien franchise at NBC.  Fallon actually looks to have learned a few lessons from Letterman, the show using a set of revolving Beat the Clock premises to facilitate banal audience interactivity.  But Fallon is no Letterman, at least not yet. And his producers need to electroshock him out of saying that everything, absolutely everything on the show is going to be “really cool” and “so cool” and “so awesome” and “so fun” and so on.  Plus, this week the show is having a “Yacht Rock” night, and as Yacht Rock was hugely cutting-edge FIVE YEARS AGO, this does not bode well for Late Night staying in the vanguard of the comic zeitgeist.   

Finally, those up really late might occasionally stumble upon Carson Daly.  Formerly a sentient body capable of legible announcements on MTV, Daly was inexplicably set up with his own training-wheels talk-show at 1:30am EST on NBC (just what sexual secrets does Daly know about?).  As NBC is by all accounts bankrupt, it is a mystery as to why they continue to finance this utterly unnecessary show, the appendix on the colon of network fringe.   Of late, however, the show has improved somewhat.  Whereas it used to be the place where C-listers who couldn’t get a booking during the previous two hours went to push their latest cable-network projects, Last Call has now been reformatted as a dark companion piece to HBO’s Entourage.  Each episode now features Daly showing up at some L.A. landmark or hotspot, utterly alone and looking forlornly mellow, setting up concert remotes of various bands gigging on the Strip or in Silverlake.  The show aspires to trade in the same lifestyle fantasies of being young and fame-attached in Hollywood that are so central to Entourage.  But seeing Daly sitting in a vintage Cadillac outside of Mel’s Diner with no audience, no sidekick, and no discernible purpose—occasionally interviewing pierced-and-dyed popsters half his age who play as bored and detached—it is a bit like Turtle getting his own show but alienating all of his friends in the process.  

Flaming Bunnies of Greenland

Below is an "exquisite corpse" written by the 60 or so students in my Exploitation Cinema class at Northwestern in fall of 2008.  I provided the first sentence (the first line from Ed Wood's pulp oddity, Killer in Drag) and they did the rest--a sentence or two per student.  Each writer could only see what the person directly before him or her had just written.  I have provided a series of images to jazz it up some for the internet age.

Astute readers will note that a few students inserted their own "in-joke" surrealism references, either in honor of the assignment or to undermine its logic of alleged spontaneity.

An exquisite corpse
As excavated by the members of RTVF 322 : fall 2008: Northwestern University

We entered Glen’s cell, a bleak, cold arrangement of bars and solid cement.   The array of carved soap blocks and newspapers on the floor spoke to the presence of a man with much time on his hands.  He laid in the mess until the Incident arrived.  And she called herself “the Incident” because she was always arriving.  But upon her arrivals, she would find herself wondering where exactly she is.  L.A. D.C. NYC, every time she thought she knew she was going to find her dream city she would see it again.  Through any means necessary, no matter how long it took.  Needless to say it took hours.  By the time it was done, a lady in Rome had sewn a set of curtains. But the curtains caught fire when she fell asleep with her crack pipe lit.  And just when she thought she would be saved, the fire spread to her bunny and Floppy’s tail burst into flames. 
Then, at that moment, a nearby dirt hill exploded into a volcanic, seething mass of fire ants.  The ants began their slow, inexorable march out of the volcano and into the city below.  “I’m hungry!” cried one of the youngest, as he trudged along amongst the ash of the volcano.  “Me too! Let’s get some grub!” she agreed as she wiped the sweat from her brow.  They run towards the candy store and begin beating the kids with gigantic candy canes and stabbing themselves with lolipopsticks.  “I’m so sorry, children,” Mr. Man cried, “please forgive me for all the wrongs I’ve done.”  And with that we discovered the world’s most dangerous child molester.  His arrest was headline news as far East as Malaysia.  Though at home only his dog cared.  That he had killed himself.  After his death, the whole town celebrated with festivals and candy because he was a selfish, obnoxious bastard.  The consternation of a million small businesses meant nothing.  They would all be out of business soon.  And return to search for the grapes.  Tearing her feet apart like ants under a microscope.  Was what it felt like as Susan got her nails buffed.  And painted in a luscious shade of grassy green.  But the green was actually red, a tragic symptom of colorblindness.  So the cars collided all at once and traffic jams mounted the globe, except in Greenland.

Thus, Greenland became the new center of economic growth and development.  And the green people became the rulers of the university.  As present rulers of the universe, the people of green flesh soon forgot how they came to be in charge.  They were so confused that each them started to look more and more delicious.  They all began to undress for no apparent reason. Skin rubbing on skin; sweat everywhere.  As the Indian Chief taught his son the art of tanning.  The chief’s wife sewed a quilt.  She draped it over herself and began to pray.  Soon the priest walked in and asked if everything was ok.  “The taste of flesh was just so sweet and buttery,” he said.  Then the entrance covered with clover opened and a polio ridden gnome stumbled out.  The gnome clamped onto his hand and wouldn’t let go, all the while screaming about his affliction.  He went to the medicine cabinet and grabbed a handful of aspirin.  With the hope that it would cure his cancer.  He fought the illness off night and day.  Soon he regained his health and could box again.  But she, she would never regain consciousness.  And I was like, “Mustard? I’m ketchup Mothafucka—Zap you dumbass!”  Condiments?  What the hell do we need condiments for?  Get some real food!  We have real food.  Condiments are just a good addition.  You know, some ketchup, mustard, a little color, the spice of life.  I never eat hamburgers any other way!
That’s right! It’s medium-well or bust.  Rare is not an option.  But where there’s beef, there’s a man to chew it.   So he chewed and chewed and chewed and chewed.  And looked towards home plate before pitching.  He decided to go with an old-fashioned curveball.
 If only the corn was ripe that day.  But it wasn’t so he was forlorn.  After all, aren’t we but measly clowns before the eyes of God?  Thought the old farmer as he sharpened his plow.  He loved peas and ate 3 with each meal.  Not to mention, as a rule, he only masturbated with his left hand.  Why was his giraffe on fire?