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Feel Free to Flip

Lots of folks dying of late (or “passing” to use the often-invoked and sanitized metaphor suggesting life as a freeway with the dead going by us in their cars.) More specifically, lots of famous folks dying. This is usually what we mean when me make the observation, and celebrity has taken on this added dimension of making the rest of us pause for a moment to note that the clock is ticking after checking our Twitter feed. Garry Shandling was the latest, just yesterday. He registers significantly with me, not only because he wasn’t all that much older (sixty-six) but also because he created the greatest television show in history. I make no qualifications for that last statement and I’m a student of some pretty good ones, The Sopranos and The Phil Silvers Show among them. ‘The Larry Sanders Show’ was so good that you could extract the performances of Rip Torn and Jeffrey Tambor, run them as their own shows, and they would qualify for the top ten. Lesser minds misinterpret comedy solely as a vehicle to make us laugh but The Larry Sanders Show was much more than this. The laughs came because it was true and familiar and human; because it’s the only place to go with things before we start crying and look like a bunch of pussies. Which leads me to another great Garry Shandling line, while hosting the Emmys in 1999: “The Sopranos has a character named ‘Big Pussy.’ This, coincidentally, was my nickname in high school.” I was a fan of Shandling’s comedy but nothing came close to ‘Sanders’ for me. I must have expressed this to more than a few people, because I received a flood of texts yesterday alerting me to the news. If all I’ve done in this life is to turn a few more heads in the direction of that program, it wouldn’t be all for not.

Shifting non-sequitur gears here, I’d like to make an observation about those ‘funny’ ring-tones some people choose for their cell phones. I’m not talking about merely choosing a different ring, but the odd sound effects of barnyard animals and the like. Goofy AHH-OOOGAH horns. This kind of thing. I’ve spent my share of time in various medical facilities in recent years and amid folks getting all manner of serious news. Nothing punctuates the gravity of a nurse telling a patient that the doctor has spotted something in his test results that he’d like to speak to him about than a single, loud sheep’s “BAHHHHHHH.” Really, is this what things have come to? And then the oblivious phone owner tapping the screen and answering with a dull ‘hello?’ Indignities are mounting all around us, multiplying by the day. Can you picture such audible punctuation after Lou Gehrig’s “luckiest man on the face of the earth” or FDR’s “a date which will live in infamy”? We’re getting stupider and the circles smaller and smaller.

On the other hand, “The People vs OJ Simpson” is one of the better things to come along in quite a while. The FX mini series walks a dizzying tightrope, blending spot-on parody with historical context and cultural sensitivity. It’s good on so many levels, the least of which not being John Travolta’s portrayal of smarmy celebrity attorney Robert Shapiro. It’s a real shame that several of the principals from the case didn’t live to see themselves depicted. You have to admire what Travolta’s doing here, apparently resurrecting his career for a third time as he simultaneously plays off his own real-life image as a Hollywood straight-man sending out hotel riders demanding a male masseuse and tin foil with heavy curtains covering all windows. The show offers a rare combination of satire and illumination, skewering racial groups and ego-laden individuals alike. It refuses to insult its audience’s intelligence on the matter of who killed whom, yet manages to present a nuanced interpretation of what was going on back then (and likely still is today.) It’s also worth watching, as my buddy Tom Myers points out, to watch Nathan Lane’s portrayal of ex Marine F. Lee Bailey while knowing that, unlike some of the others, the 82 year-old lawyer lived to see it. Put it on your must-see list, right after ‘The Larry Sanders Show,’ in its entirety.

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