One of the more pleasant respites in what has proven to be a fairly challenging summer (thank goodness for the Yankees–so far) has been the discovery of Battlestar Galactica (above, the trailer for Season One). I am not sure if it was prejudice against the original series or prejudice against the Sci-Fi Channel, or some other ignorance on my part, but I took no notice of this show while it was on the air. But Craigh Barboza at USA Weekend got me to write a little piece about the show, and this required me to watch all 74 episodes, along with the two stand-alone movies Razor and Caprica. And I enjoyed it very much. The show is about a fleet of refugee humans looking for a new home now that their bsg-olmos-mcdonnellplanet has been destroyed by machines called Cylons. The show is held together by its four lead characters–four consistently interesting characters served by four actors who deliver consistently excellent performances: The gruff, steady, forceful Commander William Adama, underplayed with great power by Edward James Olmos; President Laura Roslin, played by the fiercely intelligent Mary McDonnell; the fierce, fiery Starbuck, played by Katie Sackhoff,bamber and the gallant and resourceful Apollo, played by the British actor Jamie Barber. For an exta special bonus treat, I got to speak to Nathaniel Philbrick, the writer whose books about about explorations and tragedies during the Age of Sail–In the Heart of the Sea, Sea of Glory, and Mayflower–I found so educational and enjoyable. BSG was all new to Philbrick, too, and he was loving it as well. He was impressed with how well the series seagloryexpressed what happens in the tight confines of a ship. “There is nowhere to hide on a ship, which is one of the things that draws me to stories aboard ships. It’s claustrophobic, and the setting really intensifies the issues. Temperament becomes very important, and weakness is exposed quickly.” Philbrick said he particularly enjoyed watching Adama. “He’s calm, firm and has a high social IQ. He has a high tolerance for his crew’s personal foibles and professional misjudgments. But he’s not a nice guy: He has to uphold standards, and the crew appreciates that.”


tedkennedy1980In 1979, the man I worked for, a young New York City Councilman named Tony Olivieri, decided that he had had enough of Jimmy Carter, and took it upon himself to launch a local Draft Kennedy movement. There wasn’t much to do to forward that cause, since Ted Kennedy wasn’t mounting a campaign just yet. So all we did was get a bunch of NEW YORKERS FOR KENNEDY buttons made and hold a press conference where we passed them out, and that was about all that could be done. And then Tony became very ill with a brain tumor, and eventually incapacitated, which emant that those of us who were his aides had to represent him at various meetings and functions and events. While Tony was growing weaker, Kennedy, seemingly without an idea why he should become a candidate, slid into the race, and in 1980 began a weak and disorganized and inarticulate effort to unseat Carter. It was pretty nearly over before it started, but Kennedy hung in there, and amid defeat after defeat in the early primaries, he seemed to find his voice and his rationale and his inspiration. By the time the New York nyers-forprimary came around in March, Kennedy was plunging ahead full throttle. I attended a rally for him one morning, in an auditorium near Penn Station, not an event open to the general public but just for a few hundred political professionals and potential delegates and others who were backing him. I remember when he came out the crowd cheered hard and enthusiastically, and while the applause was still high, Kennedy joyously stoked it by calling out in his rich, bold, baritone the names of people in the crowd. “DAAAAY-vid DINK-ins!” he would say, and the cheering would start all over again. “ROOOOOOTH MESSSS-inger!. . . . . . .MEEEEEER-iam FRIEEEEEEED-lander!” He went on and on, and the cheering went on and on, and his trick of sharing the spotlight bonded his supporters to him even more closely. It was a splendid political performance, and in a decision that was probably worth little more than truculent Fuck You, Jim, he won the New York primary. Tonight, Ted Kennedy is being eulogized for his splendid career, for his stirring oratory (“I had golden friends”). for his passion as a leader and his skill as a legislator. I don’t think anybody really has an idea how very much we will miss him. It will be like waking up tomorrow to find that the Empire State Building has been stolen away.


glovers-mistakeI am an enormous fan of the British writer Nick Laird, whose first novel, Utterly Monkey, was raucous and funny and evocative of modern life among young Londoners. I just finished his new novel, Glover’s Mistake, which is smart and knowing about relationships and personalities and art and love. In both books, what jumps out is Laird’s brilliant way with words, which may not be as surprising to everyone as it is to me, since apparently Laird is something of a hot shit poet. But still, every couple pages contains some gem. Here are a few, plucked at random: “A businessman loosened his tie as he strode towards them and then violently yanked it out from his collar, as though it has turned into a cobra. This was the end of work and the end of the week. Night was arriving and the darkness was welcome. It licensed an adjustment of mood.” “The curtains were still open and out to the south, over zone three and zone four and zone five and onwards, a silver bank of cumuli had aggregated. It was shining eerily, lanterned from within by an invisible moon.” “David watched a volley of steam rise from the kettle’s underbite, and then clicked it decisively off.” The kettle’s underbite! Oh, isn’t that magnificent!


I had a short but fun telephone interview yesterday with Richard Curtis, who wrote the screenplays for Four Weddings and a Funeral and Bridget Jones’ Diary, two films I enjoyed tremendously, and who has written and directed a new film that will open in October called Pirate Boat. Formerly titled The Boat That Rocked–I guess the title must have tested poorly–it tells the story of a freighter that operated off the coast of Great Britain in the mid-1960s, broadcasting rock and roll music. “This was an era when there was only one radio station,” Curtis told me, “and while richard-curtis-rex_144344tthe BBC would broadcast rock and roll by dropping in a song amongst big band music, operettas, quizes, and all sorts of far. Never was there a greater mismatch between supply and demand.” Which was addressed, in due course, by pirate radio stations, operating in international waters just outside the territorial limit. The film, whose terrific cast includes Kenneth Branagh, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy (so wonderful in Curtis’s Love Actually), Talulah Riley, Rhys Ifans, Gemma Arterton (all pictured below right), was filmed on what had been an old hospital vessel; Curtis remarked on two mysterious doors in the hold, marked Survivors and Non-Survivors. Curtis said he got wonderful cooperation from the people who hold the rights to the music from the period. “We only got two or three refusals,” He said, “although oddly enough, some of the bands who had the biggest reputation for doing drugs were the ones who put clauses in their contracts saying we 7039451couldn’t use their songs in scenes where there was overt drug use.” Younger cast members were well acquainted with the music of the Kinks, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, although there were some discoveries: “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells, “Friday on My Mind”, by The Easybeats, and “Happy Together”, by the Turtles. “Ultimately, it’s a film about friendship,” Curtis told me. “There’s also some sex and romance, because I like those things, too. But ultimately it’s about friendship. All my films are.” Can’t wait to see it.

Added on August 28th: Well, I did see it, and it’s not really very good. I guess there’s something irresistibly fun about seeing good looking people play make-believe while sixties music is played real loud, but there is, unfortunately, no real plot, no genuine characterization, and not very many good comic moments.


tom_delay_mug_shot-790518I’ll leave it to my friends in Philadelphia to decide how warmly to embrace Michael Vick; the spirit of forgiveness has never really been the City of Brotherly Love’s style, but if it’s worth a couple of touchdowns, I’m sure Iggle fans can learn to be warm and fuzzy. I am more impressed by the generosity displayed by ABC and the producers of Dancing with the Stars, who are allowing the disgraced and disgraceful former House Majority Leader, Tom DeLay, to participate in its spangly, spandexed dance competition. Of course, DeLay has already won a far different competition: without having ever been convicted of a crime, he has achieved the distinction of being the most odious political personage of his era, a malign and corrupting influence of historical proportions.

As Majority Leader, the beady-eyed DeLay found loopholes in the legislative process and turned them into thoroughfares, took seldom-used tricks and made them common tactics. DeLay brought lobbyists into his office to write legislation, which seems rather like a surgeon allowing a scaple salesman to perform an operation. He filled conference committees with loyalists who packed bills with pork and industry pleasing amendments; in 2004, conference committees stuffed 3,407 bits of pork barrel legislation into the federal budget, while in 1994, the last previous year Democrats controlled the House, 47 projects were added. DeLay also nakedly trafficked in fundraising and political favors, like the time he offered he tried to bribe Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) to vote a certain way in exchange for a $100,000 payment to Smith’s son’s campaign committee. And if all that isn’t enough, he manipulated with US officials and colluded with clothing manufacturers to set up unregulated sweatshops in the Marianas Islands, which, being a U.S. protectorate, enjoys American trade protection but is not subject to American regulations. Workers labor there in virtual servitude.

All these things he invested with a thuggish and bullying attitude that constantly reminded observers that here was a man whose career before politics was that of a pest exterminator. But please, don’t just take my word for it. Find yourself a copy of The Hammer: Tom DeLay: God, Money, and United States Congress by Lou Dubose and Jan Reid, which was published in 2004. Dubose and Reid establish beyond doubt that DeLay was the model of the modern martinet who strove to eliminate all checks on his power. Thank goodness he finally overplayed his hand, and under the cloud of indictment, relinquished the leadership, and eventually left the House.

Watch out, Dancing with the Stars. I don’t know how you can cheat at the Paso Doble, but expect the worst.


“One gift, one time — that’s bribery. Lots of gifts over a long time — that’s politics.”

I have just learned that the above line–spoken by the eminent Roland Vanatua on page 210 of The Coup, was cited in June by Mr. E. Frank Stephenson, an economics professor at Berry College in Georgia. Writing on his blog Division of Labor, Mr. Stephenson said it was “a funny line” from “a good book” that is “a fun political satire that makes a good summertime read.” Thank you, Frank!

I have also just learned that just a few days ago, in what may or may not be a related development, the same line became The Quote of the Day on The Eastside Defender, a website based in Minneapolis that focuses on crime news. Thank you–Twins fans? Squarehead Crimebusters? Land o’ Lakers? Whatever–I’m very flattered.


brunoYou never can tell what a summer will be remembered for. The summer of 1975 got Jaws, the summer of 1916 got the Somme. One summer gets a hummable ditty from Mungo Jerry that will be played on the radio until the end of time, and another summer gets Hurricane Katrina. With about four weeks left, the summer of 2009 has its identity: it is the summer of the penis joke.

Of course, penis jokes have been around a long time and in recent years become increasingly prevalent. But this summer, with the new films Funny People, The Hangover, Bruno (above left) and who knows what else I’ve missed, and with the new HBO series Hung, about a middle-aged man who starts a career as a gigilo, penis jokes have reached a critical mass. Now comes a report that MTV is working on a series called Hard Times, a story about an unpopular 15-year-old whose anatomical gift is revealed in front of the whole school.

88019945KW013_PREMIERE_OF_PI don’t get it. I mean, I do get that all humor is inherently anti-authoritarian, that it has the effect of elevating the teller and reducing the person who is the butt of the joke. And I do get that anatomical humor does that especially effectively, since no matter if a person a pope, a president or a pasha, he or she inevitably is subject to the requirements of anatomy. And for some people, these jokes are the gold standard, the never-fail punch line that always elicits a laugh. “There are no limits to the amount of time a comedian will talk about his penis,’’ said Jud Apatow (left), the writer and director of Funny People on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, “because the jokes are endlessly funny.’’

Well, as unpromising as it may be to argue humor with the auteur behind The 40 Year Oldsarah Virgin, Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall (right), and other penis joke laden hits that have earned a bazillion dollars, let me try. Perhaps penis jokes are endlessly funny, but the problem is not that Apatow and his ilk have lots of penis jokes in their shows, it’s just that they have a lot of penises. The jokes aren’t funny. Much of the humor that is generated by invoking the penis is based on the shock or surprise of its unexpected appearance. But that wears off, and the result is not a joke but simply an intruding penis, which is not exactly funny. Lots of penis-laden phenomena ca be funny: lust, desire, anxiety, propriety, dignity, ego—all these things can be quite funny when entangled with sex. But saying that some character has a small penis is just exhibitionism. Saying it becomes a badge that says “I’m a comedian” or “This is a comedy.” There was a time that the ability to elicit laughter was the badge that identified a comedy or a comedian. Now it’s just sort of a coincidental by-product.

funny_people_d041_07-31-2009_fl1ao44rstandaloneprod_affiliate81Of course, penis jokes aren’t always unfunny. In this summer’s very funny, very profane political satire In the Loop, for example, the frequent obscenities are hilarious–creative, original, shocking, mean, and always, always indicative of character (I will never be able to hear the phrase “lubricated horse cock” without thinking of Malcolm Tucker). In Funny People, though, the penis jokes don’t really go anywhere. And it’s weird–Funny People is an interesting, intelligent, sensitive, thoughtful film about aging, mortality, ambition, and love, set among a group of people who tell lots of penis jokes–to no apparent humorous benefit. It could just as well have set in a language institute, where every once in a while the characters have to start speaking Russian just to establish their bona fides.

As anyone who has seen the documentary The Aristocrats knows, comedians happily compete to outdo one another with their coarseness. For years the competition took place in private, and by knowing that the jokes could never be told in public, amusement was generated in imagining the audience’s shock and horror. The very idea of transgression was hilarious. But now the jokes are told in public, and audiences aren’t shocked any more. And because there is no transgression, they’re not very amused. Indeed, if one can rely on the tepid box office that Funny People has so far received, audiences might in fact be bored. Of course, the danger is that Hollywood may conclude that not that it has given audiences too many penis jokes, but that they haven’t been given enough.


Image representing Gawker Media as depicted in...
Image via CrunchBase

So much of the talk about saving newspapers seems to miss the point: it’s not really important to save newspapers, but it’s really important to save news organizations. You can be a smart ass like Chris Andersen and talk about how much `news’ you get from Twitter, but for most important stuff that happens in the world, all of us get our news because some finite number of news organizations are committed to values like speed, accuracy and judgment, and pay talented and trained individuals to report on stories of significance and interest. As we all know, when people read those stories on the internet, the price they (or advertisers) pay is nowhere near enough to underwrite the cost of that talent.

One answer is that news organizations have to stop giving their product away on the internet, and lots of smart people are trying to figure out how to do that. But another is to prevent people from stealing it. There is a wonderful article in The Washington Post today by Ian Shapira, detailing how a feature he wrote for the Post was snatched by Gawker. Shapira details the hours he spent reporting and writing the article, although he does not discuss the months and years he invested in developing his talent, nor the months and years that his editors invested in learning their craft and nurturing people like Shapira. He does report that the writer from Gawker who ripped off the story spent about a half an hour doing it.

This is the sort of thing that must end, and it’s not too strong an idea to suggest that the way you end it is the same way you end (or try to end) armed robbery or Ponzi schemes or any other sort of theft: you outlaw it. Shapira reports on an effort to do just that:

“David Marburger is a First Amendment lawyer who, along with his economist brother Daniel, is stirring a minor controversy in the blogosphere with a proposal that might empower newspapers, or any news organization that spends the bulk of its budget on original reporting. They want to amend the copyright law so that it restores “unfair competition rights” — which once gave us the power to sue rivals if our stories were being pirated. That change would give news organizations rights that they could enforce in court if “parasitic” free-rider Web sites (the heavy excerpters) refused to bargain with them for a fee or a contract. Marburger said media outlets could seek an order requiring the free-rider to postpone its commercial use or even hand over some advertising revenue linked to the free-riding.”

Shapira says news organizations once had such protections, and that in 1918 the Associated Press was able to use the law against a rival wire service that had been stealing its stories. The law was abolished during the revision of the copyrightlaws in 1976 because it was that that it gave media organizations a “boundless monopoly” over the news of the day. Congress then dropped the exception. Clearly that threat no longer pertains.

For an interesting perspective on this, consider Charles Blow’s article about the music industry that appeared in The New York Times on Saturday. “According to data from the Recording Industry Association of America,” Blow writes, “since music sales peaked in 1999, the value of those sales, after adjusting for inflation, has dropped by more than half. At that rate, the industry could be decimated before Madonna’s 60th birthday. The speed at which this industry is coming undone is utterly breathtaking. First, piracy punched a big hole in it. Now music streaming — music available on demand over the Internet, free and legal — is poised to seal the deal.”

Yes, let’s recall the golden age of Napster, when it was considered cool to strike a blow against the sclerotic record companies. Yes, the internet was going to let young artists express themselves without the interference by the suits. Yes, artists were going to be able to keep more of what they earn instead of enriching their corporate masters. And yes, anybody could build an amazing music library for free just by sharing files–taking them from a pal, without paying the record company, or the artist, a cent.

Well, that’s worked out well. According to one study Blow cites, “of the 13 million songs for sale online last year, 10 million never got a single buyer and 80 percent of all revenue came from about 52,000 songs.” Meanwhile, “Apple is working with the four largest labels to seduce people into buying more digital albums.”

In other words, they’re trying to recreate the wheel. Meanwhile, fortunes were lost and stolen, jobs were lost, lives upset, and the culture impoverished, because people thought it was okay to let the record companies to get ripped off. And the same thing is happening with the news media. It’s time the freeloaders started paying. It’s time the thieves were run out of town.