"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 31 May 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Hit & Run 05.31.01


Hit & Run XXXIV
If people start getting into this media ownership-mapping business, the smart money's on a Dateline NBC miniseries, a Time cover feature, or a Disney animated remake of Citizen Kane - though Deputy Dawg cracking down on antitrust is still probably out of the question.
Five years ago today in Suck.

What with alternate-side parking, massive layoffs and apartment hunts that can turn murderous in the jangle of a key, philosophy-minded New Yorkers in search of the good life know that the contemplative perusal of Hannah Arendt before they drop into a sleep like death isn't going to cut it human-condition-wise anymore. That's why the Learning Annex — known for adult-ed fare like "Become a Legal Proofreader" and "How Not to Stay Single in New York" — needed the nuttiest professor it could find to teach Course 4160, "The Human Condition: Life, Laughter and Healing."

Jerry Lewis joked Tuesday night before a crowd of several hundred at the Congregation Rodeph Shalom on New York's once-comfy Upper West Side that his first inclination was to call his seminar "My Life as a Viking." By the end of the night that title made sense. For a full three hours, the King of Comedy pillaged hearts and laid waste to conceptions of self that the assembled Rupertry had built up over years of fandom — all for only $29 each, $39 for the pews closer to God.

In a city where nothing can salve the pain of a wounded populace burdened with the knowledge that they're not going to get to see Nathan Lane and Ferris Bueller in The Producers - not in this lifetime — Jerry's advice about available drama seemed all too apt: "Don't spend $75 to go see Willy Loman vomit all over you. Go laugh." Coming as it did with the glorious Lewisian combo of shtick and menace, it made sense that a night of what Jerry called "beautiful retribution" ended in tears.

For some — the lifelong fan who married a woman named Jerry and evidently named all his kids, dogs and cats Jerry, too — they were tears of joy. Lewis promised to pose for a "professional" photograph with him and to send him to Vegas to catch his act.

For others — the woman helping out an elderly Russian friend with a rambling question — they were the kind of tears psychoanalysts hope for in breakthrough sessions on the couch. "Lady, you can not take this kind of time. Steve, take the mic, kick her in the groin, and let's get on with it, and that goes for her Russian counterpart, too." That's the kind of tough-love response the Ph.D.s Jerry derided throughout his talk are hesitant to dispense no matter what they're raking in an hour. Few Performers can turn the generosity on and off like Jerry Lewis can. At one point he was suddenly interrupted after a joke about the temple (Rabbi: This is not my synagogue, it's our synagogue. Jerry: Let's sell it!) by a man who prefaced his question about the release of Lewis's aborted 1972 masterpiece The Day the Clown Cried by reminding Lewis he was in a house of God, and then proceeded to call that film The Day the Clown Died. Lewis walked across the stage, glared, and shouted back, "None of your goddamn business!" Then he was into a thing on the joy he can get from amusing a three-month old. The inquisitive heckler, after a moment of confusion, furtively made for the door. Late in the evening, as another guy decided to walk out during a laugh line, Jerry spotted him and managed to soak up applause, bask in laughter and glower all at the same time.

If the "Human Condition" lecture proved anything, it proved that the idea of Jerry Lewis as motivational speaker is an idea whose time has come. The con of motivation isn't lost on him, so he turned it into a kind of confessional performance art. Interested mainly in motivating himself as he moves through a world of "red blanket" situations where he's obligated to entertain sick children as they die, Jerry admitted that the laughter he gets makes him feel better more than it does anyone else; that the love he gives returns to him in an endless loop even as it diminishes.

As is usual with Lewis, a spare presentation — here, a man on stage in a double-breasted pin-stripe suit and a pink shirt and tie — produced too much. It yielded a multitude who couldn't be contained in the pews, who spilled out into the aisles and clamored to tell their stories in an excess of autobiography ("My wife and I were in The Humbugs, we were on the Mike Douglas Show with you; you told us that Tiny Tim was a great act because you didn't know if he was real;" ... "I took a message for you at William Morris once;" ... "I liked when you played the lazy man in that movie with the kids;" ... "I beat my children but I won't anymore;" ... "My name is Princess Juicy Joy and I make cancer patients laugh;"...). Qualified to absorb all this pain by what he called a 70-year study of the human condition that "has taken me to the four corners of magic in my life," and by the fact that he "cannot maintain a conformity of any kind," Jerry held sway over the crowd by stressing simplicity, a simplicity he said academics and corporate-types can't understand. "Do you know your corporation has tan rugs? Your children are in the shape of a file cabinet!" The Lewis seminar was half Star Trek convention, half Lourdes. Visibly tired from so many years of trying to entertain amidst the ravages of a recalcitrant humanity, Jerry says we need "a Gray's Anatomy of laughter."

"People must free themselves from slave-like teachings," Jerry concluded. "I will do anything I want and I decided that at a very young age, and I'm living proof and they're still betting in my home town that I get the chair." His goal, he said, is to "turn pain into positive forward motion." That motion eventually propelled the visibly shaken and overjoyed Learning Annex crowd into the street, where they lingered under the temple's inscription — Do Justly, Love Mercy And Walk Humbly With God - and hoped for more from Jerry before he returned to Las Vegas.

As the throng milled on West 83rd Street in a gloom made evanescent by Jerry's lecture, Suck's correspondent was approached by a man who identified himself as a writer for The New Yorker, a man fooled by the reverent, dazed aspect of our reporter into thinking he wasn't a fellow scribe. Either that or he was just a professional wisenheimer looking for a snarky comment from an amateur one. The tape recorder was thrust and the baited question asked: "Did you get some kind of help out of that? Was it therapeutic?" Then he saw the official Suck "It's All Your Fault" notebook and excused himself. Was his strenuously middlebrow irony the badge of true New Yorker affiliation it seemed to be, or was he just another poser so desperate to crack the big time that even the double sacredness of a synagogue and Jerry Lewis were fair game? We may never know. That's OK, better to go on the record here than in "The Talk of the Town," even if the pay isn't as good. Like Jerry said, "Even the snobs... [who] haven't stood in the mirror to make the image smile... need my care." Here was "the validation of the child and the child" that Jerry spoke of, two people who could answer a resounding Yes! to Jerry's "Hi, welcome to New York! I'm a famous Jew, did you ever see me anywhere?"

Now that Pearl Harbor has opened megagigantic but not quite thermonuctacular - this despite featuring what is easily Dan Aykroyd's best role since Soul Man — Disney is doing damage control all over the Big Island. The word from Jerry Bruckheimer and his bosses at The Mouse: The film's three-hour length (and you feel every minute of it) prevented more than three daily showings, making anything better than a mere $75 million four-day haul "mathematically impossible." An unlikely scenario, given that the film controls enough screens at every multiplex to allow showings beginning approximately every five seconds — or at least, more than often enough to make up for the excessive running time. We're baffled ourselves, given that PH had achieved a kind of perfection of World War II movie hype — a self-perpetuating barrage masquerading as news, in which Dan Jennings Brokaw missed no opportunity to Meet With real Pearl Harbor Veterans As They Remember, or uncover "never-before-seen footage" of the actual bombing. If the American people were able to resist this kind of multimedia assault, it would say more for our national resolve than any wartime propaganda ever put up on the big screen.

But we suspect the real hype failure can be traced to the most intriguing "news" story of the week — the one about how Japanese-Americans were fearing reprisals after the film's premier. This seemed hard to believe for a film that could barely move audiences to hang around until the attack, let alone stir atavistic racist urges to go slash the tires of somebody's Sentra. But as the story got repeated and rerepeated, and then reiteratedby ethnic studies geniuses, and editorialized against by others, we naturally started to think, "Well hell, if everybody keeps saying it, it must be true!" Imagine our surprise this week, as vigilante beatings, looting incidents, and Manzanar deportations failed to break out in all the fifty states and Guam. "No wonder this country's going to hell!" we exclaimed.

But there's no getting around our own complicity. As everybody from CNN to Tribune Media joined up last week for the greatest movie suckup of the greatest generation in the greatest nation on the greatest planet in the universe, only Suck remained mopily 4-F, refusing to do our bit for the common good, hoarding gas and eggs, revealing troop ship schedules to bar girls who kept insisting they were actually from the Philippines. But this week we're ready to do our bit. Even if we shy from the physical violence that would provide the hard news angle Pearl Harbor appears to need, we're still pretty steamed about Kintetsu Enterprises' closing of San Francisco's Japantown bowling lanes. Maybe a furtive rotten egg attack might justify some of last week's manufactured hysteria, and help us fulfill that solemn duty to which all real journalists are pledged — eating shit for the greater good of Jerry Bruckheimer.

Where's that baldheaded fart Nicholson Baker when we need him? The latest rumor about the extinction of web content holds that Britannica.com is giving the ax to all its original material. And in what has become a familiar going-out-of-business strategy, the site will, according to one employee, "make all of the original articles we've published in the past inaccessible."

We've been down this road several times in the past, of course: the Etruscan extinction of Tripod's original content, the D.B. Cooper-ish disappearance of Word. Hell, even Feed, which talks such a big preservationist game when that bearded paper pusher Baker is in the house, appears unable to keep all its back issues in accessible form. We hold no brief for or against Britannica's decision to join the rout, and we're confident that freeing up all that server space will allow them to realize annual savings into the hundreds of dollars. But there's something perverse in eliminating the fruits of your own labors. Even a vinyl record collection you'd at least try to resell.

And make no mistake — these are the fruits of years of labor. The stock response to content destruction is to take a sip of Pinot Noir and mutter something about the "short history" of the Web. Just to put things in perspective, even if you count Web history as starting around 1994 (still too late for true believers), that's more than six years now — longer than that big war Ben Affleck fought in. At least the war left plenty of physical evidence. We were never true believers to begin with, but even we figured that in the end there'd be something left after all this effort. A functional Cool Links list, a charmingly dated "Ate My Balls" page, maybe the promo site for the Kilmer/Brando version of The Island of Doctor Moreau. Something, anything, rather than just this Krakatoa memory, echoing across an ocean whose smallness we're just beginning to fathom. In the end, maybe the only lasting thing in online content will be that in a hundred years, spam will still promise to help you "Find out ANYTHING about ANYONE with your PC!" — even while the Hormel Corporation's recently publicized surrender to reality makes the decline of its signature meat inevitable.

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