Monday, May 18, 2015

My Letter to Dave

Dear Dave,

You always portrayed an outsider, looking at your guests askance.  The audience related to you as you warily eyed your eccentric guests…sneering and jousting….and as you recognized the “good guys”--the honest to goodness heroes of Our Great Land.  And you captivated the growing masses of cynical viewers who were growing weary of how the revolutionary media environment of the seventies was already lapsing into the Reagan era of contrived family pablum.  And as a young audience member with a voracious appetite for all things Hollywood, you spoke to me.

My first encounter with you was when you were a cast member on Mary Tyler Moore’s failed ensemble variety show.  Co-castmember Michael Keaton recently regaled the youngsters with the clip of you--the gangly weatherman--uncompfortably doing dance routines. You hated it.  You seemed to me the “grouchy” character--the outsider looking in.  Even then.  After a character part on “Mork and Mindy” (which I somehow missed at the time, sorry) and many appearances on Carson, NBC gave you that hour slot after the Today Show replacing “Sanford and Son” reruns. Since it premiered during the summer before my senior year I was able to partake.

In the summer of ’80, SNL lost the last of it’s original Not Ready for Prime Time Players, remember?..mostly to movie and Broadway careers.  Lorne Michaels left the show as it was ready to embark on it’s ill-fated 1980 season with all new castmembers (including the only breakout:  Eddie Murphy!).  ABC’s drug-fueled SNL clone called “Fridays” was now the king of late night subversion, but only for limited audiences leading to a short run.  The Canadian SCTV troop was making inroads through syndication.  Variety was dead and the sitcoms were returning to Mayberry with “Alice,” “Flo,” and “Dukes of Hazzard” topping Prime Time.  So your morning show, Dave,  was a welcome but ill-scheduled surprise.  If youngsters youtube some clips from this program, they will see some of the most daring and shocking comedy of the time--and it aired between news and game shows!  How do you feel about that, Dave? The “feel” of that show was so off-putting at the time, hazy--sort of druggy-- out of place, weird, almost like a public access show spoofed to death in years to come….but you were Dave, Dave.  Thanks for leaving some clips up, I know it must be hard on you.  I do wish I had convinced one of my school buddies to let me have his Jimmie Walker comedy 8-track--only I knew that you were his head writer on that!

So flash-forward to my freshman year in college.  When I think of my little wood-toned Sony color TV, I remember the resurgence of NBC which had struggled with mediocre programming during Fred Silverman’s “Big Event” experiments.  Gary Coleman provided the only ratings.  You remember…you were guest hosting Tonight in these years.  I luxuriated among the new classics:  “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere,” “SCTV Network” (replacing SNL as appointment viewing), the new sitcom “Cheers” ready for takeoff.  As I adjusted to life in a dorm--away from Mom and Dad--I found a new home, a new family with you and your crew nightly starting February 1, 1982.

“Late Night with David Letterman” was basically the morning show with more edge and the repressed sardonic wit was allowed to flourish.  A complete antidote to “The Tonight Show”s establishment feel.  Carson was still the only game in town on the networks.  Merv, Mike Douglas and Dinah were syndicated in the seventies.  Phil Donohue was emerging to take the daytime talk format into the wastelands of dysfunction and crudity.    Watching “Late Night” on my little Sony in Elliott Hall is such a loaded memory I can’t help but co-mingle your popular coming-out with my own stunted growth.

When Bill Murray, fresh off of “Stripes” emerged as your first guest that night, one could tell you had fans from inside the Hollywood establishment, a begrudging acknowledgement I’m sure.  With SNL out of commission until Lorne returned in ’85, you were the only game in town when one was looking for irreverence.   Somehow you could do a “Velcro suit” gag--stupid as it sounds--but couched in your wink wink nod nod sensibility, it seemed “cool.”  And this was the genius of Stupid Pet Tricks and Larry “Bud” Melman and Monkeycam: you elevated inane schtick into a pseudo-hip phenomenon. 

Dave, one of the aspects of your early years that I found completely enthralling was actually borrowed.  Sorry.   But your humility always allowed for a deference to past groundbreakers and I’m sure you’d agree.  When you would have a camera on the street and comment on the people walking by, you were --in a sideways manner--paying tribute to the great Steve Allen’s observational comedy from the fifties and sixties.  Your visual gags could evoke Ernie Kovaks.  This is why some refer to you as a Great Broadcaster.  Hell, Johnny never went outside the studio, did he? You used the medium of television in a way that had been forgotten.  As you did the drive-through window bits in the 90’s, your show  was referencing your own earlier schtick.  I will never forget the banter during a studio walk-through you did with Willard Scott (also a  great broadcaster) which had me in stitches.  During those years, Dave-watchers (is that OK?)  were the only Texans introduced to  these quirky and gritty urban legends: Hunter S. Thompson, Brother Theodore, Fran Leibowitz, Harvey Pekar, Howard Stern.  Crazy stunts by Crispin Glover and Andy Kaufman were rarely questioned in their authenticity--before the staged “trending” culture we have now.  As a matter of fact, Dave, you provided more Youtube moments before Youtube than anyone at the time.

MTV was taking off in the early 80’s…and “Cool” was becoming “Unhip.”  By commenting on the ridiculousness of pop culture (while actually contributing to it) you became the antithesis of market-driven entertainment.  That is the Dave I have missed during the CBS years.

The late eighties were a blur to me.  With all the changes that come with career choices and newfound freedoms--apartment living, new friends, horrifying possibilities and the inherent escapes--I don’t know how I had time to watch your show.  Somehow I fit you  in.  As Clooney told you the other night, you just become part of one’s night.  With the VCR, I taped you and watched you the next day….the best of all worlds!

As a matter of fact, your sensibilities became so intertwined with mine, I copied your act on a public access talent-variety show.  I borrowed your sardonic humor and even had my own Paul Schaffer who used sound effect and music cues of my own selection in the same way you used yours.  What makes it all the more bizarre, was that  I was one of the few English-speakers on a show that catered to an Hispanic audience.  Actually, you would have loved it, Dave. Much as you wore your natty suit with sneakers and a bad haircut, I sadly did the same.  I still had hair then, Dave.  So with my geeky appearance…sort of button-down, my vast knowledge of vintage television, my off-putting sense of humor and my complete sense of estrangement from any particular group--especially the group I was in front of, I became you in San Antonio. 

As television became an increasingly smaller part of my life--with work and theater taking over--,my devotion to you fell by the wayside.  By the time your  transition to CBS occurred--with all the accompanying controversy and hoopla, rememer?--I was following with scant attention.  But I did watch enough to generate some memories of your first years on CBS.  (Sometimes I confuse memories of those early CBS years with your NBC years--such as the Manky Patinkin/Tony Randall skits).  And when did you stop those brilliant “interviews” with Charles Grodin?  Do you guys still talk?

I’m sorry I lost touch with you, Dave.  Mostly after you moved to CBS.  What with more theater, more work, commitments, relationships…my television compadres were limited to prime time must see comedians like Seinfeld, Reiser, and “Frasier” on your old network.  I’d visit occasionally.  And I was one of your few defenders when you hosted the Oscars! (What was all the bitching about?)  By now, even SNL found it’s footing thanks to Hartman, Hooks  Actually, you had a hand in giving showcases to so many of the newer talent gracing Lorne’s stage--Sandler, McDonald, Farley and the rest of the young SNL Rat Pack.  Now, Dave, the guys coming up in the world also came up in your world…like I did.  You are now becoming a Kingmaker.  Much like the newly retired Carson was.

Well, Dave, upheavals in my life….huge events good and bad, major losses, great wins….led to a move to Austin to become a filmmaker.  By now, my time was filmed with, well, film.  Regular TV viewing was limited to a few programs throughout my self-prescribed cinema master class. 

So I wasn’t there for you during your heart surgery.  I hadn’t started contemplating my own mortality yet.  You were as old then as I am now.  Wow. 

And, Dave, I wasn’t with you when “comedy” changed after that fateful day in 2001.  When you and Tina Fey--the queen of SNL--and Leno and all the rest decided it was best to “keep America laughing” and “celebrate our heroes.”  It was sincere, Dave, and I share your anguish over world events….but it did kill comedy.  The edge was gone as politicians now used you and other comedy shows for stump speeches.  Jon Stewart was ushering in the news as a comedy show to reach those young people….like you reached my generation…to use comedy as a sharp beacon of the truth rather than skirt the painful realities.  But, Dave, I quit you around this time.  Your guests were deferential to you and afraid to rile you.  The audience applauded at every line you provided, funny or not.  The Top Ten list had a corporate sponsor.  You allowed politicians on your show to promote their agendas.  Movie stars became your admirers and a mutual appreciation society was formed.  But you still kept to yourself.  As a matter of fact, you may have become more insular than ever.  You were now an institution.  And I could barely watch.

You just became part of the news cycle with your scandals now.  I always admired how you stayed out of the limelight, but now….Hey, I had lost my edge by this time as well.  My performing was relegated to short student film appearances, character actor stuff. 

So, Dave, a year after I turn fifty I see you retiring in your late sixties.  And you aged.  Not in a bad way, but I think “Where did those years go?”  As I watch the parade of VIPs…Presidents and Movie stars…I feel I missed your party.  I wasn’t there, Dave.  Sorry.  I missed your boat and mine.  So I watch with a wistful regret.  My eyes tear up when I see those comics (who I remember starting) pay loving tributes to what you did for their careers.  I nod my head in agreement when celebrities recount their first visits on your NBC couch.  As I watch you, nearing retirement, I sense a retirement of my own. 

I hate to admit it, because you probably could care less, but you were a huge influence on my life.  Whether it was corny local TV, theater performances, drunk party bits, young salesman ice-breakers…..coping….coping with a “world I never made” (Howard the Duck, you know the reference, Dave?)  Appreciating those that blazed the trail before us, recognizing those that stand out beyond the grand morass of digital entertainment, calling out the frauds and the fakes….your tastes and my tastes were the same.  I realize that now. 

You said in your new Rolling Stone interview that you were “motivated by fear and guilt.”  Dave, I feel the same way.  Your neuroses and mine are probably extremely similar.  Although I have never shied from the limelight--if I had ever been in your position, who knows?--I too am an outsider, an observer, ready to comment, condemn or congratulate.  But in my way, I’ve dangerously flirted with movie goddesses; supported dreams of others--opened up avenues for burgeoning talent; kept open that window to the past-- to nurture and inspire rather than to escape. But where we are different, Dave, is whether or not you want it--you are a superstar.  It’s uncomfortable watching you be a hesitant rock star….probably because you and I were the same--once.  And part of me wishes I could partake in your success rather than be sitting here writing this thing no one will read.

  Doesn’t it belong to both of us?  I felt your pain, to quote one of your favorite leaders.

Dammit, Dave I was told in high school that I would be the next Johnny Carson.  When I met Jay Leno in a Hollywood bookstore, he signed his copy of “Headlines” to “my replacement.”  I wanted to listen to all those stories….I’ve always been a great listener.  I’ve wanted to be a “great host”!  My life has been a talk show.  And for thirty-three years, you were the producer.

For that, I thank you, Dave.  And thanks for the memories.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Memories...A little more than a corner of my mind

I’m giving myself less than an hour and a beer to write this note on nostalgia.  Every once in a while I go  through our family storage unit.  I love that.  I was told once that we hoard old shit (clippings etc) because we are afraid to lose the memories.  Well, that’s fine…I don’t want to lose the memories.  My memories give me strength, my memories are what build my character, my memories guide me when I need to remember WHO I was and WHAT I did; my memories remind me of who loved me and when; my memories balance out any unhealthy and wrongheaded assumptions time may gift me with. 

I have many trunks in that storage unit.

1.  The big trunk has all my childhood stuff:  souvenir programs, maps, old postcards I collected, items from my four years at Friday Mountain Boys Camp near Austin (used targets, woodcrafts), cartoons I drew and sent to cartoon studios, toys I won through the back of cereal boxes, McDonald’s chatchkis (yes, have no idea the joy of each and every “opening” in those days), my dad’s souvenirs from his days in various organizations…usually gags and plaques, photos and photos and photos I memorized over the years of my treasured visits with family:  Aunt Fan and her extended clan in Austin; Uncle Bob and family in Waco, Uncle Jim and his family in Ponca City.  Items of note from myriad trips to Port Aransas, Nuevo Laredo, Junction (one of my grandmothers) and our myriad Grand Canyon/Las Vegas trips.  Plus all my report cards and accolades (yes, there were those) from two years at Lanark Daycare Center, two years at a private Catholic school, St Thomas More (I was the only non-Catholic in the entire school save Mrs. Wolf), one year at the military academ San Antonio Academy. and then the lake years:  McQueeney Elementary, AJB middle school (Seguin).  Plus lots of school clippings of my fun years in drama and speech activities at Seguin High School.  There is a subsection of stuff from my four years at Southwest Texas State University mostly including materials related to my activities in Alpha Kappa Psi, a co-ed business fraternity.  And lots of “love” letters from unrequited loves over the years:  Farrah-maned cheerleaders (I wish), South African transfer students (a long-distrance treat), and cute sales clerks from my first job at Montgomery Ward at Windsor Park Mall.  My first autographs are in there:  Iron Eyes Cody, Myron Floren, Forrest Tucker and the cast of Johnny Be Good (my first film…pizza boy number two…number one was John Hawkes himself!)

2.  The next trunk has all the comic books I bought from the late 1960’s through the early 80’s.  I cannot describe the joy of walking into those convenience stores and picking a comic….or going to a flea market and finding an older one for CENTS I tell you.  I have since bought the same comics online for twenty dollars each or more.  And reading them at taverns while Dad knocked back a few.  In retrospect, that was pretty damn cool.  At first I got Gold Key and Charlton, some Dell…..TV and cartoon tie-ins were huge.  I spent most of my time in front of a TV…mostly Saturday morning cartoons.  In the seventies, it was a wonderful time for TV….the best sitcoms (I watched most of them); the most LSD inspired kids shows (Krofftt: Sesame Street started on my watch), action and Sci-Fi unparalleled (Charlie’s Angels and Six Million Dollar Man); variety and game shows which were basically cocktail parties; and the reruns consisted of the best from the “innocent” 60’s--in living color (Star Trek, Wild Wild West, Brady Bunch, Hooterville and Mayberry).   Back to comics: later I started getting DC, Marvel, Harvey and Archie titles….especially weirder ones like Plop (DC) and Mad House (Archie).  And flea markets provided a treasure trove of Dells which I had no idea existed outside of my 1976 overstreet.  I have every comic I bought in this trunk and they smell great.  I have all of the Hanna Barbera comics catalogued and organized in bags, boards and boxes.

21/2:  This is a heaven for cartoon Hanna Barbera, records, Viewmasters, dolls, coloring books, Golden books, Big Little Books, Kenner Give-A-Show projector slides, frame tray puzzles, models.....everything Hanna  Barbera.  I have no idea why I kept or started collecting this stuff.  Since I was a kid, I drew the HB characters...Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Jetsons etc....and something about the simplicity of these  guys really spoke to me.  The promo tie-ins, the Hoyt Curtin music, the schtick.  Rather than waxing on the theatrical classics from WB, MGM, Famous, Lantz or Disney, I was charmed by the "TV toons"....even Jay Ward counts here.  I can't explain the joy of those cheesy TV themes and lines....I wasn't looking for quality, just familiarity.    And my family came from Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood.

3.  The next trunk is all the stuff that came with working with my Dad in his promotional products business.  He was one of the pioneers in the business in San Antonio and had damn fine accounts (mostly financial institutions)….He did a lot of cool chatskis for Lone Star Beer (I have great memories of being at the brewery…King William area…and putting together packets for the distributors).  Various samples of koozies, key tags, Quill pens etc which gathered dust in our “showroom” in Monte Vista are present in these bins as well as the FIRST orders placed with my accounts.  I hated sales but my clients turned out to be great friends….that’s why it worked!  Lesson to be learned there.  Plus all his desk items which he obsessive-compulsory touched before he left the office that day.  Any neurosis I have he gladly handed them to me and in my old age I say, “Thanks, Dad” because he loved me and in hindsight I realized what a great man he was.  The stuff includes the Greater SA Chamber of Commerce newsletters which sometimes included some tidbit about my meager contributions to promoting business….other than wisecracks.

4.  There are my parents memories in another trunk.  My dear mother’s items from her years in Waco, Washington DC (during the war) and San Antonio (as an independent career woman in insurance).  Photos of our days at the lake, all the cocktail parties (I think they were called “Attitude Adjustment”)…real interesting folk from this place in the middle of Lake McQueeney called Treasure Island.  They all ran businesses of some sort…a very eclectic and interesting crew of older (hell, my age) people that had one thing in common:  a good time and polyester.  Plus I kept most of the books my mom and dad collected over the years…except the reader’s digest condensed books. 

5.  Another trunk is all theater.  Every program and review from every play I did from 1987 until 1997 in San Antonio.  STAGE at Bulverde, Harlequin Dinner Theater, San Antonio Little Theater (now San Pedro Playhouse), Alamo Street Church, tours with Spear Productions,  Actor’s Theater of SA, Josephine Theater, Steven Stoli Playhouse, and the Jump Start with the Firelight Players.  Also, programs of every play I ever saw during those years.  Those were some of the most productive and creative years of my life….and lifelong friends were made.  When you look at the mess I am today, you would not believe how confident and talented I was then….getting a date was not a problem.  That I can (or will) remember! Hah.

6.  Finally, the Austin trunk.  When I decided to pursue my dream and become a filmmaker on the Third Coast I fell in love with the Austin independent film scene that was less than ten years forward from “Slacker.”  In Austin Filmworks, I met more lifelong friends and co-produced a feature (the director has made quite a name for herself!).  Gripping, pulling cords, still some acting, script supervision, scheduling, producing and writing….Every piece of paper related to every film I worked on is in there….storyboards I drew, call sheets I “minimized”, headshots that are presumed thrown away (hmmmm…)…SXSW and AFF programs…the film festivals were incredible and fresh.  And Alamo Drafthouse guides and Austin Film Society ephemera from the most wonderful self-education in the history of cinema provided by a myriad of special screenings:  foreign flicks, documentaries, indies that will never be seen again, old classics I never saw and those revisited (mostly at the Paramount).  Used videotapes bought at Vulcan Video and Waterloo that were probably viewed by the filmmakers themselves.  The other “half” of my Austin trunk is related to another family: those I worked for in a public relations firm….articles and clippings about those incredible people I came in contact with…some great friends….some of the biggest movers and shakers in Texas….my education in TX politics became part and parcel of my love for Austin…the other part of Austin….which led to my four year long journey through a screenplay melding the world of TX politics and Indie film.  It all came together.

And there are stacks of books and videotapes…all the dvd’s are at home on my wall….

The POINT is…..yes, my life is in that unit….and when I look at the world now, changes I cannot (or maybe will not) keep up with in technology and culture, when business practices are micromangaged to nonsensical proportions for lawsuit-avoidance, when entertainment is not so much dumbed down but trashed out by overt crudity and shock, when politics has turned into the worst form of divisive bile in history (thanks in part to social media) and all the progress I saw in the seventies in terms of civil rights and democratic ideals--in the face of utter disappointment (Watergate, Vietnam), yes…turn into a level of out and out hate that I see now…when I look at this world now….I don’t see that storage unit as a crutch but as strength….as that hope that will return…if we let it.