And then along comes John Oliver: How a brilliant comedian became an indispensable public educator and policy analyst.

John Oliver

And then along comes John:

I can’t believe it. I get to be effusive about something.

For almost 20 years,  I have been on a tear against the phony experts and purveyors of pseudo-facts and pseudoscience who are regularly asked to serve as news sources. I once even promised — on the cover of the Washington Post Sunday opinion section — to keep my mouth shut when it was clear I wouldn’t really know what I was talking about.

We are victims of 24-hour panic-news outlets who cover serious social problems without even the minimal complexity they deserve. Instead, we are treated to “experts” like chiropractors without serious, evidence-based, graduate training in either immunology or virology who tell us to avoid childhood vaccines that have saved millions of lives.

The result?

All sorts of genuinely urgent threats to health and safety are virtually ignored while reporters in the 24-hour shoutocracy hyperventilate about incidents that, however genuinely painful and tragic, are extraordinarily rare. Yet problems that objectively pose a threat to enormous numbers of people remain all but invisible.

Take the problem of the injuries and fatalities that result from the accidental falls of seniors. These are statistics from the CDC:

Data on Senior Falls

So while we are treated to endless nonsense about incredibly rare things that worry us more than they should, we rarely get accurate, evidence-based information about social problems that, because of their frequency, should worry us.

And then along comes John Oliver.

It took a while for this to sink in, but I’m absolutely convinced that what John Oliver is accomplishing on his weekly HBO show represents an extraordinary contribution to serious public discussion about a host of serious problems that we have all but ignored in the past.

Week by week, using his gut-splittingly hilarious comic style, Oliver has been engaged in an effort to educate the public about what seems to be every possible under-publicized social problem. Whether prescription drug marketing, civil forfeiture, food wasting, or prisoner reentry, he has taken problem after problem out of the shadows and made incredibly persuasive arguments for why we should be more concerned.

In an ideal world, this kind of responsible public education would be anything but revolutionary. But in the confusing media mess of arguing pseudo experts, accompanied by a soundtrack of screaming and shouting that passes for debate on tabloid television, what Oliver is doing is nothing short of extraordinary.

Obviously, Oliver comes to us from one place on a wonderfully crowded ideological spectrum. I admit it is probably close to the place I reside. And I know  there  are many other interesting points of view on these problems that should also be heard. The problem, though,  is that no one else from anywhere on the political spectrum has ever tried to do what he is doing with anything close to the elegant style and razor-sharp wit that he brings to the table.

Some years back, I was at a meeting of FDA consultants working on the question of how to get the public concerned about legitimate threats to health and safety. The whole session kept returning to the same questions: Why does it seem to be impossible to get people to care about W or X? Or to pay attention to  Y or Z?

Thanks to John Oliver, we have an answer.

It isn’t impossible.

Find someone brilliant, someone who combines the analytical skills of a policy analyst and the humor of a hilarious  social satirist, put him in the same room as a little understood problem like civil forfeiture (the name alone is a sleep aid!), and — poof! —  suddenly it’s an issue of broad public concern.

Are the mainstream media capable of illuminating serious threats to health, safety, and social welfare? Absolutely.

His name is John Oliver.

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In which I search for a midnight snack and end up meeting Jeanne Moreau in front of my open refrigerator singing “Le Tourbillon de La Vie.”

So you think you’ve had some epic midnight snacks. Fair enough. You’re not the only one who knows the charms of cold Pad Thai.

But I’ll bet you’ve never gone downstairs in the middle of the night to  check the freshness of a day-old tuna sandwich and encountered a vision of Jeanne Moreau in front of your refrigerator.

I did. And she sang to me.


Somehow, about two weeks ago,  I found myself standing in front of my refrigerator at 3 AM, trying to decide between a leftover half tuna sandwich and some cold soba noodles. As I stood there, half asleep and humming some old French song, she appeared.

Jeanne Moreau was 33 years old again, at my side singing the same song, a catchy theme used by Francois Truffaut in his masterpiece Jules et Jim.

Now, that is one heck of a classy midnight snack hallucination.

We were singing Le Tourbillon de La Vie (“The Whirlwind of Life”).  The name might not ring a bell, but you may have  first heard it when I did, in Truffaut’s haunting film Jules et Jim, the story of  a  love triangle involving a French Bohemian Jim (Henri Serre), his friend Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jules’s girlfriend Catherine (Jeanne Moreau).

At first, I couldn’t remember the words.  They are packed tightly into the melody, and  in French are quite a tongue twister. But halfway through the sandwich, they began to come back to me. Unfortunately, Jeanne Moreau had disappeared, but  at least I didn’t have to worry about her correcting my French:

Elle avait des bagues à chaque doigt,
Des tas de bracelets autour des poignets,
Et puis elle chantait avec une voix
Qui, sitôt, m’enjôla

In the film, she sings the song accompanied on guitar by the character Bassiak (played by Serge Rezvani, who actually wrote the song).  The lyrics capture the spirit of the film beautifully, and speak of love that comes and goes so quickly “dans le tourbillon de la vie” (in the whirlwind of life).  At first the song suggests pure whimsy, but the context in which it is used in the film suggests dark clouds on the horizon. Moreau’s voice is magnificent.

I found the scene in the film and watched it again:

Which leads directly to TurboTax® Tax Preparation Software. What?

Yup. This song and this story lead straight to TurboTax. 

Here’s what happened:

A few days after my vision, I was cleaning up in the kitchen and heard Le Tourbillon de La Vie again, this time in  a TV commercial.  I didn’t catch the name of the product, but wondered what kind of advertiser would want to be identified with Le Tourbillon de La Vie?

On to Google.

My first try:

Tourbillon Blog Post.59 AM-001

Ah, two American ad campaigns with a French theme. But not Le Tourbillon. I tried again.

And, finally, there it was: a commercial for TurboTax® Tax Preparation Software.

Tourbillon Blog Post.48 AM

So here’s the commercial,  which I think is brilliantly conceived and executed. And watch the beleaguered bride closely. She is played by Suzi Barrett, an immensely versatile and talented actor with brilliant comic timing who is  definitely bound for  the pantheon.

The song fits perfectly, implying that a disorganized, turbulent life can be tamed into order by tax preparation software.

Pretty shrewd message, I had to admit:

You may hate doing taxes. And you may loathe the idea of showing up every year to  give a full-blown accounting of all the dumb things you’ve done. But do you really think you’re the first person who has ever made some dumb mistakes? Everybody screws up in the whirlwind of life.  Stop the self-flagellation, hold tight for  the turbulent ups and downs, and finish your taxes.

Silly? Of course.

But it is knowingly and gloriously silly, done by director Noam Murro with style and barely controlled lunacy. And it wasn’t until a few  hours later that I realized the similarity between the name of the product, Turbo Tax,  and the name of the song, “Le Tourbillon de La Vie.”

Update: Jeanne Moreau hasn’t returned to join me for another midnight snack.

And while I might like to handpick my  midnight apparitions, Piaf probably has a full schedule and Georges Guétary is almost certainly still going up and down the stairway to paradise.

But a word to Marlene: If you happen to be in the neighborhood, just say the word and I’ll be there with any kind of a sandwich you want. Just sing  “Falling in Love Again” and I’ll pretend to be Emil Jannings.

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Yesterday, July 13, 2015, was the 30th anniversary of Freddie Mercury’s legendary, electrifying live performance for Live Aid at Wembley Stadium.

This artist, this performance must

be remembered and celebrated.

Freddie Mercury. 

Performance at Live Aid in July 1985 named the world’s greatest rock gig in an industry poll (BBC News, 2005)

The greatest live band of all time (

Seventh greatest live rock and roll act of all time (Rolling Stone).

Greatest live rock and roll performance of all time. (WatchMoJo).

#18 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest singers of all time.

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National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

No matter what problems you are dealing with, the people at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline want to help you find a reason to keep living. By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.

suicide prevention

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The Last Syllabus: David Carr Shows How It’s Done


To My Hunter College Students:

About a year ago, I mentioned the extraordinary biography written by journalist David Carr, Night of the Gun. It’s the riveting story  of a guy who, despite doing everything possible to destroy himself (and I’m telling you: David worked as hard as anyone I’ve ever known to do himself in!), survives and thrives  as a friend, father, husband, and distinguished journalist.

David survived self-destructive experiences that no one should be able to survive, but —  to his eternal credit  — used his “post-jerk,” recovery years to do the hard work of becoming a living, breathing, authentic, human being capable of extraordinary acts of compassion and civility.

David passed away from lung cancer and other maladies on February 12, 2015. And among the gifts  he left was the syllabus for a course he taught this past fall at Boston University. I thought that you  might appreciate seeing and reading one of the most amazing examples of this kind of document that I have ever seen. It is packed with all sorts of “jewels” about  life, civility, teaching, and the future of  journalism in the digital age.

I think you’ll really enjoy it.

This excerpt from  the syllabus, in which David introduced himself to the class, is itself a mini-masterpiece:

Not need to know, but nice to know: Your professor is a terrible singer and a decent dancer. He is a movie crier but stone-faced in real life. He never laughs even when he is actually amused. He hates suck-ups, people who treat waitresses and cab drivers poorly, and anybody who thinks diversity is just an academic conceit. He is a big sucker for the hard worker and is rarely dazzled by brilliance. He has little patience for people who pretend to ask questions when all they really want to do is make a speech.

He has a lot of ideas about a lot of things, some of which are good. We will figure out which is which together. He likes being challenged. He is an idiosyncratic speaker, often beginning in the middle of a story, and is used to being told that people have no idea what he is talking about. It’s fine to be one of those people. In Press Play, he will strive to be a lucid, linear communicator.

Your professor is fair, fundamentally friendly, a little odd, but not very mysterious. If you want to know where you stand, just ask.

I didn’t know David, only met him briefly. I do, though, know that — just over a month after he left us — this world is a whole heck of a lot less interesting without him in  it.


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Remembering a Friend and Master of Visual Effects: Sunday’s Tribute by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences


Joe Oscar Tribute

Joe Viskocil

1951 – 2014

“Their work will stand and remind us how lucky we were to have them for a while.”

The words of Meryl Streep, about midway through Sunday’s  Oscar’s award ceremony, introducing the Academy’s In Memorium sequence.

Joe, look at the names next to yours.  Your people. Not bad. Not bad at all.

You’re in the club, kid, right where you belong.


The full list of those honored with similar portraits on Sunday evening;

Mickey Rooney, Paul Mazursky, Geoffrey Holder, Nadia Bronson, James Garner, Elizabeth Pena, Alan Hirschfield, Edward Herrmann, Maya Angelou, Lorenzo Semple Jr, George L Little, James Rebhorn, Menahem Golan, James Shigeta, Anita Ekberg, Paul Apted, H R Giger, Sanford W Reisenbach, Malik Bendjelloul, Virna Lisi, Louis Jourdan, Gordon Willis, Richard Attenborough, Oswald Morris, Tom Rolf, L M Kit Carson, Ruby Dee, Samuel Goldwyn Jr, Martha Hyer, Andrew V McLaglan, Jimmy T Murakami, Robin Williams, William Greaves, Joseph Viskocil, Rod Taylor, Stewart Stern, Luise Rainer, Dick Smith, Lauren Bacall, Walt Martin, Charles Champlin, Lennie Dupont, Herb Jeffries, Misty Upham, Eli Wallach, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Frank Yablans, Alain Resnais Bob Hoskins and Mike Nichols.

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The Network of “The Apprentice” Wants to Remake Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog? Great. And I’ll Be Touching-Up Picasso’s Guernica This Sunday.


Well, here’s something to wake some of you up.

A Hunter student has called my attention to the fact that NBC – in an effort to do better with younger audiences – plans to remake Decalogue, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 10-part masterpiece originally made for Polish television.

According to industry gossip, their focus will be on reshaping the piece to reach both late teens and the still much-valued 18 – 24 year-old demographic. A decaying Boston will stand-in for Poland in the earliest days of the post-communist era.


I had a funny and completely unexpected reaction when I heard this.

I have always been an appreciative consumer of all sorts of mash-ups and remakes and assorted subversions of the canon. And no one would have blabbed more sincerely about the way that both the modernist and post-modernist impulses made this possible. It’s not that the 20th and 21st century troublemakers paved an easy path for the barbarians to rush the palace gates, or that they protected them from injury and scorn, but the modernists and their descendants did at least bring the bolt cutters that snapped open the lock.

Well, now I find myself in a funny place.

Mr. Subversion just discovered his limits. While I might come to see this remake as something valuable, it would be among the very first remakes I have ever found even minimally acceptable. But I’ve been surprised before.

The lesson for me is pretty obvious:

Art that challenges our tendency to view any aspect of life or art as sacred makes an indispensable contribution to the cause of free expression. Even when one sees a specific challenge as deeply offensive (as I often do) the simple act of heresy is a visible reminder of what one could choose to do if they felt it was important.

This, though, is the first time that the canon they’re proposing to mess with is my canon! And I’m stunned at how protective I feel. I don’t want to overstate my indignation, but when the property being proposed for a makeover is something you believe to be the most profound and revealing film ever made on what it means to be a human being, I don’t want to understate it either.


OK, I admit it.

This time it’s my sacred space, and I can’t say that I feel very subversive. I do, though, see more clearly how others must have felt when a work of art or culture that they cherished was threatened by profit-driven commercial interests.

It doesn’t feel so good. At all. Because the network of The Apprentice, The Celebrity Apprentice, The Recently Paroled Apprentice, and The Hobbled By Lower Back Pain Apprentice is going to _____ with my film?

Yup. And now its my turn to be angry, offended and worried about just how bad it will get.

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