Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Jon Stewart has lost his way.

It pains me to write this, but I believe the great Jon Stewart is astride the proverbial shark and about to to clear it. I have made allowances for growth in the show's popularity and the ensuing growth in Stewart's ego. I have let the softball interviews with people out of his league slide. I've even ignored his more frequent slips into "annoying tie-straightening man character" -- not enjoying such hack-work but recognizing it as an inevitable symptom of Stewart's uncomfortable popularity. What has me searching for another nightly ritual is my belief that Jon is turning into the type of cowardly, egomaniacal blowhard he lampoons.

I'm proud to be one of those who watched the Daily Show in Jon Stewart's early days, when most people thought he was a poor substitute for Craig Kilborn. I remember when David Arquette showed up for his interview high; Jon's cool, condescending reaction remains his finest moment on television. I remember when a young flavor of the month actress made a failed attempt to mock the Backstreet Boys in her interview; Jon refused to throw her a safety net or change the subject, but let the glorious discomfort of the moment hang in the air. Andy Kaufman was somewhere smiling. I remember the brilliant Stacey Grimrock Woods (sp?), his best and least frequent correspondent, whose interview with a former disco slut about the meaning of "sexolet" is still the show's best segment ever.

Now, it's obvious he hates his interviews. Usually, he knows nothing about his guest (hasn't read the book or article they're plugging; hasn't ever watched the show they're on). He relies on his cards -- obviously written by someone else -- for the first question and fills the rest of the interview with uncomfortable banter, though not uncomfortable in a good way. When discomfort is acknowledged and revelled in, as it was with the above-mentioned guests, it is refreshing. When a sweaty, manic attempt is made to cover it up, the discomfort is absorbed by the audience, who, in my case, changes the channel. I would bet my house that someone pulled Stewart aside and told him that, to take his show to the next level, he would have to start taking the interviews seriously. The old Jon Stewart would have simply told his guest "I haven't read your book, what's it about?" or "I'm sorry, I don't watch American Idol as I'm not a 12-year-old girl, but you seem like a nice guy, Bo." (If Jon and his wife really watch, as he claimed, why didn't he congratulate Bo on his daring a' capella performance or say what all of us real Idol-heads were thinking "the finals were rigged?") Dwight Yokum (sp?) is so far the only guest I've seen make the most of the new Jon Stewart.

Still, as I mentioned before, I'm willing to let the interviews slide. What really bothers me is the show's agenda. It's hard for me to say this, because I share that agenda. I'm sure I hate Bush as much as any of the writers at the Daily Show, and a lot of times, I'm gratified by the constant stream of anti-administration material. However, gratified is not the same as entertained. To someone who's mad at world affairs, a good, cleansing laugh is far more therapeutic than a segment that merely reinforces his anger. If the biggest laugh can be found by ripping on Rumsfeld or the Christian Coalition's martyr complex, use it. But if there's something more worthy of parody in a small Iowa town, go there instead. Please. The world needs it.

Lately, he's even foregone a joke at all in favor of just preaching. This seems especially true of his bits about Evangelical Christians. His line "when is the statute of limitations up on Christian Martyrdom? You guys have been in charge since Constantine" is something you'd expect on a bumper sticker. So was his comment of the day before "we have the gay pride parade and Billy Graham's Christian Crusade: which one represents a group of people bent on converting the world to their agenda?" (Well, probably both groups, if you look at it honestly, but thanks for your views, Jon) The ubiquity of comments like these have made the Daily Show nothing more than a megaphone for the views of a very small group of New Yorkers who are baffled by a country they no longer recognize. He doesn't need to make jokes anymore, because these people don't want to laugh, they want to be reassured that someone in the media shares their views. They are weak-minded, talentless, petty, witless and spoiled (think Maureen Dowd et al.) and Jon is now their champion.

As Jon-Jon has been saying for two years, his real target is the media, and he's even gotten worse at lampooning that. His strongest segments are those that mock 24-hour news stations, but again, his preachiness comes through. I agree, Tucker Carlson is a "dick" and Bob Novak is a "douche bag" but how funny is it to hear it from Jon? Worse, when he goes head to head with these wind-bags, he doesn't fight fair. The Crossfire incident is a perfect example. When Tucker Carlson tried to fight back and mentioned Jon's softball Kerry interview Jon said "you're CNN, I follow a show about puppets making crank phone calls." Every time he's attacked, his response is to roll his eyes and say "we're a fake news show." Like a kid who taunts a bully then runs behind his daddy, Stewart appears to believe his fake news show shield is impervious.

Well, like David Spade's "Hollywood Minute" persona, Jon has pierced the satiric veil by becoming an actual player in the media game. If he weren't the critics' darling, someone would have called him on it months ago. As it is, it's only a matter of time before he falls off his little tight-rope and has to roll in the mud with the rest of the little pundits. Hopefully, he'll figure this out before it's too late.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Accepting My Tony for Best Musical

Thank you. I'm so honored to have my show included in the same company as such brilliant works as "Spamalot" and "The Producers," works that truly taught us that the purpose of musical theatre is to shave the edges off movies in the cult comedy genre and make them palatable to vacationing Iowans. These works also taught us that the purpose of songs is to broaden the humor of movies only smart teenagers enjoyed, turning genuine laughs into the forced titters of those who've paid $80 for an obstructed view and making sure that no Monty Python or Mel Brooks joke goes over anyone's head. Most importantly, these shows taught us that all theatre songs can be written by comedy writers with no musical training and should only contain three chords at the most.
I want to thank producers who refuse to take a chance on anything that might leave somebody scratching their head, and whose primary purpose is to give aging comedians like Brooks and Terry Gilliam one last thrill on the way to the cemetary.
I can hear the music starting, so before it drowns me out I just want to make sure I thank the New York Times theatre critics for playing along and pretending these are real shows, not a string of junior high election skits, and giving each of them a full page cover.
-Rick

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Sondheim Tribute at Tonys a Travesty

OK. I'm right now watching Hugh Jackman and Aretha Franklin slaughter "Somewhere" at the Tony Awards, but that in itself, is not a travesty. It wouldn't be the Tonys without a few schmaltzy, miscast renditions of Broadway classics.
What makes this a travesty is it was dedicated to Stephen Sondheim on his 75th birthday.

The first level of travesty concerns the fact that Sondheim, the most original and daring MUSICAL voice on Broadway only wrote lyrics to "West Side Story," (music was, of course, by Leonard Bernstein). Nevermind that West Side Story did more business than any of 10 or so shows Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics; the best musicals from 1970-1990 (with the possible exception of Chorus Line) were all written by Sondheim. So why not honor him with "Send in the Clowns" from "A Little Night Music." It's at least as popular as "Somewhere" and it's much more indicative of Sondheim's talents.

The second level of travesty concerns the fact that there were two Sondheim shows on Broadway this year: "Assassins" (written more than a decade ago, but finally seeing the light of the Great White Way) and a revival of his most musically adventurous "Pacific Overtures." I'd still have gone with "Send in the Clowns," but "Assassins" wasn't even acknowledged tonight.

The final and most egregious level of travesty will only be recognized by theatre geeks like me who thrive on behind the scenes anecdotes. As legend and at least two legitimate biographies tell it, Bernstein actually wrote the lyrics to "Somewhere." It was one of those songs he'd written before they brought Sondheim on board, and Bernstein, in his sometimes princely fashion was fine with giving Sondheim lyrics credit for the whole show. (Hammerstein sure wouldn't have done that, but that's a story for another day).

So we have a tribute to the demigod of American musical theatre that is a Schmaltzy, miscast rendition of a song he didn't even write that came out 15 years before he really made his splash. Happy Birthday Steve, at least Mary Rodgers still lovesya. (Her son Adam didn't do so well either tonight, which is also a travesty)
Ciao,
Rick

Friday, June 03, 2005

Burn in Hell, Peggy Noonan

Having been just a baby when Nixon fell from grace, I kind of figured everyone on both sides of the aisle could agree that he was a bad man who had to be brought down, and that the people who helped bring him down were, if not heroic, at least doing their jobs well. I guess in my naivete I thought the people who merely lost their jobs as a result of Watergate (in contrast to those who did time, and somehow all managed to "find the Lord" in prison and become well-paid Christian ministers) had either seen the error of their ways or were too embarrassed to admit otherwise. I didn't realize that Robert Novak and Pat Buchanan are unapologetic Nixonites first and right wing, borderline Nazis second. (Not to mention that the only Jew Nixon ever employed, Ben Stein, would show the closest thing he's ever shown to human emotion when decrying Mark Felt)

The revelation of Deep Throat has shown that not only have the Nixonites stayed in some semblance of power (you can't turn on the TV without seeing one) they still think their man was wronged by a left wing media bent on his distruction from the beginning.

However, the most chilling example of a Nixonite who will not go away is Wall Street Journal Columnist and generally well-respected commentator Peggy Noonan. She is treated with deference by everyone from Peter Jennings to David Letterman, and unlike, Buchanan, you can't immediately tell she is a wagadoo. She is soft-spoken, unfailingly polite and an impeccable dresser. However in a WJS column this week, she showed her true colors, when she tried to blame Deep Throat for the slaughter of children in Cambodia. Here's the excerpt. (Please go to the source and you'll find nothing is taken out of context.)

"What Mr. Felt helped produce was a weakened president who was a serious president at a serious time. Nixon's ruin led to a cascade of catastrophic events--the crude and humiliating abandonment of Vietnam and the Vietnamese, the rise of a monster named Pol Pot, and millions--millions--killed in his genocide. America lost confidence; the Soviet Union gained brazenness. What a terrible time. Is it terrible when an American president lies and surrounds himself by dirty tricksters? Yes, it is. How about the butchering of children in the South China Sea. Is that worse? Yes. Infinitely, unforgettably and forever."

Below is the angry letter I wrote Peggy:

"So the fact that Richard Nixon was "a serious president at a serious time" means he should never have had to answer for his crimes, lest Viet Nam fall and Pol Pot rise? You cannot believe this. No sentient being could believe this. Nor could anyone seriously believe that if we'd only let Nixon alone, we would have won the Viet Nam War etc. You should be ashamed of yourself for spouting this crap, even if it is only in your role as your cronies' apologist. This is worse than even Ann Coulter would write. And are you sure you want to align yourself with Pat Buchanan so soon after he went on record saying we shouldn't have tried to stop Hitler? You are a horrible human being. You know what you are saying is false, manipulative and dangerous. If anyone has blood on his/her hands for "setting events in motion" it is you. By your logic, you are directly responsibly for the slaughter of innocent civilian children in Iraq, and may you burn in hell for it."
Well that's enough anger for now,
Rick