Thursday, January 25, 2007

Culture Shock 01.25.07: Pundits put Rich Little on notice

Rich Little's Ronald Reagan.

Who would have thought, in the year 2007, that so inoffensive a comedian as Rich Little could end up at the center of a political controversy?

It's not of his own making, mind you. In fact, it's the 69-year-old, Canadian-born impressionist's inoffensiveness that's the issue.

Little will be the featured entertainment at the White House Correspondents' Association's annual dinner April 21. This has led to accusations that the White House press corps is going soft on President Bush. Last year's speaker, Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert, skewered the president with a routine that was the talk of cable TV and the Internet for days afterward. Little's routine, everyone rightly assumes, will be a good deal less biting.

The rap against Little is that he hasn't been a big-name entertainer since the 1970s, when he was a staple on TV variety shows and Dean Martin's celebrity roasts. Most of the celebs in Little's repertoire — Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Burns, Johnny Carson, Jack Benny — are dead. Some, in fact, were dead before Little started impersonating them. W.C. Fields, anyone?

But this isn't a college crowd Little will be playing to at the event. This is the White House press corps. These people not only remember the '70s, they were covering the White House then. Remember Watergate? They wrote about it. In fact, they're still writing about it. They can't stop themselves.

Bob Woodward, you're on notice.

This isn't the same audience that watches "The Daily Show." Or, it wasn't until the press picked up on the fact that more young people get their news from Jon Stewart than from Katie Couric.

The Colbert incident aside, the correspondents' dinner isn't where you usually go for scathing political satire. Jay Leno provided the comic relief, if only in theory, in 2004. Al Franken was there during the Clinton administration, so that wasn't exactly confrontational. Besides, Franken hasn't been funny since 1980. And for the record, this isn't even the first time Little has appeared at the event. In 1985, President Reagan and Little (as Reagan) held a joint press conference.

I'll confess, I've always had a soft spot for Little, even though I'm about three decades younger than his target demographic.

In the early '80s, HBO aired "Rich Little's A Christmas Carol" twice a day for all of December. Or something like that. And I watched it every time I could. For years afterward, my career ambition was to be a celebrity impressionist. In fact, you should hear my Sean Connery.

Those making a fuss about the correspondents' dinner have their priorities confused. They shouldn't worry about the White House press corps making the president feel uncomfortable at a posh, black-tie event for the Washington elite. They should concern themselves with how the press deals with President Bush at real press conferences about real subjects that really matter.

Rich Little haters, you're on notice.

Just one last thought: Wouldn't it be funny if Little started his dinner routine with an impression of Stephen Colbert?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Culture Shock 01.18.07: Japanese pop culture reveals a two-way street

I remember when I was young and folks my grandparents’ age said they’d never buy a Japanese car because of Pearl Harbor.

Twenty-five years later, Toyota stands ready to become the No. 1 auto seller in America.

That’s a big story. But, in the long run, it isn’t the big story as far as relations between East and West are concerned. When it comes to lasting impact, anime trumps automobiles.

I’m using anime — Japanese cartoons — as an example. It was only the beginning of Japan’s cultural invasion of America.

Consider the recent TV commercial for Nintendo’s Wii game system. In it, two Japanese men drive up to a typical American home and ask if they can play, too. The ad’s soundtrack, by the Yoshida Brothers, is American trip-hop with traditional Japanese instruments — shamisen, or three-stringed Japanese lutes.

This commercial tells us two things.

First, it says that Japanese companies have come a long way since the days when they downplayed their origins. Now, Japanese pop culture is cool, and companies like Nintendo exploit that.

Second, it says influence goes both ways. The Japanese culture we’re getting in the U.S. has been subtlety Americanized, like the Yoshida Brothers’ jazz- and dance-flavored music.

This cultural give-and-take between America and Japan has been obvious for a decade. But it’s only now getting attention outside academia and a growing number of young people obsessed with anime and manga (Japanese animated films and comic books).

Roland Kelts’ recent book, “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S.” is one of the few books aimed primarily at a general audience to get it right. Kelts sees that it’s a two-way street.

Until recently, Western culture poured into Japan while little Japanese culture leaked out. In the 1850s, Commodore Matthew Perry forced the U.S. into Japan at gunpoint. Nearly a century later, Japan underwent a second round of U.S.-led Westernization as it recovered from World War II.

Then, in the 1950s and ’60s, a young Japanese cartoonist named Osamu Tezuka, who’d fallen in love with Disney cartoons, invented the distinctive style most Americans now envision when they think of anime — big eyes, small noses and spiked hair, all of which comes from Tezuka’s reworking of the Disney style.

When anime exploded onto American TV in the 1990s, after years of false starts, it was so exotic that entranced children scarcely noticed the hints of its American origins. Americans will probably never embrace purely Japanese artistic institutions like Noh theater. But Japanese culture tinged with Western influence is a different story.

Americans invented the comic book. But the Japanese turned it into a mass medium, enjoyed by people of all ages and backgrounds. Now, in America, where readership of traditional superhero comics is a fraction of what it once was, readership of translated manga is one of the few growth categories in all of publishing.

And the next round is already under way. American cartoons like “Teen Titans” and “The Powerpuff Girls” and American films like “Kill Bill” and “The Matrix” can’t hide the influence of Japanese pop culture.

In the early 21st century, the ages-old suspicions East and West have harbored for each other are giving way to a cycle of cultural cross-pollination that shows no sign of ending.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Culture Shock 01.11.07: Why 'You' became Person of the Year

Many in both the "establishment media" and the blogs greeted Time magazine's choice last month of "You" as Person of the Year with jeers and sneers.

Was Time, itself a charter member of the Media Establishment, pandering to its readers? Did Time's editors really think "You" deserving over, say, President Bush, Barak Obama or those nuts in Iran and North Korea? Were Time's editors, like some fortysomething father of three, trying, pathetically, to be hip? What gives?

Then, a few days later, what passes for the Iraqi government hanged Saddam Hussein, making him not only an ex-dictator, but an ex-Saddam. And soon afterward, low-resolution footage of the whole affair — stop, drop and snap, taken with a camera phone — debuted on the wildly popular Web site By now, it's probably the most-watched snuff film since JFK rode past the grassy knoll.

For once, Time magazine was right. You are the person of 2006.

Saddam's execution was meant to be shrouded in secrecy. But because of the Internet, now everyone can judge for themselves whether it was just or simply revenge for Saddam's decades of oppression. What I think doesn't matter. Thanks to YouTube, you can draw your own conclusion.

This is the breakthrough of the Internet. Until recently, the Internet was much like every other medium that had dominated before it. Like print, radio and television, it was largely one way — people in power talking to you. Now, with the rise of easy-to-use Web sites like Blogger, LiveJournal, MySpace and YouTube, which debuted in 2005, the Internet truly runs in both directions. You can talk back.

You no longer have to know the first thing about computer programming to have your own Web site, filled with your own thoughts, opinions, photographs and videos. Now, there is no gatekeeper, no middleman preventing you from finding an audience. While the big music and movie companies whine about diminishing profits and illegal downloads, amateur bands and filmmakers are posting their own material on MySpace and gaining a following.

The leak of the Saddam video proves that "You" — that is, anyone — can drive a story. But it's not such huge, headline-grabbing stories that, in the end, really matter. No, what matters are the millions of small stories being told by millions of people who now have a way to talk to the entire world.

Compared to biological evolution, cultural evolution occurs in the blink of an eye. Now it will occur even more rapidly. As the average person produces more and more content for the Internet, more and more ideas are subject to its great, electronic feedback loop, which weeds through them like the cyberspace equivalent of natural selection. Charles Darwin meets Bill Gates.

Post a video to YouTube, and viewers can rate it. Write a blog, and you live or die by the number of other sites that link to you. It's the same power Roman emperors wielded in the Coliseum, only dispersed among billions of thumbs and only metaphorically fatal.

Of course, there is still a place for one-way media. We all spend more time consuming content than creating it. But the ratio of consumption to creation is no longer as lopsided as it was.

There is a lot more creativity out there than before. And You are responsible.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Culture Shock 01.04.07: 'Lio' brings macabre humor to comics pages

If you're a reader of The Daily's comics pages, you've probably already noticed the change. Gone is longtime favorite "FoxTrot," and in its place is newcomer "Lio."

Changes on any newspaper's comics page don't come easy. Every strip has its following — although what some of you see in "Family Circus" I'll never understand. Drop one strip, and the outcry is so intense that you'd think you'd been caught drowning puppies.

But this time, the change was forced upon us when "FoxTrot" cartoonist Bill Amend decided to scale back his workload. He is now drawing only the Sunday strip, which The Daily still carries.

Normally, I'd be extremely upset by all of this. "FoxTrot," along with "Dilbert" and "Mutts," is one of my favorite strips, not counting reruns of "Peanuts." But even I must admit that we and other newspapers that have started carrying "Lio" in place of "FoxTrot" have traded up.

When I first learned about "Lio," I read all of the old strips going back to May 15, when it began syndication. I was amazed. No kidding, "Lio" isn't your typical comic strip.

"Lio" has a surreal, sometimes even macabre sense of humor that owes more to Charles Addams' "Addams Family" cartoons for The New Yorker than to anything currently appearing in the funny pages.

The title character is a little boy and aspiring mad scientist with a menagerie of bizarre pets — including a squid — and a habit of encountering menacing characters, from vampires and extraterrestrials to ants bent on world domination and the kite-eating tree that once menaced Charlie Brown.

Speaking of Charlie Brown, it's also not unusual for Lio to meet other comic-strip characters, or reasonably facsimiles. In one strip, Lio meets a homeless man with a small, stuffed tiger. The man is a thinly disguised Calvin from Bill Watterson's late, lamented strip "Calvin and Hobbes."

And the man has a sign that says, "Retired too early. Please help."

Part of Lio's charm is that he is keenly aware that he is a character in a comic strip. "Lio" is certainly not the first postmodern comic strip, but it is one of the few since "Krazy Kat" to bring a consistently postmodern, absurdist sensibility to daily newspapers.

The man behind "Lio" is Mark Tatulli, who also writes and draws the strip "Heart of the City" and is post-producer for the cable TV shows "Trading Spaces" and "A Wedding Story."

Tatulli, 43, who lives in Philadelphia, describes "Lio" as a pantomime strip with minimal text and seldom any dialogue.

The drawings tell the stories. That means each strip demands more attention than it takes to get the latest iteration of a Garfield-hates-Mondays joke.

With the retirement of Watterson, the demise of Gary Larson's "The Far Side" and the passing of "Peanuts" creator Charles Schultz, some have wondered if there is any life left in the daily comic strip. And, as an industry, daily newspapers have not helped matters, as we've been forced to scale back the space we devote to comics.

But "Lio" gives me hope that the daily comic strip may yet have some life left.