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January 2010

January 23, 2010

Norma Rae: The Sequel

 A lot of commenters got upset with me over my last post, in which I made the case that Conan O’Brien has become the nation’s most unlikely poster boy for the disillusioned and dispossessed, a modern day Norma Rae. At the end of the post, I took people to task for going to rallies in support of Conan, and suggested that if they want to expend their political energies on something, there are probably better causes. People made the valid point, albeit usually amended with the word “douchebag,” that just because they support Conan doesn’t mean they don’t also do worthwhile things with their time, like donate kidneys or adopt other people.

Fair enough, and they’re right. Of course the two things aren’t mutually exclusive, and I could have chosen my words more carefully. But I was attempting to express a general frustration I’ve had with the situation that I couldn’t quite articulate; after many people made the point that the rallies were meant to be satirical, though, I kind of clarified for myself the reason I’ve been feeling so frustrated.

For satire to be effective it has to be parodying something. In the case of these rallies, ultimately what they were protesting was futility. Of course they didn’t expect the rallies to change NBC’s mind, didn’t expect them to result in Conan retaining “The Tonight Show” because most people feel like protest never changes anything. Instead the end result was exactly what they expected: absurdity. It was silly street theater for the sake of silliness, which as somebody who has spent his whole career making stupid shit, I am all in favor of. But to me it spoke to something much deeper and much sadder. Consciously or not, to me what these rallies were really about was the very real powerlessness many people feel about creating change in anything. Consequently, I think what I feel frustrated about is cynicism masquerading as activism.

My argument isn’t with Conan. I said in my last post I think he’s great. Nor is it with the sincere appreciation his fans have for him. My problem is with hopelessness, of which there seems to be an abundance of lately, and which manifested itself as a rallying cry for a late night talk show host. What’s frustrating is that Conan came to represent this hopelessness when he’s somebody who is as far from hopeless as could be imagined.

Many of you said I was over-thinking this. I probably am. But it’s because I’ve been trying to figure out why people are so up in arms about something so trivial as “The Tonight Show.” Thirty years ago people could rally behind a fictional figure like Norma Rae because she represented a situation in which millions of people found themselves. Who does Conan really represent besides Conan? To me he’s an odd hero, a strangely poignant cultural figure at a time when the culture is so profoundly fucked up.

And yes, I’ll shut up now.



Norma Rae

When did Conan O’Brien become Norma Rae? For those of you who don’t remember this 1978 film, Norma Rae stars Sally Field as a beleaguered factory worker who risks her job and everything she’s worked for in order to correct injustices in the workplace. She is everywoman, standing up to The Man to do what’s right. Not just for her, but for the millions just like her all over the country. Those oppressed masses just trying to put food on the table, the ones without health care, the ones struggling to make ends meet. The ones who just want a fair shake. Somebody had to have the courage to take on the Big Baddies running the show. In 1978, that somebody was Norma Rae. In 2010, it’s Conan O’Brien?

How did a Harvard-educated, multi-millionaire late night talk show host magically transmogrify into a guy who got laid off at the local car plant? The overreaction to Conan’s departure has been kind of astounding; as a nation, are we really that concerned about who hosts “The Tonight Show,” a television program that stopped being culturally relevant around 1986?

And let’s not forget, it’s not as if Conan was cancelled. He quit. He walked away from “The Tonight Show” because he rightly or wrongly felt that moving the show half an hour later would destroy the show’s integrity. Okay, fine. But let’s not act as if he’s leading a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter. It’s not that big a deal.

Yes Americans believe in fair play. Fair play means making a deal and sticking to it. Conan got “The Tonight Show,” and therefore he should keep it. I agree with that. But Americans also believe in capitalism, and when fair play bumps up against capitalism, capitalism usually wins. It did this time.

To my mind, there are two reasons why Leno has come across looking as bad as he has throughout the last few weeks. The first is that he seems like an opportunistic pig for agreeing to move back to 11:30. He should have packed up his funny headlines and gone home. The other reason is that Conan has been much funnier about the whole thing. His letter to the Times was funny, his monologue jokes have been funnier, and whereas Leno has come across as needy and desperate, O’Brien’s departure seems, if not exactly classy, then at least in classy’s neighborhood. Of course it’s easy to be classy-ish when you and your staff are walking away with forty million dollars.

I think the deeper reason people are so inflamed by this petty war is that Conan in his own way has come to represent the aggrieved, the injured, the wrongly terminated. I think there is a sense in this country that giant corporations are ruining everything, even late night talk shows. Something so insignificant takes on greater importance because I think on some level, “The Tonight Show” actually has become a very flawed stand-in for all the jobs lost to corporate greed, arrogance, and stupidity. We see Conan as a victim because we feel as though, like us, he wasn’t given a fair shot. If a guy like that, a guy who has everything, can be downsized and demoted, what hope do the rest of us have?

Moreover Leno is installed back in his abdicated throne. It feels like a coup, a particularly unfunny coup. And above him, all the top brass still have their jobs. Just like all the top brass in every other failed or bailed-out corporation. It feels unfair. And it makes people mad.

Sure it’s a shame it didn’t work out for Conan, the most creative talk show host since David Letterman, and I think it’s great he took a principled stand against NBC, but is this really the stuff of rallies? Is this really where we want to spend our political capital? If you have the energy to protest Conan O’Brien’s departure in Burbank, shouldn’t you maybe think about spending some time chanting outside General Motors or Goldman Sachs? Or Congress? This is the cause you want to get involved with? Instead of holding up placards with the Masturbating Bear on them, maybe donate a pint of blood. It’ll be a lot more helpful to somebody.

Conan is an unlikely hero of the working man but at this point, when heroes are far more likely to be squashed than celebrated like Norma Rae, as sad as it sounds, he might actually be the closest thing we’ve got.


January 16, 2010

A Row to Myself

They started doing this annual gathering of funny folks called the San Francisco SketchFest several years ago, and it’s turned into one of the best comedy festivals in the country. Where is it? San Francisco. I arrived yesterday after that rarest of coach flights: the kind where I have an entire row to myself. Did I take advantage? DID I!!! First item on the agenda: unbuttoning my pants. Not because I planned on doing anything naughty but simply because there was nobody beside to tell me not to. Once that was done, I realized there was no thrill if there was nobody around to notice, so I tapped the shoulder of the businessman in the row in front of me. When he turned around, I pointed at my trousers and winked. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to.

Once that was done, I decided to move over to the middle seat to maximize my elbow room because there’s no point in having a whole row if you’re not going to devote significant space to your elbows. There were a lot of ways I could have gone, but decided to go with chicken elbows, which is where I bend my arms and do a little chicken flapping throughout the duration of the flight. But, again, it was one of those situations where if I’m going to chicken flap, I want people to know it. So I let out a couple quiet clucks, just enough so the passengers around me, none of whom had rows to themselves and were thus unable to do their own chicken elbows, could see my good fortune and thereby experience the kind of jealousy that only a good, solid chicken flap can produce.

When the airplane ladies came around with soft drinks, I ordered three - one for each of my trays. I got a Pepsi, a Sprite, and a milk. Then I took turns sipping from each. Pepsi, Sprite, milk, again and again in round robin fashion. The tastes did not mesh well at all, but the situation was too rich to pass up. I did the same thing with the in-flight entertainment system. I ordered three different movies, then watched each for a couple minutes at a time. I can’t even tell you what I saw because between all the sipping and headphone shuffling, I couldn’t keep track of any of them. I’m pretty sure one of them was “Transformers 2,” but it could have been any movie where robots from space turn into cars.

At one point a nice older woman who was in a middle seat a couple rows behind me came up, pointed to the seat in my row at the end, and asked if anybody was sitting there. I said, “Yeah. Me, bitch.” I wasn’t trying to be mean, but if I’ve got three soft drinks and I’m watching three movies, it’s not because I’m looking for company.

After the movies ended, I decided to take a little nap. This proved harder than I thought it would be because all the caffeine had me pretty wired and the milk left me bloated and gassy. Having my pants unbuttoned saved me time at this point because I almost certainly would have gone ahead and done that if it hadn’t been done already. Not that unbuttoning my pants takes that much time but in a situation like that every second counts.

My discomfort only intensified when I tried laying across all three seats. Those airplane seats are just not meant for sprawling. Eventually I found a solution: I asked the stewardess if she would spoon with me. After some token protestations (“I can’t,” “I’m on duty,” “I could lose my job”) she agreed. Aside from being a little too smelly in the perfume department, it worked out great. Don’t worry, there was no hanky panky. I wasn’t looking to join the Mile High Club (again). I just wanted a warm body to wrap my strong, beefy arms around. Some of the other passengers complained because obviously if the stewardess was laying down with me she couldn’t attend to them, but why should their needs come before mine? There were literally three other stewardesses on the plane who knew how to operate the defibrillator. 

I awoke just in time for our final descent into the Bay area, then did a couple clucks and flaps to get the blood moving again. The pilot executed a perfect landing. As we taxied to the gate, I kind of snuck down the aisle so I would be the first off the plane. It was kind of hard once I hit the first class section but I whispered “air marshal” to everybody and that seemed to do the trick. Finally we rolled to a stop, the door opened and after slipping the pilot five bucks for his good landing, I got out of that death trap ASAP. Yes, I forgot to button my pants back up and yes I paid the price when they fell down in baggage claim. Oh well, everybody had a good laugh and I was a good sport about the whole thing because that’s the kind of guy I am.

January 03, 2010


Sundays are very good because they grant Biblical authority to my already instinctive laziness. God says “Rest,” so I rest. It’s eight o’clock in the morning, and the only reason I am up at all is so that I can maximize the hours today in which I do little to nothing. I will attempt to limit my physical activity to retrieving the newspaper, which I may or may not read. Music will be soft and of the “easy listening” variety. Food need not be bland but I will definitely keep it on the mushy side. As for my children, I will provide hugs but not much more than that. If they need a ride to the emergency room, they're on their own.

How I became this sluggish remains something of a mystery to me. There was a time, not so long ago, when I was an industrious young man. Always on the go, go, go. I made things, did things, said things. These days, all of that seems very passé and downright boring. I mean, really, what’s the upside in making anything when there is a full bag of pretzel sticks in the cabinet? Why think too much when there is an entire internet filled with information about Kevin Federline to explore? This planet has six billion people. Let them do stuff for a while. I’ve already done my part: I hosted “Spy TV.” That’s enough for any man.

Yesterday was a perfect example of how I enjoy spending my time. The most challenging thing I did yesterday was keeping my fireplace going. This necessitated several – SEVERAL - trips to the garage and back for wood, not to mention all the stoking involved. Tons of stoking. But that was about it, as far as doing anything goes. We didn’t even have to make dinner for ourselves because a friend sent over a plate of antipasto. Did I get dressed yesterday? I did, but only because my kids each had a friend over and I didn’t want their parents to see me in my Hello Kitty feety pajamas.

The other thing I did yesterday was watch the snow fall. It snowed for most of the day, and a lot of my time was occupied with staring at it through the window. At one point I did shovel the walk, but that wasn’t as strenuous as it sounds because the snow wasn’t packed very hard so it only took a couple minutes. Even so, upon returning to the house I felt as though I had conquered Everest.

To compare myself, as people often do, to John Lennon, I feel like I’m going through my “Watching the Wheels” phase. As he took a break in his late thirties from being a genius to hang out with Yoko, I’m taking a break from making cable television shows to hang out with my wife, who is less Asian than John’s wife, and also less responsible for breaking up the Beatles. Eventually he got back around to making stuff and right after that he got shot, so maybe there's a lesson there. 

Now it is snowing again, which for some reason makes me very happy. Maybe because all inclement weather provides further excuse to stay indoors or maybe just because it’s pretty. Either way, it’s Sunday and quiet and there’s snow. In my next life, I think I will come back as a bear. 



January 01, 2010

My End of Year Adventure!!!

Well it’s the first day of the New Year and as usual I have not made any meaningful resolutions because I know myself well enough to know that making a resolution is the same thing as saying, “Here’s something I won’t accomplish this year.” Instead, I am focusing on positive things about myself that I will accentuate in the coming months. Like my nascent home repair skills.

This week I fixed my upstairs sink. Until then, I’d never fixed anything in my entire life (except my dog, and that was just a matter of writing a check because as competent as I am, I didn’t want to cut out my own dog’s lady parts), but my bathroom sink was draining slowly and I determined to correct the problem myself instead of hiring somebody to do the job for me. My first thought, of course: Drain-O. But I’ve been told that stuff is terrible for the environment or for pipes or maybe it hates white people or something. I don’t know, but I knew not to use it, which meant I had to walk over to my bookcase and take out a book I’ve owned for the better part of a decade but have never cracked open before: “The Home Depot Book of Home Repair.”

What a book! Anything you need to fix in your home - be it the toilet, roof tile, electrical wiring system, espresso maker, Wii, fractured relationships  – you can find out how to do it within, all tasks dutifully explained by Home Depot’s cartoon everyman, Homer, who wears his ballcap low and looks like a three-pack-a-day smoker.

Under the plumbing chapter, I read about fixing drains. The advice was short and concise, and I pretty much didn’t understand it. So I got out my wrench, put on my brand-new fuscia work coveralls and matching jazz shoes, and got to work. The first thing I had to do was unscrew the stopper, which I didn’t even know you could do. You can. Then I peered into the dark recesses of my drain pipe. Blackish water burbled below. This was going to require a snake.

A snake is a long piece of metal tubing encased in plastic sheathing which you, the intrepid plumber, feed into your home’s intestines. The snakehead slithers through the pipes, dislodging any built-up gunk. Could I use one of those things for my own colon? Could I!!! The problem, I discovered, was that I did not own a snake, and so had to make a special trip to Ace Hardware to purchase one. Even though I only go to Ace once a twice a year they all know me there (very famous), and give me the kind of friendly service which is supposed to make me feel good but instead just makes me very uncomfortable.



Returning home, I couldn’t wait to send my snake slithering. As it happens, there was no need as I quickly discerned that the reason for my sink’s drainage issue was merely an accumulation of hair right there at the top, easily retrieved and disposed of with my wife’s good pair of tweezers (I didn’t tell her I used them for that and now that I’m writing this, I realize I neglected to clean them afterwards. Oh well.) Within mere moments, the pipes were clean. HOWEVER.

The however is that when I unscrewed the stopper, the little plastic piece that held the stopper to the faucet mechanism became dislodged and fell down into the drain trap. TRAGEDY! How was I going to retrieve the little plastic piece? Answer: disassemble the drain trap!

A lesser man might have said, “No way am I going to disassemble the drain trap because that sounds hard." But not this lesser man. No, instead I actually GOT UNDER THE SINK, a process which necessitated me GETTING DOWN ON MY KNEES and PEERING UPWARDS at an UNCOMFORTABLE ANGLE, exactly the sort of blue-collar activity for which I have been conditioned my entire life NOT to endure. But I did it. Assessing the situation, I quickly deduced (without the help of Homer) that the proper way to proceed was to unscrew the two thingys, and remove the curvy thingy. Which I did. It took about thirty seconds. There, trapped in the curvy thingy was the little plastic thingy, which I shook out into my hand and held aloft like a piece of Spanish gold harvested from the ocean floor.

Mission accomplished? No dear friends, mission just begun. Because now I had to not only reattach the entire drain trap, but figure out how to reassemble the stopper to the rest of the faucet. The drain pipe was a piece of cake. Where I once unscrewed, now I simply screwed. A little elbow grease was required but nothing I could not handle with my very, very good physique.

Getting the stopper back together was a more difficult proposition because I had to get the plastic thing back onto the metal bar, then position it in such a way to allow me screw the stopper back in. Sound easy? Sure. Was it? No sir! Everything kept jiggering and tilting and because my fingers are so thick and masculine, I could not reach down there to get the damned thing stabilized long enough for me to thread the stopper. But necessity is the mother of invention and after many minutes of swearing and crying, I finally used the aforementioned tweezers and some Yankee ingenuity to get the whole thing back together.

Now for the test. Would the water quickly drain? I turned on the faucet and let it run. No water build-up, no spillage from the drain trap. Nothing to indicate any problems. I plugged up the sink. The stopper worked beautifully, a cork in the proverbial bottle. When I released it, the water swirled down in a pleasant funnel shape, a tiny homemade whirlpool, before disappearing into my home’s bowels and from there onto my property’s leeching fields where it will be filtered and dispersed to the ground water, thereafter joining pristine Connecticut rivers before finally ending up in the Atlantic Ocean, where it will be shit upon by some fish.

After this incredible adventure, I fixed my kid’s bathtub, which is a whole other, equally compelling story. I won’t spoil it for you here, but let’s just say the snake finally got a chance to work it’s charming magic. (Unnecessarily, as it turns out, the problem with their tub had nothing to do with it being clogged.) But that’s a tale for a different time. The salient point here is that I am genius. Happy New Year everybody. In 2010 may all your plumbing problems be solved as simply as my own, and if they cannot be, may you hire an illegal immigrant to fix them who will have no legal recourse against you if you choose not to pay him because he is afraid of getting deported by involving himself in our nations’s criminal justice system.