Losing Friends

During Saturday Night Live’s round-number anniversaries, you’ll see lists of the greatest sketches and the greatest cast members. (Get ready, because Season 50 will be here soon.)

My own favorite sketches and performers vary depending on what day you ask me, but I do have an absolute, 100%, no-doubt-about-it favorite single frame of SNL. It’s this one, from the musical sketch for the song Lunch Lady Land, which aired on January 15, 1994:

sandler-farley

That’s Chris Farley on the left, and Adam Sandler on the right, by the way. And just look how happy they are.

At this point in the sketch, Sandler has launched into a power chord and Farley, after gyrating for a bit like a lingerie model in a late-80s heavy metal video trapped in the body of, well, Chris Farley, has joined in singing the next line of the song: “Sloppy joes, sloppy sloppy joes, yeah!” Farley is singing along so enthusiastically, Sandler’s mic picks him up. He’s dancing in character but singing in his own voice, as if he’s rocking out to the song in his own car with the windows up. 

In this frame, two friends at one of the first jobs in their young career are obviously having so much fun that it’s hard to call it “work.” There’s a mutual appreciation for each other’s talent.

They aren’t quite hitting their stride yet: This was more than a year before the releases of Tommy Boy and Billy Madison, the movies that would make them movie stars, and more than two years before Happy Gilmore would cement Sandler as a legit box office draw. There’s something raw, amateurish, and almost innocent here.

Anyone who has known the mixed blessing of a fun, early-career job that doubles as a social circle can appreciate this relationship. When you get older, the people you work with are people you work with. When you’re 23 and working with people of a similar age, the people you work with can wind up as your good friends, too.

Thankfully, I can relate a little bit to the bond Sandler, Farley, and others from that era of SNL must have shared; just as thankfully, I can’t relate to the loss Sandler must feel. But others can.

These two united again, in a manner of speaking for another musical sketch last weekend on Saturday Night Live. It came at the end of a show that “skipped” politics, in a traditional sense. But America also has an opioid problem, and a suicide problem — issues that don’t get dealt with while Alec Baldwin is grunting his way through his latest Donald Trump impersonation. As I wrote at Medium, I wonder how many people watched Sandler’s tribute thinking about the Chris Farleys in their own lives — or perhaps more accurately, the Chris Farleys who weren’t in their own lives anymore.

 

RIP President Bush, who taught us that change isn’t always scary

When celebrities and political figures pass on, my default position is to let it go without writing or saying anything about them. Social media tributes feel trite and unsatisfying. Plus, why should you care what I think about someone I didn’t know?

America mourns former President George H.W. Bush today, though, which makes it prudent to share some thoughts on steady, sober leadership at this juncture.

On election day 1988, my Dad took me with him to vote (though, for some reason, we couldn’t go into the booths; I don’t remember why). Later, at school that day, I taped a lined piece of notebook paper from my desk, “BUSH” proudly penciled across it in large block letters. (Two desks over, a kid named David dropped a Dukakis sign.)

Even though I was rooting for Bush, I was a little nervous. Despite living through two years of President Jimmy Carter’s administration, Ronald Reagan was really the only President I had ever known. How would things be different, I wondered, with another President?

It turned out, not that different.

Over the next four years, I started following the news a little more. The Cold War ended, and the Berlin Wall fell. My fifth-grade history teacher, watching a November 1989 newscast showing people chipping away at that concrete monstrosity, shook his head, turned to our class, and told us that these were amazing times and that we were lucky to be living through them. It took years of reading about history before I appreciated just how right he was.

In 1991, the United States went to war with Iraq. My Mom cried the night the air strikes started. CNN burst into the national consciousness with Peter Arnett, John Holliman, and Bernard Shaw reporting live from Baghdad. President Bush announced the strikes, leaving no question of why he felt the war was justified, or of his resolve. America had not been at war in my lifetime, but seeing the President appear at once grave and purposeful let everyone know that everything would be okay.

Then came the 1992 election, the first one I really sank my teeth into. I knew President Bush’s positions, backward and forward. I engaged everyone I could, relishing debate with my teachers, my fellow students, and with the bottom of a trash can after my fellow students decided I was lame and needed to shut up. (That’s not 100% true. Maybe 95%, 97% tops.)

(Fun story: I showed up at the eighth grade Halloween dance wearing a George Bush mask as my costume; when I walked in the school doors the teacher chaperoning that dance took one look and said, “That’s gotta be Eltringham.”)

When Bill Clinton won that election, I was crushed. Crushed! How could our country do that? I wondered. What would the country be like with a President I so vehemently disagreed with?

It turned out, not that different.

There has been plenty written about the Bush family’s commitment to public service, and the very concept carries a whiff of the air of aristocratic nobility which made George Bush such an unsympathetic candidate in 1992. Yet in that concept is a sort of humility, too; it’s an acceptance that no one person is truly bigger than the times, and the best ideals worth fighting for are generational in scope. If you’re committed to public service it means being committed to being a cog in the wheel of progress – and one that will most definitely get replaced.

In other words, you put a lot of effort into making things seem not that different in all the right ways.

Bush was a one-term President who was roundly rejected by the country he served – one of only two elected Presidents since Herbert Hoover who lost out on a second term. Yet the only time he ever uttered a bitter word was in jest during a 1994 Saturday Night Live gag when his impersonator (and pal) Dana Carvey hosted.  Bush’s loss might have been a historic anomaly, but he never made it seem abnormal.

President Bush, from his initial victory, through his successes, and into his final defeat, taught that the country moves on and the world keeps spinning. That’s an important lesson for people to hear (and, sometimes, re-hear). Not many get a chance to teach it, and fewer do it well.

As we celebrate the life of President Bush, it’s fashionable to look at the current state of politics and say we need people cut from his mold. Maybe that’s the wrong lesson. As we remember our former President, maybe it’s better to remember his lesson too – that even if our national politics seem to be topsy-turvy, everything will probably be okay in the end.

You can’t handle “your truth”!

Oprah Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech sure struck a chord, didn’t it? The erstwhile talk show host and current media mogul said enough to spur online discussion of a made-for-TV 2020 Presidential matchup.

There’s certainly plenty to say about what the whole concept says about current affairs, politics, and culture.

Ben Shapiro of The Daily Wire and the Wall Street Journal’s Byron Tau, among others, picked up on a phrase Winfrey used, “your truth.” The context (from the full transcript):

What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I’m especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories.

This is one of those tricky phrases that means different things to different people, which makes discussion difficult. Critics of Winfrey’s phrasing note that the truth is the truth. People may have different perspectives or opinions, but objective facts are objective facts.

That’s certainly accurate, from a certain point of view. One person may look at a three-dimensional cube and, seeing only one side, claim it’s a square. Their perspective – or lack of it in this example – does not change the objective fact that this is a cube.

That’s not really what Winfrey’s talking about, though.

As the mentions in her speech, Winfrey’s life experience meant living through turbulent times when being black carried overwhelming social baggage. As a woman in show business in the 1980s, she likely had to deal with the same harassment issues that are only now being brought to light. Today, you may look at Oprah Winfrey and see the “truth” of a powerful, car-giving-away, bread-loving media empress who could build or ruin a career at whim. Her vantage point is different; when thinking about her “truth” Winfrey also remembers the local news anchor struggling her way up the ladder.

“Truth” is a strong and probably miscast word for perspective, but intentionally so. Its strength validates experiences. In the immediate context, it validates women who suffer harassments in all walks of life, and see those experiences echoed in the current mess in the motion picture industry. It isn’t just your story, Winfrey seems to say; for you, it is the absolute truth.

There’s a parallel to draw from President Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, which so famously used language that most politicians did not, and Winfrey uplifting her audience through subtlely coded language. In each case, it fosters a connection with the audience that just about every speaker tries for, but which few can establish.

The next election sure ought to be fun, huh?

Weinstein, Trump, and the nature of power

During a Twitter back-and-forth with CNN’s Chris Cillizza, singer John Legend made a point about the recent Harvey Weinstein scandal in the context of President Donald Trump’s own checkered past with women.

In that second tweet, Legend appears to suggest we ought to expect more from elected leaders; at face value that’s not particularly controversial. A completely acceptable and probably right thing to say.

Setting aside the particulars of Weinstein’s sins and Trumps unacceptable language for now, think about the nature of the Presidency. In most cases have eight years to promote and enact their philosophy before someone of the opposing party jumps in and undoes all the hard work. They toil in the world of politics – a world of little interest to most Americans.

Weinstein? He boasts a much longer shelf life. His film production career stretches back about four decades. His hands have touched a range of work as a producer or executive producer, from the boundary-pushing Pulp Fiction to the family-friendly Air Bud; he has been connected to some of the most influential independent/art house films but had plenty of commercial successes in between. He has been influential, and think how influential television and movies are in shaping culture.

Trump will be gone in either three or seven years, depending on how 2020 goes. Some will surely blame him for lowering American political discourse or making discussions crass, but only those who haven’t been watching for the past 20 years or so. Outside of launching a nuclear war (stay tuned?) what lasting legacy will Trump have in politics?

Obviously, Trump is a public figure and role model, so how he treats or talks about women naturally reflects something about our society. Weinstein has been on the cutting edge of Hollywood for four decades. John Legend had a point: We should aspire to elect leaders who represent the best of what we imagine our society can be. But people like Weinstein are the ones shaping our imaginations. As Andrew Breitbart is so often quoted as saying, “Politics is downstream from culture.”

What if Obamacare HAD been repealed?

Even with Russian investigation news sucking up oxygen during the last half of the week, Republicans have egg on their faces after swinging and missing on so-called “Obamacare repeal.” After seven years of campaigning on health care, the GOP had nothing to offer on health care.

But can you imagine if they had passed a plan? Over at Medium I point out that the now-endless campaign cycle means the histrionics would have started before President Trump had finished signing the new bill. It would have meant an ugly few years of Democrats essentially accusing Republicans of murder. I bet the GOP wasn’t ready for it. They’re probably lucky the bill failed.

The benefit of fanboys and fangirls

Last week I posted something on Medium about how Walt Disney World blows other theme parks away – not by being the best theme park, but by telling the best stories. Toward the end, I made a passing reference to Disney re-invigorating the Star Wars franchise.

Maybe that comes off like a dig at George Lucas (not like he would care). It’s actually pretty common for a good media franchise or a political movement to enjoy success beyond its originator.

This year marks the Star Wars franchise’s 40th anniversary. It’s easy to pretend like that has been four decades of uninterrupted cultural significance. That isn’t the case. Sure, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Star Wars built an empire (ironic) of movies and merchandise. By the late 1980’s, though, the franchise flagged; Star Wars looked to have run its course. Something else would surely dominate the 1990s, the 2000s, the 2010s.

Then came Timothy Zahn’s book, Heir to the Empire – the first of three books which would form the closest thing to a sequel trilogy until, well,  2015 kicked off a sequel trilogy. Zahn invented characters, planets, and concepts that felt at once new and wholly consistent with the original movies.

People forget just how fringe Star Wars was circa 1990. Zahn’s novels set the foundation for a library of books, comics, video games, and other media that made Star Wars a marketable commodity again.

All of this was done with the guidance of creator George Lucas – but, notably, without his direct control. That was before the dark times. Before the prequels.

Years after that unsatisfying, CGI-heavy 1999-2005 prequel trilogy, Lucas again turned over the keys – this time to Disney. And it all happened again. The Force Awakens and Rogue One were box office hits. The Last Jedi will be released this coming December, but not before fans examine each trailer release the way Moon landing conspiracy theorists watch video of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bouncing around in that southern California sound stage.

The Star Wars franchise is invigorated again and, just as in the 1990s, someone else is leading the charge.

It isn’t surprising that Star Wars fans connect better with the works of fellow fans.  Translating this to another industry: What images spring to mind when you think of Barack Obama’s historic 2008 campaign? Maybe Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” graphic or the “Yes We Can” video. Neither was produced by the campaign itself, though the campaign was happy (and smart) to reap the benefits of their influence.

Why does this happen?  Here’s a theory: Fans have enough detachment to see what makes their obsession interesting. George Lucas might have built an excellent story explaining Darth Vader’s motivations for his descent into evil; he forgot how much the likable characters, practical special effects, and witty dialogue had to do with drawing viewers in. Obama’s 2008 campaign was known for it’s “hope and change” rhetoric. The campaign spoke about “change,” but it was the supporters who started talking about “hope.”

 

 

Hawk Harrelson: The Donald Trump of Sportscasting (in a good way)

On LinkedIn, I just put up a post about retiring White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson, and what those in political communications can learn from him.

When I was 17, my birthday gift was the Major League Baseball package on Extra Innings. This was before the late-1990s Yankees dynasty and the run of World Series contenders that stretched into the early 2010s. It was also before YouTube, and I had never lived in an area where the local cable company carried WGN out of Chicago.

So when the Yankees played the White Sox that year and I first heard Harrelson calling a game, I wanted to throw things at the TV.

He was unprofessional. He openly rooted for the White Sox. He pathetically used terms like “us” and “we” as if he were part of the team and not just their announcer. It was like they let a fan into the booth.

More than two decades later, I appreciate Harrelson a little more. He’s part of a generation of sportscasters who got into the game exactly as the fans do. After all, it’s only a game; maybe a fan in the booth isn’t such a bad thing. (And yes, maybe it helped that shortly after my introduction to Harrelson, the powerhouse White Sox of the early 1990s became less dangerous while the Yankees’ run of excellence started.)

He wasn’t that much different than the likes of Phil Rizzuto, Harry Caray, and the Seattle Mariners’ Dave Niehaus, all of whom managed to echo the passion of the fans without taking the game (or themselves) too seriously.

Today, the sports media industry seems to reward bland, interchangeable announcers, When he hangs it up after 2018, Hawk Harrelson will be missed.