Jeff Spevak, Writer

Welcome to a Chronicle of Culture.

Category: Media Page 3 of 12

America’s hideous laugh track

No television situation comedy is complete without the laugh track. That eruption of pre-recorded howls of approval that instruct the audience – even if that audience is an audience of one sitting at home in front of the television – how to react to what it has just seen.

Now we’ve seen how a bad joke works when there is no laugh track, after Roseanne Barr tweeted this inexplicable attack on Valarie Jarrett, the former aide to Barack Obama:

Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj

So for one news cycle, maybe two, a racist, xenophobic, conspiracy-consumed comedian nudges aside our racist, bigoted, megalomaniac president. A man whose glide path is eased by a different, but equally insidious, laugh track.

We’ve been watching the normalization of Trump for a couple of years now. First during his presidential campaign, and now through the 15 months of his presidency. From the outset, we knew what Trump was: A liar, a con man and a coward with no ethics. Yet in America, a country divided, there is a built-in audience for his Make America Great Again charade. A minority that struts like a majority, because it has a stamp of approval from the White House.

Roseanne Barr is done, her show cancelled. Her apologies are hollow. Last night, her barrage of tweets included retweets of Jarrett pictured side by side with an ape. Now the question being asked is: Given her history of irresponsible public comments, how did ABC even give Barr a public platform? An entertainment soapbox that quickly became the network’s top-rated show, one that even drew the praise of Trump, who said at one of his conservative-packed rallies that Roseanne was “about us.”

As always, Trump was lying. The “us” he was talking about is the blue-collar family portrayed in Roseanne. The “us” he was talking to is the blue-collar crowd that helped, along with the Russians, to get him elected. But Trump is not blue collar. He is a born-rich man with a dangerously overblown sense of entitlement, driven by impulses that can only be described as greed and immaturity.

For a couple of years now, at least, we’ve watched as the media gave Trump the benefit of what should have been obvious doubt. We kept hearing references to perhaps this Trump comment or that Trump photo op was a “pivot” to a more-presidential Trump. I experienced that myself in the outfit that once employed me, as stories and quotes from musicians and artists criticizing Trump were killed. One lower-level editor explained it to me: Those stories and quotes were killed because a higher-up editor “didn’t want to have that conversation.”

It is clear now, there will be no pivot. We are stuck with what we knew we were getting all along. Language and thoughts that had been hidden are now openly expressed. It is the new, shameful norm, endorsed by Trump.

And like it or not, now we’re forced to have that conversation.

Read that Roseanne Barr tweet once again:

Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj

Realizing that her career was in jeopardy, Barr apologized for her “bad joke.”

But in the wide world of comedy writing, where is the joke in that tweet?

Barr was expecting to hear the canned laughter. But now, at least by a majority of Americans who can distinguish right from wrong, she will be greeted by silence.

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Who the hell is Prince Harry?

The happy couple. Of the moment.

As the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle closes in on us, like a train moving so slowly that you can smell the mustard stains on the engineer’s overalls, it’s a pointless exercise to jump on the overloaded “Who Gives a Shit?” caboose. Not one of my friends seems to care. I haven’t had any Royal Marriage conversations with anyone, not even small talk with strangers encountered in an elevator.

So why is it dominating the news?

I’m told it’s because an heir to the British throne has once again chosen to marry what is commonly referred to in England as “a commoner.” But not a mere commoner. As I read in one news report, Markle is a “major celebrity.” With the added spice of she’s divorced. And of mixed race. And there was apparently some sort of family drama as to whether her father was going to England for the wedding.

At the hotel where I’m staying this morning, I picked up a free copy of the USA Today pamphlet, which is now so small that it’s delivered in bundles strapped to the backs of mice. As usual, it is divided into News and Self-Inflating Opinion, Money, Sports and Lifestyle. Four conveniently apportioned sections: In the editor’s world, there are never more natural disasters and wars to be reported on than there are movies to be reviewed.

All four sections had one or more stories on the Royal Wedding.

Yes, even Sports.

War and crime are always in good supply. So in order to achieve the correct balance in news content, editors are in perpetual need of fresh celebrities. Markle is a “major celebrity” because – and I had to Google this – she is “a humanitarian activist and former American actress.”

Those probably aren’t Markle’s words, so I’m not blaming her. I just want to point out that I have many friends who are humanitarian activists. They donate money to important causes, they volunteer at Planned Parenthood or organizations that work with immigrants, they build churches in Haiti. I don’t think any of these friends has ever introduced themselves as a humanitarian activist. Humanitarian activist isn’t a job title, like architect. It’s something you do. My friends are regular people doing the right thing on a world of hurt.

A “major celebrity?” If Markle has a sense of humor, and a proper level of self deprecation, perhaps she herself laughs at that description. I see she was in a television series called Suits, and the films Remember Me and Horrible Bosses. Like most Americans, I’ve never seen them. No matter how popular your TV show may be, no matter how many theaters may be playing your film, most Americans have not seen your work.

So what, then, is a “major celebrity?” LeBron James is a major celebrity. Serena Williams is a major celebrity. Stormy Daniels is a major celebrity. Longevity, success and circumstances make you a major celebrity. Who are Sutton Foster, Jameela Jamil, Ryan Reynolds, Chris Pratt, Justin Hartley, Channing Tatum, Seann William Scott and Zach Woods? Breeze passing through the internet. I wouldn’t know any of them if they were sitting next to me at the Oscars. But according to the news web site I’m looking at right now, they’re all newsworthy actors, each apparently a major celebrity since they all have résumés equal to, or greater than, Meghan Markle.

If you’re fascinated by the fact that Markle is divorced, you’re unaware that half of all marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. If you’re surprised that Markle is of mixed-race parentage, you haven’t seen any breakfast cereal commercials. And if you’re breathless over which dysfunctional family member may not show up at the Royal Wedding, then your own family is absurdly well grounded.

These major celebrities didn’t invent a life-saving heart procedure or kill a baby seal. They’re media-generated content whose job is to fill a vacuum detected by the gatekeepers who were caught without a press release from the Kardashians’ publicist that day.

Our world perspective is a cracked lens. Prince Harry is a major celebrity. The media has made him so. But he is not a major world figure. I had to look this up: As heir to the British throne, he is fourth in line. Behind a 4-year-old kid.

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Stalin’s dead, but the weekend was alive

That’s Stalin on the rug.

Spiritual isn’t a word to be taken lightly. It’s reaching a pretty high level of human consciousness. Yet there I was at Lovin’ Cup Bistro and Brews Saturday night for Connie Deming’s show, backed by Phil Marshall on guitar, with Scott Regan opening. This was a deeply moving event. And yeah, spiritual.

Regan is generally identified as the weekday morning host Open Tunings on WRUR-FM (88.5), but he needs more recognition as a songwriter. He knows a great song needn’t be simple, it can go two places at once. So he sang one about trading baseball cards. Indians and Braves, exchanged without a thought to their homeland, accompanied by a high, lonesome-wind chant by Regan. Regan’s not a classic voice, but he’s evocative in a Willie Nelson way; earnest, like an armadillo scratching through the desert sand, looking for grubs.

Marshall backed him for a song, then Regan played solo, then Marshall returned with Deming. Deming is no desert mammal. Her voice soars, it goes wherever the story takes it. She draws inspiration from many places. Often her autistic son. Or from what she detected her listeners needed when she was playing group homes for the autistic and the elderly. And when she covers an old standard, like “Stardust” – at Marshall’s urging – it takes you to a place that is both long ago and timeless.

Marshall plays those standards for people in hospice. He’ll play whatever the dying want to hear, whether it’s Hoagy Carmichael or The Beatles. In a decision made just that morning, Deming asked Marshall to play a half-hour set, right in the middle of her own set. So we heard songs Marshall had written, inspired by his work in hospice. And he told stories about his work. Some of these stories were touching, some were funny, but never at the expense of the dying. Marshall is always the foil, because he’s learning something from these people.

After the show, Marshall told me he has been reluctant to play these songs and tell these stories for audiences. He’d even joked between songs about how uplifting it would be to play “Grief Walks In” in a bar on a Saturday night. He felt it might be exploitative. But no, it’s explanatory. It’s sharing something that we’ll all experience, if we haven’t already at the bedside of a friend or relative.

This show wasn’t tightly scripted. They made it up as the evening went on, the songs found their proper places. It was the kind of organic, nocturnal animal that might not appear again.

There was more. Early Sunday afternoon, The Death of Stalin was playing at The Little Theatre. A film that should win the Academy Award for Best Picture, but that’ll never happen. This tale of the Soviet Union in the days following the death of Stalin – he falls ill in a pool of his own urine, which I suppose is better than dying in someone else’s urine – is too insane for serious awards. Comedy crashes headlong into tragedy as we see fearful Soviet authorities comically scrambling to kiss ass and save their souls while in the background people are being strong-armed into basement rooms, where they are executed. This is hilarious! Why are we laughing, someone else is being shot in the head! The performances are brilliant, at times the movements of these Soviet leaders look as though they were choreographed by The Three Stooges. You know Steve Buscemi as the googly-eyed, bandy-limbed stringbean with the look of a guy who thinks a safe is about to fall on his head. But with the aid of a little padding and some loose suits, yes, he becomes a very convincing Nikita Khruschev.

So the movie’s over, and we spill out into The Little Café, where there’s a reception for this month’s gallery show, Off the Page: Creative Responses to Writing. It’s an unusual show, created by 10 women from a book club who have interpreted favorite books through various art mediums. I’d brought a couple of novels – Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky and John Fante’s Ask the Dusk – to loan to My Friend Tony, who is recovering from back surgery. Sitting at his table, in the midst of people I know, I eavesdropped on strangers’ conversations about art and food and cars and listened to Steve Piper playing guitar and singing over and around the roar of the crowd. Thinking: Why isn’t every weekend like this?

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