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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Will you ever think about me when I’m gone?

One afternoon in February 1987, back when I still had hopes of being a rock star, I sat down on my bed and tried to write a song. Much to my surprise, it came easily — the only time that’s ever happened to me. I was done, lyrics and all, in less than 30 minutes.

The song was called “Will You Ever Think About Me (When I’m Gone).” Here’s the recording I made a few days later (thanks, Dave), sluggish start, flubs and all:

At the time, I thought I was writing a standard kiss-off song: You weren’t the person I thought you were, so goodbye. But in retrospect, I wonder if the title was channeling one of my deepest fears. Would I be remembered after I die?

It’s not just me, I’m well aware. (“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying” — Woody Allen.) Still, the older I get, the more I wonder what of me will live on. My wife and I don’t have any children. I think of myself as an introvert, so my social circle is small. Yes, the Internet is forever, but besides my CNN bylines and this blog, there really isn’t much else. (I’m not counting the material owned by Mark Zuckerberg, that putz.)

So I couldn’t help but be dropped back into the existential abyss after reading Anakana Schofield’s column in Sunday’s New York Times, “Where Do the Dead Go in Our Imaginations?”

Schofield lost a friend to suicide several years ago, someone who was incredibly generous, someone who thought of Anakana with small gifts and large actions. “I was alive for her even though I was absent. In that moment she chose to remember me. How can I return this gesture now, when she is no longer here?”

So Schofield volunteers. She tries to be there for others. She feels her friend’s spirit. And she hopes this is enough.

“This is where the dead go in our imaginations: They continue to live with us in the moments when we are sad and terrified,” she writes. “They cheer for us. … They coax us through.”

Twenty-one years ago, I lost a good friend. G and I had worked together at a TV station when I returned to Atlanta in 1991, and he helped me get on my feet when I needed some free-lance opportunities. He was a hard-core Braves fan — I’ll never forget the phone call he made late in the 1991 pennant race after the Bravos inexplicably came back from a 6-0 deficit to beat the Reds 7-6 on a ninth-inning Dave Justice homer — and he was remarkably open about his doubts and flaws. One of the latter was drinking, and though he had made attempts to quit, he blamed himself after his child was born with disabilities and used alcohol to take away the pain. One day his body had enough. He was 33.

I miss G. I think about him at odd times (like now). I don’t even have a photo of him, just an image in my mind: linebacker physique, big grin, contagious laugh. I miss him as I miss high school friends gone too soon, as I miss certain colleagues, as I miss my father. Maybe I idealize them; I’m sure I do. But in these lonely pandemic times, when the dead are with us more than is comfortable, I’ll take all the idealization I can muster.

It’s funny. I dislike the idea of holding grudges. That’s a different kind of remembrance — keeping a tight hold of the slights and quarrels that once wounded. All they do is make sure that wound never fully heals. But mourning is another kind of memory. It’s one that says I keep you in my heart, and I hope I’m doing right by you — the best of you — as I continue on this planet after you’re gone. It’s not really about living in the past. It’s about creating the future.

In a time when we have lost so much, it’s the least I can do.

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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Sunday read: The past and future of ‘Be’

The Beatles on the set of “Let It Be,” from denofgeek.com.

I was going to write something about the events at the Capitol last week. I thought it was interesting how they provided a perversely tragic bookend to the inauguration of the president’s other favorite president, Andrew Jackson, an occasion when mobs overran the White House and Jackson himself had to sneak out a window. (“The reign of King Mob seemed triumphant,” said Supreme Court justice Joseph Story.) To paraphrase Karl Marx, history repeats itself, the first time as farce, the second as tragedy.

But I’m still too angry and upset to deal with it. So I’m going to go to my Happy Place: talking about the Beatles.

You’re probably aware by now that Peter Jackson is taking the raw material of the “Let It Be” sessions and refashioning it into a new documentary, one that appears to be much happier than the sometimes bitter original film, which ended up as the group’s official swan song (and, in fact, appeared after the group had broken up).

I can’t help but think: Is this revisionist history? Or is it closer to the way things were?

And what impact does re-editing our memories have on their impact?

So I bring to you a pair of Sunday reads: “Let It Be” director Michael Lindsay-Hogg on Jackson’s project, and Francis Ford Coppola on the changes he made in “The Godfather Part III” (now retitled “Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone”).

“Let It Be” hasn’t been easily available since the VHS era; I can remember seeing it in a midnight showing at the Abalon Theater in New Orleans sometime around 1980, when midnight movies were a common way of showcasing older or outre works. Its reputation had preceded it: the Beatles seemingly trapped in a different studio than the familiar Abbey Road, constantly surrounded by cameras (in the days before that was a thing), with John bringing Yoko into the inner sanctum and Paul and George bickering over guitar parts.

Harrison, in fact, quit the band during the sessions. He didn’t return for more than a week, but when he did, he brought Billy Preston with him, and the rest of the sessions were calmer.

It’s Harrison’s attitude, along with Lennon’s opinion of the music, that’s colored opinion of “Let It Be” over the years. But McCartney and Starr have their own memories, and with more than five decades gone, we’re apparently going to see a more even-handed take of the era.

Does that mean Lindsay-Hogg’s original version is wrong? Not even he thinks so.

That argument was a small thing but it suggested there was certain amount of tension between them at this time in their life and indeed, why wouldn’t there be tension? They’re musicians and artists and they’ve known each other since they were teenagers and so they got married very young.

And you have to remember the time: the band is past its days of novelty. There are many things amazing about the Beatles, but for me, what often stands out is their energy — an ability to bring the joy of live performance to the studio. Just yesterday, I was listening to “I Want to Tell You,” a Harrison track off “Revolver,” and you can hear the thrill of musicians discovering new parts of themselves, and their love of doing it together.

By early 1969, though, they’d become businessmen and spouses and, above all, more cognizant of their individuality. The White Album, released just a few weeks’ before, showed they could still bring it, but it also showed they didn’t need each other as much as they did a couple years previous.

The White Album has been criticized for its sprawl, which brings up the question: What would you cut? What would you change? That got me pondering the value of good editing. I happen to love John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces,” but a recent article in The New Yorker mentioned that famed editor Robert Gottlieb wanted Toole to cut some of its set pieces. (Fortunately, they survived.)

In Hollywood, editing can make or break films. In his interview about “Godfather III,” Coppola talks about how “Godfather II,” which some critics consider superior to the first “Godfather,” was originally received at a screening.

When we previewed The Godfather Part II in San Francisco, we had a tepid reaction. And it was a mixed movie, meaning the sound and everything was done. That night, I made 121 changes, which is unheard of, because to make an editorial change when the film already has music and everything is really hard. We went three days later and previewed it again in San Diego, and the difference was night and day, which was the version that generally people value, which is Part II.

I’m reminded of a line told me when I was working on a story about film editor Kevin Tent, who’s done most of Alexander Payne’s films. Another editor said that his position is the most optimistic he knows; editors always think they can save the movie.

“Godfather III” appears to have been improved by Coppola’s changes. What will “Get Back,” the Jackson “Let It Be,” do to the image of the late Beatles? I’ve got a feeling it will add another facet to one of the great stories of recent years.

You can read the Coppola interview here and the Lindsay-Hogg interview here.

Review: ‘Answers in the Form of Questions’ by Claire McNear

Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy! by Claire McNear

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Claire McNear’s history of “Jeopardy!”, “Answers in the Form of Questions,” is about what you’d expect: amiable and breezy, optimistic and self-deprecating, with a few nice insights but also few surprises.

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Sunday read: Dream a little dream

Image by Alex Blajan/Unsplash, via Science Alert.

A few days ago, I thought I’d come down with Covid.

Because that’s the default now, isn’t it? Any other winter, you feel weary and sniffly, you think “cold” or “flu.” But now you think, “my mask wasn’t on tight enough when I went to the DMV” or “a stray sneeze must have been hanging around the room with those kids,” and you’re checking your temperature and your SpO2 every hour and waiting for the Grim Reaper to make his appearance.

For me, it started Wednesday afternoon. Let my quote from my social media post:

So yesterday afternoon I’m feeling a little nauseous. Could be the slightly stale cake; could be the caffeine from three cups of tea on a cold, snow-dusted day. I conduct my 2-hour GED class on Zoom starting at 6. My throat gets rough quickly and by 7:30 I just want class to end. Later, I take my temperature and check my pulse and SpO2 (because now we all have those finger devices, right?). They’re OK, but I still feel, to use the medical term, “icky.” I go to bed around 10.

I sleep heavily, as if I’m glued to the mattress, with lots of dreams. When I wake up in time for work, I still feel fatigued. Any other year, I’d go to work — again, no fever, good stats, just tired. But I call in, because not only do I not want to be sick midway down the turnpike, I definitely don’t want to risk spread (IF I have it).

(Just to update: I was feeling fine by Thursday afternoon. I still feel fine. For now. Given the overfilled hospitals and general tumult in the U.S. and A., I take nothing for granted.)

In retrospect, the most striking part of the experience — besides my panic — was the dreams. I dream often, and try to write down as many as I can remember. But this night was like a quadruple feature of vivid stories: me on the bimah at a synagogue, lying on a large, leather-upholstered platform where a Torah had just been read (with a shard of wood as a yad); me being driven to an assembly by one of my special-needs students in the morning, telling him he’s early, dozing off, and not awakening until 5:30 in the afternoon with my parents talking in the next room of a house.

I have no idea what they mean. I had talked about Judaism and Hanukkah with my students earlier that day, so perhaps religion was on my mind, but there are also bits that have nothing to do with any of that.

Someday, five or 10 years from now, I’ll read all the dreams in the file I keep and see if they tell any story at all. In the meantime, I urge you to read about something called dream hacking in a Mashable article, “Dream Hacking at the Edge of Sleep,” by Chris Taylor. It’s my Sunday read.

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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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Ed Sullivan eyes

Ed Sullivan (detail).

According to my birth certificate and my mother — who’s fond of reminding me that she was there — I was born around 4:30 in the morning.

That’s the last time I’ve even halfway desired to emerge so early. And, back then, I doubt I had much of a choice.

More than 55 years later, my eyes show the passage of time and an unwillingness to awaken before the dawn. My wife is envious of my ability to sleep — if I lack an excuse to get up on a weekend, I’ll sleep in until the cats insist I get up — which makes it all the harder when the alarm is set for, say, 5:30 a.m. My father never struggled with such a relatively early hour; he was up, showered, shaved, caffeined, and gone before the sun showed its little yellow face. Me, anything before 6 a.m. may as well be the middle of the night.

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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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What I miss

Image of a Troxler effect from BigThink.com.

This year has felt like several years crammed into one, and almost none of them have been good.

Was it really only eight months ago that life was “normal,” in that — the White House Reality Show notwithstanding — it seemed like a continuation of most of what we’ve experienced during previous decades, and not some remnant of the Middle Ages during a plague outbreak?

Eventually — I keep telling myself — we will return to some degree of the Before. I do hope (with many, many doubts given the behavior of too many people and governments) that we have learned something: about the importance of teachers, hospital personnel, and the invisible working class who keep our societies functional; about the necessity of personal contact; about how easily things can fall apart.

But O, how I miss so many things.

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