Monday, January 18, 2010

Happy Martin Luther King Day: Fuck You, Leno

The old maxim that you can judge a man's character by the company he keeps seemed to specifically bite Jay Leno in the ass over the last couple weeks. Semi-retired comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser spoke up in his defense, prompting some clever people to observe on Twitter that if they were overpaid comics who stopped being funny decades ago, they'd stick up for Leno, too.

Allowing Leno's friends to cast an instructive light on the man himself seemed fair when Reiser wrote a disingenuous op-ed piece for The Huffington Post called, "A Teachable Leno moment." With at least one of them declaring his personal knowledge of him to be a legitimate yardstick, analogy was let loose. Others doubtless crafted more generous comparisons, but to me Paul Reiser apologizing for Leno was a lot like Rudolf Hess parachuting into Scotland to try to explain that Hitler guy.

Reiser's one of those comics like Leno who a few people insist was absolutely brilliant but whose brilliance remains a mystery (or one of those remotely plausible facts) to just about everyone. You can find proof of it if you go looking, but most people aren't going to go looking since the evidence they have on hand doesn't make the effort seem worth it. Reiser abandoned his comic role early and often, beginning with Barry Levinson's Diner and reaching its apotheosis in the TV series Mad About You. Along the way he played supporting roles in several movies, including Aliens, in which his weaselly corporate whore character Burke was confronted and probably later impregnated by aliens to use his body as a generative husk for something more profitable to them. Retrospectively this role seems career-defining.

He also starred in the memorable sitcom My Two Dads, a show best known for having a couch shaped like a car and the preposterous premise that two single dudes would much rather live together and share the burden of raising a daughter that may not be related to them at all. I imagine the show was meant to appeal to adults as well, but it displayed a baffling shittiness even to pre-teens who even then had only things like ABC's "TGIF" lineup to compare to it. In any case, let it not be said that Paul Reiser was unwilling to sell out to profitable and unfunny early and often.

Mad About You, of course, ran for a stunning seven seasons — stunning in that retrospectively it seems like it was only on for one or two and only had three episodes anyway:
1. The one where parents/friends were inconvenient.
2. The one where wanting for nothing and being childless and successful in the most dynamic city in the world produced irritation and malaise for no reason.
3. The one where they had the baby.
It was Seinfeld without insight or laughs, and somehow, Nebbishy Jewish Guy and Unlipped Bird-Woman Find Displeasure in Overwhelming Prosperity won shitloads of Emmy Awards and was considered a high-mark of cleverness. Yet stop and ask yourself this: if you walked into a stranger's home and saw that they had every season of this show on DVD, is there any reason you wouldn't immediately think that maybe you should leave their house before they tried to get you to eat or drink something they made?

The actual text of Reiser's defense of Leno is fairly risible. First of all, he couches the entire thing as a teachable moment, as if everyone were missing an elemental lesson critical to the issue, like we somehow missed that Leno was a company man who did his work for a long time. Based on what he has to impart, he could rip out teachable moments like this every day, e.g.:
Teachable Stove Moment

PAUL: (to Son) Don't put your hand on a lit stove.
SON: Why?

Son puts hand on stove.

SON: OW! It's hot!
PAUL: The stove is hot.

- FIN -
The inclusion of the son warrants mentioning. Reiser made a lot of money selling books named Couplehood and Babyhood in which he made really obvious points about how marriage and parenthood are hard and then wrote jokes about them that were comfortingly familiar to everyone. And while it's true that he may just be polishing off an old formula of glossing the folksily self-evident with tepid humor that the whole family can agree on, it's also plain that some of the subtext here is, "Look, a child can understand what a great guy Jay Leno is. That's how obviously great and guy-ish Jay Leno is. This is, like, Duplo-level thought construction here."

It's a little cynical of him for a few reasons. First of all, Leno's great-guyness isn't self-evident on anyone's level, because obviously there wouldn't be people with Harvard degrees like Conan O'Brien repeatedly making the point that Leno is not a really awesome guy. There wouldn't be legions of comics castigating him. Reducing the debate to this level gives the pro-Leno argument a homespun patina of patient parents showing rebellious tots their errors.

Second of all, it's really difficult to argue against this tactic without seeming like you're going overboard. Like, "Look at all these words you're using to address something Reiser could explain to his kid in just a few hundred. Looks like you're really getting worked up about it and irrational, like some teenager without self-control." But of course, he only needed that many words because his point was idiotic. The classic internet defense of a small argument against a large counter-argument is that the latter must be going overboard, even if it's doing so by putting stupid shit like "facts" into things.

Third, any attempt to really attack his teachable moment makes it sound like you're going after his kid. By his addressing his kid, at some point you sound like you might be as well. Thus tearing the story apart and addressing its audience unavoidably resembles, "You, kid, you're a fucking retard. Your kid is a retard, Paul, because he's your kid, and you tell him these things." It isn't very winning. Naturally, this is exactly why people make arguments through their kids. No one looks good pointing out how stupid the kid's going to turn out if he keeps swallowing dad's crap.

The necessary observation here is, "You're not addressing what Reiser said," and that's true. I'm not. Because there's nothing to address. His entire point is, "Son, Jay Leno works hard. We should respect people who do hard work." Pity then that Reiser hasn't singled out for commendation the millions of Americans who also do hard work — not to mention the many millions of them who, like his friend, phoned in their jobs as soon as they hit the desired salary window. Pity, too, that he didn't single out those who achieve success and keep trying to do better, although on this front we can understand his reticence, as he's not trying to ridicule Leno.

So this is the caliber of person coming out of the woodwork in defense of Leno, someone with a track-record of middlebrow sellout work, mounting a quasi-emotional defense through entertainment's lowest-common-denominator: precocious children. (Harping on Seinfeld himself seems unnecessary. Anyone watching what he's done since — Bee Movie? really? — and watching Curb Your Enthusiasm has long since realized that Larry David was Seinfeld, every bit of it. Seinfeld, the main character, was just the "whaaaaat is the deeeaaaal with airline fooooood?" guy.)

Apart from the people responsible for giving Leno shows on TV, these are the people coming to his defense: two comics who have all the column space in the world to say whatever they want, yet in the middle of their defenses never think to make a single joke. One, they probably don't remember how, mesmerized by the weekly march to the bank to cash in those residuals. Two, they're pretty much pickers of low-hanging fruit at this point, and all the low-hanging fruit is easier to pick if you're not on Leno's side. Why else would they omit mentioning that a guy most famous in his private life for spending all his spare money on vintage engines is most famous in his working life for coasting for nearly 20 years?

That being said, if it's true that the quality of one's friends speaks to one's character, then the old adage about the quality of one's enemies deserves equal time. And in this regard, Generation Z or The Internet Generation or Whatever They're Called now seems like it's trying to crusade itself into irrelevancy. These are the same people who managed to elect Obama via Twitter and Facebook and seem to think they saved lives in Iran, yet they've routinely been getting schooled in town halls across America by obese Wal-Mart drones who normally can't be levered out of the ass-divot on a couch. This is supposedly the most jacked-in dynamic generation in history, and they got steamrolled over healthcare by the same lardasses who needed it most.

Now, just as one of the severest natural disasters in history threatens to make an entire nation ooze backward into the sea along collapsing piles of corpses, they're already better organized than they were over healthcare for the purpose of showing that THEY'RE WITH COCO. And yeah, sure, supposedly there are going to be Red Cross tents at their nationwide protests about a late-night TV show, but Jesus Christ, that's a small apology.

Look, I love Conan O'Brien. He's joked in the past that he'll wind up in a nursing home, and the nurses will just ignore his late-night record and instead say to him, "You know, I loved the Monorail episode," and I imagine I will rot away in a much poorer and fouler home, still saying things to myself like, "I shouldn't have stopped for that haircut," and, "There ain't no monorail and there never were!" I will become the irritating old person O'Brien and I despised. I might live in some St. Elsewhere autist's universe of my own creation, a litany of plausibly interrelating Simpsons quotes, rocking back and forth, convinced that whatever new electronic device near my bedside is just a waffle iron with a phone attached.

And, look, I realize that most young Americans can't pick up and fly to Haiti. They can't do anything for that nation outside their homes that is any more effective than what they can do inside them. Still, it's impossible not to question their priorities. Bear in mind that just a week ago, most of them were updating their Facebook statuses with various colors, in a nebulous gesture to promote breast cancer awareness.

Supposedly, someone sent an email or Facebook PM that said that each woman's Facebook status update describing the bra she was wearing (without mentioning that it explicitly described a bra) would net a one-dollar donation from Microsoft to breast cancer research. Now, nevermind that this email/PM was implausible on the face of it; most women never even saw it. Instead, what happened is that millions of young women believed that they could promote awareness of a disease through mysterious updates about fabrics and colors — like engaging in an unannounced, unconfirmed and inscrutable adjective-related campaign wherein people just posted DESCRIPTIVE WORDS without explanation or accountability was going to cure fucking cancer. The only thing that could have redeemed it is if it had been a giant prank a dude made up to find out what kind of bras sheathed his closest girl friends' boobies, because otherwise we have to accept that lots of people we know hopped on some charity bandwagon that sure as shit had no plan to DO anything or any discernible means of doing whatever anyone thought it hoped to accomplish.

This is all you need to know about modern activism: press button on soullessly self-involved personal media tool, make change, hope it's even real. Even as regards Haiti, it isn't. Donations increase massively as you increase the convenience of them — just text XXXXX to whatever and feel good, then update your Twitter about your generosity — but God help you if you actually looked into whether punching a bunch of numerals meant a tenth of a fuck to someone dying. Wyclef Jean's Haiti-related foundation is a nightmare of income-tax evasion. Other groups piss away over 50% of donations on overhead, meaning that more than five of your ten bucks went to the next advertisement asking for ten bucks. In other cases, the texted funds won't be released for 90 days. Small consolation to people with no running water lying down each night on the pillow of a ballooning corpse's belly.

Even if the complaint dangerously approaches an old-person whine about the lack of initiative of the young, how can anyone not wonder about a relief approach manned and executed by phone typepad and the instant-gratification ennoblement of "giving" when there's a fucking rally for a talk-show host about to go down? Again, it's unreasonable to expect that these people would be on the next charter out to Port-au-Prince, but the spectacle of yet more American internet slobs with no cultural relation to Guy Fawkes nevertheless putting on a mask they know from the V for Vendetta graphic novel and marching around yelling "ANONYMOUS DOES NOT FORGIVE" on behalf of "Coco" should make just about anyone barf.

Just put it into simple words. Irrespective of what else they can do, they're still going to hold a rally so that one millionaire doesn't get overshadowed by another millionaire. They might as well hold a Goldman Sachs rally to fuck over those jerks at Salomon Brothers. This is the best the most connected and instantly informed generation can think to do with their Monday. You know, Martin Luther King Day.

Ultimately, this day should celebrate the struggle of blacks in America to achieve equal rights, a day that catalyzes discussion of civil rights for any people still legally marginalized by unfair prejudice. Beyond that, we could look internationally to the crisis in Haiti and to what domestic representatives say about our obligations to those still barely surviving.

But if we must talk about someone like Jay Leno, then Paul Reiser is still a poor advocate with little self-awareness and a desperately challenged credibility. Unfortunately, every charge you could level at him, every charge you could level at Leno, every charge you could level at NBC requires some reciprocal discussion of a lack of perspective and a nullifying self-interest that hermetically refuses to entertain outside factors, let alone discussion of them.

People will dress themselves in orange and protest this in Burbank today, and no matter how many charity tents surround them, it still won't make their act any less crassly narrow and meaningless.

I'm with Coco.