Sunday, June 03, 2012

TV: American Liars

With American Masters, PBS pretends they accomplish something important each week.  We guess that's true, if you rank pulling the wool over people's eyes highly.


A documentary is supposed to be truthful.  But there's nothing truthful about American Masters -- especially when it passes off others work as their own as it regularly does airing documentary films they had nothing to do with.  (Kenneth Bowser's Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune is an excellent documentary that American Masters aired -- the program did not produce the documentary.)  A documentary from PBS is supposed to be fair.  And there's nothing fair about the bulk of the crap they air unless the person is long dead.

But even death doesn't ensure that PBS can tell the truth.  Take the never-grow up fan boy Peter Jones who spent 15 years attempting to tell the story of TV host Johnny Carson.  Now we're not saying there's no story there.  Certainly the man who used late night television to proposition and hook up with Sally Field, Morgan Fairchild and so many other women might make for a riveting documentary.  But fan boyz like Peter Jones are more interested in hiding the only things of interest in order to pimp their beloved.

15 years begging to make a documentary and he can't even get his facts right.  15 years and it's not even remotely honest about Carson or anyone else.

Take  Joan Rivers.  Jones gets it right that she was named permanent guest host of The Tonight Show in 1983.  That is correct.  They claim this was a reflection of the "love" Johnny Carson had for Joan.  That's debatable.  When Joan was named permanent guest host, she already had a record of being the guest host who delivered ratings and the network as well as the affiliates had made it known in 1982 that they wanted Joan.  "Love" may or may not have been part of it but "love" didn't initiate the pressure on Johnny Carson (who owned the show at that point).  Then they play clips including one of Joan  correcting Johnny when he says she always compliments the show saying how much she owes to it.  "To you," Joan says. "Not to The Tonight Show, to you."

Then we're shown a clip from 1986 and told "Joan Rivers knew this would be her last appearance with the man that launched her career."  Another lie.  Another attempt to slant the story.  Another attempt to whore and, don't you know, another attempt to trash a woman.  If The Tonight Show launched Joan's career -- a debatable claim -- then it did so under Jack Paar.  Joan was a Tonight Show guest of many years -- including many years before Johnny Carson ever hosted the program. It takes a special kind of whoring to rewrite history in the way PBS did.

In fact, piece of news here, Joan had Johnny Carson as a guest on her own talk show before Johnny was ever host of The Tonight Show.

So when the announcer tells you "she wore the same dress from her 1965 debut," he's lying.  He's a lying piece of trash.  Joan's debut on The Tonight Show came under Jack Parr and she was a guest more than one when Jack Paar was the host of The Tonight Show.

Then its time for sexists to 'tell' the story.

Bill Zehme:  At that point she'd already been talking with Fox and already had a deal for a show of her own but what she didn't do was tell him long before.

Peter Lassally:  The night before she announced that she was starting her show on Fox at a press conference, Johnny got wind of that because she never went to Johnny and said, 'Hey, I've got this wonderful opportunity and I hope I have your blessings but I wanted you to know.  She never did that.  She never, ever mentioned it. 

To fall back to that time period: Uh, hold the phone, E.T.

First off, Peter Lassally is a useless vain glory known for taking checks for blowing smoke up his employers asses -- not known for every delivering on anything.  For example, if he had any real talent, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson would be a ratings juggernaut instead of fading show repeatedly bested by Jimmy Fallon.   Second, Bill Zehme's sexism is notorious (and on full display in the documentary).

Joan Rivers didn't owe anyone her life or her first-born.

Not only was Joan on Jack Paar's The Tonight Show, she also did Ed Sullivan's show before Johnny took over The Tonight Show in 1965.  She had a career, a thriving career.  She was one of the few female comics that did.  Her comic persona, like most personas, grabbed a social stereotype and expanded upon it.  For Joan, that was the gossipy and bitchy woman.  She made it very funny and imploded the stereotype.  (Some accuse her of perpetuating the stereotype.  As a comedy pioneer, Joan Rivers deserves credit that she's largely never given.  She and Phyllis Diller are part of a wave that changed mainstream comedy.)

She was huge in NYC and was already playing to packed houses across the country.

Even if Johnny's show had been her first show, however, it's so very telling that Johnny's little flunkies feel she owes everything to him when Red Skelton so graciously refused to claim Johnny owed him a debt, stating he just put Johnny on TV, that the success and response was a result of what Johnny did.

Joan Rivers owed him nothing.  When she appeared on his show in the 80s, he wasn't doing her a favor.  As guest or host, she always brought with her a huge spike in the ratings.  Carson was old hat and an old man.  In the 80s, he was lost.  His sniggering at gays and lesbians, really not that funny in the 70s and by the 80s more and more people found him obsolete.  Joan Rivers had a large fan base including many gay people.  She brought modernity to his otherwise creaky show that was honestly creepy as he continued to hit on young women on the air.  (And more and more women were telling their agents they didn't want to sit across from Johnny.)  With his bald spot and his 70s sideburns, Carson looked as ridiculous in the 80s as the  soon-to-be forty Seth Meyers looks trying to do Weekend Update on the 'young people's show' Saturday Night Live.

Some will say, "That's your opinion."  And it is.  It is our opinion that Joan Rivers -- or any other guest (including those that slept with him) -- didn't owe Carson a damn thing.  We don't believe, for example, that Elvis or the Beatles owe Ed Sullivan a damn thing either.  And we can't recall ever hearing anyone make the claim that they did.  So we're wondering why it is that a woman -- a successful one who carved a career by herself and has maintained one all these years when so many men couldn't -- is said to "owe" some man anything?

If Joan owed Johnny, if you accept that nonsense, then certainly he owed Joan.  She was getting strong ratings -- better ratings, in fact -- when she would grab the show for a week of guest hosting.  A detail that they like to skip.

(However, the 'documentary' loves to make absurd claims to inflate Johnny Carson including insisting that a 1969 broadcast had over 45 million viewers.  No, over 45 million people didn't watch a late night broadcast.  The local ratings don't prove that. And that's what you have to do, to get a figure, because there was no national rating released on that program by Nielsen.  It was generally said to have been 21.4 million viewers in real time.  Some have asserted the claim of 40 million but, in real time, the press reported 21.4 million. That was the accepted number for years.  Tiny Tim's death prompted some to suddenly elevate the number to 40 million in the late 90s.  Now we're upping it to 45 million? And no "85% of all viewers" did not watch the broadcast.  85% is the number for NYC only and NYC was its best market.  These things are called "facts."  Documentaries should include them.)

Why did Joan Rivers decide to do her own show?  Fox was not her first offer for a late night show.  Why did she decide to leave The Tonight Show?

If it was truly a program with integrity or respect for the truth, viewers might have learned that Johnny and NBC came up with a list of replacements for him for when he retired.  Joan was now the permanent host.  There were ten names on the list.  These were who the network and Johnny could agree on.  When this is noted today, those rare times, it's usually implied that it was all the network.  No, Johnny had input too.  He and the network came up with that list.

Joan was delivering ratings and was the permanent guest host.  That she wasn't number one on the list must have been hurtful.  That she didn't even make the list was outrageous.

Trust is a two-way street unless it's PBS and they want to trash a woman.  Then they vanish that detail, they vanish the entire reason Joan Rivers was ready to leave The Tonight Show.  And little liar Peter Jones goes around giving interviews claiming Joan Rivers betrayed Carson.

If there was a betrayal of anyone, the first betrayal was when Joan Rivers was not considered for permanent replacement host.

This is not a minor detail.  Nor is it minor that women are excluded from the documentary.  We don't mean the wives of Carson though only one is present.  Or even his many lovers.  Peter Jones features one male comedian after another and other than learning that Garry Shandling is now bigger than William Conrad, we don't think we learned much of anything.  Ellen DeGeneres is featured in a clip before the documentary starts, then in a clip when she was on Carson's show, and then a clip of her briefly talking about that.  Roseanne's not featured.  In fact, Ellen's one of the few female artists to speak to the film maker. (Angie Dickinson speaks briefly of her on-again-off-again affair with Carson.)

Need more exmaples?  How about that 'documentary' on Pearl Jam?  Directed by Cameron Crowe, so, no, you're not getting a real documentary there either.  (Crowe is too involved with Eddie Vedder to offer a honest look at any group Vedder's in.)  Bigger question: Why Pearl Jam?

Did they do anything?

Oh, it was the 20th anniversary since they started the group.  Oh.  Okay.

Crowe treats them as the Kings of Grunge.  Americans didn't treat them that way.  Kurt Cobain's Nirvana held the title.  Pearl Jam was just one of the many bands that envied Kurt. Eddie envied him so much that when then-President Bill Clinton felt he needed to say something about Cobain's suicide, Eddie insisted it would be better for the nation if nothing was said.  That's a whole lot of professional jealousy right there.

Don't look for that or anything else in Crowe's homage to Vedder and his hog-calling style of vocalizing.  You get more reality in a 'documentary' on E! or VH1.  And that's what's really shameful, that PBS airs this sort of fawning and fiction under the umbrella of "documentary" -- thereby misinforming many Americans while letting others know just how little facts matter to PBS.

Maybe facts just don't matter at all anymore?  If they've gone out of fashion, that would certainly explain Stephanie Cutter's appearance last Wednesday on MSNBC's The Daily Rundown which we caught when News Nation with Tamrom Hall played the clip.

Focusing on the clip, Cutter's about to cry as she declares, "This is a presidential race.  Presidential races are about choices. And we have an obligation to ensure that what Mitt Romney says, he's held accountable for."  By the time she's saying "we have an obligation," her voice is breaking.

What the hell was that?

We longed for a moment, like the one in Penny Marshall's A League of Their Own, for someone to show up and insist, "There's no crying in politics!"

And why did everyone in the media avert their eyes?

[In the longer segment with Chuck Todd, at 1:56 she first becomes close to losing it.  One hint, breathe during your attacks, Stephanie.  You might not tremble and whimper so much.  She's so pathetic in the Chuck Todd segment and you just wish Chuck would hand her a tissue and go to commercial.  And there's nothing more pathetic than a man or woman thinking they're tough-talkers while they whimper.]

After the incident, Molly Ball writes 1616 words of purple prose for The Atlantic, shining it on about the greatness of Stephanie Cutter, a 'real' liberal (because real ones work for Timothy Geithner?) and proving that Cutter's amazing because a few people online left some comments saying so?

In January 2008, the press couldn't shut up about Hillary Clinton's supposed tears (she never cried).  Apparently, it's only news when it's Hillary.  In August of that same year, Joe Biden would cry -- tears -- in public and no one really made anything out of it.  Now the White House attack dog nearly loses it on live TV and everyone looks the other way?  

1616 words and Molly Ball can't make time for it?  What kind of political erotica writer is she?

Our favorite response to Ball's nonsense is from "sourcreamus" whose comments include:

This is how journalism works.  You give me access and I will write a fawning article about you. 
I loved this part:  "Shrum said in an interview, "She believes society ought to be fairer so that middle-class kids like she once was can get a break in life.""
It is about time pretty blond women from the middle class finally get a fair shake in this country.

And that is funny and well said.  But it's also true, especially 'give me access and I will write a fawning article' or, in the case of 'documentaries' that American Masters airs, 'give me face time and I will churn out a fawning film about you.'

There are many ways to cover the arts -- and we support arts coverage.  But we support honest arts coverage.  We support thinking arts coverage.  And, for the record, a hundred-and-twenty-five funny boys telling us Carson or someone else is funny?  That's a waste of film.  If someone's funny, you show it.  You don't need to prop it up repeatedly with testimonials if they're truly funny.  Testimonials, check any infomercial, are to sell products, not to display someone's talent.   It's not just the lies that damage this PBS program, it's the inability of the 'documentaries' to even capture what their subject did to ever makes them worthy of  discussion to begin with.

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