Keep the Channel Open.


An interesting thing happened at the Emmys last week. Noted talk show host and comic anarchist Conan O’Brien went rogue.

This was the last year for Conan’s TBS show, and he decided to go out big, giving a standing ovation to the president of the TV Academy, crashing Stephen Colbert’s Emmy win and pulling focus as John Oliver celebrated him.

The thing that made it interesting is that it seems to have been completely unplanned, just Conan being playful, yet most viewers called it the best part of the night.

Obviously it’s not a great sign for the telecast that the one part of the entertainment that people really enjoyed had nothing to do with the telecast team.

But you wonder whether there’s not some kind of lesson to be learned in there, too. Like maybe those shows should be trying to create a space where fun things can happen, rather than leaning mostly on jokey award presentations.  

You think of the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler hosting gigs. Obviously they’re heavily scripted (and also those two comedians are geniuses). But their stuff usually invites a lot of audience participation as well. Which is just smart—you’re dealing with a room full of performers. Some are not improvisers, but a lot are. So why not tap into that?

It’s pretty obvious there’s something systemically wrong with the way we think about awards shows. Even the Tonys, which went less than two hours tonight and had some great speeches and a truly great song from Jennifer Holliday, never quite felt like it was anything. That might have been in part because CBS insisted that the songs from the nominees be performed afterwards on a completely different show.

Or maybe that’s CBS’ attempt at a solution. I’m watching that second show as I’m writing this and it’s pretty entertaining.

(Speaking of which, if you haven’t seen David Byrne’s American Utopia on HBO yet, you should check it out. Or if you’re coming to/in New York, get a ticket. It’s so uplifting.)

Conan O’Brien wasn’t the only public figure to go rogue this week.

Yep. Pope Francis called longtime Catholic media network EWTN “the work of the devil” and also told the Jesuits of Slovakia about people wishing his recent surgery would have killed him.

If you’re wondering where the Pope is coming from in all of this, Heidi Schlumpf at National Catholic Reporter did a four part expose in 2019 on how the organization has changed under Raymond Arroyo to become much more overtly into a religious arm of the Republican Party and Donald Trump’s organization/dumb fascist nightmare.

Going much farther back Jim Martin looked at Mother Angelica and EWTN and found lots of troubling things.

Personally I’m glad to see someone calling out EWTN. I wish it didn’t have to be the Pope, but the fact seems to be that the organization today is backed by such powerful financial and ecclesiological interests today that most bishops are either afraid to speak against it, or agree with its takes on not just the church but political issues. And one easily turns into the other when the pressure to conform is as constant and implacable as EWTN’s has been.

I think Francis calling them out could backfire, and in some ways that’s all part of their program. They want him to look defensive, like this isn’t about them it’s about him. But people should have enough experience with Francis by now to understand he has no problem with people attacking him either personally or in terms of any position he’s staked out. EWTN has provided a real service to the U.S. and world church, but it has also aggressively pushed a vision of church and God that polarizes, marginalizes and dehumanizes. Someone once said you shall know them by their fruit, and those right there are some pretty sour lemons. It needs to change.  

At the Tony’s someone mentioned a letter that Martha Graham once wrote to Agnes DeMille. It’s kind of great and I thought you might like it.

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening
that is translated through you into action,
and because there is only one of you in all time,
this expression is unique.

If you block it,
it will never exist through any other medium
and be lost.
The world will not have it.
It is not your business to determine how good it is;
nor how valuable it is;
nor how it compares with other expressions.
It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly,
to keep the channel open.

You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.
You have to keep open and aware directly
of the urges that motivate you.

Keep the channel open.
No artist is pleased.
There is no satisfaction whatever at any time.
There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction;
a blessed unrest that keeps us marching
and makes us more alive than the others.

It was a bit of a wild week for me. I got to write about Norm McDonald, the K-Pop group BTS and going back to a Broadway show. I also got to give Pope Francis and his council of Cardinals some advice on how to use Zoom, which was a lot of fun to write with some of the others on staff at America.  

(If you’ve never heard of BTS, I hope you’ll check that piece out. They spoke to the United Nations General Assembly last week, and I definitely got some dust in my eyes listening to them.)

Elsewhere, Adrienne Warner won a Tony tonight for her work on the Tina Turner musical. The story of Warner’s performance is itself kind of incredible.

Also, this story of a non who fought for the right to kill wild boars is wild.


That’s about it from me this week. Fall is here. I know this because I’m cold for the first time in 11 years. (Thoughts and prayers welcome.)

I can’t wait for autumn leaves. Hope we all see them soon—and that they stay for many months. (Winter I can do without.)

Thanks for reading. Have a great week!

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