December 1, 2000


During the signature scene in Whiplash, music instructor Terence Fletcher throws a chair at Andrew Neiman, a 19-year-old jazz drummer at the best music conservatory in the country. “Why do you suppose I just hurled a chair at your head, Neiman?” Fletcher asks. When the student fails to answer, whether he was “rushing” or “dragging,” the teacher slaps him — again and again.

Miles Teller plays the vulnerable Neiman, whose hero is Buddy Rich. J.K. Simmons plays Fletcher, the drill sergeant who revels in telling the story of drummer Jo Jones throwing a cymbal at saxophonist Charlie Parker’s head as punishment for losing the beat while playing in Count Basie’s band. Both characters claim the incident inspired Parker to practice obsessively, changing the history of jazz, although the film gets the story wrong. Either way, Fletcher and Neiman are a perfect match, the sadist and the masochist.

Whiplash is tense, thrilling filmmaking, and Neiman’s drums up the tempo even more. But writer-director Damien Chazelle, 29, has made a sports movie at a music school — with the push and pull of an athlete and coach butting heads in pursuit of perfection. This film isn’t a celebration of jazz. It is two white guys in a staring contest over the black man’s classical music.

Simmons insults his students with such volume and color that his natural inspiration might have been R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. But he owes more to the real-life Bobby Knight (who also threw chairs), the terrifying Robert Duvall in The Great Santini and Ben Kingsley in Searching for Bobby Fischer, using teaching as a disguise for physical and emotional abuse. Simmons is an intimidating presence, standing erect, his muscles accented by tight, black T-shirts. He has become the favorite to win many best supporting actor awards, but his Fletcher seems one-dimensional. He is too much monster, not enough human being.

Teller traded on his douchebag good looks in Project X and 21 & Over, two party movies from the producers of The Hangover. But last year’s The Spectacular Now and this film have him overcoming that curse. Chazelle’s camera reveals the scars on his face. In the practice montages, he sweats, and his fingers bleed. Teller is working hard.

Paul Reiser is excellent as Neiman’s father. There isn’t one bit of his usual neurotic cadence. The adorable Melissa Benoist plays Neiman’s prospective girlfriend. But he coldly dismisses the girl, considering her a distraction to his obsessions — his drums and the approval of his tormentor.

Whiplash has a few endings, but they are played as deft twists. The most interesting is a conversation between Neiman and Fletcher at a jazz club where the teacher is playing piano. It is a quiet moment. Some of their dysfunctional bond has been severed. Unfortunately, the two main characters agree that being an obsessive asshole is the only path to genius, that being nice means being mediocre, that there is no middle ground and that the humiliation Fletcher afflicted upon Neiman was just.

There is a final showdown between the two, one that can’t be given away. It stretches credulity and rings false. It treats Fletcher with ambiguity, when what he deserved was punishment.

Whiplash is currently playing at The Colony in Raleigh.

September 29, 2000

the daily show

The Daily Show aired a watered-down version of their supposedly controversial story on the Washington [expletive] and their racist nickname on Thursday night.

“Catching Racism,” the anticipated seven-minute segment, felt like an obvious safe reaction to the allegedly hurt feelings of the [expletive] fans involved in the segment — fans who had said they were unaware of what they had agree to with the Comedy Central series.

Jon Stewart introduced the piece with this disclaimer:

“We learned later that some of the individuals who participated in the piece … didn’t enjoy the experience. It is something that happens a lot less than you would think, but we take the complaint seriously. We generally don’t want people who participate in the show to have a bad experience. We work very hard to find real people who have real beliefs and want to express those beliefs on television, and we work hard to make sure the gist of those beliefs are represented accurately, albeit sometimes comedically, on our program.

“If we find out that someone in a piece was intentionally misled, or if their comments were intentionally misrepresented, we do not air that piece. We would not air that piece. So that being said, I hope you enjoy the following piece.”

The reported showdown between Native American activists and [expletive] fans never happened — except for a 30-second sequence with no dialogue, just a voiceover from correspondent Jason Jones, who explained some of the controversy surrounding the segment over the previous two weeks.

Kelli, O’Dell, a 56-year-old former teacher, told The Washington Post said that she as in tears.

“This goes way beyond mocking,” she said. “The Native Americans accused me of things that were so wrong. I felt in danger. I didn’t consent to that. I am going to be defamed.”

Two days after taping the segment, O’Dell tried to file a police report, but authorizes told her no crime had been committed, because there is no law against making someone feel uncomfortable.

If there were, Native Americans could sue the [expletive] football organization.

May 9, 2000

David Letterman, the end

David Letterman is a broadcaster before he is anything else. Before he is television star, before he is a late night talk show host, before he is a stand-up comic, before his Midwestern sensibility, before Top Ten lists and Stupid Pet Tricks, he is a broadcaster.

When Letterman had quintuple bypass surgery in 2000, removing doubt that there was a ticker in there somewhere, he introduced the doctors and nurses who cared for him. “So it was five weeks ago today that these men and women right here saved my life,” he said. He broke down, and a new Letterman emerged — one with better blood flow, more heart.

His desk was a bully pulpit. When John McCain “suspended” his presidential campaign and canceled his Late Show appearance in 2008, Letterman exposed him as a phony. When Jay Leno undermined Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show two years later, Letterman called it “vintage Jay.” When he became the victim of a blackmail attempt, Letterman admitted to affairs with staff members and apologized to his wife, because Jack Dall’s No. 1 rule of show business is: Look ’em in the eye and speak from the heart.

But Letterman’s finest moment was his eight-minute monologue on Sept. 17, 2001, six days after the terrorist attacks of September 11.

“The reason we were attacked, the reason these people are dead …” he said. “As I understand it, and my understanding of this is vague at best, another smaller group of people stole some airplanes and crashed them into buildings, and we’re told they were zealots, fueled by religious fervor … and if you live to be a thousand years old, will that make any sense to you? Will that make any goddamn sense?”

David Letterman, late night talk show host for 33 years — first on Late Night (1982-93) and then Late Show (1993-2015) — the biggest television star since Johnny Carson and the “comedian broadcaster who is the best there ever was,” according to Jon Stewart, will retire Wednesday.

On CBS, every night at 11:35, Letterman has been as reliable as a public utility, a man who won’t be fully appreciated until he’s gone. He didn’t beat Jay Leno in the ratings, but by any real measure of greatness — originality, versatility, breadth of influence — he has no challengers. In the final season of The Larry Sanders Show, Rip Torn called Larry “one of those goddamn creatures out of Greek mythology — half-man, half-desk.” That’s Letterman.

But before CBS, before the Ed Sullivan Theater, before a 20-year-old Drew Barrymore danced on his desk and before he kissed Julia Roberts again and again, Letterman played host in a studio, at 12:30 in the morning on NBC.

Late Night with David Letterman was comedy anarchy. He wore suits made of Velcro and Alka Seltzer. There were theme shows like “Summer Time Sunshine Happy Hour” and “The Late Night Morning Show.” Top Ten lists and Stupid Pet Tricks became standards. Chris Elliott and Larry “Bud” Melman were odd supporting players. His best moments were storming General Electric’s corporate offices with a fruit basket and screaming via megaphone at Bryant Gumbel during a live Today Show: “This prime time program was my idea, and I’m not wearing pants!”

A stunning variety of guests visited Late Night — from the avant-garde like Sandra Bernhard and John Waters to human oddities like Pee-Wee Herman and Richard Simmons to his broadcasting equal Howard Stern. Letterman was confrontational with Charles Grodin and Harvey Pekar, and he delighted in annoying the delightful Teri Garr. Stand-up comedians like Richard Lewis and Bill Hicks proved their mettle. Jerry Lawler slapped Andy Kaufman and Cher called Letterman an “asshole.”

Letterman’s favorite guest may have been Jay Leno, who made more than 30 appearances on Late Night. The two came of age together at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, writing jokes for Jimmie Walker. Leno’s agent later engineered the palace coup of Johnny Carson, making him host of The Tonight Show — Letterman’s lifelong dream. The controversy inspired a book and movie. Letterman and Leno, their relationship Shakespearean, their histories forever intertwined, have spoken only a few times since 1992.

With Saturday Night Live and then Late Night, the Baby Boomers had crashed the party. The first generation raised on television were now the hippest people on it. Letterman and Bill Murray — his first guest in 1982 and 1993 and one of his last this Tuesday — ushered in the Age of Irony. They mocked show business sincerity. On television and in life, there are those who speak with tongues-in-cheek while keeping a straight face. They are aping Letterman.

Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert all worship at the Altar of Dave. Kimmel celebrated his 16th birthday with a Late Night cake, and the license plate on his first car read “L8 NITE.” Letterman “was more important than sleep,” he said. Conan said Late Night was “wrong” — but in all the right ways. Stewart invited Letterman to be the last guest on his short-lived MTV talk show. Stephen Colbert, who will replace Letterman on Sept. 8, said of college: “I learned more from watching Dave than I did from going to my classes.”

My favorite thing ever produced on Late Night was “They Took My Show Away,” a goof on those old ABC afterschool specials.

The short film was about Jimmy, a young boy who is heartbroken by the cancellation of Voyagers, his favorite television show. Letterman breaks the news to him.

DAVE: Do you know what it means for a show to be canceled, Jimmy?

JIMMY: No, I don’t think so.

DAVE: Well, it’s when a bunch of executives at a television network decide that a TV show shouldn’t be on the air anymore, and then they take it off and replace it with something new. Sometimes that’s a good idea, because the show is filled with bad acting and bad writing, and sometimes it’s the executives who have been bad.

JIMMY: This canceled business — it could never happened to Voyagers, could it?

DAVE: Yes, Jimmy, and I’m afraid it has.

Jimmy runs away, and when Letterman finds him, he is ripping up a TV Guide. This was Late Night at its best, making fun of television and honoring it all at once.

JIMMY: I don’t think I’ll ever watch TV again.

DAVE: Jimmy, don’t ever say that. Not even as a joke.

Ultimately, Jimmy finds consolation in NBC’s new fall schedule.

But life is not an afterschool special.

David Letterman cannot be replaced.

They took my show away.