Tuesday, July 31, 2012

When David Letterman Worked for Jimmie Walker

Writing jokes for Jimmie Walker was the first gig David Letterman had in show-biz. In Indiana he’d worked in local broadcasting before coming out to Hollywood in the mid-seventies and doing sets at the Comedy Store, where he was duly paid in experience, exposure, and ready access to the waitresses (all three of which he avidly availed himself of). The Comedy Store is where he met Walker, flush with Good Times money and ready to invest some of it in material for his standup.
A lot of eventually big names wrote jokes for Walker in those days, and Walker tells all about it in his terrific new memoir Dyn-o-Mite!: Good Times, Bad Times, Our Times. Besides Letterman, there was Jay Leno, Richard Jeni, Paul Mooney, Byron Allen, Jack Handey, Louie Anderson, Elaine Boosler, and others. They would meet up at Walker’s condo in Beverly Hills multiple times each week and pitch zingers at a rate of 25 bucks a pop, upon acceptance. Some of the better writers–and this category includes Letterman–would receive a flat fee of $150 a week. Often there’d be close to a couple-dozen people in the room. The atmosphere got competitive. “You had to have thick skin to absorb all the hits,” Walker writes. “It also helped to be vocal and forceful to push your jokes ahead, to fight for them to get noticed and appreciated. But slugging it out like that was not part of Letterman’s self-effacing personality.”

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Bill Clinton, Psychoanalyzed

It should surprise no one that the best book ever written about Bill Clinton is by a psychologist. Now, granted, I haven’t read every single book on Clinton, but I’ve read more than you’ll ever catch me admitting to in public. The only reason I didn’t read John D. Gartner’s In Search of Bill Clinton: A Psychological Biography when it first came out a few years ago is that I was blocked by my own prejudices. I assumed that, at just over 400 pages, it would be a superficially slick Freudian gloss on the received record. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Read the rest at The Faster Times

The Only Running Shoe You Need (for Now)

Just as 2011 was rounding into 2012, I wrote a post for my personal blog opining that this would be just the right time for Nike to bring back their Huarache line of running shoe. I wrote about it being the first running shoe I ever truly coveted, and the last; I wrote about the sui generis quality of its slipper-like design; and I wrote about how the barefoot craze inspired by Born to Run (2009) had brought a fervor for ultra-minimalism to running shoes. I had no way of knowing that, as I wrote, Nike was already shipping the Huarache to stores.

Read the rest at The Faster Times

Saturday, July 21, 2012

When 'Superman' Brought Superheroes to the Movies

It was the first real superhero movie, and, allowing as it did for all the superhero movies to follow, some people will never forgive it for that–anymore than they’ll forgive Superman himself for being the first superhero. But Superman: The Movie (1978), although it allowed for the other superhero movies, also allowed for them to be better. Whatever you think of them now, just imagine what they might look like without Superman as their antecedent.
Even as someone raised on Superman in video release, I’d forgotten just how good it is until Larry Tye inspired me to give it another look with Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Favorite Superhero. His chapter on that first Superman film–which eventually evolved into a tetralogy that overstayed its welcome by a couple movies–comprise some of the most fascinating material in a thoroughly fascinating book. It’s a substantial book, too, because the Superman legend is a substantial component of American cultural lore. It’s not about consuming the product itself necessarily, but simply beholding and admiring the impossibly long arc of Superman’s development as mythology in motion. Even though Superman, by the 1970s, had already been around for forty years as a pop-cultural phenomenon, that arc had still not reached its apex before Superman got made.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

How Fort Dix Prepared Michael Herr for 'Dispatches'

The lifers gripe, too. . . . A lot of them will say that Dix is a dead end for careers, a sounding board for civilian interference, a center that half-trains 100,000 Ultimate Weapons a year, and most of those six-monthers. They are putting in for Viet Nam (you pick up grade there), for Fort Benning or Fort Bragg (you really train there), or for return tours in Guam, in Korea, in Germany. Somewhere, there’s good duty.
That’s the debriefing Michael Herr delivers on his way out of “Fort Dix: The New Army Game,” his 1966 feature-story for Holiday in which he revisits the training post whose “chief business . . . is the basic training of recruits from” just about the entire Northeast. To convince all concerned of “the vital relevance of the foot soldier in the nuclear age,” the New Jersey base had “taken on the name of ‘The Home of the Ultimate Weapon,’ which for all its rhetoric fell like a short round on the average trainee until recently; the fighting in Viet Nam has restored it by proving that infantry is never obsolete.”

Two years earlier, Herr had been a recruit at Dix; two years later, he would be a correspondent in Vietnam. At Dix he had been one of the “six-monthers” mentioned above, ready reservists who’d agreed to six months of active duty in exchange for a certain kind of immunity from further service, back when that was still an option. In Vietnam he would be reporting the war on behalf of Esquire, an opportunity that gave him all the access and material he needed to write his classic war memoir Dispatches (1977). 

This Fort Dix piece usually gets mentioned in books and scholarly articles that deal with Herr’s time in Vietnam, but these never offer much detail on its contents or even bother to quote directly from it. Most often, it gets mentioned for its influence on John Sack, already at Esquire, and his own Vietnam book, M. Proper credit should be given to how it prefigures Herr’s own book.