Tuesday, April 15, 2014

800 Words: Game of Thrones - The New TV

SPOILER ALERT - OF COURSE


Last night, Mad Men premiered its last season and nobody notices, they were too busy recovering from King Joffery’s poisoning at his own wedding. One show prides itself on belaying audience expectations, going at its own pace, and giving the audience what it needs rather than what it wants. The other show plays to our basest, most primal bloodlust. One show presents humanity in all its slow-burning existential messiness, the other is a freak show.


King Joffery’s death wasn’t even the most disturbing moment in the episode, it wasn’t even the second-most. The second-most disturbing was to watch a beautiful girl chased through a forest like a hunted fox by nobles until the nobles ordered her torn apart by their wild dogs. But at least the actual tearing apart was off-screen, even if we had to listen to her choked screams. The most disturbing was to watch King Stannis order the burning of his wife’s brother at the stake, and by this point, Stannis’s wife is such a religious nut that she’s happy about it. She claims she saw the Lord of Light claim his soul after the fire cleansed it. I’ve occasionally had nightmares about medieval torture since I was a child, and that moment shook me so profoundly that I’m actively contemplating giving up the show - it’s not the first time such a moment caused me to.


Nevertheless, I love watching Game of Thrones. I also love watching youtube clips of idiots jumping into cactus patches. We all have a part of ourselves - the Id - that wants to trivialize other human beings, that wants to treat others as our playthings, that makes us feel triumphant in our relative security to the savagery brought upon people in inferior positions to ours. We may superficially mourn the loss of the Starks, but our primary emotion at their demise is excitement and delight - delight at an exhibition that alleviates us of civilization’s veneer and excites us with its barbarism. Game of Thrones conjures a world of medieval inhumanity, and is a spiritual descendent of the Auto-da-fe, during which medieval humans laughed and cheered uproariously as they picniced to the soothing screams of heretics burned and disemboweled - heretics who may well have been their neighbors. We want to think our sensibility more evolved, but we’re a mere few centuries away. The reptile part of the brain is still with us, and for all our civilization, all it takes is to watch Joffery Baratheon turn purple to momentarily turn us into Joffery Baratheon.


In the history of Television, there is not a single show, not Seinfeld, not South Park, not The Sopranos, not Breaking Bad, that has shaken the world to the extent Game of Thrones has. Each of those shows felt utterly shocking in their heyday, but none of them seem to shock people in the manner which Game of Thrones does. Every episode is an event, because people can’t wait to find out to what new inhuman depth the show will bring us.


It has long been the privilege of costume drama, of legend, of fantasy and myth, to act out those situations which would seem completely unbelievable in reality. In dreams, many people may well perpetrate all those acts of violence and lust which we see on a show like Game of Thrones, but thankfully few could ever do in reality until a war happens. What Game of Thrones does, what Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby do, what Titus Andronicus and Richard III do, what Salome and The Ring Cycle do, what Breughel’s Triumph of Death and Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights do, is to bring us closer to those horrible instincts which fester in the unconscious of every human. It is not the thinker or empath within us which loves such work, it is the Id, that Freudian sadist in every one of us which delights in seeing the suffering of others without fear of reprisal; and equally, it’s our anxious superegos, momentarily relieved that it can let down its guard because we no longer have to worry about breaking certain taboos. In reality, murder is rarely if ever funny, but in certain fictions, murder can be hilarious, it can be exciting, it can be delightful.


It was sometimes said about Alfred Hitchcock that he shot scenes of love as though they were scenes of murder, and scenes of murder as though they were scenes of love. This, more than any other reason, is why Alfred Hitchcock is still the most influential movie director of all time - many would even call him the greatest. After Hitch, there was no going back; movies were no longer about anything but voyeurism. The most salient quality of most great movies was to show you disturbing things that dared you to look away. For all its strengths in storyboarding, acting, production design, Game of Thrones is not worthy of Hitchcock. It does not display anything like the wit or character inwardness or philosophical profundity present in Rear Window, or Psycho, or The Birds, but it is a spiritual descendent of Hitch nevertheless because it shares his most influential quality. With Game of Thrones, television has now gone over the cliff to that exact same place. Will it eventually be remembered with all the veneration we now give to Hitchcock? I sure hope not, it would say something terrible about human beings. But it’s certainly possible.


And because Game of Thrones has brought TV to that new place where our every desire is met, TV itself has entered a new age. The years 1967 to 1983 - Bonnie and Clyde to The Right Stuff - were a sixteen-year golden age for movies when Hollywood cared about Art as much as Money. Movie directors were not merely artisans who created products to order, they were artists whose creativity was limited only by their imaginations. But the Star Wars Trilogy killed all that, because studios saw that by putting the focus on special effects rather than human beings, they could take in much more at the box office. Young men interested in technology would see movies over and over again, beleaguered adults interested in escapist fare rather than challenging work would wander in, knowing that they could turn their brains off; and they could bring their children too, secure in the knowledge that the children wouldn’t be exposed to anything too offensive.  


In the same way, the end of Mad Men in 2015 may mark the end of a golden era of American Television that began sixteen years before with the launch of The Sopranos. During these sixteen years, the showrunner was king, and the talented among them were free to pursue their art to the fullest extent of their potentials. For my entire adult life thus far, TV has been the most exciting thing in the world - an artform awakening to its fullest infinity. To see Mad Men or Seinfeld or The Simpsons or when they first air is a pleasure not altogether different from being present at the Globe to see Hamlet and King Lear. In every other artform, movies included, the revelations of what’s possible have mostly been revealed. Nearly every movie, novel, play, painting, sculpture, poem, and song is a footnote to work already created. But the history of TV is still being written, or at least it was until Game of Thrones.  We know that we’re the first people ever to experience revelations which no audience before us has ever experienced. Is there any greater privilege of being alive in the era we are?

Game of Thrones is a beginning. Good as it is, it is probably the beginning of TV’s decline in an internet age. Netflix, the corporate halfway house between television and the internet, is the most seismic shift in American culture since Ted Turner started distributing Basic Cable in 1976. A year later, Star Wars was released, and a trip to the movie theater became a special event rather than a way of life. The American Way of Life became television. But Game of Thrones has made us so accustomed to adrenaline and immediate gratification that it changed American TV into something like movies. Just as Star Wars was the first movie whose merchandising tie-ins were mass-marketed on television, Game of Thrones was the first show to gain its popularity through viewer feedback on the Internet. Game of Thrones is such a success because it gives its viewers what they want, unconsciously or consciously. The gratification on Game of Thrones is visceral and instant in a manner no show before it ever was. If a show wants to be successful in its wake, it will have to respond to its audience’s demands in more basic ways than even Game of Thrones ever needed to. On-demand viewing allows shows to be watched whenever people want, and however often people want. If a show makes demands on the audience, they can simply watch something less challenging. Every niche will have shows which cater exclusively to them, and television will very quickly become a less interesting place.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

800 Words: Not Bach, Mahler!

I.




I love Bach, I just don’t believe in Bach. I’ve prattled endlessly on this blog about how that final level of greatness to Bach seems to elude me while blessing everyone else. There’s an endless amount of music by him which I love, and two endless amounts which bore me to tears.


I should admit, I have a bit of an allergic reaction to church music, but that can only explain so much of the problem. Bach’s religious belief was not the core of his problem, it was, like Wagner’s anti-semitism, merely a symptom of the real trouble.


Bach’s true religion was order. He believed in a joyful, Leibnizian God who runs the world as though it’s as perfect as a grandfather clock. All the suffering of our lives is just the briefest test we must undergo to prove ourselves worthy for the joys that come from an eternal world. A God of an eternal heaven must run the world in such a way that his infinitely complex greatness is always manifest, even if the ways he displays his glory can be elusive in the extreme. Bach’s music was a mission to discover the extremely elusive glory of his god, and in order to expose such glory, his music had to be craft itself.


Form is what gives music its physical definition, and when it came to creating the finite limitations which gives music its substance, Bach’s craft is truly infinite - a craft never beaten in any artistic realm, and probably not equaled (Dante?). Just as Newton discovered the formal patterns and possibilities of physics, Bach laid bare the formal, contrapuntal, and harmonic patterns and possibilities of music - he marked the end of a counterpoint-dominated music and the beginning of a harmony-dominated one. He also marked the end of an old concept of form, but he did not mark the beginning of a new conception. That was left to the next generation.


Because when it came to the infinite, ineffable possibilities of music - melody, instrumental timbre, rhythmic variety - Bach was thoroughly human, seeing little need to hear his music in a fourth dimension. There are plenty of great melodies in Bach, but they are the exception that proves the rule. For a musician to have created so venerated great music, and for so few a percentage of them to contain melodies we remember for all time, tells us that there was something limited, or limiting, about Bach’s genius. The same goes for instrumentation; most of Bach’s music can be played on an infinity of instrumental combinations, and while that demonstrates his universality from a certain angle, it also demonstrates his lack of thought about tone color and timbre.


Many composers have died too early, but Bach died a different death. The Church was always at the center of Bach’s inspiration, but Bach was so committed to the church that his last twenty years were by-and-large spent not composing. Until the flowering of his final three years, he spent his more venerable years training and educating his choir boys and simply recycled his church music for the next time it was required for performance. When Bach exchanged the court instrumentalists for the church choir, the quality of his music already took a step back from the ‘divine’. Whereas his music could once stretch out to the infinite with instrumental suites and partitas, it became beholden to the dogmatic strictures of whatever Biblical lesson he had to impart for that week’s homily.


Imagine if Bach could have taken a step back from his Church obligations and become a bit more liberal in his secular sympathies as he aged. Imagine if he were not quite so intractable about the idea of polyphonic forms and allowed himself to write in the new styles. Perhaps we could have Bach symphonies, Bach operas, Bach string quartets. Like many great classical musicians of our day, Bach had a tin ear for new developments, and the loss to music and posterity is incalculable.  


II.




I recently heard an interview on television which beautifully summed up the difference between Christianity and Judaism as follows. Christianity is a religion of denial - their Messiah has come, but he left and the world appears no better, so they say he will come again and do right what he did wrong last time. Judaism is a religion of depression - their Messiah has never come, they wait, and wait, and wait, and yet he never arrives.


Judaism can be every bit as insular and denial-ridden as Christianity. But for Mahler, Judaism was merely the beginning - a springboard for his cosmopolitan consciousness through which he could spring into the entire world. In Mahler, history finally arrives at a composer whose vision is compromised neither by religious dogma, political dogma, nor practical consideration. We’ve arrived at a composer with both the intellectual means of articulating a worldview through music and the musical means to translate his worldview into sound with absolute freedom of thought.


I don’t understand how people draw so much spiritual sustenance from Bach. His music is like the beautiful and dangerous lies which religious people tell lonely potential converts who crave a community at their meet-and-greets. We’re all insecure, we need assurance that someone has heard our suffering, and if we’re not careful, we’d all be willing to believe that we’ll be rewarded for it. But the probable truth remains that nobody will reward us for our tribulations, and we all have to keep going in spite of it. How do we do it?


In all likelihood, our existence precedes our essence, and we need music and art that doesn’t lie to us about that. We need composers who reject the lies of the insular community and reach out into the wider world with all its diversities and dangers.


If I had to make a list of pieces which articulate a whole worldview in sound, it wouldn’t be a long list: Wagner’s Ring, Haydn’s final two oratorios, Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen, Sondheim’s Into the Woods, Beethoven’s Ninth, Mozart's Da Ponte operas (at least when taken as a whole) perhaps Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or Ives’s Fourth Symphony or Shostakovich's Fourteenth or Berio's Sinfonia or Kurtag's Jatekok or even Coltrane's A Love Supreme or Sufjan Stevens's Illinoise. And if you limited it to visions of the world uncompromised by dogma, you’d have to take off Wagner’s Ring, Haydn’s Creation, even The Rite of Spring. But above all other ‘worldview’ pieces, one head and shoulders above all others.




The more I listen to Mahler’s Third Symphony, the more it seems to me the most spiritual piece of music ever written. It’s a piece whose grandeur is very easy to dismiss. Here is what Alan Rich, one of my favorite music critics, wrote about it:


I love all that masquerading in the Mahler Third: the fake blood that oozes constantly in the first movement while Mahler giggles up his sleeve, and the delicious pomposity at the end, where the crowd really ought to be forced to its feet singing patriotic verses as white doves are released. It’s all a great con;


The first time I heard the Mahler’s Third Symphony was during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. My parents somehow had an extra ticket to hear Yuri Temirkanov conduct it with the Baltimore Symphony. To my astonishment, I’d still never listened to it. I went to the music library and took out Jascha Horenstein’s famous recording. As I was with virtually all the Mahler symphonies, I was utterly blown over. But nothing could have prepared me for the concert itself.


My mother and I both started cackling during the famous ‘marching bands in a storm’ sequence during the first movement. Mahler was so hell-bent on drama that he’d gone utterly over the top. It was absolutely impossible to take seriously, and yet the more we heard of what happened afterward, the more it seemed that lack of seriousness was the point. And yet, by the end of the final movement, all three of us were awash with tears.


Many people call it Mahler’s worst symphony, I think it’s his greatest - the one where Mahler’s imagination was in fullest flight, the one in which he literally articulated a philosophical worldview from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and completely humanized their rather anti-humanist conceptions of the world.


That said, of course it’s a kind of con. You absolutely can’t take the philosophy in Mahler’s Third Symphony completely seriously, and I sincerely doubt we’re meant to. Mahler, unlike so many artists of an intellectual bent, realizes that he’s an entertainer first and an intellectual second. The dramatization of his ideas is more important than the ideas themselves. When he calls his first movement, ‘Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In’, summer is announced with a bunch of military marches that sound as though they belong in the Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade. It’s impossible not to hear what he’s depicting, but it’s also impossible not to enjoy it on its own terms. When orchestral instruments play so many weird sounds that clearly sound like animal noises, how can we take it completely seriously? How can we be meant to take it seriously?


Far more than Wagner ever did, Mahler takes Schopenhauer’s concept of the Will to life and sets it to music - depicting six stages of evolution over ninety minutes. He begins with nature itself, moving on to the beauties of plant life, to the animal kingdom, to mankind, to the angels, to love itself.


(“O Man! Take heed!” Mahler’s rendering of Nietzsche)


It's interesting that when Mahler arrived at the fourth movement, entitled ‘What Man Tells Me’, he reached for Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra to express mankind’s plight. After the amazing third movement, which depicts the animal kingdom as though it’s a low-rent circus, he expresses something that sounds like the lowest possible spiritual darkness. Here is Nietzsche’s text:


“O Man! Take heed!
What says the deep midnight?
"I slept, I slept—,
from a deep dream have I awoken:—
the world is deep,
and deeper than the day has thought.
Deep is its pain—,
joy—deeper still than heartache.
Pain says: Pass away!
But all joy
seeks eternity—,
—seeks deep, deep eternity!"


If this setting is any indication, Mahler understood Nietzsche better than Nietzsche understood himself. Nietzsche’s image of a dead god and a will to power is one of utter nihilism, which, as Nietzsche admits here, is a world that seeks an eternity it can never find. Is Nietzsche right? Perhaps, but we’d all better hope he isn’t.




But after this spiritual darkness and longing for light comes the light itself in a movement entitled ‘What the angels tell me’ - replete with treble instruments, boy choir, and bells. Here is its text.


Three angels sang a sweet song,
with blessed joy it rang in heaven.
They shouted too for joy
that Peter was free from sin!
And as Lord Jesus sat at the table
with his twelve disciples and ate the evening meal,
Lord Jesus said: "Why do you stand here?
When I look at you, you are weeping!"
"And should I not weep, kind God?
I have violated the ten commandments!
I wander and weep bitterly!
O come and take pity on me!"
"If you have violated the ten commandments,
then fall on your knees and pray to God!
Love only God for all time!
So will you gain heavenly joy."
The heavenly joy is a blessed city,
the heavenly joy that has no end!
The heavenly joy was granted to Peter
through Jesus, and to all mankind for eternal bliss.


Imagine the audacity of following a Nietzsche text with an utterly Christian one in the 1890’s. Whose side in this great debate is Mahler on? Has he taken a side? The answer, if there is one, is seen in the very last line of the fifth movement’s text.
The heavenly joy was granted to Peter
through Jesus, and to all mankind for eternal bliss.
“Eternal bliss to all mankind?” If this is a Christian text, it flies in the direct contradiction of every piece of Christian dogma. This is clearly not the Christianity as most of history envisioned it. This is the Christianity of the sinner pleading for heaven's acceptance, the Christianity of that universal longing for higher joys than our mundane lives endow us. It says that we should all believe in the possibility of eternal joy, even if hardly any of us receive it. Because it is the belief in the possibility of eternal joy which gives us the power to experience joy at all.



And that joy is to be found in the last movement, a roughly twenty-two minute orchestral prayer called ‘What Love Tells Me.’ Love, not God or Will, is Mahler’s thing-in-itself. 

Mahler Three has become my highest article of faith. It is a battle cry, a prayer, and a love letter which tells me that life is always worth living. That it could come from a man like Mahler with such a great talent for suffering could have composed it makes it all the more meaningful. It is, to me, the most spiritual piece of music ever written. It does what music seems meant to do to me better than any other piece I know, and therefore it may even be the greatest piece of music I've ever heard. Throughout all its oddities, and perhaps because of them, it has given me all that solace that Bach never could.


(The best performance of the first three movements I've ever heard. Shame about the sound...)

Composer Sorting Hat

Beethoven - Gryffindor
Mozart - Ravenclaw
Bach - Ravenclaw
Wagner - Slytherin
Haydn - Hufflepuff
Brahms - Ravenclaw
Schubert - Hufflepuff
Tchaikovsky - Hufflepuff
Handel - Gryffindor
Stravinsky - Slytherin
Schumann - Ravenclaw
Chopin - Hufflepuff
Mendelssohn - Ravenclaw
Debussy - Slytherin
Liszt - Slytherin
Dvorak - Hufflepuff
Verdi - Gryffindor
Mahler - Gryffindor
Berlioz - Slytherin
Vivaldi - Gryffindor
R. Strauss - Slytherin
Prokofiev - Slytherin
Shostakovich - Gryffindor
Bartok - Ravenclaw
Bruckner - Ravenclaw
Palestrina - Ravenclaw
Monteverdi - Gryffindor
Sibelius - Ravenclaw
Ravel - Ravenclaw
Vaughan Williams - Hufflepuff
Mussorgsky - Hufflepuff
Puccini - Slytherin
Purcell - Hufflepuff
Elgar - Gryffindor
Rachmaninov - Hufflepuff
Saint-Saens - Slytherin
Josquin - Ravenclaw
Rimsky-Korsakov - Ravenclaw
Weber - Gryffindor
Rameau - Ravenclaw
Lully - Slytherin
Faure - Hufflepuff
Grieg - Hufflepuff
Gluck - Ravenclaw
Schoenberg- Ravenclaw
Ives - Gryffindor
Hindemith - Ravenclaw
Messiaen - Ravenclaw
Copland - Gryffindor
Couperin - Hufflepuff
Byrd - Ravenclaw
Satie - Slytherin
Britten - Hufflepuff
Smetana - Gryffindor
Franck - Ravenclaw
Scriabin - Slytherin
Bizet - Hufflepuff
Scarlatti - Ravenclaw
Telemann - Ravenclaw
Webern - Ravenclaw
Lassus - Ravenclaw
Gershwin - Hufflepuff
Donizetti - Hufflepuff
CPE Bach - Hufflepuff
Tallis - Ravenclaw
Massenet - Slytherin
Johann Strauss - Hufflepuff
Janacek - Gryffindor
Machaut - Ravenclaw
Berg - Hufflepuff
Borodin - Hufflepuff
Bellini - Hufflepuff
Gounod - Slytherin
Poulenc - Ravenclaw
Gabrielli - Gryffindor
Perotin - Ravenclaw
Schutz - Gryffindor
Cage - Slytherin
Pergolesi - Hufflepuff
Dowland - Hufflepuff
Holst - Gryffindor
Buxtehude - Ravenclaw
Respighi - Slytherin
Dufay - Ravenclaw
Wolf - Hufflepuff
Nielsen - Gryffindor
Walton - Slytherin
Milhaud - Slytherin
Gibbons - Ravenclaw
Meyerbeer - Gryffindor
Barber - Hufflepuff
Victoria - Ravenclaw
Leonin - Ravenclaw
Falla - Gryffindor
Hildegard von Bingen - Ravenclaw
Glinka - Gryffindor
Glazunov - Ravenclaw
Gesualdo - Slytherin

Saturday, April 5, 2014

800 Words: The End of the Late Night Wars



I was with a British friend at a baseball game the other day. We were discussing the rumors of Letterman’s imminent retirement, and he told me that he never got why Letterman was so iconic. It’s tough to explain why a man like Dave would be iconic to someone who wasn’t around for his prime (or whose parents weren’t) because David Letterman did more to shape everything we know about American TV than any man of his generation.


It’s very easy to dismiss Dave in an era when every TV show competes with the latest youtube sensation for the funniest random shit. But in the 80’s and 90’s, when mainstream American culture was so bought and paid for by corporations, it was a sheer stroke of luck that landed a man as weird as David Letterman on television.




The secret of Letterman’s early success was all too simple: do the show you want to do, because nobody’s watching. He had nothing to lose, so he became the American mainstream’s bridge to It’s counterculture. It wasn’t just the inspired randomness of putting stupid pet tricks on, or the Top Ten Lists that got old thirty years ago, or throwing large objects out of the 30th floor window in Rockefeller Center, or dressing up in suits made of Velcro or Alka-Seltzer, or using funny-looking old people like Bud Mehlman and Leonard Tepper in humiliating ways. It was also that he practically launched the mainstream careers of REM, Talking Heads, Warren Zevon, Chris Rock, and Jon Stewart. It was that he brought on ‘favorite’ guests like Charles Grodin and Richard Simmons for the particular reason that he clearly couldn’t stand them and they couldn’t stand him. It was that he would have Siskel and Ebert run out into the theater mid-summer with a wheelbarrow of snowballs to throw at the audience. It was that he would have Paul Newman stand up from the audience and announce that he thought he was going to a production of Cats. It was that when he thought a guest was a particular waste of space - think Crispin Glover, Joachim Phoenix, Justin Bieber, Donald Trump, Lindsey Lohan, Courtney Love, Lady Gaga, Farrah Fawcett, Drew Barrymore, Madonna, - he let them know in front of millions of people that they were idiots, and it wasn’t just celebrity lightweights either. Neither Bill O’Reilly nor Rod Blagojevich nor John McCain came out looking good after sparring with Letterman. In fact, every person grateful for a Barack Obama presidency owes a huge debt of gratitude to Letterman. The night after the economic downturn in September was the same night that John McCain begged off the Letterman show so he could rush back to Washington, only for Letterman to capture footage of him on camera in the CBS news studio. It was, definitively, the moment America decided that John McCain was too incompetent to run this country.


Jay Leno might have commanded America, but Letterman commanded ‘The American Carnival.’ After Ed Sullivan, the non-stop parade of American entertainment didn’t go to Johnny Carson - whose guests would have to pass a prestige test for the country’s consumption. Johnny’s persona was based in no small part on ‘class’. Johnny Carson was a naturally dapper, telegenic, and urbane. For someone like Carson to dress up in a skit as a genie would get a laugh simply because ridiculousness seemed so far removed from a guy like Johnny. But the persona of David Letterman, a man as ugly as Carson was handsome, is based on 'chaos.' Dave looks like a man who knows about chaos, and he basically turned his shows into a vaudeville house in which he was the MC. He simply took in everything he could find, made a beef stew out of it, and stood out of its way. Before Dave, television was supposed to be scripted, canned, predictable. But Dave let a wrestler hit Andy Kauffman onstage, he publically berated Harvey Pekar, he did sixteen interviews with Brother Theodore - a “Standup Tragedian,” he got Sonny and Cher (who called Dave an 'asshole') to sing together for the first time in twenty years. For thirty years, America turned on Dave to see what a weird country we live in.




Letterman was a comic of the 70s, released on the world in the wake of George Carlin and Richard Pryor, which meant that he made his bones doing standup gigs in places far seedier than today’s comics ever have to venture. If you compared the seediness of that era’s punk venues against their comedy clubs, it’s no fair bet that the punks would win. The venues in which comics had to work were disgusting, drug ridden, and often violent. It also endowed the comics of his time with an almost mythic street cred. Who could possibly know what joke might piss off a psycho or gangster? Purely from a comedy point of view, there was no better time to be a comic. But Leno and Letterman rose up from those circumstances because they were fundamentally unsuited for those lives - they were clearly more clean-cut, less vulgar, less drug-dependent, than most of their colleagues (who were probably funnier). It’s easy to imagine Jay Leno as loathing every minute of it and dreaming of the day he could get something better, but it’s equally easy to imagine Dave relishing the chance to go up against an audience who might be offended by him. Letterman has a personality so dominating that he can tell anyone exactly what he thinks and get away with it.



No matter how big his show got, he never got dizzy in high places. Dave had the one quality that Jay Leno never did - he was permanently unimpressed. Jay always seemed giddy with excitement that he’d reached the top of the show business ladder. Dave could almost seem to care less - most nights he seemed just aggravated or bored - and he made sure we all knew. Every night for thirty years, he has done precisely the show he’s wanted to do. If he wants to send the Bangladeshis who own the camera shop across the street on a tour of America, he gets to do that. If he wants his stage manager to visit every town in America named Bisby, that’s what he gets. If he wants his mother to cover the Winter Olympics so she can petition Hilary Clinton to absolve Dave’s parking tickets, that’s what he gets. Letterman’s persona is grounded in the fact that a weird dude finds this funny, and because this weird dude does, we do too.

Jay worked his way up from a Boston blue collar background to become America’s late-night king. To Jay, success is about ‘making it’, and he would never consciously do anything to disappoint the bosses or audiences which allowed his ascent. He worked so hard to rise up that he became his job, and seemed to have no personality outside of his show’s routines. I don’t doubt that Dave worked nearly as hard to get to where he was, but Dave was a squarely middle class, Middle America kid who even in his 60’s seems like he just pulled a giant prank. He didn’t seem to care whether or not he was a success in show business, all he cared about was the fun he’d have along the way.





And because Dave seems so secure within himself, he is able to do things no other comic of his time would ever be able to. Everyone remembers Dave as the first TV host to go back on the air after 9/11. It was a gravely serious show, during which he spoke for every American’s bewilderment and held the hand of Dan Rather as Rather broke down in tears. Imagine Jay Leno having that much security within himself, hell, imagine Johnny Carson working up the sincerity to do it. But we should also remember Dave as the guy who spoke up in public about his extra-marital affair after he was blackmailed. The admission was so casual, as though he was talking about what he had for lunch, that we wonder how anybody could ever think Dave could be blackmailed. We accepted both equally from Dave, because he was Dave, and there wasn’t a single emotion he’d ever hold back.


‘Weird’ has so much currency in today’s culture that it’s lost its cache. In a world where computer geeks make more money than anyone else, and American culture is made from a tapestry of niches, the whole country seems to be based around Dave’s view of it. Dave may never have gotten the Tonight Show, but if the Late Night Wars were truly a war, then Dave won it handily. Every major talk show host of the next generation - Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Joel McHale, Chelsea Handler, Craig Kilborn, Craig Ferguson - is a variation on the model of Letterman. The exception to this rule is Jimmy Fallon, who, like Leno, is a throwback to the Carson model of charming the audience rather than assaulting them, and such is charm's expendability that NBC simply threw Leno out for a newer model of himself.



But there is now a new model of talk show host which has broken free of the Letterman influence by building on it. Jon Stewart may have started out as a Letterman protege, but his proximity to the source allowed him to build upon Letterman’s model. Stewart takes Letterman’s relish of this country’s weirdness and uses it to put a magnifying glass onto American politics and culture, a model that Stephen Colbert has built upon (please don’t replace Dave Stephen). Just as Letterman’s chaos was the next logical step from Carson’s control, Stewart’s critiques are the next logical step from Letterman’s chaos.  


But what’s ironic is that Jon Stewart didn’t seek out a new pattern. He simply wanted to be David Letterman, just as David Letterman wanted to be Johnny Carson, and just as Johnny Carson wanted to be Jack Benny. One day soon there will be a great comedian who wants to be Jon Stewart, and he will come up with an even newer model of how to run a talk show.