#KeepIt100: ‘The Nightly Show,’ Starring Me

“Oh my God, it’s Fareed Zakaria,” I whispered to Jen, my girlfriend. It is possible that Mr. Zakaria goes days between hearing something like that from non-famous people; it is possible that he can leave his house without a pen because he can expect a day without autograph requests.

I am a lifelong news junkie and talk show viewer, so in my world, Fareed Zakaria is very famous. He was one of the guest panelists Thursday night on “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore,” which Jen and I watched get made. Because I attended that taping and was in the audience for one of the last episodes of “The Colbert Report” in September, I thought it would be worth comparing the two experiences—”The Colbert Report” was very professional and “The Nightly Show” was not as professionally run, but this was okay. “Keep it 100,” as he would say.
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Peter Cook: Goodbye-ee

John Cleese has said that for him it often took hours of “grinding” work to write several minutes of comedy, but that Peter Cook could write three minutes of top-quality material in just over three minutes. It appeared to come to him that easily early in his career.

But he did work hard. As a writer and performer, Cook worked hard at avoiding politeness for politeness’ sake if a laugh was available instead. When the Prime Minister of England, Harold Macmillan, wanted to attend a performance of the hot new West End show, “Beyond the Fringe,” either no one told him that one part of the show was the performance of a monologue by Peter Cook as Macmillan and that Cook made Macmillan sound like a sluggish dolt, or it was expected that Cook would skip that section of the performance in deference to the nation’s leader. In the monologue, his Prime Minister reports on a visit with President Kennedy: “We talked of many things, including Great Britain’s position in the world as some kind of honest broker. I agreed with him when he said no nation could be more honest, and he agreed with me when I said no nation could be broker.”

Cook performed the monologue with Macmillan sitting before him and even ad libbed a sentence for the occasion:

When I’ve got a spare evening there’s nothing I like better than to wander over to a theatre and sit there listening to a group of sappy, urgent, vibrant young satirists, with a stupid great grin spread all over my silly old face.

To Macmillan’s credit, he is reported to have said—years later, mind you—that he felt it was “better to be mocked than ignored.” The audience, and the cast and crew backstage, reported years later that they felt a tense bubble inflate the theater that night as a great grin spread awkwardly across Macmillan’s face: Satire of this sort, the satire that names its object and is delivered in the face of the punchline himself, had not been seen in England in generations, if ever. The era of satire, which we still live in, was born.

Anything that I can biographize about Peter Cook, the brilliant wit and stylish subject of many anecdotes (about Peter Cook), can be found online quite quickly. One fact is this: The end of the story came twenty years ago today, January 9, when he died, age 57. As someone wrote today—and Cook might have said it himself—”it was too old to die young and too young to die old.

As a writer and performer, he ended on a high note: on December 17, 1993, he was all four guests on Clive Anderson’s talk show, “Clive Anderson Talks Back.” Anderson, the bland-but-game host of the first “Whose Line Is It Anyway” was also one of Britain’s best talk show hosts in the ’90s, mostly because he could play the straight man for his comedian guests. In one tour-de-force hour, Cook was Norman House, a mild-mannered “biscuit tester” who claimed to have been abducted by aliens from “the planet Ikea”; an enthusiastic football coach, Alan Latchley, who summed up his life philosophy as “Motivation, motivation, motivation”; Sir James Beauchamp, a judge; and rock legend Eric Daley, who had a not-very convincing message for young people about drugs: “Don’t do them.”

American audiences were exposed to Cook early, but not often. “Beyond the Fringe” was created to spotlight comedians from Cambridge and Oxford universities. (Both had and have highly regarded amateur theater clubs: the Revue at Oxford and Cambridge Footlights.) Four writer-performers who had become stars in their university stage shows and were probably aware and wary of each other’s work and reputations were thrown together and asked to be funny as a group. Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore were from the Oxford Revue, and Cook and Jonathan Miller were from Cambridge. It was a star-making show for each of the four; to this day, Bennett is a beloved playwright, Miller is a stage director and documentary show host, Moore became a movie star, and Cook became the answer from most comedians to the question, “Who makes you laugh?”

The show was sent to Broadway in 1962 in a foreshadowing of the British Invasion that came two years later. (Four amusing and clean-cut young men in black suits in 1962 were followed by four amusing, clean-cut, and mop-topped young men in black suits in 1964.) “Beyond the Fringe” was the first shot fired in the satirical ’60s; before the 1960s, it was the rare comedian who would dare make fun, even gentle fun, of political leaders in Britain or the U.S. After Fringe in Britain and “The First Family” record starring the sadly cursed Vaughn Meader in America, comedians added satire to their palette.

Comedy is not funny for being ground-breaking, however. One can call the president all sorts of satirical things—and many people do, every day—but if they are not funny things, they are not satirical, either; they are merely angry ejaculations or fussy musings. Beyond the Fringe was funny. In one of the best-known skits from the show, “One Leg Too Few,” Cook and Moore take an absurd premise and visit ever more absurd spots with it. The skit is also an example of the fertile imagination Cook seemed to be born with, as it is one he wrote at age 18 and it was little-revised.

Cook and Moore became a comedy duo on television, radio, records, and film. On television, they co-wrote and starred in “Not Only, But Also” and Cook wrote the film “Bedazzled” for them, and he wrote parts of and starred in one film himself, “The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer,” which did neither. (It was mostly written by John Cleese and Graham Chapman before “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”) Cook and the world learned one thing from his performance in the film: Peter Cook may have been good-looking enough to be the lead in any film, but when an audience can see that the actor does not believe that he ought to be the lead in even one film, and the one film they are watching is it, tickets go unsold. He was neither invited to be—nor asked to be one himself—a star again.

Cook’s 1970s and ’80s were spent as the “world’s greatest slacker,” in his words. Compared to his 1960s, another artist’s busy lifetime might pale in comparison. He earned the chance to slack. In the ’60s, he wrote and starred in a ground-breaking stage show (“Fringe”) and toured the world with it, started up a nightclub that helped define the “Swinging ’60s” in London, started a satirical magazine that is still in business (and whose staff still keeps his editor’s chair empty and awaiting him), wrote and starred in a couple movies, wrote some others, appeared in others, and wrote and starred in several television shows.

In the ’70s, his alcoholism occupied him; he told the talk show host Michael Parkinson as early as 1974 that he drank because he was “bored.” He performed drunk on stage and television in his act with Moore, now titled, “Behind the Fridge.” He quit drinking several times, joined and left A.A., joined again. He watched as his on-and-off comedy partner became a movie star in America (in any profile of Dudley Moore in the ’70s, it was mandatory to use the word “unlikely” in front of “movie star,” but Moore had worked hard at courting Hollywood) and he grew resentful. The duo, “Pete and Dud,” became “Derek and Clive,” an R- and sometimes rated-X-worthy act. For audiences who only knew Moore from “10” and “Arthur,” the recordings seem to be of a different human being. The raunchy (and sometimes drunk and angry) recordings were sometimes banned and many of them were only made public through bootlegs. This short clip is not safe for work, because of copious swearing in its brief 19 seconds.

The Derek and Clive tapes were prized rumors in Britain and the states—the cool guy in college had heard of the Derek and Clive tapes, but the quiet and cool guy had them. (I was neither.)

So the world’s greatest slacker spent his remaining decades appearing in many movies, some of which (“The Princess Bride”) were hits in the United States; re-visited his old skits, with and without Moore; recorded the Derek and Clive albums with Moore; and became a frequent talk show guest, albeit the type of guest who always came on with an idea, which he sometimes let the host know about. It was not at all a low-key performing life, just not a careerist’s one.

By the way, he was also a father.

He traveled around the globe, often chasing after his golf game, and his lucky friends received a constant stream of postcards:

One from Mallorca complained, ‘Far too many fish here. Love, Sven & Jutta’; another, from Scotland, insisted ‘Please ignore this card.’ One, from the Hyatt La Manga in Murcia, advised, ‘Re this: please see to that. Suggest you act on this later rather than sooner.’ Another reported ‘We’re at this pesky little place preparing for Team Levy’s Invincible Grand Prix Challange [sic].’

(Both the misspelling “challange” and “[sic]” are Cook’s in that last one.)

Rather than celebrate each birthday by blowing out candles that he was also burning at both ends, Cook kept a smaller creative flame going; it did not seem to interest him as much as it did his audience, which is too bad, but each time he was invited to participate on a television show and an old burned-out shell was expected by the host and audience, the old burned-out shell never materialized. Audiences never saw a Peter Cook who was not verbally brilliant and imaginatively accurate.

Few writers and performers embrace the show business lie, “Always leave them wanting more.” Neither did Peter Cook. His list of “did not writes” is as long as any other human being’s and is similarly useless to think about. The gift of his writing and performing in 35 years in show business is worth celebrating every day. He was funny in more ways—wit, surreal humor, drunken whale national anthems, offensive satire, absurd observations—by himself with four minutes of TV time than entire teams of comic writing staffs with big network budgets often are.

As seen in “It’s a Balloon” just above, his comedy was not cuddly and was often confrontational; he would be ridiculing anyone writing a column like this one. There have been several published today, so he would be busy.

So, twenty years on, goodbye Peter Cook. Here he and the also late Dudley Moore sing their theme song, “Goodbye,” with T-Bone Walker and Peter Sellers.

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‘Being There’

Contemporary accounts make it sound like watching the man perform on stage was like watching a man possessed: Fascinating and frightening, but a genius. He became world-famous and theaters billed him as the “Funniest Man on Earth.”

A later performer became an international superstar and said many times of himself, to interviewer after interviewer, “If you ask me to play myself, I will not know what to do. I do not know who or what I am.” Watching him was like watching a man possessed by the accents and mannerisms of any character. He also said, “There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed.” His questioner in this particular case was Kermit the Frog.
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How to Be a Live TV Audience

In honor of Stephen Colbert’s final “Colbert Report” tonight, here is a column I wrote in September about attending a taping of his show. Thanks for the memories, Stephen (and Gerry and Theresa).

The Gad About Town

Comedy Central’s two main franchise shows are both recorded in a part of New York City called “Hell’s Kitchen,” a section of Manhattan that extends about 25 blocks south and west of Central Park and west of Midtown over to the Hudson River. Most of the buildings in the neighborhood are former walk-ups and townhouses that are now offices for media companies; “The Colbert Report’s” studio looks like it was a house or storefront once upon a time.

The Thursday, September 18, 2014, broadcast of “The Colbert Report” was a very special one because I was in the audience, as I wrote yesterday, in “Four Minutes and 24 Years.” Terry Gilliam, the legendary film and theater director (the list is epic and includes: “Time Bandits,” “Brazil,” “The Fisher King,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “The Zero Theorem”) and Monty Python animator and cast member, was the guest.

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The Wall Flower, or, I Am Not D.B. Cooper

The only unsolved hijacking of an American plane took place on November 24, 1971. A person who may or may not have been named “Dan Cooper” hijacked a plane over the Pacific Northwest and demanded $200,000 and several parachutes. His demands were met, and he then demanded a flight toward Mexico City at a low altitude and slow rate of speed.

About forty-five minutes into the flight toward Mexico, somewhere over Washington state, at night, during a rainstorm, the man jumped. He and most of the money have not been found. The case remains an unsolved mystery. Because of a news media error, his name was reported as “D.B. Cooper,” and so the daring unknown hijacker has remained known by that mistaken moniker.

In 2007, an FBI Special Agent named Larry Carr opened the case files to the public to regenerate interest in the cold case and develop any new leads, if any could be developed almost four decades later. With no government funding, a team of investigators, called “Citizen Sleuths,” donated time and effort to study the case for three years and concluded nothing concrete but outlined the dozen or so most important lines of inquiry and debate.

Forty-three years on, the Cooper skyjacking remains unique in American crime annals.


“Dan Cooper,” not “D.B. Cooper.”

On Thanksgiving Eve, 1971, a man bought a one-way airline ticket from Portland to Seattle. In that pre-TSA era, no photo ID was copied and the passenger simply gave his name and the ticket sales clerk wrote it down: “Dan Cooper.” It was a twenty-dollar ticket and he paid cash. He boarded the plane, a Boeing 727. There were about forty people on board, passengers, crew, and Dan Cooper. He was wearing a dark suit, loafers, and a light, businessman’s raincoat. He carried a briefcase.

Cooper lit a cigarette, ordered a drink, and handed a note to the stewardess. She took it, but did not read it immediately. He got her attention again and bade her to read the note, which stated that he had a bomb and was hijacking the plane. He showed her the inside of his briefcase, and it had wires and looked like a bomb.

The stewardess conveyed the message to the pilot and he contacted the ground. In 1971, airline hijackings were surprisingly frequent: several dozen took place each year and the federal Sky Marshal program was brand-new. After the Cooper incident, passengers and their parcels began to be scrutinized regularly. Hijackings became a thing of the past until a later, more famous incident a few decades later.

The airline ordered that his demands be met. The demands: $200,000 in “negotiable American currency,” four parachutes, and that the plane be refueled in Seattle. None of the members of the crew who dealt with the man reported that he had a foreign accent, but “negotiable American currency” has perplexed everyone who has investigated the story. Who says that?

Foreign or not, he was polite. He remained in his seat, ordered and consumed a second drink, paid his tab, and offered to buy meals for the crew when they landed, for their trouble. On the ground, the money was delivered, the other passengers released, the nonessential crew released. Ten-thousand twenty-dollar bills had been assembled in several bundles of 100 bills each inside a knapsack, but each bill had been photographed, too. The plane was refueled and took off on a route towards Mexico City, the hijacker’s stated destination.

But he also had requested parachutes and that the plane be flown at the lowest altitude and slowest speed to maintain flight; he also wanted the cabin depressurized. He was to be left alone in the cabin and the aft stairs (at the back) were to be left down. (Since the Cooper incident, most commercial jets no longer have a aft set of stairs.) Told that such a configuration would be difficult to fly, he replied that he knew it would be safe, but would allow the flight to take off with the staircase in a stowed position. He would figure out how to open it himself.

About twenty minutes into the second flight, the crew detected a whoosh of air: the aft door had been opened. When they radioed to him to offer assistance, he refused any help, and that is the last anyone ever heard from the hijacker. Several minutes later, the tail of the plane bounced, indicating that he had jumped.

It was night, it was November, and it was raining. The air temperature outside the plane at its low flying altitude has been estimated as a −70°F wind chill. The hijacker did not change clothes from his dark suit, raincoat, and loafers, but he did take off his tie and leave it on the plane. So a man in dress-casual attire jumped from a 727 at night from 10,000 feet over a lot of forest. In that pre-GPS world, it is not known what land the plane was over when he jumped or when he pulled the ripcord, if he did. The plane, which was being trailed by military jets—but not for the entire trip, and not at this precise moment—landed in Reno.

The search started immediately, and in its own way, continues. The flight route has been scoured thoroughly, both on land and in the bodies of water he might have fallen into. Only two items have been found to date, and both were found years after the incident: the plane’s instruction card for lowering the back stairs, and a small portion (290 bills) of the money. None of the serial numbers have ever turned up in currency, so the money has not yet been spent. No one, not in Canada or America, neither a family nor an employer, reported a missing person in that time period who matched or came close to the description.

Anything written about the hijacker’s life before the incident is speculation, even if it is from detailed forensic analysis. For instance, it is now understood that his tie had DNA evidence on it and also bore minute particles of pure titanium, which is as curious as that sounds.

Several bundles of the cash turned up in 1980, but not quite where Cooper might have landed; they were heavily weathered, but still in rubber bands, which should have deteriorated between 1971 and 1980. Further, the area had been searched previously, and the bundles had not been found at that time. They were not complete bundles, either, as one was missing ten bills, but not from the top or bottom, the outside of the bundles. The missing bills were missing from the inside.

If Cooper was killed in the jump, nothing has turned up—no body, no items of clothing, no bones, and none of the money—in terrain that would not thoroughly absorb a human being’s existence. Except it did.

Whoever D.B. Cooper was, he probably never knew that he became an outlaw folk hero. Many novels, songs, movies and TV show episodes have offered fantasies about the case and about the outlaw who got away. In the TV show “Twin Peaks,” Kyle MacLachlan’s FBI agent character is named Dale Bartholomew Cooper, and the show is set in the Pacific Northwest. No characters comment on this, but when you think about it, it is as if Agent Cooper “parachuted into” the community.

Special Agent Carr’s conclusion on the Citizen Sleuths website sums up the infamous case:

For Cooper Sleuths, keep an eye out for a suspect from Canada, with military experience in airplanes. He would have come to this country to work in or around titanium metal fabrication. He was a gentleman, well dressed and smoked cigarettes. He was not the type to shy away from medication and knew his way around machinery, as well as the woods. Most notably, he probably lived a normal life and had one big problem that required about 200K in cash to solve.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 24 asks, “When was the last time you took a risk (big or small), and pushed your own boundaries—socially, professionally, or otherwise? Were you satisfied with the outcome?”

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How to Be a Live TV Audience

Comedy Central’s two main franchise shows are both recorded in a part of New York City called “Hell’s Kitchen,” a section of Manhattan that extends about 25 blocks south and west of Central Park and west of Midtown over to the Hudson River. Most of the buildings in the neighborhood are former walk-ups and townhouses that are now offices for media companies; “The Colbert Report’s” studio looks like it was a house or storefront once upon a time.

The Thursday, September 18, 2014, broadcast of “The Colbert Report” was a very special one because I was in the audience, as I wrote yesterday, in “Four Minutes and 24 Years.” Terry Gilliam, the legendary film and theater director (the list is epic and includes: “Time Bandits,” “Brazil,” “The Fisher King,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “The Zero Theorem”) and Monty Python animator and cast member, was the guest.

The studio is on the same level as the street outside, but it takes a lifetime to get there. Sorry, that was a sentence from a television ad for a college course in broadcasting that I am working on. We should go back outside.

The tickets for live-on-tape broadcasts are free, because these shows need a full and loudly enthusiastic house for each and every show and the producers do not want people who feel that sense of hostile proprietorship that can come with a ticket purchase. (They do not want an audience of people with crossed arms and an attitude of, “Entertain me.”) A theatrical performance in front of an empty house could nonetheless be great but a television show performed to silence and a performer feeding off the silence could be horrifying to watch unfold. (Only Johnny Carson seemed to be able to work with a not-yet-impressed audience.)

The producers also do not want an audience of people off the street, happy to receive free things, but not aware of how to be an audience. Talk with a stage actor sometime. He or she will tell you stories of the weirdest things that have happened during performances: cell phones going off, of course, but also people taking the phone call; people walking across the stage (especially in theaters with the stage and seats on the same level) looking for a restroom; audience members yelling at or asking questions of the characters as if they are in their easy chair yelling at a TV screen; babies crying. The audience is supposed to be separate from the performance, with some exceptions. A live television show audience is not at a stage show; the audience is a part of the show: the audience is the soundtrack.

Thus, the audience is coached on this point by producers before the taping begins. And then re-coached. The performance at first felt like a pop quiz to gauge how well we had absorbed the coaching. It also felt like if we were insufficiently enthusiastic, we would be escorted back out to 54th Street.

The process of acquiring these free tickets varies from show to show but all of the shows use the method to establish that the audience is made up of fans. (Willing to be loud. Happy to pretend to not be faking enthusiasm.) Some shows use online trivia contests to winnow out the casual fans. My method was the easiest for me: I have a friend who has done this before (he attended “The Daily Show”) and wanted to do it again and invited me.

(Would that we had attended “The Daily Show” last Thursday; former President Clinton was there that day.)

The tickets one receives for registering online for a television taping are not tickets as one usually thinks of them. They do not guarantee a seat. They guarantee a spot on line, in a covered alleyway where one waits for the doors to open. We arrived early, chatted with the show assistants, and waited some more. The assistants are talented at a particular task: they quickly learn who is with whom, names, who has special needs. My friend’s wife sat with me at a coffeeshop for a few minutes while he held our group spot on line, then they traded: she went back and he sat with me. When he and I rejoined the line we found that we could not see her; one of the assistants got our attention (not vice versa, They. Ran. Us. Down), gave us our seat tickets, and ushered us into a room in the building, where she already was.

My thumb.

My thumb.

In that room, one goes through a security checkpoint and then waits. For over an hour. It is a square room, maybe 25 X 25 feet, extraordinarily air conditioned. Several monitors play old Colbert shows on a “Best of” loop. The walls are plastered with Colbert memorabilia. Over the next few minutes, the entire audience-to-be was herded into this room, which made clear the need for extreme air conditioning. Seeing I walk with a cane, one assistant walked me through the crowd to a bench.

Twice an assistant addressed the crowd. Both times the message was: “This is very special. Stephen is going to chat with you before the show, so have some questions ready.” (Perhaps he does this every show and they tell the audience it is special.) “When you’re watching the show at home, you only chuckle at the jokes because you’re thinking about your own life and you hear the audience in your TV laughing uproariously. You’re the audience in someone’s TV now. Whatever you’re going to laugh at, laugh loudly.”

The doors to the set were opened and people were ushered in by ticket number but in small groups; my group of four friends went in together. The bleachers do not have banisters, something which I was anxious about as a person with spinal muscular atrophy and thus almost no balance on stairs, even with a death grip on a railing. One of the assistants saw my cane and the four of us were thus seated in the front, over by the interview table. The stage manager and then the warm-up act coached us some more in the finer points of yelling our laughter. (Since all of you have heard my voice in an earlier post, you should be able to hear me clearly if you watch the show. Of course.)

Contrary to what I thought, the show is not taped in real time; Colbert made one verbal typo and they recorded a do-over, the commercial breaks were over ten minutes each, the interview with Terry Gilliam was over 15 minutes, of which about not quite 10 made the show. The affection between Colbert and his staff was obvious: at one point, while a hairdresser was combing his hair, he started pretending to comb hers. He indeed took questions before the show and again after. All told, we were in the studio for a bit over an hour for a 21-minute show.

The broadcast will be available for free on the website for the rest of this week, so here is the link: The Colbert Report with Terry Gilliam. And here is the 60 second edit:

It was a fun day and night in NYC, thanks to Gerry, Theresa, Ron, Bob and Kevin, and all of New York City. Even the panhandler on the train from Secaucus.

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The Gad About Town is on Facebook! Subscribe today. Daily facts (well, trivia) about literature and history plus links to other writers.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for April 9 asks, “If you could learn a trade—say carpentry, electrical work, roofing, landscaping, plumbing, flooring, drywall—you name it—what skill(s) would you love to have in your back pocket?” TV host. I am heading to NYC today with my one and only, Jen, to view tonight’s taping of “The Nightly Show,” starring Larry Wilmore. It is in the same theater as “The Colbert Report” was recorded each night. That is the reason for re-running this column from September. Tune in tonight at 11:30 EST on Comedy Central to see if you catch a glimpse of me and my love. Full updates tomorrow.

Daily Prompt: Four Minutes and 24 Years

The benches in front of 1 Penn Plaza, along West 34th Street, are lively at lunchtime and look like they remain so long after lunch, as deliverymen pick up and drop off all day long and limo drivers waiting for their VIPs kibitz with one another and with passersby who want to know how famous the person about to become their next brush with fame is and whether he or she is worth pausing for on their way to their next New York City attraction.

There was no reason for me to be in front of the famous skyscraper to make this observation last Thursday afternoon. Five minutes before passing the limo drivers and their VIPs and the lunchtime crowd, I was finishing up being lost in Penn Station, the renowned train- and bus- and everything else station (flying saucers will someday land there because it is shaped like one). Ten minutes before that, frustrated that I could not find a sign directing me to exactly where I was going, many many blocks away, I reasoned that any door with sunlight coming through it and people’s shadows walking past must lead to the outside and a street, any street, and the possibility that, once there, I would be able to figure out where I am. In New York City, on the streets, I am (usually) okay, since it is one of the easiest cities to negotiate on foot. It’s a grid. (Mostly.)

That hunch led me up one staircase to plate glass doors that entered into Madison Square Garden. I headed back down that staircase.

Out on the street, I made my way back around MSG to the front of Penn Station and then onward, north along 8th Ave. to have coffee with a college classmate and then meet up with other friends to attend a taping of “The Colbert Report.”

The college classmate and I had not seen each other in almost 24 years, when I had thrown a post-graduation party he attended; thoughts and memories of this party were on my mind while I strolled up 8th. Cars were blocking the crosswalk, so instead of waiting to cross, I turned right and started over to 7th, where I would continue my northward stroll.

This is how small a moment any moment can truly be. Had the crossing been available, I would have continued on 8th. But sitting on a bench on 34th Street at that moment was another college classmate, in fact the co-host of that post-graduation party, someone I have not seen or spoken with in three years and who did not know I was in New York City. He has an office in 1 Penn Plaza and was on his lunch break, people-watching.

Had I walked past ten minutes earlier, I would have missed him, but I had just spent those ten minutes escaping from Penn Station.

“Is that … Kevin? Really?” I thought to myself. Can’t be. I was not going to say anything; I was going to walk past the person who I assumed was a merely a stranger with a familiar face, since how could it be that I would bump into a long-ago friend in this giant city; a hunch had just now almost gotten me lost in Madison Square Garden. I had better leave the hunching business to others, I thought.

“Mark?” That settled it; it was my old friend. With one friend waiting for me in a restaurant in midtown and about 20 more blocks to walk, I had about four minutes to bring my graduate school housemate up to date. He had the same four minutes to bring me up to date. What was I doing in the city. What was he doing on that bench. Our relationship statusi, our work situations, my physical condition. How long it had been since. How utterly baffling the fact of what we were experiencing right then was. Why I was not taking the subway instead of walking 20-plus blocks. We finally, after all these years, exchanged phone numbers.

“How long has it been?” That was my other friend’s first question as I walked in the restaurant, a few minutes later. I reminded him: 24 years. And an extra 10 minutes because I had run into someone. He, too, was on his lunch break, so we had limited time in which to reacquaint each other with each other. Relationships, work, life.

How much time does it really take to tell someone what you’ve done and seen? Maybe it only takes about four minutes to (re)establish who you are and the rest is elaboration with anecdotes.

Who am I? Someone who takes 10 minutes to get out of a wide-open train station but is happy at the social accident that was thus made possible.

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colbert ticket2

My thumb.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for September 22 asks, “You’re about to enter a room full of strangers, where you will have exactly four minutes to tell a story that would convey who you really are. What’s your story?”

Daily Prompt: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty …’

(Some thought-fragments about art with a small a and Beauty with a capital B.) (Or vice versa.)

The title is from the final lines of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which the poet ends by telling us that the centuries-old vase he has been describing serves as a reminder that, “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'” Earlier the poet also says, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter … .”

The ones I can not hear, because I am a mere mortal and what I hear on Earth is all I need to know, those are the sweeter ones. O, vile mortality!

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Some experiences are almost universal: without sharing a common language, audiences will laugh at many of the same things. A person slipping on a banana peel. The fish-slapping dance. Analysis of comedy kills comedy (unless one is making fun of analyzing comedy) because laughter is more than a feeling, it is a reaction; when honestly expressed, it comes in an instant. Conversely, some experiences are unique to each one of us: all of us experience physical and/or emotional pain, but the best any of us can do is talk around it in an attempt to almost come close to describing it. Pain management specialists present their patients with a chart of a series of faces and ask the patients to circle the grimacing face that “matches” how they feel. It is simplistic, but it does something important in that it asks us to leave language, which can be misinterpreted, aside.

Language. The most vile and hateful sentiments can be expressed in sentences that might sound pretty when they are spoken. There is probably a language in which the sentence “I am going to kill you” would make me swoon just before I got shot.

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What makes me laugh might make you cry (if you were the person who slipped and fell) and what makes me cry might make you laugh. There is much ugliness in this world and someone somewhere finds harsh and violent things funny.

I find the sentence on that poster at the top, “We all have within us our own …,” which is a piece of typical Facebook inspiration-stuff, a poster that is designed to elicit a hopeful gaze or something, to be clunky and, worse, empty. Sunsets are nice and all, but why put words all over one? (I would rather the Kadampa Center had just put a picture of their temple on there.)

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To the best we can tell, birds are singing shopping lists to each other. “Seeds over here, seeds over here; nice sturdy branch I’m standing on.” The most boring and necessary stuff, but pretty to our ears, a sweet unheard melody to Keats.

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alainWe teach each other what we find beautiful. The cartoon at right captures, without words, something of this. Artists in a class learn to depict reality, but what about the world made Egyptians in the era of the pyramids and pharaohs depict things and humans as they did? We look the same now as we did then, but the art seen in the ancient (and beautiful) monuments does not look like our twenty-first century reality. Did life in the ancient world look all that different to eyes that are biologically identical to ours?

Certainly not. The same cartoon could be drawn about art classes from other eras: the flat crowds with identical faces in Giotto’s scenes, the extraordinary gowns and suits that probably rendered most people who wore them immobile for longer than the time it took to to sit for just the start of a portrait.

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Someone might bring up the Cubists, Picasso specifically. At different points in the cultural history of art, the visual and the performing arts diverge from mass notions of “pretty.” They always seem to reconvene, usually when the mass notions of pretty start to include the works of art the masses once rejected. Rocks were thrown at the orchestra during the debut performance of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” because it sounded so odd. You might hear snippets of it in television ads during NFL games now.

I can tell you that for me, Picasso’s drawing line is voluptuous and his color scheme, well, beautiful. And the intellectual challenge the Cubists presented themselves and attempted to conquer: to include time and time’s passage in a static form, painting (which is why two eyes will appear on the same side of a human head—think of any photo you have taken in which someone turned away just as the camera snapped); I find the intellectual challenge and game and the attempt to meet and match it exciting and, well, here is that word again: beautiful.

Here is one of David Hockney’s “joiners,” a type of photo-collage that he explored in the 1970s and ’80s. It is made of 77 Polaroid photos of a swimming pool taken as the sunlight shifted through the day, photos taken over the period of time that it would take to make 77 Polaroid photos with one camera and one artist. Pretty as a sunset but with time added as a design element as important as color in the image. It is a Cubist sunset. It is a beautiful attempt at one. hockney-sun-on-the-pool

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for September 16 asks, “We’ve all heard that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Do you agree? is all beauty contingent on a subjective point of view?” The answer is a definite and thus easily questioned simultaneous yes and no.

There is a famous “Twilight Zone” episode that I am sure someone else has referenced in their response, titled “The Eye of the Beholder,” in which a world that culturally dictates notions of physical beauty sends away people that we Americans of a certain era might find beautiful. We live in neither a world of only sunsets and platitudes and easy listening music nor in one in which we force one precise, single idea of beauty on one another, and that, that in itself, is beautiful. (Sadly, this is not true in every country, not right now; in some countries, Rod Serling’s script might seem to present a pretty good idea.)