Monday, December 23, 2013

No laughing matter

   Robin Williams is pretty funny, and his new show on CBS, “The Crazy Ones,” in which he stars as the senior partner in an ad agency, is pretty good. An ad agency makes for an interesting sitcom setting, with lots of fun, creative possibilities for story-lines. Partly because of this, the show is finally a good vehicle for Williams’ vamping style - all the more after some of the sappy, wince-inducing films he has stared in (as with Whoopi Goldberg, Hollywood doesn’t quite know what to do with him).
   Michael J. Fox is also starring in a new show this season, “The Michael J. Fox Show” on NBC, which is pretty good. In this sitcom, Fox, beloved from his days on “Family Ties” and in the “Back to the Future” movies and who has had Parkinson’s disease, is charming as a husband and father with Parkinson’s who returns to his job as a television news anchorman. Some of the comedy is smartly (in both senses) based on his mild disability and having difficulty doing some things. The way people see him as “brave” is also mocked.     So why has Williams’ show been a hit, while Fox’s show is regarded as a “flop.” Apparently, many more people are watching “The Crazy Ones” than are watching “The Michael J. Fox Show.” Why is this, when both are pretty good sitcoms, as sitcoms go?
   I can’t help but wonder if people are uncomfortable with laughing at someone who is disabled. It may be too big of a shift, at least in the broader, commercial, for people to laugh at someone who they normally would, or should, have compassion or pity for. Also, that people are used to, and fondly remember, seeing the guy not disabled probably doesn’t make this any easier.
   But can’t having compassion for someone include laughter? Could it be that we can laugh with Fox and not at him? Or is disability just the serious stuff of tragedy?
   As for people finding the disabled brave and inspiring, maybe it is too hard for people to laugh at it when it’s something that they need in their lives.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Letting their light shine

   Here’s another of my recent columns from the Claremont Courier.


   Gustavo Arellano said that he has 5200 friends on Facebook. He said that Facebook only allows people to have 5000 friends but that, “like a typical Mexican, I snuck in another 200.”
   He encouraged the rest of us to be fans of his on Facebook. Or follow him on Twitter or Instagram. (I’m probably forgetting another social media site he mentioned.)
   That is, of course, if we liked what he had to say. But there’s no doubt lots of people like what he has to say or at least like hearing what he has to say. It is clear that Gustavo Arellano is popular, that he has lots of followers, be they friends or fans. One could say that Mr. Arellano is hot now.
   When he spoke a few weeks ago at the Atheneum at Claremont McKenna College, Mr. Arellano, the editor of the O.C Weekly and author of several books who is best known for his now widely syndicated “Ask a Mexican” column, made a point of letting this be known. He spent some time at the start of his presentation listing and explaining what he does and how to follow him. He said that it is important for any speaker to do this, “because it might be the only chance you get.”
   This wasn’t just a case of someone with a big head. It is evident that Mr. Arellano, who speaks in a energetic, upbeat manner and looks like a friendly nerd with his glasses, is popular precisely because he is so forthright. It is easy to see how people are attracted to what he says because of how the straightforward way he says it increases understanding and helps makes things better.
   Being the editor of an alternative weekly newspaper is no doubt the perfect gig for him - and all the more in a place like Orange County which likes to put up a homogeneous front. Here, in doing and overseeing long, investigative pieces, he can fully practice that most old-fashioned and radical journalistic motto: “Comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” But it is in his work in his work in his “Ask a Mexican” column where Mr. Arellano shines.
   As he explains, the column, in which he answers questions submitted by readers, allows him to take on stereotypes head-on. The way he takes stereotypes about Mexican and immigrants, legal or not, and plays with them and “turn[s] them on their head” is evident in the very title of the column as well as the accompanying upside-down punctuation and image of a fat, unshaven, brown-skinned man with a huge sombrero. Mr. Arellano emphasized that he answers all questions that he gets, no matter how ugly, how nasty.
   To him, being open and honest like this is the key to breaking down barriers and building understanding.
   Mr. Arellano is also a food critic - did I say he’s energetic?  - and went on to explain that food often does the same thing. He has written a book called “Taco U.S.A” about how Mexican food has literally taken over America. In his talk, he mentioned tid-bits like salsa now being more consumed than ketchup in the U.S and the fact that, contrary to what is thought, hard-shelled tacos actually do come from a region of Mexico and were in fact stolen from Glenn Bell, the guy who opened  Taco Bell, from a Mexican restaurant across the street in San Bernardino. While he doesn’t recommend the food from Taco Bell, he is hopeful that liking Mexicans’ food so much makes it harder to dislike them.
   I was reminded of the evening a week earlier when I saw Ben Harper perform at Bridges Auditorium. This was another case, I realized, of someone sharing remarkable talent and energy and, in so doing, promoting understanding and community.
   This case, though, was particularly striking, even poignant, coming out of this community, from Claremont. As is well-known here, the singer/songwriter, who can be heard on the radio and has been featured in television programs such as the PBS News Hour, is the son of Ellen Chase, and grandson of the late Charles and Dorothy Chase, owner and proprietors of the landmark Folk Music Center in the Village.
   Ben Harper, who I recall loading the backpack on my wheelchair with items I bought when I would go shopping and he worked at Bentley’s Market (where Rhino Records is - this was something like 25 years ago), is very much a local boy who has done good.
   This was certainly clear at Big Bridges, with the cavernous hall suddenly an intimate venue, not big and cold, as the huge crowd warmly cheered him on throughout the evening. Not only was there passionate applause, there were many shouts of encouragement (“We love you, Ben!”) and some affectionate teasing.
   That Mr. Harper was alone on the expansive stage, placed on what looked to be an Oriental rug with only a chair, a variety of guitars and a piano and with a large replica of the Folk Music Center logo hanging in the background, added to the intimate, communal feel. Indeed, I thought he talked too much, but the chatting and Claremont rememiscances made the two-and-a-half-hour performance, with no intermission and two multi-song encores, feel like it was taking place with friends in a living room.
   I would have loved to hear more of his songs in that honeyed voice that I was immediately struck by when I first heard his debut album, “Welcome to the Cruel World” - songs with a folk grounding and with soul and gospel twists like “Waiting on an Angel” and “Pleasure and Pain” and with sharp, provocative lyrics, as in “Like a King” and “Mama’s Got a New Friend.” This isn’t a complaint, though, for it was a real treat to see Mr. Harper performing solo and holding such a large stage and audience.
   Even more of a treat was when, during the first encore, his mother joined him on stage for a couple songs. As was noted, the son-mother duo have an album coming out on Mother’s Day next year.
    At the end of the evening, with repeated thunderous applause and standing ovations, it was obvious that Mr. Harper was touched. He expressed deep gratitude, saying that “homecoming concerts come with a lot of pressure” but that “you guys lifted me up.”
   Well, the reason we lifted him up is that this local boy, with his sweet talent and sharp energy, lifts us all up, making us an even better community. Appropriately in this season of gratitude and gifts, Mr. Harper certainly has many friends and even more to sneak in.