Tuesday, December 18, 2007

I Miss The Daily Show (and Wonderful Life on Cable)

Has it really only been seven weeks since the TV writers walked out on strike? It seems like forever. It has affected me most of all at 10 p.m. every weeknight, when, for the past several years, I got my daily dose of news and hilarity from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central. The Daily Show has been dark since the strike started, and you could just imagine the jokes untold, that will never be told, because our daily barometer of the national political pressure has been silenced. The Daily Show is not only the funniest show on television – it is also the most left-wing on network or basic cable. Nothing is or ever will be as funny-sad as Junior Bush, and The Daily Show proves it every night.

And the entirely-justified strike is happening at a crucial time in our history. If it really drags on until March – as is now expected – the Daily Show’s unique and essential perspective will be lost all the way through the primaries and caucuses that will decide the major parties’ candidates. When production stopped in the first week of November, Obama had yet to make his move in Iowa, Giuliani was the presumed GOP candidate nationally and Mike Huckabee was standing on the outer edges of Republican debates with Ron Paul and Duncan Hunter. Imagine the fun Stewart and company would have had with the Giuliani mistress-security scandal, the Oprah-Obama tour or the rise of Huckabee. As it is, they will return next year like out of some bad movie dream; gone to sleep during the primaries and waking up to...what? Kucinich v. Paul?

The Daily Show has been essential in getting through the Bush era with our sanity intact. With the show dark, it feels like right after 9/11, when Stewart, Letterman and others took a deep breath for a week or two to see whether it was really true what they said about the Death of Irony. The comedy continued shortly thereafter, only to be squashed six years later by cheapskate producers who want to use the internet to pad their profits, without paying the writers, without whom their web sites would be stuck with links to amateur funny-cat videos on YouTube. I think about the writers every time I longingly watch the hysterically funny Even Stevphen videos on the Daily Show site. Damn, those guys are good – now someone pay them some residuals, already.
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After the loss of The Daily Show, I went back to my old stand-by at 10 p.m. – the local news. I could never stomach anything but Channel 4 in Milwaukee, and now, I can’t even handle that. Since Mike Gousha left a year ago, the show has deteriorated to sensationalist nonsense, introduced by an increasingly creepy Carole Meekins and various Channel 6 retreads. The "reporters" in the field have taken to going out into other states to confront broke "deadbeat" parents and pointing radar guns to catch speeders on busy streets. Last week, they were shocked – shocked! – to find a monthly free newspaper devoted to "adult entertainment" available for all to grab on newsstands around town and – gasp! – in City Hall. This is what passes for the sad state of local news shows. Even the sports department seems unable to handle something as basic as a good run by the Packers.
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It’s a Wonderful Life is a sappy piffle of a movie. Young George Bailey carries on the good-capitalist campaign of his father (home ownership for the masses), ultimately finding happiness in his "shabby" hometown and the warm bed provided by the quietly sensual Mary Hatch. In the end, after thoughts of suicide and delusions of "guardian angel" intercession, he learns to stop his immature yearning for the trains, planes and steamboats of his dreams and settle for the substantial rewards of a community that appreciates him and the love of his wife and kids. Despite the George-Lassos-Moon result, the villain of the piece – bad-capitalist Henry Potter – gets to keep his unexplained fortune (not to mention the Building & Loan’s $8,000) and, presumably, lives to squish George another day. In today’s market, this would have been a set-up for a sequel – IAWL 2: Revenge of Potter – were it not for the film’s initial failure to set the cinematic world on fire.

In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, a couple of elements converged to make IAWL something of a retro-phenomenon. For one thing, during the first era of cable TV, suddenly-national stations like Ted Turner’s WTBS in Atlanta needed cheap programming to fold around its ads for the Pocket Fisherman and various K-Tel products. Happily (for Turner), the copyright for IAWL was allowed to lapse by its owner in 1974, so TBS and other stations could play it for free. It was not unusual in the early ‘80 to have three cable channels playing IAWL prints of various quality at the same time during the holiday season.

It was during this time, when I was an undergrad in Madison, that my college sweetheart and I found the movie by accident. Ever since, it has never failed to send me on crying jags at various points in the film (Mary whispering into George’s bad ear in the drug store; Mary and George throwing rocks at the old Granville house; George drops the phone in Mary’s house; Harry toasts George as the "richest man in town"; etc). "Sentimental hogwash!" squawks Barrymore-as-Potter, and indeed it is.

The film somehow survived a disastrous colorization experiment later in the ‘80s. In 1993, the copyright was restored and it disappeared from cable, the broadcast rights belonging to NBC, which plays it a couple of times a year. Since its first airing on the network, NBC has single-handedly tried to murder It’s a Wonderful Life. It started the first year it showed on the network, with great fanfare, when we had to endure various NBC "stars" talking about their IAWL memories, real and imagined. Since then, IAWL has been diced and chopped by NBC; ten minutes (maybe) of the movie at a time, followed by five minutes of mind-numbing ads and network promotions.

This year, I thought I could limit most of the damage by DVR-ing the network feed and fast-forwarding through the commercials. No such luck. The continuity of the film – especially the scene-to-scene fades – was lost to the ages. Worst of all, the superimposed billboards and animated bugs on the bottom half of the screen so intruded on the glorious black-and-white image, it would be impossible for anyone watching the film for the first time to fall in love with it, much less shed a tear for anything but the corporate corruption of accidently wonderful art. If NBC thinks I’m going anywhere near Clash of the Choirs, a bug for which never left the bottom left of the screen, they are as crazy as Uncle Billy.

I know, I know...I can rent or buy the damn thing on DVD and watch it in high-def wide-screen purity anytime I want. But it’s not the same, somehow. There is something to be said for sharing a video experience with strangers in various cities, who are watching the same thing at the same time, like when CBS used to play A Charlie Brown Christmas. NBC had that opportunity, to pull the country together in front of the cozy fireplace that is ITWL once a year, just by respecting the film, its essence and its continuity. Aw, go ahead – take a couple of commercial breaks (after the car rolls up to announce his father’s stroke; before the World War II montage). But when the movie’s running, let the damn thing be. Maybe a couple other people will fall in love again.

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