To be a Jew is to be a natural arguer. And outside of music, there wasn't a single influential gentile in my life until I was 16. Everything in my life since then is seen through the inheritance of those conflict-laden formative years. When I see the conflicts of today, gradually accumulate influence and militancy every year since I was a teenager and showing every sign of growing far more than it already has, I not only see the beginnings of a Tea Party of the Left, I see the young Menachem Begin and the Irgun, which eventually evolved to the modern Likud of Netanyahu. To the young Begin, violent opposition to what he felt to be unjust rule was always tolerated, often encouraged, occasionally participated in, and all cautious and nuanced words treated as though it is the same as though caution is as evil as the vilest bigot. What we're currently seeing on the streets is the formation of a neoconservatism for the left. Eventually, whether now or in a hundred years, caution, and only caution, will be what can win this current battle against racism - just as caution was what eventually won the Cold War, Jewish statehood, and the American Civil War. But just as in every one of those conflicts, there will be conflictmongers who will claim that their bellicosity was responsible, and people will believe them, only for the extremists to pervert the victory into something unrecognizably tyrannical and start the cycle of conflict anew. Mid-century America was a terrible place, it was also the best place the world had ever seen, in which the choice in planning for the future was between Roosevelt's Democrats, the party of liberalism, and Eisenhower's Republicans, the party of more gradual liberalism. If the world's made progress since then, it is because of what those two visions of America were able to implement for today's world. The Republican party went off the rails quickly afterward, and descended further year by year into a pit of authoritarian conservatism from which they have no escape. The Democratic party, never moreso than under Obama, did what it could to stand guard against them, and was burdened with doing the thinking that should be split between two functional political parties. But Obama, and all the progress he's made for us, has been betrayed by the very progressives who should be most aware of how he's resurrected the best liberal traditions. After he leaves, it's hard not to think that we will see the ultimate triumph of conservatism, which is the eradication of liberals who think with any more nuance than conservatives. After 9/11, we saw the us vs. them mentality so recently, and today's torture report shows exactly how that can warp people's sense of right and wrong. Yet every day on facebook I see people sharing pieces about how more moderate people use euphemisms to keep the old order in place, and are nothing more than conservatives in disguise. Or how allies have no place in the fight but to march lock step without asking questions. Yes, the old order is terrible, but the world can descend so quickly into so many worse terrors. Maybe people have a subconscious wish to bring us there, but once we get there, I think they'll be nostalgic for what once was. If you think your side is not capable of evil just as great, history will make a fool out of you. I first became politically aware at a young age, but for the entirety of it, I've seen a gradual destruction of everything effective which liberalism once stood for, and I expect it will gradually erode for the duration of my lifetime. It's like watching the Titanic gradually sail its way toward the iceberg at a glacial pace, and being powerless to stop it. In its place, as once happened in Europe, will be two diametrically opposed dogmatic revolutionisms, which will resemble one another far more than anything else. Jewish history is nothing if not symmetrical. Thank you for indulging me if you've read this far.
There are many, many things in life I’m deeply uncomfortable with. I’m uncomfortable with Baltimore, uncomfortable with the Left, uncomfortable with many women, uncomfortable with many friendships, uncomfortable with Judaism, uncomfortable with my generation, uncomfortable with just about every major aspect of my life, and forced into a close, unnatural proximity with them all. Some days, perhaps most days of my life since childhood, I wonder what would happen if I were able to take a sledgehammer to the walls of my life. Would my life be better? Am I even able to do it?
Uncomfortable is different than not wanting to be part of it. I’m very much a Jew, I’m just not a Jew anybody wants - an ambivalent agnostic who likes some of the Bible, most of the food, a bit of the music, and and has contempt bordering on hatred for the rest. I loathed growing up in Jewish day schools, forced to learn Hebrew and Yiddish, in a homogenous community of co-religionists who assured me that the wider world wasn’t much worth seeing. Yet I can’t deny the impact it had. In the wider world, I’m nothing but Jewish. I spend as much time outside of Pikesville, MD as possible so that I may be a Jew - inside Pikesville MD, I’m a bad Jew. I’d much rather have been raised Jew-ish - sent to a Baltimore private or magnet school like Park or Friends or Carver, where ‘different drummer’ types were encouraged. Would it have been so terrible if as an adult I turned out to be a social justice protestor type who smoked weed every day of his adolescence and thought music didn’t get better than indy rock? I’d have been less in touch with reality, I’d have also been a much better adjusted adult.
Ditto whatever sort of left/liberalism I subscribe to - which I’m reminded nearly every day is completely out of step with virtually everyone I know save perhaps my father and a few college friends. Eventually, every old leftist looks on the developments of their younger counterparts and sees their aspirations mocked in favor of another unrealistic goal - aspirations toward rights of workers in our great-grandparents’ generation gave way to longings for racial equality in our grandparents’, which gave way to pining for world peace in our parents’, which gave way to yearnings for complete rights of the bedroom in our own generation. Perhaps all four generations of leftists have made a small bit of headway on their chosen issue, but nowhere near what they dream, and the miniscule progress they made makes their aspiration a tantalizing mockery, only closer enough to see just how impossibly far it still is. Inevitably the generation after them has a different focus, and old leftists look at the generation after them as having betrayed the revolution that ‘really matters.’ For me, the leftist utopia of my dreams is the one in which utopia does not exist - everybody pursues data-driven, practical solutions that give the greatest good to the greatest number of people. There is no need in such a world for ideology, politics is something boring that the left-brained people can provide for us in the best manner, while us right-brained creative types who always spell trouble in the political arena can be divorced from politics altogether.
What would my ideal 32-year-old self be? Well, for a start, I’d be about seventy pounds lighter and the incessant ulcer burping that started two years ago would never have happened. We’ll take it as a given that height cannot be changed. Also, as perhaps a given, I’d be less narcissistic and less given to wondering about what my ideal self would be.
At 32, I think I’d like to have lived in New York. Preferably downtown Manhattan or the Lower-East Side but if that’s too pricey then Brooklyn wouldn’t be a bad option either. I eat out with friends five nights a week, and two nights a week I cook - once for friends and once for my wife. If I’m temperamentally the same person, then I’m far from ready to be a father, but I’d like to think I’d have been married around the time I turn 30 after a 20’s which are obviously filled with ungodly amounts of meaningless sex. The girl is Jew-ish, as practical as I’m dreamy, so much smarter than me that she makes me smarter, and indulgent of all those special ways in which I’m particularly stupid. She’s a few inches taller than I, and possessed of a number of qualities prized by the superficial male… I’ll spare whoever reads this the details, and there are many, but truth be told, since this is of course my fantasy, she’s as beautiful as I’m homely. There’s a small part of me who believes that every good looking person has a moral obligation to settle down with an ugly one. The fate of the human race depends on us all being understanding and compassionate towards one another - what better way is there to train ourselves to do that than in matters of love and sex? Beautiful people need be trained to look past the ugliness in others in the same way that ugly people need to be reminded that they can be beautiful. If more beautiful and ugly people manage to couple with one another, we know we’re getting better as a species.
For a living, I’m an opera composer. Nobody’s ever made a living purely on writing operas since Puccini, but in my fantasy world, my premieres and recordings would be looked forward to as eagerly as the latest album from Bjork or Radiohead, and I’d be remunerated accordingly. My operas would be progressively tonal - akin in harmonic language perhaps to Prokofiev or Poulenc or Britten but with both more popular appeal and rhythmic kick, and more intellectual depth than any of them. They’d be far less obfuscatory than your average avant-garde operatic fare from Henze or Birtwistle, but far more complex than the average musical or rock opera. The faucet of words, then as now, would never shut off. But my always obstructed faucet of notes would repair itself in this parallel universe, and I’d have written an opera every year from the time I was twenty-one. The music could portray every style, the words every conceivable character. Both glide effortlessly though that always fragile line between tragedy and comedy, and my ideal self would find an idiom that does justice to ‘my masters’ - Mozart, Janacek, and Sondheim. Politics, so time-consuming in my real-life’s thoughts, would be the secondary concern it truly is in these works. What would matter in these works is ‘permanent things,’ only permanent because they're so obviously ephemeral. They wouldn’t be too far from the plotlessness of life itself - the life of The Marriage of Figaro, or Uncle Vanya, or Middlemarch, or Seinfeld, or Tokyo Story, or The Adventures of Augie March, or The Rules of the Game, or Mrs. Dalloway, or Company, or The Unbearable Lightness of Being, or Louie, or The Confessions of Zeno, or Mad Men, or A Long Day's Journey into Night, or The Human Stain, or perhaps something a little more fantastical like The Simpsons or Into The Woods or Don Giovanni or Fanny and Alexander or The Cunning Little Vixen. The subject, for one and all, would be life itself, how it passes through us, and how we pass through life - with all its tragedy, comedy, and absurdity completely intact. The subject of the operas would be life as people like my real self live it.
Ideal Evan would never make the cover of Time Magazine, not at least until he was in his sixties, and wouldn’t ever become a household name, but he would get blurbs fairly often. He would have enough success by this age that he can make a lot of side money by conducting, or directing theater, or giving master classes at universities, or even writing book reviews. Once a week, a la Woody Allen, he would have a group of musicians with whom he’d perform in public as a violinist in a regular place - the genre would be somewhere in the nexus between jazz, gypsy music, and generic American folk and roots. He would be a blogger like he is today, only every blogpost would have a thousand comments. Mornings would be spent reading and listening to music, afternoons spent in writing of various sorts, evenings taking in New York City in its various forms, and perhaps most importantly, he would be able to get to sleep every night between 10 and 11 should he so desire, and this horrible insomnia which has plagued him since he was 7 years old would never have reared its pillow-tussled head. Long international vacations would be taken twice a year, visits to Baltimore to see family would happen once every three months - usually in keeping with the Jewish Holidays, and family would be up to visit me a different four times a year.
It seems like a very good life… But 99.9999999% of us can only fantasize about the lives of our ideal selves, and the few among us who achieve our ideal selves are probably psychopaths who have to throw hundreds of people under a train to get and keep the lives we all so fervently desire. The rest of us have to figure out how to live a decent life in the circumstances which conspire to keep us disappointed by the way life unfolds.
Operas: The Ten Commandments - The movie that's on every Passover, watching it is a rite of passage for every Jewish kid to sit through. It would make a great subject, albeit getting the rights would be torture. It is operatic at every pour, and has the perfect combination of high drama and soap opera for an opera. It also has, as many operas do, an obsessive interest in freedom and individualism which can make, if the composer is good enough, for a lot of very stirring music.
Watchmen - I'm sure you've heard of the graphic novel. I think it would make an amazing opera. 'Nuff said.
The Portage of San Cristobal A.H. - It's a novella about Nazi hunters who stumble on Hitler in his 90's in the Argentinian jungle and put him on trial only for Hitler to mount a brilliant defense of himself. It would be, I think, a fantastic project, albeit one that disturbs the hell out of me.
A Tale of Two Liars - I've had this idea since College. It's based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer short story about two con artists, a man and a woman, who come into a shtetl and become the rage of the town. The devil decides to get involved and make them fall in love with each other. With predictable mayhem ensuing. It would be a black musical comedy, but it would be set in Yiddish.
Deli Strummer: Deli Strummer was a Holocaust survivor from Vienna who spoke all around Baltimore for years when I was a kid. She was amazingly charismatic, spoke fantastic English, and could reduce even the most jaded children to tears. It then turned out that she falsified the account of her survival.
The Rules of Our Game - Based on Renoir's 1939 movie - The Rules of the Game. In this version, a group of spoiled Ivy League Seniors, perhaps from Princeton, go for a weekend on the beach, perhaps Cape May, with the intention of hitting the Jersey Shore bars. There would be equivalents to each character, I can explain those in detail. It would be, in many ways, a portrait of the income disparities in our generation and how that warps us all. At the end, the weekend goes terribly awry, ending with the death of one of the Princeton students, and everybody's parents agreeing to smooth over the details of what happened.
DC Story - Based on Tokyo Story, the Ozu film from 1952. A very simple story. Two old and ailing parents from Baltimore keep trying to visit their children in DC, but their children don’t have time for them and view them as pests. Then one of the parents dies, and the children realize that they never made the effort.
Fanny and Alexander - Based on Ingmar Bergman's 1983 movie, but with a much more political edge. A rich Jewish family in 1960's Baltimore, loving and cultured, with three middle aged brothers who run various parts of a business together. Their mother is a widow, who has a romantic relationship with her husband’s black business partner. But after the oldest brother dies, the his wife remarries to a right wing religious clergyman who basically abducts the children. The marriage of the youngest brother is torn apart by affairs with young hippies. The middle brother is also a college professor, and his job is victim to radical divides he doesn’t understand. The American Presidency - Shakespeare wrote histories about kings. Why hasn’t some American playwright taken it on himself to write something similar to chronicle American presidents? Given how the modern mind works, it would probably only be effective if the presidents were in living memory - perhaps Roosevelt onward. But given the drama that accompanies American history, the plays would almost write themselves.
Graz 1907: This would take a little more detail to explain, just because it's so obscure. Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler hike up a mountain on the day that Strauss's opera, Salome is being premiered. Present at that premiere, among others, will be the two of them, most of the kings of Europe, Puccini, Schoenberg, Berg, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Adolf Hitler, and Adrian Leverkuhn (the main character of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus). Mahler, an extremely anxious and moody Jew, worries that he's being run out of his position as director of the Vienna Opera, and fears that what's happening to him is happening all over Europe, and something terrible may soon happen. Richard Strauss, a level-headed Bavarian obsessed with money who will one day would become a Nazi collaborator, assures Mahler that he has nothing to worry about and his carrying on is, as always, ridiculous. In the second act, Mahler goes to the men's room a half-hour before the opera begins. Mahler is stopped before he leaves by a young man named Adolf from Upper Austria, who says that Mahler made him accepting of the fact that he's part-Jewish, and talks about how he wishes he could be a conductor and emulate Mahler's conducting style, and how the sets of his art director, Alfred Roller, could be the basis for rebuilding an entire nation. He then tries to touch Mahler's hair the way Salome does, then tries to kiss Mahler. Mahler runs out horrified, and Adolf Hitler may have been born in that moment. Act III would be a party gathering of all the various celebrities and the various hijinks that ensue. I can explain it if you need me to.
Richard III: Richard is usually portrayed as a kind of Hannibal Lector - a loveable psychopath who gleefully commits crimes. But the more I delve into Richard III, the more I wonder if the text supports that interpretation. The Dream scene, particularly makes no sense in that interpretation. Perhaps Richard is truly tortured, a depressed and malformed man made by circumstances into a reluctant lunatic - not unlike Robin Williams in One Hour Photo. When he says about Clarence “I do love you so that I shall send you to heaven.” Perhaps he really means it. When he goes after Princess Anne over the body of Prince Edward and says her beauty made him do it, perhaps that’s really why he did it.
Romeo and Juliet: I always thought R&J could be played as 80 year olds, but apparently that was done a few years ago in England. Instead, what if Romeo and Juliet are both obese? All the stuff about Rosaline is in fact merciless taunts by Mercutio, who is simply a bully, and sees Romeo pining after a girl clearly far out of his league. The Nurse could be a gorgeous but poor older contemporary of Juliet, and the fan scene could be something which makes the Nurse look fat. Paris could be a money grubber who clearly has no interest in Juliet.
Wiki Midsummer Night’s Dream - I will never have the organizational ability to bring this off, but I think it’s a great idea for someone who could. Each of the four worlds could be done by a different artist, a different director, and a different cast. Perhaps each scene even could… The fairy world could be done as animation or as a series of paintings with voiceovers, perhaps the rude mechanicals could be done as a really bad student film. I suppose it would also be possible to do The Tempest like this, but I think it would work better with Midsummer.
Julia Caesar - We’re on the cusp of the first female President at the exact same era that we’re the American Presidency has powers verging on dictatorship. There would never be a better time to do a Julius Caesar about feminism. Julius Caesar would be a woman, so would Antony and Octavian, and the conspirators would all be men. It would play into all of men’s fears about losing their privileged position and becoming obsolete, it would play into . The murder could (should?) even be done as a sexual assault that Brutus stops right before Caesar says ‘Et tu Brute?’. It could contrast the masculinities of Brutus, a traditional male who upholds real masculinity, with Cassius, a traditional male who pretends to. Antony’s last line over Brutus ‘this was a man’, would have a completely different meaning.
The Henriad in a Single Night: Orson Welles cut it down to make a play in which Falstaff would be the main character, I don’t see why it couldn’t be done again, though perhaps with the focus on the story itself rather than on Falstaff. Though making Falstaff the main character would be fun too.
What we have in life is conversation - the ability to communicate to one another, to listen, and to evolve. We grew from hearing, and we grow from being heard. Conversation is the only thing in life worth a damn, because if we’re ever going to understand each other, it will only be by hearing what we all have to say.
As I was driving home last night form a concert, an interview with Dick Cavett came on the radio. I’m probably the only person under the age of 40 that knows who Dick Cavett is, but for those who don’t, he was, in so many ways, Stephen Colbert for another generation. The only difference is, Cavett didn’t have to wear a mask of ignorance. He’s an emissary from a gentler, more cultivated era, when self-consciously intelligent people needn’t be typecast as intellectuals, could be knowledgable without seeming smug, and even a standup comedian could be intelligent. Comedians are probably the world’s smartest people, but don’t try telling that to the average American, it’ll make America a much less humorous place.
(Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer)
Cavett made a great point - what makes talk shows unique is the talk, not the show. And whom among today’s celebrities do we really want to hear talk at length? We spend, at most, fifteen minutes in the company of these guests, and in that time, most of them will have exhausted whatever there is of value which they have to say. Back in Dick Cavett’s day, he would have guests on for a full half hour, and if they were especially interesting, the tape would simply keep rolling, and Cavett would get a full week’s worth of broadcasts out of it - or a whole gaggle of guests, each of whom could be fascinating in his own way. The conversation might be enlightening, it also might be a circus freak show. It was Charlie Rose by way of Letterman - it was simply every possible excitement which you could ever want out of a conversation. And like everything else in America with the temerity to combine the lighthearted with the serious, the profane with the sacred, the carnival with the temple, Cavett has been forgotten. But no matter what happened, a live audience was present, and Cavett trusted that whatever happened would be interesting enough that a live audience would stay engaged for the whole of it. This was not a format the 92nd St. Y, this was for network television! And yet it never happened again. Such is the way of America - giving us the power to create the most truthful and beautiful things, only to cover up our national treasures when they hold up a mirror to us that’s too clear.
(Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog)
Just do a youtube or wikipedia search for Dick Cavett and it becomes clear how different this show is than anything on today. Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal squaring off against each other after Mailer headbutted Vidal backstage. Comedian Mort Sahl threatening to hit the critic John Simon in the face. Truman Capote attacking Sonny Liston with a handkerchief. Oscar Peterson playing piano for an audience of millions. Weeks worth of shows devoted to pornography and depression. A roundtable with Satchel Paige, Lillian Gish, and Salvador Dali during which Dali brought an anteater onstage and deposited it into Gish’s lap. Jefferson Airplane, Joni Mitchell, David Crosby and Stephen Stills on the day after Woodstock ended. A film director’s panel with Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Altman, Mel Brooks, and Frank Capra. Janis Joplin, Margo Kidder, and Gloria Swanson on simultaneously! Jack Benny and Bill Cosby on together. A whole show with John Cassavetes, Peter Falk, and Ben Gazarra. Full hours with Groucho Marx, Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward, Katherine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, John and Yoko, David Bowie, Ray Charles, Fred Astaire, Woody Allen, Jerry Lewis, Lucille Ball, Woody Allen, Zero Mostel.
(John Lennon premieres "Imagine")
No talk show on television today, not Stewart, not Colbert, not Letterman, not Charlie Rose, is nearly so ambitious as this. It is a show which is literally meant to take the pulse of the entire country during an age when the country was still sufficiently united that its pulse could be taken. In the ‘rough and tumble’ of an hour-long conversation, there’s no Colbert-esque hiding behind a persona with quick one liners, and no Carson-esque staff to prepare you for what you should be asking. There is only the native intelligence it takes to know your material well enough that you can talk about your subject in detail.
How many of today’s huge stars are interesting enough that we’d want to spend an hour in their company? Perhaps George Clooney or Jennifer Lawrence among movie stars, but how many others can you think of who’d be worth that chunk of your time? Tom Cruise? Brad Pitt? Kristen Stewart? Anne Hathaway? When you mention names like those, the question becomes self-answering. Movies, at least movies which come from the old star system, are almost completely dead. So their biggest stars are, almost necessarily, people who are dead on the inside.
(Marshall McLuhan and Truman Capote)
If you want to hear from interesting actors, you have to get actors who are actors first, movie stars second. Ian McKellen and especially Patrick Stewart have reached an Indian Summer on the internet, and it’s because their careers are more than simply careers - they are real human beings with real skills who have fallen into the movie business as if by accident. Stewart may be slightly wooden and hammy in genuine theatrical roles (not for nothing was Captain Picard the perfect role for him), but who wouldn’t want the company of a 75-year-old Shakespearean actor who posts a picture of himself on twitter dressed as a lobster?
(Joni Mitchell, Jefferson Airplane, David Crosby, Stephen Stills)
Comedians also make for great talk show guests. Comedians, more than virtually any other job, is grounded in people who make their careers based on having interesting things to talk about. A fact that’s hit home in Jerry Seinfeld’s web series - Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. The show itself is not particularly extraordinary, but it’s a thoroughly watchable show, because Seinfeld understands that what we’re watching is funny people talking to each other, and in order to be funny, you have to be interesting first and have insights which are worthwhile to be heard. Among comedians, Robin Williams was of course the most amazing talk show guest, not only because he was funny, but because he was smart. There was no way he could get access to that extreme barrage of references without a first-class brain to access. If he had an hour on a talk show, he could probably improvise an entire hour’s worth of material - very nearly it’s own HBO special made up on the spot.
To paraphrase Citizen Kane, there’s no great secret to being famous, if all you care about is being famous. If fame is your biggest motivator, there is a checklist of things you must do in order to achieve it, and if you combine that with a little bit of luck, you will achieve your life’s goal. But as with any other career, if you’re defined by your career, you will be uninteresting and unworthy of company outside of it. Your boringness may even make you worse at your job.
We live in a great time to love standup comedy, but it’s a horrible time to be a standup. We live in an era when Louis CK has more influence than any standup comedian since the 1970’s heyday of Pryor and Carlin. Within his kingdom is a treasure trove of great, slightly more minor comics: Stewart and Colbert of course (though you can’t really call what they do Standup…), Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifinackis, Maria Bamford, Ricky Gervais, Kristin Schaal, Mike Birbiglia, Sarah Silverman, Eddie Issard, Tig Notaro, Brian Posehn, Amy Schumer, Aziz Ansari, Wanda Sykes, Marc Maron, Margaret Cho, Jim Gaffigan, Chelsea Handler, Doug Stanhope, Adam Carolla. Among the veterans, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, Kathy Griffin, Lewis Black, Lisa Lampanelli, Colin Quinn, David Cross, and Jeff Garlin are still going strong. Until recently, Patrice O’Neal, Joan Rivers, Robin Williams, and Greg Geraldo were going strong, and Bill Cosby and Dave Chapelle both look determined to make a strong comeback.
And yet, it must be a stressful, anguishing time to be a comedian, because nothing is guaranteed to be funny anymore. Whether or not the outrage is justified (and I’m willing to acknowledge that much of it is), we live in a society of perpetual anger, perpetual grievance, and perpetual victimhood. Much of the anger, grievances, and claims to victimhood are entirely justified, and the voice which the internet gives to such people is so long overdue in coming as to render it an historic event in human history. When women, gays, and ethnic minorities have been bullied for a million years of human existence, it’s rather understandable that when given a medium which allows new levels of independence, they might overreact to some provocations. But our concern here is neither the long view of human history nor the history of twitter outrage, it’s merely standup comedy. Comedians can now stream their own albums with no intermediary, their work can also be scrutinized by more people than ever in the history of comedy, and combed through for matter which gives offense to anyone looking for it. This may spur comedians to still greater flights of creativity, but it must also makes their job that much more terrifying. There is already no job in the arts more punishing than the standup comic. Only foolhardy people would ever countenance becoming one, and in our day of internet searches and viral content, the burden of that job just became that much more onerous.
Nothing in entertainment or the arts dates faster than comedy. Routines from favorite comics which seemed hilarious three months ago can leave you in stunned silence as you wonder how you could ever have thought that bit was funny. Fifteen years ago, Bill Maher was considered the vanguard of comic performance for the morally righteous. Today, both most comedians and most progressives view him as an embarrassment for his sexism, his racism, and his pomposity. Whenever Conservatives need a straw man to show that liberals are ‘just as bad’, they use Bill Maher. But Bill Maher is merely an extreme example: every major comedian has a few bits that in retrospect make some among their listeners cringe - Louis CK has a bit about fantasizing about murdering his children, George Carlin had a bit about how rape could be funny, Sarah Silverman has a joke about how 9/11 is the worst day of her life because she found out that a Starbucks soy chai latte has 900 calories.
The job of a comedian is to push every conceivable boundary and find our weak spots. They are the frontier workers of our culture, working on our most sensitive fault lines. They inspire more love than anyone else in the arts, and consequently also inspire more hate.
Comedy is virtually the only artform that demands a completely visceral response from the viewer - if you don’t laugh, the comic fails. No artform takes more courage to practice, no artform runs a greater risk of failure, no artform requires more refinement and evolution, and in no artform is the humiliation of failure so obvious. It therefore follows that the people attracted to comedy are the biggest risk-takers. They’re often the smartest and most interesting people in the world, and they’re often the most dangerous too. To be a good comic, there must be a hole in your life so deep and empty that only the sound of laughter can fill it.
In the last year, the world lost two comedic icons, and it’s in the process of losing a third. Weirdly enough, not a one of them is Robin Williams. You don’t lose an icon through death, if you did, then we’d have to remember David Brenner (does anybody?). You lose an icon by the icon ceasing to stand for what made him iconic. We lost Joan Rivers to death, though perhaps we lost her as an icon a number of years before. Back in Februrary, the world re-lost Woody Allen as an icon, just as it prepared itself to re-embrace his hallowed status. And as of this week, we seem to have lost one of the biggest icons of them all: Bill Cosby. Both Woody Allen and Bill Cosby are still alive, but everything which made them such legends is dead.
On the other hand, we will never lose Robin Williams. Through suicide, Robin Williams underwent an amazing transformation. Just three months ago, he was a washed-up hack. He is now an Icon of American History. He was more than simply a Shakespearen/Mozartian talent of comedy, however ill-utilized, he was a primal archetype. He was the father my generation wished we had, who loved us unconditionally and always knew what to do to cheer us up. He bridged the divide between children and grownups, assuring us we didn’t have to be terrified of the adult world. But the adult world is a terrifying place, and to the end, Robin Williams was clearly half child. And like a child, when he realized that the world might not love him unconditionally, he couldn’t help but take it as a personal offense. It must have been terribly difficult for an unhinged talent like Robin Williams to process rejection. I can’t imagine that he wasn’t devastated by the downturn in his fortunes. I imagine him in his final years being something like TS Eliot’s infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing. Surely Williams had a dark side, but he admitted to it, and never excused himself for his flaws. In later years, his standup specials were virtual catalogues of his various human frailties. And even so, he never glorified in his failings. He wanted to be known for being a better man than he was, but since he was not a better man, he would be forthright about who he was instead.
In death, as in life, he generated more love than any other person ever could. In its way, his death was as devastating for my generation as John Lennon’s death was for our parents. It’s the ultimate wakeup call - our youths are over because Robin Williams will never give us any new consolation. We now have to fend for ourselves, and Robin Williams belongs to the Ages. In a hundred years, people will still watch his routines and marvel that this comedic volcano could possibly exist. What other comics had to log hundreds of hours honing and sharpening, Robin Williams seemed to do with no edit button necessary. Comedians like Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfeld gain tremendous respect for using no vulgar language - ‘working clean’ they call it - and supposedly that is the hardest thing to do in comedy. But I would argue that Williams worked clean in a much deeper, harder sense - he barely made fun of anyone except himself, and yet he was still the funniest man alive. His comedy was utterly without compromise. It hardly made fun of no one but the most powerful people, he never used it to project an image of himself as anything but the trainwreck he was. What he did was not only pure comedy, it was pure integrity.
But to Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, we now learn that there is very little integrity to what they do, and that the truth about them is unfortunately more interesting than the front they no doubt slaved to project. In retrospect, it’s difficult not to wonder how more people didn’t see the truth about them before.
It would seem as though every decade had three comics which dominate: the white comic, the black comic, and the female comic. The audience for comedy is sufficiently small that the same people usually listen to the same comics. But the traditions and concerns which they represent are so different that there always seems to be room for all three at the top of the food chain. And yet, today, the dominant comic is so obviously Louis CK that it seems tough to remember that there are other comics. But even today, clearly Chelsea Handler and Sarah Silverman together tower over female comics in both recognition and respect, but the comic who would probably be today’s dominant black comic is Patrice O’Neal, but he died quite painfully and tragically a few years ago. Perhaps Hannibal Burress will soon take his place, or perhaps Wyatt Cenac, or perhaps Key and Peele. But think of the 00’s, clearly Jon Stewart was biggest white male name, and clearly Dave Chapelle was the biggest black Male name, and clearly Margaret Cho was the biggest female name. In the 90’s, you could clearly see that Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Ellen DeGeneres were the most important names. In the 80’s it was Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, and Whoopie Goldberg. In the 70’s, it was George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Joan Rivers. In the 60’s, it was Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, and Phyllis Diller.
We will get to Handel shortly, but in order to talk about Handel, we first have to talk for a few minutes about Bach.
It’s said that Bach is the foundation of all music which came after him. In fact, it was said by me last week among many many others. And I stand by that, but there are signs that the influence of Bach is waning.
If Bach is the foundation of all music that comes afterward, how do you account for this?
How is Indian classical music different from Western classical music? (twenty-six tones due to ‘just temperament’, monophonic, single drone instead of moving bass line)
How is traditional Japanese music different from Western classical music? (pentatonic scale yet feels as though missing nothing no intervals, comparitively homogenous timbre, but contrapuntally very sophisticated)
Or for god’s sake, what about this?:
(where is the variation in the music of Tibetan chants?)
Or even this one?
How close do you think Balkan Gypsy music is to classical music?
It’s so obvious that we live in a global marketplace that it’s become cliche, and it would be idiotic to think that the global marketplace doesn’t apply to music too. The old definitions of what defines music have to be thrown out the window, whether it’s European classical music, or the American popular music which derived from it, it’s not only Western-centric, it’s also patently untrue.
I’m not sufficiently broad-minded to stop myself from saying that the Western European tradition is still by some distance the richest musical tradition in the world. But the entire world is catching up very quickly. The Western tradition is now just the dominant part of a global tradition, and composers now have the option of fusing together music from parts of the world that a century ago knew absolutely nothing about each other. And since the rest of the literate world probably knows more about our music than we know about theirs, it’s highly probable the next waves of truly great composers will probably come from a far off places around the globe who can fuse diverse sounds together in ways we can’t yet fathom.
In a world where Western conceptions of harmony and rhythm were dominant, Bach was the king. Bach lived his whole life in a 200 mile radius around the German principalities, but he also knew music from Italy, France, and England, and he synthesized all their influences into one seamless system which was so powerful that music virtually started over from scratch. We get virtually our entire system of harmony on the Well-Tempered Clavier, we get all our counterpoint from later works like the Art of the Fugue and A Musical Offering. But Bach could never account for cultures which evolved in completely different directions from the ones he knew about.
One day, perhaps one day soon, there will be another Bach-like figure who will incorporate all the different musical traditions of the world into a single overarching system, but until that day, Bach will still be the King. Even so, his empire is clearly declining. It’s hard for me to believe that he won’t eventually just be another great name in music history - one of hundreds, a member of the choir rather than a soloist.
Meanwhile, an exact contemporary of Bach is emerging from a long stay for at least a brief solo bow. Assuming there is no one much over the age of fifty in this classroom, there are two composers whom music lovers have almost thoroughly rediscovered in your lifetime. One is Gustav Mahler, whom we won’t cover in this class for a few more years. The other is the subject of today’s class. Of those two, the reappearance of Handel was much less likely, mostly because he had just died. Handel was the composer of the British Empire, one might even say that he served the same role to British Imperialism that Wagner served to German fascism. Let’s listen to a bit of Handel right now.
This is a recording of Handel from 1888. Believe it or not, what you’re hearing is the sound of 2,700 singers. Handel was, and to at least a smaller extent still is, a community institution in England and among a certain breed of white bread person in America. For two-hundred years, the Handel oratorios have been the foundation of every community choir in the English-speaking world. Part of the reason that he’s enormous fun to sing. He lets you shout at the top of your lungs in eight-part harmony. The only problem with this mode of experiencing Handel is that he comes across as amazingly long-winded. Here’s what George Bernard Shaw had to say about the experience:
Handel is not a mere composer in England: he is an institution. What is more, he is a sacred institution. When his Messiah is performed the audience stands up, as if in church, while the Hallelujah chorus is being sung. It is the nearest sensation to the elevation of the Host known to England Protestants. Every three years there is a Handel Festival, at which his oratorios are performed by four thousand executants, collected from all the choirs in England. The effect is horrible; and everybody declares it sublime. Many of the songs in these oratorios were taken by Handel from his operas and set to pious words… If anyone were to take the song from the oratorio and set it back again to secular words, he would probably be prosecuted for blasphemy. Occasionally a writer attempts to spell Handel’s name properly as Haendel. This produces just the same shock as the attempts to spell Jehovah as Jahve. The effect is one of brazen impiety…
Handel’s music is the most English music in the world. If Doctor Johnson had been a composer he would have composed like Handel.... Yet in England his music is murdered by the tradition of the big chorus! People think that four thousand singers must be four thousand times as impressive as one. This is a mistake: they are not even louder. You can hear the footsteps of four thousand people any day in the Rue de Rivoli - I mention it because it is the only street in Paris known to English tourists - but they are not so impressive as the march of a singe well-trained actor down the stage of the Theatre Francais. It might as well be said that four thousand starving men are four thousand times as hungry as one, or four thousand slim ingenues four thousand times as slim as one. You can get a tremendously powerful fortissimo from twenty good singers… because you can get twenty people into what is for practical purposes the same spot; but all the efforts of the conductors to get a fortissimo from the four thousand Handel Festival choristers are in vain: they occupy too large a space; and even when the conductor succeeds in making them sing a note simultaneously, no person can hear them simultaneously, because the sound takes an appreciable time to travel along a battle front four thousand strong; and in rapid passages the semiquaver (sixteenth note) of the single farthest from you does not reach you until that of the singer nearest you has passed you by. If I were a member of the House of Commons I would propose a law making it a capital offence to perform an oratorio by Handel with more than eighty performers in the chorus and orchestra, allowing fortyeight singers and thirtytwo instrumentalists. Nothing short of that will revive Handel’s music in England. It lies dead under the weight of his huge reputation and the silly notion that big music requires big bands and choruses.
Here is what one aria from Messiah used to sound like. This aria is based on Psalm 2: Why do the heathen rage?
It’s all very pleasant, but it’s not very rageful. Compare this to a more modern perspective.
Suddenly, this work is illuminated as a work of absolute genius. This sounds like war. Not only does it sound like rage on an international scale, and not only that, it sounds like a protest against it - the kind of protest which Victorian England would very much not like to hear.
Now let’s hear what the chorus which follows this. “Let us break their bonds asunder.”
Here’s a traditional massive Handel performance from 1926. 3000 singers and 500 instrumentalists:
They can’t even keep themselves together.
Now let’s listen to a more modern performance that’s presumably much closer to what Handel had in mind:
(start at 2:25)
Slowly but surely, Handel is revealing his true face to us. Like with Bach, we again have to ask, who is this man? The answer, unfortunately, is not easily revealed except through his music. We don’t have many letters left, though we have lots of anecdotal testimony. Handel clearly guarded his private life very closely, and we still don’t know why or if there’s even a reason. Some of them, such as that Handel was gay, seem halfway plausible. Some of them, such as that Handel was Jewish - as one cantor once insisted to me - seem downright idiotic. But through his music we can tell a number of things. We can tell that, like Bach, he was a Prussian of very deep Lutheran faith. But Handel’s faith was not Bach’s. Handel came from the upper-middle-class, his father was a surgeon and he lived his life completely free of privation, with long travels all around Europe, and most importantly, he was not constantly surrounded by family death. His view of God was correspondingly far more cheerful than Bach’s. But triumph and optimism is never far away from Handel’s surface. Bach’s church music gravitated to the New Testament, in which Christ allows us to transcend our earthly defeat. Handel’s sacred music gravitates toward the Old Testament, which tells us stories of heroic triumph here on Earth. Like Bach, Handel had a hair-trigger temper, but unlike Bach, he was not thought of by colleagues as particularly difficult. This is probably because he had in spades that one quality which Bach’s music almost completely lacks, a sense of humor, a humor that comes out in his music again and again. My favorite story about Handel involves them both, a story in which Handel accomplished something every conductor and stage director has fantasized doing to singers since the beginning of opera. One time, a prima donna soprano refused to sing an an aria (song) as he wrote it and insisted on changes, so Handel simply grabbed her, took her to the window, opened it, made her look outside and said “Madame, I know you are a true she-devil, but I will show you that I am Beelzebub, the chief devil.”
But unlike Bach, not only did Handel never marry, he was never even linked with a woman. Many musicologists claim today that during the second part of his life, Handel was part of a secret gay underworld among the English noble class. But the evidence for that claim is very specious. Given that Handel lived in Georgian England, which has to be numbered one of the most gossipy societies ever established, and given that he was so devoutly religious, it seems highly unlikely. To me at least, it seems much more likely that Handel was asexual.
There’s a story I love about the longtime conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, William Steinberg. He was asked who the greatest musical geniuses were. He thought about it for a moment and said: “Bach, Mozart, and Schubert. But the greatest composers were Handel, Beethoven, and Brahms.”
Can anyone guess what he meant by that?
As Richard Feynman would say, in every artform, there are the geniuses who are completely not of this world. We have no idea how they do what they do. Bach is an example of that, so is Mozart, Shakespeare, so is Leonardo, so is Newton, so is Kant, so perhaps is Steven Spielberg. But then there are geniuses who are geniuses because they are just like us, if only we were a hundred times better at what we do. For geniuses like Handel, or Beethoven, or Michelangelo, or Dostoevsky, or Darwin, or Nietzsche, or Werner Herzog, every single creation is the result of a titanic struggle to get a work to emerge from the ether.
Part of the reason that Handel is still a bit underrated is because he was certainly the latter kind of genius, but he wrote with the fluency of a Bach. The end result is that Handel’s works are often much too long and probably require an editor to get rid of the dull bits - a practice which, in this era when every work of art is considered a sacred text, is still something of a blasphemy. Even in Messiah, one of the great edifices of Western thought, in part III, you can almost feel Handel up against his deadline. It’s considered one of music’s miracles that Handel wrote Messiah, more than two-and-a-half hours of music, in twenty-four days. But the speed with which he wrote certainly shows. The work is in three parts, and rather than compose a genuine part III, he simply has an aria (song) for bass go on and on with the exact same music for more than twelve minutes. If the singer isn’t very good, it’s reason enough to leave the concert hall early. In fact, Handel was often so pressed for time that he simply cut and pasted his own music from other works into the new work. Occasionally, perhaps even more than occasionally, he even plagiarized the work of other composers. But in the 18th century, plagiarism was considered an intellectual misdemeanor, not a felony.
But more than any other composer in the ‘standard repertoire,’ improvisation is the key to Handel’s work. A lot of Handel’s music is based on repetition, with the expectation that, just like in jazz or rock, the soloists will improvise on the theme every time the theme repeats itself. Like Bach, Handel was an extraordinary keyboardist. And you can hear just how great an improviser he must have been in some of his instrumental pieces. Here is his most famous one, the ‘Harmonious Blacksmith,’ which is apparently based on a song Handel once heard a cheerful blacksmith singing to himself.
Let’s take a break now…
The title of this class is Handel: Our Contemporary. The unwritten attachment is that Handel is our contemporary while Bach is perhaps not. No doubt, that’s unfair to Bach. But more than at any time in two hundred years, the two composers are becoming thought of as roughly equal in quality. But Bach represents the old order of music, his conservatism is everything that is conservative about the musical establishment. In an era when classical music was thought of as a bastion of quality against the barbarian hordes of popular music, it made sense that Bach would be thought the pinnacle of its achievement. But closer to their era, both Haydn and Beethoven declared Handel to be the greatest composer who ever lived.
Handel is the vanguard of everything that was liberal about his age. For the last fifty years of his life, Handel made his home in London. And the London of Handel’s era was an amazing place. Handel lived in a society with Isaac Newton, Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), Alexander Pope (one of the world’s greatest poets), Prime Minister Robert Walpole (who established the whigs as a permanent political force), Joseph Addison and Richard Steele (who founded The Spectator). And Handel would appear to have known them all. He was fluent in German, English, Italian, French, and Latin. He had a fantastic art collection, and was a great gourmand. He was so known for his appetite that one famous painting has the sillouhette of Handel playing at an organ. In this painting (show) he has the nose of a pig, seated on a wine barrel, with dead chickens hanging from the pipes.
Unlike Bach, who worked as a part of the medieval patronage system, in which musicians were kept on retainer by the Church or by aristocrats, Handel was a musical venture-capitalist. He was his own producer who mounted every production with the hope that he would make an enormous amount of money. He did make an enormous amount of money, and he lost very nearly as much. A Handel performance was not unlike any rock group who puts on an enormous concert - his music lived and died by how much he excited the audience.
When Handel first came to England, he made his reputation on opera. Handel’s greatest love was clearly the theater, but like Bach’s church music, there is something about Handel’s operas that is weirdly dry. They’re performed now around the world pretty frequently, but they’re almost inevitably the most boring thing in an opera season.
Part of the reason is that very few musicians still understand what Baroque Opera was, and still fewer are in any condition to do anything about it. Opera to Handel was completely unlike opera in our day. Baroque Opera is basically a concert for singers, and the singers were like musical instruments. If a musical instrument can play sixteen notes every second, then a vocalist should be able to do the same. If a musical instrument can sustain a note for over a minute at a time, then a vocalist should be able to do it too. Handel’s operas have all these incredible tricks and more. When you look at the score of a Handel opera, it’s hard to believe that the singers of Handel’s day didn’t blow most contemporary opera stars out of the water. Very few singers, even today when we have a better idea of Handel’s style, are truly up to his demands, and when you hear what Handel had in mind, it’s pretty amazing.
Or at the opposite end of the spectrum, what about this beautiful bit:
Another reason that it’s fairly easy to be bored by Baroque opera is that the atmosphere was completely different. The spectators were not in the ultra-reverent opera temple in which they hear opera today. It was much closer to a bar. They would talk and eat until something great forced them to pay attention. If a group of spectators got it in their minds to boo a singer, nothing could be done to stop them. Singers would break character all the time to talk to friends in the audience. So if the reverent atmosphere in which Bach worked set the stage for what classical music would later become, the atmosphere in which Handel worked was the same which every jobbing popular musician works today.
And if the musicians of Handel’s era were like jobbing rock guitarists, then the star singer was the Castrato. Castrato means exactly what it sounds like. A castrated male singer whose testicles were removed before puberty so that testosterone would not lower the voice. The end result was that they had male lung power coupled with female vocal range. They started in the Church. Since the Catholic Church banned woman singers, the Church required high vocalists without having to train new boys every few years. So they simply removed the testicles of talented boys before their voices changed. Their voices became so popular that they became in demand for secular vocal music too. Of course, most of the Castratos did not become musical superstars, but the ones who did had riches beyond what anyone thought possible. The famous castrati were like rock stars, offered every possible financial reward, every expense paid for them, and women flocking to them. A few of them even had affairs, and since there was no testosterone produce semen, they could have sex for as long as they liked. But a lot of the castratos had horrific physical injuries - female breasts, no body hair, or enormous physical bulk.
By the 19th century, the castratos were a dying breed. It was thought so inhumane that the Pope issued an edict banning the practice throughout all of Christendom. He then took the remaining castratos under his care. There is only one Castrato who lived into the recorded era, and we have a few recordings of him. He's already in his fifties and long past his best voice when this recording is made. But it has a sound on it which is utterly unlike anything that has ever existed in our time.
What does this sound like to you?
This sound is the relic of a bygone era, and so are most things about Handel's operas. Most of Handel's operas, like most of Bach's church music, is not really meant for eternity. In Handel's case, they are entertainments designed to meet the needs of that particular moment, great for when it's needed, but not great when they're given an artificial shelf life. But Handel’s sacred music, like Bach’s instrumental music, is where his true greatness lies. Bach’s instrumental music has the passion which only a true believer can muster. Handel’s sacred music has the drama which only a man of the theater can conjure. There is certainly drama in a Bach’s church music, but next to Handel’s great oratorios, Bach’s church music can be a bit of a weak brew.
So how does Handel do it? Well, there are a lot of reasons, but the main one is called ‘word painting.’ Handel, more than any composer who ever lived, was a master of finding the right notes for the right word. Sometimes, extremely literally. There’s nothing in Bach like Israel in Egypt, my favorite of his works, in which Handel literally depicts the ten plagues. Let’s listen to a few of them…
Here’s a question: Why is the music for darkness so much darker than the music for slaying of the first-born?
This is where Handel, even at his formidable best, gets into trouble, and where he begins to resemble a bellicose us-vs. them composer like Wagner rather than an all-compassionate master like Bach or Mozart or Beethoven. There is something almost profane about Handel’s church music, comprising mostly of what we call ‘oratorios.’ There is very little talk about sin or forgiveness, and damnation is always something that happens to somebody else. Because the thrill which Handel’s audiences got from his oratorios was as much nationalistic as it was religious or theatrical. In Handel’s music, Israel is always triumphing over some evil enemy. From the beginning of Christianity and the Jewish diaspora onward, Israel and Jerusalem were always standins in literature for the aspirations of their nations. Take this famous example from his oratorio, Judas Maccabaeus:
Clearly this is as much about England as it is about Hasmonean-era Judea. The conquering hero is England, the unquestioned naval power, about to embark on conquering the world. Handel lived in a liberal era, but early 18th-century liberalism is not liberalism by any standard we much understand. Handel, like Wagner after him, wanted to overwhelm audiences with the massiveness of his sound. Take this example from his Royal Fireworks. Handel originally wrote it, albeit unwillingly, for 24 oboes, 12 bassoons, 9 trumpets, 9 horns, 3 timpanists, and as many snare drums as can be found. It premiered for an audience of 12,000 people.
So, ultimately, what is an oratorio? It is a retelling of a story, in music, usually with both chorus and orchestra. A sacred oratorio is the retelling of a biblical story. Handel was the master of that, using plain English rather than Latin, and giving it the dramatic charge of a Shakespeare play. King George II called Handel the Shakespeare of music. That might seem a little extravagant to us today, but it’s amazing is how many musicians and artists over the centuries would have agreed. Handel, as much as any composer, is still with us. When we hear Handel's brazen declarations of Imperial triumph, we hear America as much as we hear England or Israel. When we hear the virtuoso passages for singers, we should think of how stadiums cheer rock stars as much as we hear wigs and laced corsets. Most importantly, when we hear his Hollywood-like dramatizing of bible stories, we should think of how it is because of creators like Handel who created a kind of Buddy Jesus for a more liberal era that religion has a hold a little less strong than it once did.
Let’s close this by playing the most famous of all his compositions, the Hallelujah chorus from Messah, which, weirdly enough, is his only oratorio about the New Testament. When the same monarch, George II, first heard it, he was said to have been so moved that he stood up. When the King rises, everybody has to. So in keeping with a nearly three hundred year tradition, let’s all stand up.