April 2007 Archives
I’ve not generally been a fan of the ombudsman/public editor phenomenon that took hold in the wake of the Jayson Blair controversy of 2003. Though its ostensible purpose is to hold media organizations accountable for their mistakes and missteps, the effect is more one of dorky killjoyism–some gray-haired eminence of mild temperament is brought aboard to uphold Eisenhower-era standards of rectitude and emit the occasional harrumph.
But I have to admit that I loved the April 12 post by ESPN’s new ombudswoman, Le Anne Schreiber. On paper, she seems like yet another of the species, almost an ombuds-caricature: 61 years old, formerly employed as an editor at The New York Times and its Book Review, sensibly coiffed and wardrobed, self-described in her introductory post as someone who has “a reputation among friends as a fair-minded person of sound judgment. For that reason, I am often asked to weigh in on their decisions about everything from choice of mate to choice of career, coast or coffee maker.”
Yet Schreiber goes about her ombuds-business with a welcome drollery, not hiding how enervated she is by all the fratboy shouting that goes on during SportsCenter and the network’s various sports-yak shows: “The yelling, especially during rapid-fire basketball highlights, felt like the aural equivalent of a tall guy jumping up out of his seat and blocking my view of the action at a crucial moment,” she recalls of her inaugural ESPN-watching binge in January. Of the network’s pregame analysis on NFL Sundays, she writes, “[I] remembered a favorite saying of the day that had once been posted on the farm stand where I buy tomatoes: ‘Certainty is the place you stop when you are tired of thinking.’”
I doubt that Hootie, the Blowfish, or any of the brothers at Kappa Sig will ever read Schreiber’s column–or will ever read, period–but for those of us who love sports but dislike being shouted at, Le Anne’s worth checking in on.
“The strange thing about the comics page, given its youth-associatedness, is that it has long been anchored by men of the World War II generation,” I wrote in the April 2000 issue of GQ, shortly after Charles Schulz died. “The Family Circus’s Bil Keane is 77, the same age Schulz was at his death; Mort Walker, of Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois fame, is 75; Dennis the Menace’s Hank Ketcham is 80; Tiger’s Bud Blake is 82; and B.C.’s Johnny Hart is 69. These old-timers have displayed a remarkable stick-to-itiveness over the years—no wussy Garry Trudeau sabbaticals for them!—but frankly, they don’t have that many working years left.”
Thus began the cranky-old-man phase of my writing career, in which, at the age of 33, I found myself writing almost exclusively in lament form, relishing the past and forlornly shaking my head at latter-day cultural developments. In light of Johnny Hart’s recent passing, I’ve posted that old GQ column. Since it was written, Blake and Ketcham, too, have gone to that Great Cartoonist’s Syndicate in the sky.
But lo, the ovoid-headed Family Circus gang continues to hang on, as does its creator, Bil Keane, who will turn 85 this year. A confession: I used to find The Family Circus unbearably corny, and took pleasure in ridiculing it. (As did Chris Elliott, who, on David Letterman’s old NBC show, did deadpan segments in which he paged through albums of his “favorite” Bil Keane cartoons.) But all that changed in 1992, when, as a young editor at GQ, I got the idea to do a Family Circus parody in our election-themed issue. On Sundays, when The Family Circus is in color, Keane often does large, single-panel strips depicting young Billy’s meandering path (over a fence, across a puddle, aboard a found tricycle, through a hollowed-out log, etc.) from school to home.
I thought it would be funny, in light of all the tribulations that Bill Clinton had faced en route to the Democratic nomination, to do a Family Circus-style cartoon that traced “Little Billy Clinton’s” winding path to the top of the Dem ticket. Unfortunately, the legal people quashed the idea of hiring an illustrator to do a Keane parody, on the grounds that Keane could sue. But Robert Priest, then GQ’s art director, said, “Well, why don’t we just ask Bil Keane if he’ll do it himself?”
To our surprise, Keane was thrilled to do it, and promptly delivered a wonderful two-page cartoon based on my script. (I’d show it here, but Keane owns the rights.) Little Billy Clinton looked just like any other ovoid-headed Circus-er, except he wore a blazer and had a head of bushy, graying hair. I consider it one of my greatest accomplishments that I got Bil Keane to draw Sister Souljah, the militant rapper-activist who achieved a measure of minor ’92 fame when Clinton repudiated her inflammatory racial remarks. (Souljah actually looked kind of adorable with an ovoid Keane head.) Keane also drew a nude Gennifer Flowers making goo-goo eyes at Billy from behind a bush, and Arsenio Hall applauding Billy as he played sax. I never knew Keane had this side to him, and I also gained a new appreciation of his clean, uncluttered draftsmanship, which rivals Charles Schulz’s. From then on, I’ve been a fan.
And when I wrote the column to which I’ve linked above, Keane did the illustration: The Family Circus’s Billy opening up the April 2000 issue of GQ and exclaiming to his sister, “Look, Dolly! There’s somethin’ about us in here!”
It’s not coming out ’til October, but The Food Snob’s Dictionary is already splashed out across Broadway Books’s fall catalog with a brief Snob Aptitude quiz. Because you are not, in all likelihood, a bookseller who gets catalogs from publishers, I thought I’d share the quiz with you–and test your Food Snob knowledge.
I love bad taste and transgressive humor as much as anyone, whether it’s a crucified Eric Idle singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” at the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian or the Acceptable TV gang on VH1 parodying reality-TV shamelessness with the willfully excruciating “My Black Friend.”
But I’ve always winced at anyone who bills himself (or has his representatives bill him) as an “equal-opportunity offender”–which is the tack that the defenders of Don Imus have taken. Any true aficionado of comedy and comedians knows that “equal-opportunity offender” is apologist code for “hack entertainer trading in dated ethnographic material.” Jackie Mason comes to mind (he actually has a DVD out called Equal Opportunity Offender), as does Carlos Mencia. A corollary to this, which I learned from my old Spy boss Kurt Andersen, is that anyone who uses a construction along the lines of “I treat people all the same; I don’t care if they’re black, white, purple, or green”–who uses colors that no human being can actually be–is inherently a racist bastard.*
Growing up in the orbit of the New York metro radio stations, I was subjected to Imus-mania from about the late ’70s onward, and I must say, I never found him funny; even 25 years ago, his shtick was tired and bigoted, and leaned heavily on fish-in-a-barrel targets. His most famous running character–oh, the originality!–was a vain, buffoonish, corrupt evangelist named Billy Sol Hargis. (In retrospect, I realize that Hargis was basically Imus’s unfiltered id.) I tuned Imus out in my teens, and was shocked to learn, in the early 1990s, that his show had become a popular stop for senators and prominent mediafolk. Evidently, going mano-a-mano with the Ime-ster was an aging Boomer’s idea of being frisky, a rite of midlife crisis.
I’m glad, in a sense, that Imus has now screwed up so badly that he can’t “equal-opportunity” himself out of this one. Unlike Michael Richards, who shocked himself with the ugly thoughts he had roiling inside him, and who was aptly described by Malcolm Gladwell as “the prototypical Hollywood liberal... clearly devastated by the notion that he might be considered a racist,” Imus has a long, unambiguous history of being a flagrant hater. His comeuppance is overdue.
What I’m not glad about is that this is now what the 2006-’07 Rutgers women’s basketball team will be forever remembered for. Up until a few days ago, the Rutgers team was one of this year’s great sports stories, a team supposedly in a rebuilding year, heavy on freshmen, that jelled into a late-season powerhouse that almost gave coach C. Vivian Stringer her first NCAA championship. As a child I lived within bicycling distance of the Rutgers Athletic Center and frequently attended Rutgers games, men’s and women’s. (My dad sold cars to Stringer’s immediate predecessor, Theresa Grentz.) So I was especially happy for the Lady Knights and took a keen interest in their tournament run. I appreciate that fellow Imus-slur survivor Gwen Ifill has nobly sought to put the spotlight back on the team’s accomplishments in her New York Times Op-Ed piece. But it’s still maddening that Imus will remain the bigger story.
* Well, I guess every rule has its exception. In her first press conference since Imus made his remarks, Stringer, the Rutgers coach, used the “black, white, purple, or green” construction, with the adjectives in that order.
Last week I attended a dinner hosted by Steven Rinella, the most unpretentious man ever to have written a food book. Steve and I met last autumn when he was promoting said food book, A Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine, at the Texas Book Festival, and he and I were on a panel with Jay McInerney, whose collection of wine writings, A Hedonist in the Cellar, had just come out. The three of us somehow coalesced into a breezy vaudeville team that made the gathered audience laugh rather than just sit there catatonically, as bookchat usually warrants.
So we vowed to reconnect in New York, and finally did last Thursday. Steve hunted, caught, and trapped most of the ingredients for a multicourse game feast, including Brooklyn squirrels* and sparrows. Jay brought wine. I did nothing. And the New York Times’s Chip McGrath was on hand to write about the meal. You can read his report here.
* Further pursuant to the subject of eating squirrels, you must check out this semi-famous YouTube clip about “squirrel melts” if you haven’t already.