Friday, April 11, 2014

Welcome to the new 11:30, bitch:
Colbert, Letterman and the late-night landscape

DAVID LETTERMAN, the host of “The Late Show” on CBS, dropped the first Florsheim shoe in his own inimitable fashion on April 3, recalling a conversation with CBS president Leslie Moonves. “And I said ‘Leslie, it’s been great, you’ve been great, and the network has been great, but I’m retiring.’”

“I just want to reiterate my thanks for the support from the network, all of the people who have worked here, all of the people in the theater, all the people on the staff, everybody at home, thank you very much,” Letterman said.

“What this means now, is that Paul and I can be married ... we don’t have the timetable for this precisely down – I think it will be at least a year or so, but sometime in the not too distant future, 2015 for the love of God, in fact, Paul and I will be wrapping things up."

By the time Letterman hangs ‘em up, he will have hosted CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman" for 22 years. He held down a similar gig at NBC's "Late Night" for 11 years before then. And make of this what you will: According to The Wrap, April 4, Letterman’s announcement that he was leaving won the show its best ratings since October 2012.

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We might have seen this coming. In a recent taping of “The Late Show,” Letterman sat with Brian Williams, the NBC News anchor and frequent “Late Show” guest. They talked about this & that, but Letterman never missed the chance to infantilize his new late-night competitor (on NBC) as “Little Jimmy Fallon.”

But even then, Letterman knew better. In its five seasons, “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” won Emmy nominations every year since 2010. Fallon, simply put, is an overachiever’s overachiever. A “Saturday Night Live” veteran, Fallon is already a walking multihyphenate: actor, singer, guitarist, pianist, production company chief, and (as I noted back in January) “altogether a more kinetic television presence than Letterman has been in years.”

The generational shift of Fallon’s rise and Letterman’s departure was only partly complete with Dave’s announcement. The other shoe dropped on April 10 when CBS announced that Stephen Colbert, namesake of “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central, would replace Letterman, in a five-year deal worth eleven boatloads of money.

Making his own announcement, Colbert said, "Simply being a guest on David Letterman’s show has been a highlight of my career. I never dreamed that I would follow in his footsteps, though everyone in late night follows Dave’s lead. I’m thrilled and grateful that CBS chose me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go grind a gap in my front teeth.”

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BEFORE COLBERT was announced, some in the media wondered if CBS had the stones to make a daring new hire for one of the more coveted positions in television. An abundance of names were floated: Chelsea Handler, Ellen DeGeneres (fresh from her Oscar-host gig), Craig Ferguson, Conan O’Brien, Neil Patrick Harris — even Louis C.K., for the love of God!

Eric Deggans, writing Saturday in “Code Switch” on the NPR Web site, asked the inevitable question:

“Now that David Letterman has finally confirmed plans to retire, it seems necessary to ask the same question which surfaces every time there's a shuffle in the late night TV lineup: “Why are there so many white guys dominating late night talk show television?

“The simple answer is that TV programmers mostly cast for their target audience. So daytime TV is bursting with Ellens and Oprahs, Latifahs and Katies, Barbaras and Julies, while nighttime runneth over with Jons, Jimmys, Davids, Conans, Stephens, Craigys and even a Carson or two.

“But while daytime has the occasional Steve Harvey, Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz, late night has mostly been the province of the smart-alecky white guy. I don't expect CBS to change this, given how important the Letterman succession will be for them.”

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But that’s not really right. The real target audience — for late-night TV, for prime-time TV, for morning programs, for every part of the broadcast day — is eyeballs, and as many of them as a network can attract regardless of race, color or creed. Deggans’ devil’s-advocate argument presumes the existence, and by extension the benefit, of some voluntary televisual segregation at work, the assumption that minority Americans turn their TV sets off with the last grin from the anchors of the late local news — negating the ability for minorities to be part of that target audience.

What would account for the fact of African Americans staying up to watch late-night show guests that matter to them, like Denzel Washington and Will Smith, Steve McQueen and Oprah Winfrey, Kevin Hart and Michael Strahan, Lupita Nyong’o and a certain African American president of the United States? Late-night TV matters to blacks and browns. The problem is that late-night TV viewing by blacks and browns doesn’t matter to the risk-averse suits making the programming decisions at the networks.

Comfortable with a proven template for success — proven over generations — Big TV is loathe to tamper with a solidly established formula. This probably goes double for CBS, the Tiffany network whose polished, procedural, traditionalist culture is a cornerstone of its public identity. That entrenchment into the familiar ground of the status quo could have been a setback for CBS. The Colbert hire negates that.

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CBS SUFFERS by comparison with NBC in not having a tradition of late-night comedic talent — a farm team, if you will — from which to draw a successor to a standing program. NBC’s had that luxury for generations with “The Tonight Show” (in incarnations going back to 1960), “Saturday Night Live” (which first aired in 1975) and the “Late Night” franchise, just taken over by Seth Meyers.

So whoever CBS got to replace Letterman had to be a poach from another network. But ironically enough, the news of Letterman’s departure was an opportunity for CBS to undertake a departure from popular expectations. Whoever they brought in would inevitably be compared to Letterman anyway; why not make the most of it? That’s exactly what CBS did.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Jeb the Apostate?

AS MUCH by default as anything else — because there’s nobody else the Republican machine can even remotely get its head around seeking the presidency right now — John Ellis Bush may be in the catbird seat he isn’t sure he wants to occupy. It’s still early yet and names will come and go, but the idea of the former Florida governor launching a presidential campaign in 2016 is very much alive — at least in the punditburo and among political speculators like yours truly.

The bigger question — the known unknown — is how Bush, once a darling of conservatives, would be received by the conservative base, the ideological strict constructionists of the party, the conservatives whose grassroots adherents could be either his salvation or his worst nightmare.

That hasn’t stopped some Republican pragmatists to start advancing his name. And it hasn’t stopped Bush himself from making, on Sunday, a statement of principle on the U.S. immigration crisis that goes against conservative orthodoxy — and raises the question of nothing less than what the Republican Party is going to be in 2016.

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He’s been in the winner’s circle before. As Florida’s first two-term Republican governor, Bush knows how to win, doing it in 1998 and 2002 with solid inroads into blocs of minority voters outside the customary conservative orbit. But if he does decide to run in 2016, the challenge for Jeb Bush is to do it after more than seven years out of elective office, seeking the nomination of a party deeply bound up in an aggressive multiple personality disorder.

In 2008, after two terms as governor, Bush could probably have gotten nominated by acclimation before the primaries began. Even more so in 2012. But between 2008 and 2012, the Republican Party — consumed with an irrational hatred of a Democratic president who’s embarrassed the GOP by letting the GOP embarrass itself — ushered in the Tea Party, a Frankenstein offshoot that would tolerate no moderates, no compromisers, no wanderers from the tribe.

For a while, the Tea Party virus enlivened the host. Right up until the virus began to take over the host. That battle of the antibodies is what’s going on in the Republican Party right now.

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AND SO, some in the Republican hierarchy have decided that Jeb Bush could do no harm. On March 29, Philip Rucker and Robert Costa of the Washington Post reported: “Many of the Republican Party’s most powerful insiders and financiers have begun a behind-the-scenes campaign to draft former Florida governor Jeb Bush into the 2016 presidential race, courting him and his intimates and starting talks on fundraising strategy. ...

“Many if not most of 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s major donors are reaching out to Bush and his confidants with phone calls, e-mails and invitations to meet, according to interviews with 30 senior Republicans. One bundler estimated that the ‘vast majority’ of Romney’s top 100 donors would back Bush in a competitive nomination fight.”

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But hold up. That was deep last week. On Sunday, speaking at an event marking the 25th anniversary of the presidency of his father, George H. W. Bush, Jeb Bush put distance between himself and conservative holy writ on the thorny matter of immigration, and did it in language that was anodyne, humanistic and realistic.

“There are means by which we can control our border better than we have. And there should be penalties for breaking the law,” he said.

“But the way I look at this -- and I'm going to say this, and it'll be on tape and so be it. The way I look at this is someone who comes to our country because they couldn’t come legally, they come to our country because their families -- the dad who loved their children -- was worried that their children didn’t have food on the table. And they wanted to make sure their family was intact, and they crossed the border because they had no other means to work to be able to provide for their family.

“Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family. I honestly think that that is a different kind of crime that there should be a price paid, but it shouldn’t rile people up that people are actually coming to this country to provide for their families.”

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THAT’S NOT the first time he’s wandered off the grounds of the estate. In June 2012, interviewed at a breakfast event with Bloomberg View, Bush said that former Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and his father, George H. W. Bush would “have had a hard time” finding support in today’s Republican Party.

Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times reported “During the discussion at Bloomberg View, Mr. Bush implored his party: “Don’t just talk about Hispanics and say immediately ‘we must have controlled borders.’ Change the tone would be the first thing. Second, on immigration, I think we need to have a broader approach.”

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Crawling from the wreckage:
Jagger, Flight MH370, Oso and the month that just was

HE WAS only out there for 15 seconds, by most accounts, a man standing there alone on the balcony of his suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. But every picture tells a story. Sir Michael Philip Jagger, walking brand name, multimillionaire, lifelong pop-culture provocateur and the voice of the Rolling Stones, stood looking drained and bereft, lines of fresh woe etched in the woodcut face of a rock icon, the face of a man considering the price of doing what you love ... in life unkind.

He was there for the funeral of his longtime companion, L’Wren Scott, the emerging but already celebrated fashion designer who died by suicide in her Manhattan apartment on March 17. We can only speculate what demons — personal, financial, romantic — conspired to provoke her to take her own life.

He tried to put things in perspective. “I am still struggling to understand how my lover and best friend could end her life in this tragic way," he posted on his Facebook page with a photo of Scott. "We spent many wonderful years together and had made a great life for ourselves."

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He’d arrived in Los Angeles from Perth, Australia, where he and the Stones had landed in preparation for their next tour stops. A day, more or less, before his companion for 13 years was gone.

Upon learning the news, he returned to the skies, flying at least briefly over some of the same vast expanse of water that’s made the western coast of Australia the focus of the world’s attention for an entirely different reason.

What started on Saturday, March 8, as a routine flight for Malaysian Airlines between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing became anything but routine. In the three-plus weeks that have followed, as the fate of 239 passengers and crew of Malaysian flight MH370 got more uncertain after the 11-year-old Boeing 777 vanished from radar and GPS detection, what emerged was a global all points bulletin. The search vessels that have combed the waters off Malaysia, Vietnam and the western coast if Australia came from China, Norway, New Zealand, Australia and the United States — a kind of seagoing United Nations.

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THE COMMON objective of those involved in what’s become a global aviation crisis hasn’t yet yielded the results we’re hoping for — finding the plane, or at least the flight data recorder that could shed light on this mystery. But more than anything, the common objective we’re after is something else.

More than anything else, what we want from news of the still-missing flight is certainty, the relative assurance of knowing, whether what we know is desirable or not almost doesn’t matter at this point. It’s the suspension of certainty that’s become the most unnerving thing about MH370.

It flies in the face of the information we’re supposed to have so readily at hand in an information-besotted age. It undermines the confidence (and some will rightly call it arrogance) we have in things we believe to be as solid, as bedrock as the ground we walk on. And for some people, that kind of confidence was betrayed by that ground itself.

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The people of Oso, Wash., discovered how even that much confidence can be utterly misplaced. It was about 10: 37 on the morning of March 22 when the hillsides above Oso, softened by days and weeks of record rainfall, first gave way and slid into the valley below, at a speed that may have exceeded 100 miles an hour. Some reports say the sound of the hillside shearing off was reported on seismometers up to 170 miles away.

When it was over, at least 30 people had died, another 17 are still reported missing, and the square mile of destruction rerouted a river — with 10 million cubic yards of earth moved in an instant.

And after a disaster in which their community was blanketed by five times the earthen material required to build the Hoover Dam, the people of Oso started the process of climbing back from an event that was the tragically ideal metaphor for all our lives at the precipice.

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THE MONTH of March shook our certainty about everything at once, it seemed — from our certainties about the people we love, the nations we live in, the technology we rely on or the very ground under our feet. It’s left us with the burden of the Great Why. The why of why an airliner reversed course and headed, almost blithely, toward oblivion. And why the earth gave way and buried a bucolic town. And why a talented woman with years of life in front of her would strangle herself with a black satin scarf from an inside door of her apartment.

That uncertainty in our lives is no worse, no more omnipresent in our lives today than it was yesterday — things were bad in January and February, too. But some times, some days, it comes home more powerfully than others: the relentless torque of the modern world, the capacity for the worst kind of surprise.

Life, and it don’t stop. The crawling from the wreckage is underway. Somewhere in the bulldozer zone of Oso, green life is stubbornly taking hold. The people of the town have closed ranks, uniting under a common credo silk-screened on T-shirts, imprinted in their hearts: OSO STRONG. Despite their heroic resistance, the families and friends of the people who were passengers on a plane on a voyage to the bottom of the ocean near the bottom of the world will come to find a private certainty within the official uncertainty of the aircraft’s fate. They will be in agony, but they will live. They will move on. Old habits die hard.

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The man on the Four Seasons balcony knows a thing or two about that. After the funeral, according to news reports, he laid low for a time, retreating to the safe harbor of family in southern California. But his passion for traveling the world performing with his mates — something they’ve nailed down to a science after 50-odd years — has just announced itself again.

In May, the Rolling Stones will resume performances for the “14 on Fire” tour, including stops in Oslo and Lisbon, and eventually playing Zurich, Berlin, Paris, Vienna, Düsseldorf, Rome, Madrid and Stockholm, Allan Kozinn of The New York Times reported on Monday.

The month of March 2014 was a profound pain in the ass. It roared in like an annoyance and roared out like an agony. Now (and finally) it’s April, when spring explodes more or less officially and that force driving the flower through the green fuse drives us to distraction, carpet-bombing the backyard dandelions. So the grass can grow. That’s this month.

And this month, if you dare, look forward to next month, the presumably merrier month of May, when the weather’s better, if nothing else; and the sun’s in the sky longer ... and hopefully, things at least feel better. And the man on the balcony comes roaring back, to life, on the stage. In spite of everything. Just like the rest of us.

Image credits: Jagger: tk. Jagger and Scott: Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Banana Republic. Malaysian Airlines logo: © 2014 Malaysian Airlines. MH370 tribute wall: Wong Maye-E/Associated Press. Oso landslide aftermath: 
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