Sunday read: It’s a world, world, world, world Mad

It is impossible to imagine a world without Mad magazine.

Though it now exists as a brand name on primarily archival material, there was a time — before “The Daily Show,” before “The Simpsons,” before “Saturday Night Live” and “National Lampoon” and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” — when Mad was the most popular, and most influential, humor source in the country. It was Mad that, in a time of mostly gentle mainstream humor, was willing to tell kids and teens (and thoughtful adults), Watch out.

“When Mad came about, it was the reaffirmation of those feelings in print. We were saying, ‘Kids, Madison Avenue is lying to you. Your parents are lying to you. The president is lying to you,’” recalled longtime Mad editor Al Feldstein in 2007.

I’m biased, of course. I was one of the many sucked in by Mad, starting officially with the July 1975 issue with “Airport 1975” on the cover (though there’s a picture of me as an infant reading, or staring at, the September 1965 issue) and continuing for … well, though I stopped buying the magazine as a teenager, I still dip into it from time to time, courtesy the CD-ROM collection Broderbund put out in 1999. (Cheap!)

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Sunday read: Notes from Roger Ebert

Image via Rogerebert.com.

A few days ago on Twitter, writer Chris Jones shared a series of Post-it Notes he’d gotten from Roger Ebert when he interviewed Ebert for Esquire in 2009. The notes were pure Ebert: funny, longing, sad, matter-of-fact.

It has been 11 years since Jones’ moving, insightful piece appeared in Esquire’s March 2010 issue. I remember when it came out: There was a great deal of surprise that Ebert, who had had part of his jaw removed due to cancer, had agreed to sit down in person and let himself be photographed. Jones, an excellent writer who’s made a habit out of surprising perspectives (try his profile of Carrot Top on for size), didn’t waste the opportunity.

His story is my Sunday read.

Ebert has been dead for almost eight years now, but his impact hasn’t faded. The website he founded, rogerebert.com, is filled with the same kind of concise reviews and thoughtful articles he wrote himself for decades; now they’re done by a whole staff of contributors, including Christy Lemire and Matt Zoller Seitz. (His own work, of course, is also available, as well as a blog from his wife, Chaz.) Now that the Internet has made everybody a published critic, one could do worse than emulate Ebert, who tried to find the good even in mediocre films.

What’s more, he always kept a sense of discovery about him — and he brought that spirit to the country through his long-running partnership with Gene Siskel. As I wrote about the pair in an appreciation of Ebert, “They were, in a word, refreshing – especially for those of us, like me, who grew up far from the film centers of New York and Los Angeles. Where else could you get a sense of movies that might never come to your town? Where else could you take part, even from your living room, in the debate between two guys who really knew their stuff, and were entertaining as hell to boot?”

Jones went much deeper.

Now his hands do the talking. They are delicate, long-fingered, wrapped in skin as thin and translucent as silk. He wears his wedding ring on the middle finger of his left hand; he’s lost so much weight since he and Chaz were married in 1992 that it won’t stay where it belongs, especially now that his hands are so busy. There is almost always a pen in one and a spiral notebook or a pad of Post-it notes in the other—unless he’s at home, in which case his fingers are feverishly banging the keys of his MacBook Pro.

I probably read Jones’ story two or three times when it came out. He was fair and he was honest and he captured something … heroic in the midst of struggle. (Ebert would probably hate that I termed his medical battles “heroic.”) It led to a lot of chatter among the chattering classes, which I’m sure Ebert — who enjoyed the spotlight — liked, but it wasn’t written as that kind of “Up Close and Personal” sentimental glurge that TV networks and celebrity magazines like to put out. It was matter-of-fact, like the man himself.

I miss that ferocity.

You can read “Roger Ebert: The Essential Man” here. (And follow Chris Jones on Twitter. You won’t be disappointed. The man has a very real girlfriend and does not let anyone insult his CBC T-shirts.)

Sunday read: It’s the pictures that got small

The Oscar nominations will be announced Monday morning, and I mean no offense to the prospective nominees when I say they seem … small.

I saw a handful of them — “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Mank,” “Da 5 Bloods” — and I plan to catch up with “Sound of Metal,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” and “One Night in Miami,” among others, in due course. But, like probably all of you reading this (that is, both of you), I saw them on my television, in my living room — not in a theater on a big screen among dozens or hundreds of people. And an HDTV, even a home-theater-sized one (which mine isn’t), is no substitute for the moviegoing experience. I mean, I also watch “Saturday Night Live” reruns and the wonderful “Ted Lasso” on a TV.

So, even though many of those Oscar hopefuls probably look great on the big screen, virtually nobody saw them on the big screen. We saw them on streaming services.

As a result, they seem diminished. They’ve become just another TV show, something to flick past as you’re channel-surfing, or to freeze-frame when you go to the bathroom. (I can hear Christopher Nolan sobbing.)

The films of 2020, at least in the way they were presented, are another victim of Covid.

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Sunday read: The book of forgetting and forgetting

Image by Peter Fordham © Yoko Ono via UDiscoverMusic.com.

Do you remember Fred Allen?

You probably don’t. You probably have never heard of Fred Allen. But at his peak, in the 1930s and 1940s, he had one of the most popular radio shows on the air, was hailed as one of America’s foremost humorists, and influenced everybody from contemporaries Jack Benny and Groucho Marx to future talk-show host Johnny Carson (the “Mighty Carson Art Players” was a take on the “Mighty Allen Art Players”). One of the characters on his show, Sen. Beauregard Claghorn, was the inspiration for the Warner Bros. character Foghorn Leghorn.

Do you remember Harold Robbins? James Michener? Fannie Hurst? They were some of the best-selling authors of their day. Robbins was greatly responsible for the kind of sex-dripping novel we now think of as an airport potboiler. Michener wrote doorstops, such as “The Source” and “Hawaii,” that tried to sum up centuries of history through a handful of characters. Hurst, who is name-dropped in Mel Brooks’ song “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst,” wrote some of the best-selling books of the 1920s and ’30s. She was, perhaps, the Jodi Picoult of her day, seizing on social themes and getting hooted at by critics.

Do you remember “Imagine”? The 1971 John Lennon song?

Of course you do. It’s practically an anthem. As recently as last year, Gal Gadot rounded up a bunch of celebrities to sing it in the face of Covid. It didn’t go over well, but it wasn’t the song’s fault.

But if you asked one of Cesar A. Hidalgo’s students at MIT about “Imagine,” she would be clueless, as Hidalgo found out while listening to the song one day.

“Is it Coldplay?” the student asked.

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Review: ‘Reaganland’ by Rick Perlstein

Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980 by Rick Perlstein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are more than 200 pages of endnotes in Rick Perlstein’s “Reaganland,” and I have no doubt that the author – who concludes his four-volume history of postwar American conservatism and culture with this book – read every single book, article, squib, and cocktail napkin he mentions.

The work – all 700-plus pages of it (not including the endnotes, or the bibliography, or the index, or the acknowledgments) — is a marvel of detail and synthesis. I lived through the period Perlstein chronicles, having been 11 when Jimmy Carter was elected president and 15 when he was voted out in favor of Ronald Reagan, and I paid pretty close attention to the news (especially for an adolescent). I’ve also read much about the era since. But there are any number of incidents I’d forgotten about, or failed to realize the significance of, until I saw them woven into Perlstein’s ‘70s tapestry: the background of Love Canal, the early flailing of the 1980 Reagan campaign (John Connolly was considered a much more attractive candidate at one time), how far down Carter’s approval ratings were – and how much they rose after the Camp David Accords and the early days of the Iran hostage crisis.

But those events are only the surface. The real story of “Reaganland” is the creation of the conservative messaging subculture and its joining with the religious right, led by such figures as Heritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich, direct-mail king Richard Viguerie, Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell, and anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly. Together, they helped build an ideology that’s still with us today, one that’s become more homogenous, well-funded, and powerful than they could have ever imagined.

The echoes – or perhaps klaxons – are with us still.

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Sunday read: A day of rest

Image from Getty via Vox.

Given that I’m way behind on my own Sunday reading — and, for that matter, my reading in general — I’m going to give you (and me) the day off from a nice feature story.

(Though, if you’re looking for something thoughtful, this essay on the film “Catch-22” has a few things to say about that movie and absurdity. In our current, exhausting times, in which we’re waiting for a cranky president to accept reality and a virus is achieving new heights of death, absurdity has been on my mind a lot.)

So enjoy the day, or enjoy your sleep, or enjoy catching up on your reading. All I know is I have today’s New York Times, several New Yorkers, various other periodicals, and a few lesson plans to look over.

To borrow from Furman Bisher, Selah.

Alex Trebek, 1940-2020

Image from Jeopardy Productions.

More than 30 years ago, “a student from New Orleans, Louisiana” — that would be me — appeared on “Jeopardy!” In the time since, whenever people find out about my quiz show claim to fame, they have two questions: “How did you do?” And: “What is Alex Trebek really like?”

The first question has a simple answer. In an exciting game, I went into Final Jeopardy with a narrow lead over the second-place challenger, missed the question, and left with some nice parting gifts, including a case of Pepsodent and several packages of dried prunes.

Entering the “Jeopardy!” lair in 1987.

The second was much harder, for Trebek — then in just his third year of hosting — had a reputation for standoffishness. In my very limited experience, he appeared only when the show started taping, kept to himself during the commercial breaks, and exchanged some small talk with us after the match was over. He seemed perfectly pleasant, very polished, and smart in a quiet sort of way. It would be years before his more casual, fun-loving side would come out on the show.

Alex Trebek died Sunday. He was 80. His death was not unexpected — he had announced last year that he was receiving treatment for pancreatic cancer, had taken short breaks because of that treatment, and said in interviews that he sometimes hosted the show in incredible pain — but it is still a tremendous loss.

I know it is for me, a longtime game show fan and player.

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Paddy Chayefsky, the real prophet

Image from Warner Bros.

The votes are being counted. I’m foolishly reading a lot about the process and its possible outcomes, though the usual suspects are saying what everybody knows: We’re a divided country, and regardless of who becomes president, we’re not going to easily fill in the chasm between the Two Americas. (John Edwards had it in terms of economics, but there are so many other indicators that split us. And what’s Edwards up to these days, anyway?)

But I keep coming back to “Network,” a 44-year-old movie which — despite its incredible wordiness and turned-up-to-11 performances — still resonates today. (I know, I’m always coming back to “Network.”)

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Sunday read: Sean Connery and Alden Whitman

Sean Connery died Saturday. He was 90.

I was going to write a blog entry just about the great Scot, but what more could I say? He was the best James Bond. (Ian Fleming even gave Bond a Scottish background after seeing Connery’s performance; before that, the Bond author had been against his casting.) He had incredible presence, enough that he could get away with his Scottish accent even when playing Russians and Irishmen. He was Indiana Jones’ father.

But I decided, for once, to leave the obituary writing and appreciations to others.

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Sunday read: Swingin’ on the flippity-flop with Nirvana and Pearl Jam

Image from Classic Album Sundays.

(h/t to Will Leitch for the tip)

Sometime in the early ’90s, I remember going into my local Atlanta Macy’s and seeing a large display of overpriced flannel shirts.

Grunge had gone mainstream.

Hell, grunge had gone past mainstream. “Mainstream” is usually acceptable and ignored. This was a shameless attempt by some middle-aged clothing buyer to impress suburban Georgia kids by nodding in their direction — and failing miserably.

The New York Times had been there. In late 1992, the Paper of Record did a piece for its featherweight Styles section on grunge culture. Accompanying the article was a “grunge dictionary,” featuring such commonplace Puget Sound vernacular as “harsh realm” (bummer), “Tom-Tom Club” (uncool outsiders), and my favorite, “swingin’ on the flippity-flop” (hanging out).

Sounds like the bee’s knees, right? I mean, whaddya want, wicker?

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