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8. Best Lost Cause: Taboo
I was a fan of this Boy George memoir-pastiche musical when it played in a deconsecrated church basement in the West End in 2002. I liked the changes writer Charles Busch and producer Rosie O’Donnell made for the Broadway version that opened in November. No one else did (apparently including Busch and O’Donnell), so “Taboo” will close in two weeks. It follows the fate of my previous lost-cause musical, “Dance of the Vampires,” and makes me apprehensive about the U.S. reception awaiting two favorite Wend End shows, “Bombay Dreams” and “Jerry Springer: The Opera.” But if you’re a fan of sprightly songs and imaginative staging, you gotta love these shows, however unfashionable they may be. And if you have a column like this, you gotta write about them.
Honorable Mention: Cigarettes
Smoking is not only unfashionable in New York City, it’s practically illegal. (Which of course makes it fashionable. Don’t politicians know anything?) For an elegant survey of the nicotine culture, read Richard Klein’s “Cigarettes are Sublime.” Health Squad Dictators, take note: after writing his book, Klein gave up smoking.
9. Best Fake News Source: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
For centuries, the only upside to world-wracking catastrophes was a spike in newspaper circulation. Now there’s a better reason to hope that omnipotent nations with feelings of impotence will invade unthreatening countries eight time zones away, that presidential candidates will respond to caucus trouncings with manic war-whoops, and that professional athletes will mistake hotel employees for call girls. That reason is “The Daily Show,” to which I paid tribute in an April column on the Iraq war. The show’s fake-news format is simple: the near-uncontrollably charming Jon Stewart acts as anchor and hall monitor to a quintet of raving reporters. I think I’d like “The Daily Show” even if its politics did not echo mine (anarcho-leftist), but it’s worth cherishing precisely because it offers an alternative to the rabid-right and timid-centrist slants of the “real” news networks.
Stewart & Co.’s coverage of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and its tragicomic aftershocks, was a sanity-saver in those dark days and firebomb nights when most news teams were getting bursitis from rampant flag-waving. Supposedly the American viewer wanted it that way; news consultants had advised the networks to chauvinize their Gulf War II reporting to get it in synch with the national mood. (This despite mammoth antiwar rallies before and during the war.) BBC World News, available in bulk on some PBS stations last spring, did report Operation Iraqi Freedom as if it were an iffy politico-military sortie. But at most U.S. news outlets, journalistic neutrality was deemed a short step from treason. So they played it like a three-week pro-war rally for the Bush Doctrine Triumph of the W. Only “The Daily Show” called the incursion what it was: a “Mess O’ Potamia.” “Rubble Without a Cause.”
In the violent, chaotic months that followed when the Coalition occupiers could find no chemical or biological weapons, and the Bush babies’ search for WMD was tweaked to mean “Where’s My Dictator?” the “real” cable news staffs returned to their abiding preoccupations with Scott Peterson and Michael Jackson. But Stewart & Co. stayed on the case, often devoting a higher portion of their show to the Iraq than the NBC, CBS or ABC nightly newscasts did. Incidentally, “The Daily Show” accomplished this pretty noble task with a consistent rare wit. We say rare because David Letterman’s case of Tourette’s Syndrome on the subject of Bill Clinton sex life is now entering its seventh year, and because the “Weekend Update” segment on “Saturday Night Live,” with Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey at the desk, has devolved into a frat-boy-and-brainy-coed giggle fest devoid of political bite or professional poise. Fortunately, brilliant social satire is alive and kicking, four nights a week on Comedy Central.
Honorable Mention: Fox News Channel
Who needs real news when Joe Millionaire peddles greed and deceit on Fox, and Rupert Billionaire unleashes fairly unbalanced journaloids on Fox News to shout down any politician to the left of Paul Wolfowitz? From its New Year’s Eve-style countdown to the first Baghdad bombing to its lurid obsession with Hillary Clinton as antichrist, Fox News reinvented social irresponsibility. The channel is to news what reality TV is to reality: its calculated subverter, its smirking betrayer. As “The Daily Show” is arguably the last real-news program, Fox News is the first fake-news network.
10. Best Fight: Bollywood Brouhaha
Hundreds of e-mails supportive, instructive, dismissive responded to three columns on Indian cinema. I was pleased by the care readers took to educate me on some points, debate others. Most of the messages were gracious; the more agitated readers vented their annoyance in the chat room of bollywood.com, a kind of cybershrink for Hindi movie fans. But a nation of a billion fans and a thousand movies a year (I now know that number is right) is bound to harvest controversy. I’m pleased to have heard from the cream of the crop.
Honorable Mention: Bob Hope Obit
That was the problem: it wasn’t an obit. I wrote two columns on America’s geriatric funnyman to celebrate his 100th birthday in May. The evaluation was measured and, I thought, sympathetic, and passed without much comment. Two months later, Hope died. The columns were reposted and mention of his death added. Then the poison darts of e-mail whizzed my way the how-could-you’s and you-cur’s. All of which underlines a popular misconception of Obits (which the Hope essays weren’t) as an opportunity to speak nice of the dead. The writer’s duty at such a moment is to speak accurately, to put a life in context. Report the facts. Express your considered opinions. Don’t airbrush the warts. Write without fear but with compassion.
This week I received an e-mail from Anna Apostolides Mini, a daughter of Phil Dick and his second wife Kleo Apostolides. In 1981, a few months before his death, Dick wrote a letter to a friend that described his willfully crashing his car into a wall. It was, he declared, an act of protest: “I wanted to protest my enslavement to two decades of writing in order to pay spousal support, child support, send my older daughter to Stanford, my youngest boy to a private school, buy my ex-wife Tessa a $150,000 house...” Apparently objecting to my citation of this letter (which appears in the Sutin biography) and to my mention of the millions flowing to the Dick estate from the sale of movie rights to his stories, Dr. Mini writes:
“While it is of course nice that my mother is finally receiving *some* recognition for her contribution to Philip's work not only did he start writing during their marriage, but she was his proofreader and editor, in addition to being the primary breadwinner for the couple for six years of their eight-year marriage it is deeply offensive to both her and me to keep reading about the terrible financial strain his ex-wives were upon Philip. In my mother's case, this is both unfair and untrue. Mr. Corliss, Kleo Apostolides Dick Mini has not received a single cent from Philip's writing since 1958, when the marriage ended. Although ‘Minority Report,’ ‘Paycheck’ and ‘The Short Happy Life of Brown Oxford,’ to name but a few, were all written during their marriage, Mother was not even notified by the estate when the rights were sold, nor did she receive any share of the proceeds from the sale of the movie rights.... Obviously, I would like for you to print a retraction of the implied slur against my mother as soon as possible.”
If I were as zealous in defending my reputation as Dr. Mini is in protecting her mother’s, I would say no slur was implied or could be reasonably inferred. I have nothing to retract. But I am happy to hear from the daughter of Dick’s wife and muse in his first, wildly productive period in which he also produced the stories that were filmed as “Screamers” and “Impostor” and to air her grievance. Eric Bentley said that writing theater criticism is like “walking on live bodies.” Writing about classic pop culture, I risk walking on the dead and living alike.
Despite or because of such a challenge, I still love writing this column, burdening the TIME.com bandwidth with words words words (more than 100,000 each year) about the actors and singers and writers I grew up with, and about those retro artists who make the old feel new.
So I thank the Academy this Website’s Josh Macht and Mark Coatney, my patient enabler. I thank the readers who keep me on my toes, dancing with pleasure at a kind word, dodging bullets of criticism. I thank my high school English teacher, dear, gay Mr. ... never mind. And I thank a hundred years of artists and scoundrels whose work populates this column. My remedial education continues. The garage of my memory has more corners to explore.