Sometimes I catch myself muttering, barely audible (I hope): “If you need help, here I am.” Then, a few minutes later, I repeat it. “If you need help, here I am.”
“If you need help, here I am” is an idiotic phrase intoned by Renée Zellweger in the movie “Cold Mountain.” In February 2004, David Letterman played the trailer on his show and became obsessed by its melodrama and its sound. For weeks after he would repeat, “If you need help, here I am.” Sometimes he played an audio clip of Renée. Usually he just said it several times in a row and laughed to himself. Maybe the studio audience laughed too. Maybe the audience cringed. First time viewers of “The Late Show” could only reach one conclusion: David Letterman was insane.
David Letterman is insane, but that’s only tangentially related to why he repeated the Zellweger line over and over. David Letterman’s insanity is hosting a five-night-a-week television program. His insanity is the need to be funny night after night, week after week, year after year. His insanity is the need to entertain and the need to stay relevant. His insanity was not being able to walk away — though, thankfully, that fever has broken. On April 4 Letterman announced that he would retire in 2015, and on April 10 CBS announced that he would be succeeded by Stephen Colbert.
But that other people want to host a late night television show doesn’t make Letterman — or them — any less deranged. It only means that we’re suffering through a mass psychosis.
Jerry Seinfeld took a break from driving around and getting coffee to do some standup on Letterman last night. Watch him talk about what’s annoying now. Or five years ago. Whichever.
Randy Cohen didn’t set out to lampoon Mel Gibson. But the concept behind his one man play “The Punishing Blow,” which opens August 13 starring Seth Duerr, might lead one to believe that he did. It’s the story of a bile-filled college professor, prone to incendiary Jew-baiting remarks who, arrested for drunk driving, is forced to take anger management classes and give a lecture on a figure from a list of The 100 Most Influential Jews of All Time.
A number of years ago, Cohen ran across the story of Daniel Mendoza, the legendary 18th century boxer. This is the story he wanted to write.
Mendoza was an English Heavyweight Champion. He transformed the game, inventing what was at the time called scientific boxing, which, Cohen explained to me, means, “He figured out how a little man could beat a big man.” The dodge and the weave. The intellectual game. He captured the imagination of the public and became one of the most famous men of his era — the Muhammad Ali of the 18th century. After his career ended, he went on to have a secondary career touring the country in musical variety acts, drawing people in with his celebrity and demonstrating scientific boxing.
Crucially, Mendoza was also a Jew, and at that time, though England had a flourishing Jewish community, they were despised, cursed at, sometimes beaten in the street. Mendoza’s celebrity helped begin to change that. “He was such a riveting figure,” Cohen said, “that he humanized Jews in some ways. It was an extraordinary story and I was eager to write it.”
Fans of comic books and graphic novels are mourning the death of Harvey Pekar, who died today in his Cleveland home at the age of 70. Pekar was mainly known for authoring the autobiographical series “American Splendor,” which documented his lower-middle class Jewish upbringing in Ohio. Pekar also wrote “Our Cancer Year,” after being diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in 1990, and more recently, “The Beats,” a graphic history of the Beat generation.
Even after Pekar’s death, however, there are things to look forward to in the world of Jewish comic books and graphic novels. On September 25, “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women” opens at San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum. The Forward is an official media sponsor for the show, which will travel in April 2011 to Toronto’s Koffler Centre for the Arts, and which features such prominent artists as Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Sarah Glidden, Miriam Katin and Ilana Zeffren.