“Never lie to a man with NEXIS!”
Glenn Reynolds, “Disclosure and Glass Houses” (MSNBC, Jan. 26, 2005)
“Never lie to a man with NEXIS!”
Glenn Reynolds, “Disclosure and Glass Houses” (MSNBC, Jan. 26, 2005)
Last week I linked to the snapshot of Charles Bukowski found by Colby Cosh in a used copy of the poet’s Love Is a Dog from Hell. What started out as a nifty bit of show-and-tell has now turned into an astonishing little story of Colby karma, with comic artist R. Crumb making an unexpected appearance. The photo seems to have found its way into the right hands.
Most of my e-mail regarding what I wrote about Johnny Carson’s death has turned out to be unexpectedly favorable, but I won’t burden you with it. Instead, I want to pass on a thoughtful letter from a reader who disagreed.
* * *
I’ve been a daily visitor to your delightful blog for several months now. I’ve never written to you before and I am pained to find myself one of the people commenting about your Johnny Carson post….
I am truly sorry that you got some rude e-mails in response to your thoughts on Mr. Carson’s death. I agree that it is quite unreasonable of anyone to be offended by what you wrote. However, I do think that sort of personalized outrage is a common, if illogical, response when the worth of someone or something you love is being questioned. And I think a great many people loved Johnny Carson. Or rather, they loved what they saw him do.
You wrote: “Perhaps he knew how little it means to have once been famous….If he did, then he died a wise man.” I could not agree with you more. Almost all fame is ultimately meaningless. However, I don’t think it necessarily follows that what he did to achieve his fame is equally without meaning.
I must tell you where I am coming from, so you can understand why I would care enough to write to you about this. I grew up “in the theatre.” (Hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious). My father is the artistic director of a professional theatre. My mother and sister are both working actresses. As a child I spent my summer days watching rehearsals. As a teenager and young adult I worked backstage, on stage, and finally did some directing myself….
This theatre has been in continual operation for more than 35 years. Because we take no grants and are entirely self-supporting, most of our shows are of the “crowd-pleasing,” light comic variety (though occasionally we are able to do something “daring,” just for the fun of it). We have staged more than a hundred productions. Some of them have been truly great; most of them have been entertaining. Yet there is no lasting record of any of them. As a girl, I found closing nights wonderfully, horribly poignant because I knew that I would never see that particular show again. Even if Dad did the same play a few years later, it would never be exactly the same. And each of these productions, even the finest of them, is remembered by no more than a couple of thousand people. And my parents have given their lives to this. You said that Johnny Carson was engaged in “that most ephemeral of endeavors.” With respect, I think my family has Mr. Carson beat.
It is a clich
Sorry, no postings today. I wrote a three-thousand-word piece from scratch Tuesday morning, just returned from two sets at a nightclub, and have another deadline this afternoon and a Broadway preview tonight. For the moment, I’m somewhat more than lightly toasted.
I leave you in the caring hands of Our Girl. See you Thursday. Or Friday.
“That was my favorite thing about playing England–all the girls looked like Brigitte Bardot, and all the guys looked like me.”
Paul Desmond (quoted in Marian McPartland’s Jazz World)
I awoke a bit earlier than usual this morning, booted up my iBook, started my usual pre-breakfast surf of the Web, and suddenly it hit me…I soooo don’t want any information today, except (maybe) the weather. I don’t want to know the news, don’t want to be in touch, don’t want to read anybody’s opinion of anything, don’t care about the Oscar nominations, don’t want to consider the short-term implications of the demise of the C train, don’t give a damn about what’s happening outside my front door. If I could, I’d cancel all my appointments, take the phone off the hook, ignore all incoming mail (including snail mail), skip my afternoon deadline, correct no proofs, blow off tonight’s Broadway press preview, and spend the rest of the day and night in a state of elective mutism, communing with the contents of the Teachout Museum and listening to music about which I have no plans to write.
Alas, I can’t do most of those things, or even very many of them. I have to schedule my days off well in advance, then defend them vigilantly against all comers. This isn’t one of them. What’s more, the mounting intensity of my desire to batten down the hatches suggests to me that I’m in severe need of more than just a day off. The world is too much with me, and I need to hole up and hide out for at least two consecutive days, preferably somewhere else. I can’t hear myself thinking. I need some silence.
Like I said, none of that is on the menu, not immediately. But at least I can turn off the incoming information tap all day long, and that’s my plan.
Now let’s see if I stick to it.
(P.S. Read. Ponder. Shudder.)
“Gulley’s old father in this book is taken from life and I, as a boy playing with paint in school holidays, remember very well the feelings of pity and surprise with which I looked at a gilt-framed canvas which he had brought out to show me, and propped against an apple tree among the weeds and cabbage stalks of a Normandy farm garden. I have an idea that it had just come back to him, rejected by the Academy which ten years before had been glad to hang his works. I remember my discomfort, as I realized that this man of fifty or so was appealing for sympathy from me, a boy of sixteen; that there were tears in his eyes as he begged me to look at his beautiful work (‘the best thing I ever did’) and asked me what had happened to the world which had ceased to admire such real ‘true’ art, and allowed itself to be cheated by ‘daubers”‘who could neither draw nor glaze; who dared not attempt ‘finish.’
“I was myself in 1905 a devoted Impressionist, one of the ‘daubers.’ I thought that Impressionism was the only great and true art. I thought that the poor ruined broken-hearted man weeping before me in the sunlight of that squalid vegetable patch, was a pitiable failure, whose tragedy was very easily understood–he had no eye for colour, no respect for pigment, no talent, no right whatsoever to the name of artist.
“I don’t know even now what that man’s work was worth. I suspect from recollection that in these days it would be once more highly appreciated. For several schools have intervened, and having worked through Impressionism and Post Impressionism, the Fauves and the Cubists, we can look upon the late Victorians with a fresh eye and judge them, outside the passing fashion, for what they really were.”
We were flooded with visitors on Sunday and Monday, and they didn’t come to read about high culture, either. No, they wanted to see what Our Girl and I wrote about the death of Johnny Carson. It never fails to make me smile when one of our pop-culture posts causes the hits to pour in (posting about off-Broadway shows rarely has that kind of effect!).
Here’s something else that interested me: a not-insignificant percentage of our readers were actively offended by the fact that we didn’t join in the chorus of praise for Carson. You can’t post comments on this blog, but Roger L. Simon linked to what I wrote on Sunday, and a lot of people responded with angry comments. (Go here to read them.)
So far I’ve only received two sharply critical pieces of personal e-mail, one obscene, the other temperate but unequivocal:
The point is not that there were things to critique about the Carson style. No. The thing is, Johnny Carson was not an artist nor an intellect; he was a personality, and among people above a certain age, a fairly universally beloved personality.
Shame. Might you not have waited a few days to speak ill of the dead?
In addition, other bloggers are starting to weigh in, and this posting is fairly representative of what they’re saying:
Terry Teachout, the esteemed art critic and in-house blogger for ArtsJournal.com, has a remembrance of the late Johnny Carson of note for its spectacularly negative view of the seminal comedian. It’s all the more spectacular because it’s done with the least emotional of tone.
Consider Teachout’s closer, which comes perilously close to being contemptuous, something never seen in obituaries, especially hours-old obituaries….
Now look again at what I wrote about Carson. No, it wasn’t favorable, and yes, my tone was cool. I was reacting to the floodtide of unctuous celebrity comment in which we were immersed within hours of his passing. But I didn’t call him stupid or offensive or evil–in fact, I didn’t say anything personal about him at all. My point was that his comedy was inoffensive and ephemeral, and that I suspected it wouldn’t be remembered for very long. It isn’t obvious because I didn’t mean for it to be, but in a sense I was writing about Carson’s own celebrity from a religious perspective. “Perhaps he knew how little it means to have once been famous,” I said in closing. If he did, then he died a wise man.
I can think of a lot of plausible responses to what I wrote (one of which I’ve already posted). But why on earth would anyone be offended by it? And what possible difference would it have made for me to wait a day, or even a week, to post it? Johnny Carson didn’t read what I wrote, and I can’t imagine he would have cared if he had. De mortuis nil nisi bonum has never made any sense to me whatsoever, nor is it practiced by the infinitely more robust obituarists who write for English newspapers. For them, the statute of limitations on candor expires when the death certificate is signed. I think that’s as it should be, though to be honest all along is better still. I like what Rex Stout made Nero Wolfe say in The Black Mountain when he had occasion to speak frankly about his recently murdered best friend:
I pay him the tribute of speaking of him and feeling about him precisely as I did when he lived; the insult would be to smear his corpse with the honey excreted by my fear of death.
It’s also worth pointing out that I didn’t go on Oprah and call Carson a talentless hack (which I don’t think he was). Instead, I posted what I had to say on a blog, where it’s been seen by something like ten thousand viewers so far–not an insignificant figure, but trivial by comparison to the hundreds of thousands of people who presumably tuned in to one of the various TV tributes to Carson that aired on Sunday night. Exactly how is that shameful?
The funny thing is that I’m not known for being nasty. Most of the reviews I write are favorable, mainly because I’m an enthusiast who seeks out opportunities to write about things I like. I believe that silence is the most powerful form of negative criticism, and when I do feel obliged to drop the big one, I try to be careful to drop it only on those in a position to shoot back. I go out of my way not to slam little-known actors or musicians. A dead superstar, by contrast, seems to me fair game–yet it’s been quite a while since anything I wrote provoked such furious responses.
So what’s all the fuss about? I’m not altogether sure, but I’m not even slightly surprised, because I’ve been stirring up similar fusses all my life. I got my start as a critic in Kansas City, which is about as close to the center of the midwest as you can get, and I noticed early on that a great many readers of the Kansas City Star were actively averse to the frank expression of unfavorable opinion–any unfavorable opinion, however mild. These chronically agreeable people clearly agreed with Thumper’s mother in Bambi, who said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” Not surprisingly, they thought me rude, but more than that, they seemed to take what I wrote personally. It was as if they felt threatened by the mere existence of someone who disagreed with them.
This attitude puzzled me, and does to this day. I wish I could plumb it more deeply, but I can’t, possibly because I don’t share it. I don’t care what other critics think unless I know their work well and respect it, and even then I’m not threatened by their disagreement. Sometimes it may cause me to rethink my own opinion–there are a few critics with whom I don’t differ lightly–but what’s wrong with that? I don’t mind changing my mind. I’d rather be right than consistent.
Which brings us back to the late Johnny Carson. To those readers who didn’t like what I wrote about him, I say: what’s it to you? Why do you care? I’m just a guy with a blog. If you don’t like it, start one of your own. That’s the wonderful thing about the blogosphere–it puts all its participants on a potentially equal footing, something that was never true of the mainstream media. By all means feel free to get into the game. But let me give you fair warning: blogging isn’t for the thin-skinned. If you were offended by what I wrote about Carson, wait till you start opening your e-mail.
Here’s something I posted last year:
These three words, when used in the same paragraph, automatically turn my ears off:
I’ll stand by that.