Sunday, January 1, 2012

Reviving the Blog: Heroes of 2011

2011 was a tumultuous year -- internationally, nationally, in Facebook redesigns, and, in some smaller ways, personally.  That means I should have been blogging more, not less.

Yet as I got swamped by year-end round-up articles, I realized -- not only am I still catching up on early episodes of Homeland -- I haven't written a post since the Charlie Sheen Roast, which was so long ago that one of the roasters has since passed away.

Along the way I posted on Facebook -- frequently -- about things like the NY Times' egregious overkill on the tragic Stamford fire. A blogger can get lazy when there are more readers and respondents there than here.

But the self-taskmaster in me says it's time to catch up. My nominees for heroes of 2011 -- in a moment. First, some thoughts on the vexations of Blogging, which most people warned me had to be "branded" (i.e., single-topic) and needed a consistent publishing date and frequency for it to ever amount to anything. I got the most page views when I wrote about my past experiences with cult figures -- Terrence Malick and Albert Brooks -- but I didn't want to get stuck writing rehashes of pieces I had sworn off writing in the first place.

Spitzer & Parker (sans dog)
As much as I intended "Hands On" to be Unmediated Me, a few months in I got hired at CNN and was warned to be "careful" about what I wrote.  Rumor had it that someone had recently been fired for simply writing on Facebook about company layoffs -- which had already been public.

And when I was enlisted to write the show blog for ParkerSpitzer, my very first entry got me in trouble -- all I did was describe Eliot tripping over the  gate on Kathleen's office door protecting her blind rescue dog. My boss thought it was fine. Eliot and Kathleen thought it was fine. But I got called on the carpet. Turns out there was some sort of corporate policy against any pets at the office that Kathleen had skirted; I had unwittingly provided an exposé. I was relieved of my show blog duties.

Journalists often step in it without even realizing they've done so. Back when Beverly Hills Cop 2 was coming out, Rolling Stone assigned me the Eddie Murphy cover story.

But before I could meet Eddie, I was told his manager, Bob Wachs, wanted to "vet" me. He told me he had rejected another writer because he didn't think Eddie would get along with her, mainly because she was a woman and "Eddie always runs around in his underwear" and his posse asks questions like "Did you fuck her." I somehow passed THAT test but then was told I also had to interview the film's producers first.

Simpson & Bruckheimer
I dutifully showed up to meet Jerry Bruckheimer and his partner, the late infamous Don Simpson, and asked as many polite questions as I could to satisfy their egos.

At one point I mentioned the fact that Eddie had a team of two managers, Wachs and his Comic Strip co-founder Richie Tienkin, and asked them about their own partnership and how things were divided.

After this meeting, I found out that, unbeknownst to me or anyone else, Eddie's two managers were in midst of a fractious split-up, and that Jerry and Don had decided I was doing an exposé. The interview with Eddie was cancelled.

I ended up writing a snarky piece about Eddie being surrounded by Yes Men and handlers called "FREE EDDIE MURPHY" [left] that covered things like a paternity suit, his obsession with Elvis, and his poor choices in movies, and the magazine went with a Paul Simon Graceland cover. Murphy's career has only recently recovered from the slight. (Joke.) 

After ten years away from such maneuverings, I hoped to be able to write a blog that -- even when looking back at such pieces that I had been happy to leave behind -- would shed some insight into showbiz, TV writing, journalism, parenting, divorce, and anything else that moved me.

But even after leaving CNN in August, I found myself again having to be a cautious blogger, because my new job -- writing for Aaron Sorkin's HBO series set in the world of cable news -- is also closely guarded.

It won't air till next summer, and all HBO has shown is a brief nondescript shot [right] in its trailer for 2012. I couldn't even brag about Jane Fonda being cast as the Ted Turner-like mogul until it was old news.

Meanwhile, rabid fans are already circulating old versions of the pilot script, which has led to a lot of frustrating misinformation in the blogosphere -- including even the name of the series, the name of the fictional network, and the last name of the anchorman played by Jeff Daniels.

What I can tell you is that the challenge of the show ideally will be what will make it pay off. Unlike The West Wing, The Newsroom is set in the real world -- i.e., instead of fake Senators and Presidents and Supreme Court Justices, we're dealing with the real ones, and the news that's being covered is from recent history. The pilot takes place on the day of the BP Oil Spill; by the time the series airs, that will be more than two years in the past: long ago enough for the details to now be murky -- and to add some perspective -- yet recent enough for it to still have relevance. Some days in the writers room our brains explode but when it clicks, it's beyond rewarding.

There's my roundabout transition to bring me to my own take on recent history: the people who for me gave 2011 oomph and hope amidst a dismal economy and troubling political grandstanding.

1) JESSE LAGRECA (pictured up top)
It started out with an iPhone video. An unassuming guy at Occupy Wall Street being interviewed by a Fox News reporter, trying to get the OWSer to criticize Obama and the alleged "lack of message" provide the kind of soundbyte Fox would air. Instead he schooled the Fox guy so thoroughly that the interview didn't air. But a bystander's recording of the interaction wound up on YouTube and turned Jesse LaGreca into an articulate leader for a leaderless movement. He ended up on NPR (at one point appearing on a panel with Spitzer), speaking at the Capitol and elsewhere and gave me hope that something might actually come of the sit-ins. If nothing else I hope he runs for Congress.

The best episode of TV I saw this year was utterly unclassifiable -- Comedy? Drama? Documentary? Political statement? And then the guy who did it also funded his own stand-up special, sold it for $5 download via the Internet, made a million bucks -- and donated the bulk to charity

The comedian Louis CK achieved every comedian's dream -- a sitcom based around his persona, on HBO, no less. But even though Lucky Louie was really funny and smart (check out the link) -- it was staged on an obviously artificial Honeymooners-style set but dealt with modern issues and language -- it lasted only 13 episodes. Most comedians would figure, that was my shot, and go back to stand-up. 

But Louis is one of the hardest-working and self-challenging guys in showbiz. He went back to the drawing board. and cut a unique "just deliver episodes for this budget, no notes" deal with FX that has inspired jealousy from not just every other comedian -- but every other TV creator. 

The series, Louie, hit a peak with the episode "Duckling" (it's mature-audience content on the web, so you are required to register to watch) in which he goes to Afghanistan to do a USO-type show for the troops (and actually filmed there), with a baby duckling in his backpack that his daughter made him bring along as a kind of good-luck charm. Along the way Louie allows himself to look bad in several ways that most lead actors and actresses just don't. And the way it played out was charming, moving, and inspiring. 

America likes to put faces on history. Even though the Arab Spring was a mass movement helped along by Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, the biggest rallying point was the Facebook page called "We are all Khaled Said," named after a young Egyptian tortured to death by Alexandria police.  The page was administered by a Google executive named Wael Ghonim who, two days after the massive January 25th protest, was detained by authorities for 11 days. After his release, his emotional and articulate speech -- and his refusal to take credit -- made him a sought-after US TV guest. On 60 Minutes  he said:
"Our revolution is like Wikipedia, okay? Everyone is contributing content, [but] you don't know the names of the people contributing the content... Revolution 2.0 in Egypt was exactly the same. Everyone contributing small pieces, bits and pieces. We drew this whole picture of a revolution. And no one is the hero in that picture."
 In stark contrast to most of our political figures. That's what makes him a hero.
On a smaller scale, Ethar El-Katatney, a remarkable 23-year-old award-winning Egyptian blogger and TV journalist educated at the American University of Cairo, provided CNN's audience with an articulate, youthful view of the revolution that helped make it tangible to us. 

After Mubarak's initial speech at which he didn't resign, she said she felt "Punk'd." She described the freaky dissonance between Eqyptian State TV and reality. In order to stay awake till 4 a.m. to appear live on our New York based show, she would stay awake by watching reruns of Grey's Anatomy

Happily after graduating she got a grant to tour America and speak to journalists around the country here, and has since appeared (thanks to some of my former CNN colleagues) on Charlie Rose and MSNBC's Up with Chris. 

When you work on a cable news network for a year, you quickly learn a lot about our elected officials.  Some of them play hard to get (John Boehner), most of them are, or turn out to be, full of themselves or full of crap (Sorry, Anthony Weiner), and there are only a couple of truth-tellers remaining not kowtowing to PACs and other special interests. 

Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont, the Senate's only true independent, and retiring Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, were always a joy to have on the show, because they saw what was happening and didn't varnish it.

The very frank Barney
The more and more that money infiltrates the system in the wake of Citizens United, I don't know how many more such people will be attracted to public service and make their way through the treacherous straits to get elected. 

The anti-hero hero.

For a while I was addicted to Aimee Mann. When I met her I told her she was the patron saint of my divorce. She asked "Is that a good thing or a bad thing?" Now I know what she means. Having moved on from her bleak view of relationships, I needed a new guru, and I found one in Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, who is every bit as jaded but somehow more of a romantic.

In June I dragged my kids through a downpour to bear witness to Wilco at Mass MoCA for the Solid Sound Festival; I brought my girlfriend to see them in Central Park in yet another wet outdoor show. But the musicianship and spirit of the band and crowd kept us all warm.
And -- speaking of weather - in December Tweedy showed up to help out the meteorologist at WGN while doing five shows in the band's hometown of Chicago, and even that he did with his inimitable laconic existential panache.


I didn't love the movie The Descendants, as much as I wanted to. But as the father of two teenage daughters, I was totally mesmerized by the performance of Shailene Woodley, who was nineteen when she filmed it and previously mostly famous for the cable series The Secret Life of the American Teenager, which I had not seen.

I pray her career flies more Emma Stone than Lindsay Lohan.

My first reaction to meeting Don Lemon was that he was too young to possibly be a national news anchor. But he just looks that way. Damn him.

My next reaction was he was a brave guy for writing a memoir about being gay, in an era when many of his peers clearly think that's not the way to go.

But what made him my hero were his attempts to point out and push back on politicians' stock talking points, and his inability to tow the line when he was asked to be silly in the way that news anchors sometimes are.

Jon Stewart first called attention to these latter moments, but Lemon has not backtracked, instead embracing them fully. On a network whose new slogan is "The only side we take is yours," trying to thread the needle between Fox and MSNBC, Lemon has made the third party seem more human and honest.
The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
CNN Anchor Don Lemon Appears Not to Care for CNN
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

You know maybe I spoke too dispiritingly about noone replacing the Barney Franks of the world. Elizabeth Warren, like Louis CK, refuses to give up. After she took on Tim Geithner, all of DC seemed to unite to stonewall her from becoming head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 

But Warren then decided to take on Masschusetts Senator Scott Brown, and anyone else who tries to stop her. 

 Ron Paul called her a socialist -- there's no higher mark of honor. And at a public meeting, a Tea Party member called her a "socialist whore" to her face.

I call her a good end point for the first post of 2012. 


Robert said...

Tweedy's inclusion I don't necessarily agree with but the other 9 are spot on. Great post! (and long overdue)

Cara Hill said...

Good to hear from you. Thanks for filling me in. Here's to 2012!

J. Devereux said...

The clip of Jeff Tweedy doing the weather made my day, and unlike you, I'm only a fair weather Wilco fan. ("Seven days seems pretty optimistic." and "I assume you all can read, right?") Don't worry about the hiatus; like local newscasters, most bloggers feel compelled to talk/post too much. Looking forward to your new show.

Billkav said...

Especially as Facebook becomes more and more obsessed with prying into our lives to sell us as products, it's heartening to see your post elsewhere. Thanks for the hopeful roundup of 2011!

Laura Levine said...

Great. Now I need to catch up on a season's worth of Louie, see The Descendants, and listen to the entire catalogue of Wilco (can you believe I've never heard them? I loved his weather report though). Damn you, Handleman, for all the homework on only the second day of 2012!

(But seriously...thank you).

Happy happy New Year!

Sarah Buttenwieser said...

1) Can't wait for the new Sorkin -- & neither can my teens 2) I loved the way this traveled all over the map & hope you post more sooner than later.

David Handelman said...

Laura, I came really late to Wilco myself -- about six years ago -- even though Warners had supplied me with their catalogue gratis I had never immersed myself.

Start with the documentary "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" which was made as a promo to show them making "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" but turned into a much more interesting film as band members fought and one was fired, the label dropped the album as too uncommercial, etc. and then when they brought it to another label, it went on to be their best seller.

Eric Lindbom said...

Thanks David for shrewd, informative heroes list, hilarious Eddie Murphy story (celebrity publicists are scum but hey at least you got vetted by Don Simpson)and for the premise low down on the Sorkin show.

Unknown said...

Great to read you again, Sir!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Betsy Munnell said...

David--I have never read your blog. This is tremendous. Perfect, eclectic choices for '11 heroes.