The Clash of Civilizations


There's nothing wrong with the idea that Don Rickles has, apparently, been the guest right before Bristol Palin on the Tonight Show. But there's a lot going on in this picture that informs where we are at as a culture. This is a slice of life worth a blog post, in other words.

The Tonight Show no longer exists. It's a fraud perpetrated by whoever now runs the entertainment division of NBC and one Jay Leno. I have no problem with the fact that Conan O'Brien was fired. If you don't get ratings, you're gone. But Leno failed to get ratings as well. Leno is, and always will be, a somewhat profitable failure. And he failed to demonstrate that he is the king of late night. He failed to convince enough people that he is the worthy heir to Johnny Carson. He failed to make a large impact on our cultural consciousness. He failed, in other words, to matter. And because Jay Leno doesn't matter, neither does the Tonight Show. He'll hold that seat for another twenty years. NBC will make money simply because they won't put anything into it. American popular culture won't be affected by anything that happens on the Tonight Show. And people wonder why no one watches television.

People are beginning to get that Jimmy Fallon is destined to be the new king of late night. He has what none of the others have, and that is the gift of looking like he enjoys talking to other human beings. Jimmy also plays guitar at a level well beyond everyone else, and this demonstrates a real secondary talent that is making a difference. Yes, I know--except for maybe Conan O'Brien, who does play the guitar very well. The difference is, when Conan plays, it's all about "Conan plays the guitar." When Jimmy plays, it's about a guy who has always played guitar and wants to entertain the living crap out of you. I think Jimmy has to figure out when to be mean, though. He has to take on a bully or put someone in their place and speak for people who can't speak for themselves. That's what connects you to an audience.

Bristol Palin exists right now as a cultural charity case. If you don't like her, or give her work, or pick her, you are a "hater." Can I be disinterested in her simply because she hasn't accomplished anything? I'm as disinterested in her as all the rest of her kind. Her kind is "famous for being related to someone who couldn't get elected President."

Don Rickles, on the other hand, is an American treasure. Far more talented and complex and interesting than virtually all of the yuk-yuk men who have disappeared from the scene. Rickles should have met the same fate as Joey Bishop or Regis Phibin or Shecky Green. Instead, Rickles has a statesmanlike status as one of the last real American entertainers and showmen. His ability to destroy pretense and entertain people has never left him. This man came up making Sinatra jokes to Frank Sinatra in the golden age of the 1960s. Virtually every one of his peers is dead, retired, or feeble.

Rickles is a powerhouse. The man entertains with abandon. He is a showman and he's done it with none of the breaks that come to people like Jay Leno or Conan O'Brien.

I firmly believe that Louis CK is the next big thing in America. I cannot understand how Louis CK isn't running the tables right now and ready to be the man. I think it's fairly obvious that there are comedians who get the breaks, and comedians who get what's left on the floor, and Rickles has always been given the scraps. No one has ever done better with the scraps than Rickles. Louis CK has made himself into a guy who doesn't need the scraps. The man now edits his own television show on a MacBook Pro. If that's not a fuck you to the people who run things, I don't know what is.

How sad is it that Don Rickles isn't sitting there in Leno's chair, holding forth and making everyone laugh? If you want to know what an injustice is, think about this: Don Rickles is the real heir to Johnny Carson, not Jay Leno or anyone else. Oh, sure. Rickles can be mean. But he's a sweetheart compared to Carson. If you don't believe me, look it up.

Johnny Carson was the meanest man in America, and America learned to love him for that because Johnny did his mean in a context people could accept.