5 Summer Reads Guaranteed to Tickle Your Funny Bone

In late 2009, New York Times culture reporter Dave Itzkoff boarded Robin Williams’s plane to talk about the comedian’s broken heart: his alcoholism, his bruised relationship with his family, and the actual cow’s heart valve he’d had implanted that March. Itzkoff landed one step closer to a journey that would take four years of his career, his new biography, Robin (Henry Holt). “Part of Robin’s genius was making things look spontaneous,” says Itzkoff, but when he discovered Williams’s script from an early Happy Days cameo, it was covered in scribbled notes that showed he’d approached Mork’s showdown versus the Fonz with the seriousness of Shakespeare. (Whose work, of course, Williams had studied at Juilliard, even if the closest Hollywood allowed him near the Bard was a bit part in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet.)

“He wanted people to know the truth of him,” says Itzkoff, and in researching Williams’s arc from stand-up to sitcoms to his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Good Will Hunting, he realized Robin would also trace the last five decades of comedy itself: “It had a boom and bust as well.” Here are the five dynamite comedy books that lit up Itzkoff’s own life.

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The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night by Bill Carter
The book that I vividly remember reading in my teenage years — and a big influence in wanting to know more about journalism and pursuing it as a career. Probably the way those shows are run is much more mundane, but this inside account made it seem so adventurous and cutthroat. It certainly burnished the reputations of both Leno and Letterman, and filled in a lot of their back stories.

At that time in my life, I was just so obsessed with those personalities and I was deeply invested in how Letterman could have succeeded Johnny Carson. It shouldn’t matter to any particular teenage boy that much. My classmates in high school were not into late-night TV at all. I watched Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and the run-up to his departure totally alone in my bedroom. (Hachette Books)

Harpo Speaks! by Harpo Marx with Rowland Barber
Groucho Marx also wrote a couple of books about his life and the Marx brothers, but I just have a bit more of a place in my heart for Harpo’s memoir, which is very tender and full of his vivid anecdotes, not only of being in this ensemble with his brothers, but stories of their growing up together in New York in that tenement era and forging the personas of what would become their characters in the troupe.

There’s this great story Harpo tells of this guy named Gookie that he watches roll cigarettes in the window of a cigar store, and learning to mimic him — which Gookie does not appreciate in any way. I think he ends up chasing him away from the window. I can’t recall before or since seeing a physical comedian unpack their own technique so precisely. You come away thinking, “Oh, I could do what Harpo does, too, if I just follow the method that he lays out here.” Which nobody can. I’m sure there were lots of things that were terrible about that era, but it was romanticized. I lived in New York in the Seventies and Eighties, and now of course I’m romanticizing it, as terrible as it was. (Limelight Editions)

The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee by Sarah Silverman
Her book really stuck with me because there’s a very fine line between her and her persona, and as we learn more about her life and upbringing in New Hampshire, you start to really understand how her comedic perspective got forged. There’s some devastatingly sad things that happen to her in her childhood. She has a baby brother who dies accidentally. She has struggles with depression early on and starts being prescribed Xanax in her teens. She goes to a therapist and the therapist ends up committing suicide. She’s able to spin dark comedy out of recounting those tales. She’s not firing off one-liners; she’s not saying, “Isn’t that hilarious!” But she’s trying to make sense of things that happened to her, to reflect on it in a way that’s consistent with her comedic sensibility. I find it brave and very insightful. (HarperCollins)

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I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy’s Golden Era by William Knoedelseder
William Knoedelseder was a reporter out of the L.A. Times in that period in the Seventies when comedians like Robin Williams were starting to show up at the Comedy Store and make their bones. He was on the ground as it happened: the scene around [club owner] Mitzi Shore, the cult of personality that she built. There’s an important turning point in his book about how the comedians that worked the Comedy Store were not getting paid. They go on strike and one comedian commits suicide by jumping off the Hyatt Hotel. You appreciate the struggles of these early performers. It was starting to become a cool gig, but because of the efforts of these people. At the time that they got into it, it didn’t have glamour. There was no real cable TV yet; comedy wasn’t being broadcast into people’s homes. These people were doing it for love and the camaraderie of hanging out and partying with each other after the shows. You can understand why the source material was so tantalizing to Showtime. (Public Affairs)

Becoming Richard Pryor by Scott Saul
That was extremely inspirational in preparing my own book. It goes all the way back to Pryor’s roots in Peoria [Illinois] and talking to his family members that raised him, grew up alongside him. Really putting truths to all the tales and urban legends that surrounded Pryor and his celebrity. It’s very interesting because it’s not trying to tell the entirety of Richard Pryor’s life — I think it stops somewhere in 1978 or 1980 — but there’s just so much deep reporting, starting at square one. You get such a complete history and really understand where and how the mind-set of a comedian is forged through upbringing and these early life experiences. It’s crucial. (HarperCollins)


The Village Voice is celebrating the summer’s literary scene throughout the week. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Summer Books page.


Nell Scovell Thinks More Men Should Be Leading the Women’s Movement

Men and women have different reactions to Nell Scovell’s memoir, Just the Funny Parts…And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking Into the Hollywood Boys’ Club. Scovell, an accomplished writer, producer, and director who created the 1990s–2000s sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch and has written for The Simpsons, Murphy Brown, and Late Night With David Letterman, to name just a few, has picked up on this trend: “The women say, ‘Oh my god, I nodded along throughout the whole thing,’ ” she tells me over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “But for the men, I think it’s really eye-opening.”

Just the Funny Parts tracks the highs and lows of Scovell’s thirty-year career in television, which began after a short stint in the late 1980s writing for Spy and Vanity Fair, where she is still a contributing writer. Scovell grew up in Massachusetts, and attended Harvard, but was too intimidated by the aggressively critical dudes of the fabled Lampoon. Instead, she wrote for the sports section of the Harvard Crimson. Her television career took off when a journalist friend suggested she could write for TV — and clarified that he didn’t mean it as an insult.

A memoir that doubles as a how-to guide for aspiring TV writers, Just the Funny Parts is full of juicy stories about celebrity encounters and red-light warnings for women in particular. There was the time Garry Shandling told her she writes “like a guy”; the meeting with a Fox exec who discouraged her from trying to write for her favorite show, because “24 won’t hire a woman. They had one and it didn’t work out”; and the staff party for a TV show she worked on, early in her career, that ended with the head writer pulling her into his bedroom (“This is so, so hard to admit but…Reader, I blew him”). Scovell’s experiences, particularly when cast against the harsh glare of the #MeToo moment, have led her to an apparently contradictory conclusion: We need more men to lead the women’s movement.

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“I think Time’s Up has done amazing things here in Hollywood,” Scovell says of the organization, launched in January by a coalition of high-profile female stars, that aims to eradicate sexual harassment, particularly at work. “But the one thing I’d like to see them do is include more men. I think we need men to lead the women’s movement, along with women. There’s a great book by Brooke Kroeger called The Suffragents, and it’s about how men, mostly husbands of the women in the suffrage movement, worked to help get women the vote. It’s about equality. They’re part of the equation.”

There’s a reason, beyond her years in Hollywood, that such issues are at the forefront of Scovell’s mind: In 2013, she co-authored a little book called Lean In, with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. “I saw how my life was kind of this Lean In case study, where I continued to work and my husband raised our kids,” Scovell remarks. It wasn’t just the division of labor at home that allowed her to thrive at work. While Scovell writes about realizing, years later, that it was mostly female executives who hired her in her forties, after she had kids, most of her mentors have been men — which is perhaps not so surprising, considering Scovell was often the only woman in the room.

“Men did more than just mentor me, they advocated for me,” Scovell notes. “There’s a difference. It’s great to encourage someone, but it’s even better to hire them.”

Scovell and Conan O’Brien, who both wrote for the short-lived Fox talk show “The Wilton North Report,” in 1987

Just the Funny Parts is filled with concrete examples of how women’s voices enhance the writing of a show, particularly in comedy, Scovell’s bread and butter. The book includes drafts of rejected jokes she wrote for Hillary Clinton to deliver at the 2016 Al Smith Dinner — because, she writes, “they illustrate why a female perspective can lead to joke areas that male writers might overlook.” (One joke Hillary passed on: “Donald defines nontraditional marriage as between a man and a brunette.”) Scovell quotes Samantha Bee, who appeared as a correspondent on The Daily Show while pregnant and who told New York magazine that working in such a state will “add to your comedy in ways that you never expected.”

One of my favorite anecdotes in the book tells how Scovell came up with the backstory for Sabrina’s mother on Sabrina the Teenage Witch, which premiered on ABC in 1996 and starred Melissa Joan Hart as a sixteen-year-old living with her aunts who discovers she has magical powers. The ABC executives wanted to explain the mom’s absence by suggesting she’d died in childbirth. But Scovell pushed against this — Sabrina’s dad, after all, wasn’t dead, even though he wasn’t in the picture, either. Eventually, the network relented, although they insisted the mother not be away from her child by choice. Scovell’s solution: Sabrina’s mom, a mortal, is on a dig in Peru, and the Witches Council forbids her from seeing her daughter for two years after Sabrina has become a witch. Otherwise, her mom will turn into a ball of wax. I always liked that detail; I never knew its feminist origins.

And then there’s David Letterman. Scovell first wrote about her brief stint writing for Late Night in a 2009 Vanity Fair article that was published shortly after the comedy legend admitted live on air that he’d had sex with women who worked on his show. (Someone threatened to blackmail him with this information, so he beat him to the punch.) Although Barbara Walters defended Letterman on The View, and insisted that his behavior did not amount to sexual harassment, Scovell disagreed: “There’s a subset of sexual harassment called sexual favoritism that, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, can lead to a ‘hostile work environment,’ often ‘creating an atmosphere that is demeaning to women,’ ” she wrote in the article. “And that pretty much sums up my experience at Late Night With David Letterman.

Perhaps the most insightful line in the book comes toward the end, when Scovell points out that only after they were no longer helming late-night shows did David Letterman and Jay Leno publicly cop to the fact that the TV industry needs to hire more women. Letterman even told Tom Brokaw, “I don’t know why they didn’t give my show to a woman,” and in a 2015 event alongside directors Bennett Miller and Spike Jonze at his alma mater, Ball State University, he questioned the two men on the subject of Hollywood’s “pervasive sexism.” When Miller demurred — “I’m not a studio executive” — Letterman pushed back: “Having been very, very successful, now can’t you devote your career to help others who struggle to be successful?”

Scovell shrewdly theorizes what prompted Letterman’s and Leno’s apparent change of heart: arriving at the “intersection of ageism and sexism. The two former hosts now know something every woman learns early in her career: it sucks to be pushed aside by a less-experienced man.”

And yet, Letterman returned to television earlier this year, with a monthly Netflix interview series called My Next Guest Needs No Introduction; all five executive producers are men. “No lesson learned there,” Scovell says. “He had a chance for redemption and did not take it.” (Letterman did not respond to a request for comment.)

We often hear about how important it is for women to have each other’s backs. And at this point in her career, Scovell has devoted much of her time to helping other female writers — like Bess Kalb, who writes for Jimmy Kimmel Live!, or Last Week Tonight With John Oliver’s Jill Twiss — find staffing jobs. But Scovell’s experiences illustrate how important it is that men get involved in the fight for equality. Scovell told me that with one exception, she has been interviewed about her book exclusively by women. “I find that really troubling,” she admits, calling into question the knee-jerk habit to put women’s stories in a separate category from men’s. “It just creates an us-versus-them dynamic, which is exactly what we’re trying to fight,” she says, adding, “That’s why men really need to mentor women — a) there are more men in senior positions, and b) women are so overloaded.” Even in two-career households, women still take on more childcare and housework than their male partners — not to mention what Scovell calls “housework at work,” such as organizing parties or clearing out the office fridge. “We’re supposed to do it because we’re communal and we love helping others,” she says. “And then on top of that you have to mentor women? Come on, men! Step up!”

Just the Funny Parts…And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking Into the Hollywood Boys’ Club
By Nell Scovell
Dey Street
336 pp.


Future Islands

Future Islands plays some of the most passionate electro-pop there is right now—or in existence, if you want to be fittingly melodramatic. Led by frontman Samuel T. Herring, the Baltimore-based trio creates super accessible, synth-driven songs that always manage to feel nostalgic but visionary, in the same colour-drenched wave as Wild Nothing or Tame Impala. On top of that production is Herring’s voice—full of gravelly crooning character, like Jimmy Durante-gone-Gary Glitter— and the theatrical, impassioned way he delivers lyrics that would sound overly-sentimental and far less striking in the hands of someone else. Released just this year, their Chris Coady-produced album Singles is one post-wave dance hit after another—notably, “Seasons (Waiting on You),” which they performed on the Late Show and subsequently left David Letterman dazzled and, literally, speechless. Opening is Baltimore-based Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, a self-described Bowie fanatic, sandwich maker, comedian and musician. He’s supporting Future Islands on both their North American and UK/European tours, so he must make some pretty good sandwiches.

Wed., April 30, 8:30 p.m., 2014


Gov. Christie, You Don’t Look “Startlingly” Healthy, But the Doughnut Gag Was Great

Ah! The old whip-the-doughnut-out-of-your-suit-jacket-pocket maneuver. Shrewd move Mr. Governor.

Play the fat joke on yourself before the comedian can play it on you.

In a brilliant preemptive strike, N.J Gov. Chris Christie addressed the 500-pound elephant in the room — his weight — by whipping out a doughnut during his appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman.

Knowing that Letterman is a big fan of cracking on the governor’s weight, Christie beat him to the punch last night.


Christie earned brownie points with us last month when he slammed Congress for allowing petty politics to trigger a delay in its vote on federal relief funds for states ravaged by Hurricane Sandy. And he gained some more brownie points with us with that doughnut bit last night.

However, we are a little concerned about his rather delusional assessment of his overall health.

“Startlingly good,” is how the 50-year-old governor described the status of his health when asked by Letterman. “I’m basically the healthiest fat guy you’ve ever seen in your life.”

While, we’re not qualified to assess what a “startlingly” healthy man looks like, Christie certainly doesn’t appear to fit the bill. But hey, we at least credit him for possessing the sage foresight to realize that he should probably start getting his body in better shape.

“Now the tell doctor’s telling me that things are going to start to fall off me if I don’t get it together,” Christie so astutely acknowledged.


Hello Deli’s Extreme Frank: FiTR Tries the MegaDog

Last night, David Letterman riffed on the Subway Footlong shortfall scandal by sending the camera down to the Hello Deli on 53rd Street, where a foot-long hot dog called the MegaDog has been offered for the last six months. Letterman makes the proprietor, Rupert Jee, take a tape measure to the thing and it turns out to be only eight inches long.

During the skit, the sign was altered to read “8 inch” instead of “Footlong,” which is the way it still reads.

It was a pretty funny bit, but what intrigued FiTR was the MegaDog itself, which, according to the sign which Jee had to change, came with a catalog of ingredients that included cheese, chili, mustard, relish, sauerkraut, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, and – the best part – french fries, a sandwich additive rare in New York, but embraced by Pittsburgh. The MegaDog costs $4.95, but for an extra dollar, you could have bacon added. What the hell? We went for broke and got the whole shebang.

Was it any good? Well, it had ketchup instead of mustard, and the chili tasted vaguely Korean, as if someone had added just a little kimchee to some ground beef, but the thing was an admirable attempt at creating something way more than the sum of its parts.

Unfortunately, it proved impossible to hoist the thing and eat it, and you had to use a fork and knife, which defeats the purpose of a hot dog, doesn’t it? And because utensils were required, it really was impossible to get a bite that included all the ingredients. Still, when someone asks us for the city’s most extreme frank, this is the one we’re likely to recommend.

Though it wasn’t shown on Wednesday night’s episode, here’s what the MegaDog with Bacon from the Hello Deli looks like. How many ingredients can you identify?

Hello Deli
213 West 53rd Street


Letterman Skewers Fieri on Late Show

The subject of the top ten countdown on the Letterman show this evening was “Discontinued Guy Fieri Menu Items” at Fieri’s Times Square restaurant, which was the subject of a zero-star “poor” New York Times review today that caused a sensation.

First, Dave read a couple of descriptions taken straight from Pete Wells’ review — which Paul Shaffer and Letterman quipped about, saying things like “Sounds pretty good to me.” — then made mild fun of the Times as a newspaper. Finally, Letterman launched into the top ten list of dishes rejected from the menu of Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar:


10. Inappropriately rubbed brisket

9. Sampler of entrees sent back to the kitchen

8. Pushed pork

7. Guy’s famous grilled shirt sleeve

6. Jumbo shrimp, tattooed and pierced

5. Teriyak glazed napkin

4. Seared halibut with intestinal parasite reduction

3. Crust-crusted crust

2. Suspiciously damp toast

1. Duck a l’Ahmadinejad


Check out the rest of our Guy Fieri/Pete Wells coverage:

On Guy Fieri and “Quiet Classism” in Restaurant Reviews

Guy Fieri Takes Heat: The Best Lines From Reviews of Guy’s American Kitchen…

Searching for Guy Fieri At Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar


In Spite of Letterman’s Love Letter to Steak ‘N Shake, Actual Food Disappoints

Figuratively speaking, David Letterman blew the chain in Macy’s (or maybe we should say Marshall Field’s) window.

The city has seen a recent influx of fast-food chains from other places, the most recent being Steak ‘n Shake, specializing in the elemental combination of hamburgers (“steak,” in hype parlance), french fries, and milkshakes. The city of origin is Chicago, as with the recently arrived Potbelly. The place is located at the north end of Times Square, next door to the Ed Sullivan Theater, where Letterman is taped. Almost two weeks ago, just as it opened, David Letterman — ever the Midwesterner — shamelessly touted the place in a lengthy comic segment.

Chocolate shake, fries, “steak frank,” and steakburger at Steak ‘n Shake Times Square. But there’s virtually no place inside to eat them.

The segment got me excited to try the food, so I biked up there yesterday. Yes, the place is gleaming and new, but so small that there is space for only around 10 to sit and eat, and another five or six to eat standing up. This despite three cash registers and lots of cooks on the line. Clearly, takeout is the main objective.

I’d scoped out the chain’s usual menu online, and was most excited to try the Chicago-style hot dog. Unfortunately, when I saw the menu at the Times Square branch, it was severely curtailed, with some of the most interesting stuff unavailable — including the Chicago dog. This is a dick move on the chain’s part, since the Chicago-style hot dog is one of the few things missing from NYC’s foodscape (Shake Shack’s rendition notwithstanding).

There are two main hamburger choices, styled “The Original” (two eighth-pound patties, $3.99) and “The Signature” (one six-ounce patty, said to be made with organic rib eye and New York strip steaks, $5.99). Both come with fries. I went for the latter. The meat had a somewhat odd flavor, not like actual steak, but slightly off. It was nicely cooked, though, faintly pink in the middle, and topped with ripe tomato, lettuce, American cheese, good pickle, and raw onion. (Letterman’s fantasy that he could smell fried onions was apparently a hallucination on his part.) The hamburger turned out to be the best part of my meal.

The steakburger, “all the way”

The fries are thinner than usual, and low on flavor.

The fries, smaller and more delicate than the usual fast-food article, were already cold when my beeper thingy went off. Not sure why these fries are so celebrated in some quarters. They’re better than McDonald’s, I guess, but then this place is supposed to be something of a premium burger chain.

The biggest disappointment lay in the hot dog. Not only was it not a Vienna Red Hot (which would have accurately reflected Chicago sausage terroir), but something that tasted like it had been pulled from the bulk meat cases at Western Beef, salty as hell and none too good. It had been split and grilled (plaudits for that), and slathered with ketchup and mustard. Actually, I couldn’t tell right away whether the yellow stuff was mustard or Cheez Whiz, though I’m inclining toward the latter. Cost: $3.29.

The disappointing steak frank. Who in their right mind would make a wiener out of steak?

As promised, the milkshake was thick and “hand-scooped,” the way it’s done in the Midwest, so thick you can’t sip it through the bubble-tea straw provided, and are forced to revert to the plastic spoon. This is all to the good. The bad part was that the shake had been made with only milk and ice cream, meaning that the chocolate flavor was severely diluted, making for a very pale shake. As any true Midwesterner knows, you’ve got to also add chocolate syrup to the formula to make the shake more chocolaty.

At least Illini visiting Times Square can now visit a Chicago fast-food chain. I advise New Yorkers to give the place a wide berth.

The pale chocolate milkshake

Funny — the white cash register employees in the Letterman segment have now been replaced with black ones.

Steak ‘n Shake
1695 Broadway


Joaquin Phoenix Goes a Very Long Way to Prove a Very Minor Point in I’m Still Here

I’m Still Here—“that Joaquin Phoenix movie”—capitalizes on an anxiety that’s very of-the-moment, uniting pop cultural phenomena as seemingly disparate as the too-stupid/good-to-be-true Jersey Shore characters, James Franco’s baffling side careers as a professional student and soap opera stud, and pretty much every thing having to do with Vincent Gallo. Basically, anything that forces us to ask: Are they fucking with me?

Directed by Phoenix’s brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, the film purports to document Phoenix’s high-profile “retirement” from acting, his alleged attempt to transition into a hip-hop career, and his subsequent, much-publicized meltdown. This period coincided with the promotion and release of Phoenix’s last film, Two Lovers, which, like Here, was released by Magnolia Pictures. Whether or not the retirement was contrived or permanent, Phoenix has not appeared in or publicly acknowledged shooting another film since. He has also not released any musical recordings—in fact, he’s been all but absent from the public eye since spring of last year—which is coincidentally the same time that Here’s portrait of his life ends.

At the outset of the film, Phoenix describes his acting career as a “self-imposed prison,” claiming frustration with his lack of creative control as a performer (“[I’m] just a fucking puppet”) and resentment over his obligation to maintain his celebrity persona (“I don’t want to be the Joaquin character anymore”). And so, after participating in a charity theater event with a “dream team” including Affleck, Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, and “fucking Danny DeVito,” Phoenix gives a red-carpet reporter the “exclusive” news that this will be his last night as an actor.

It’s such an exclusive that it comes as a surprise to Phoenix’s publicist, who is helpless to intervene as her twice-Oscar-nominated client proceeds to obliterate any industry goodwill he might have had in a six-month flurry of drugs, shitty rapping, P. Diddy stalking (the hip-hop producer provides much-needed comic relief by riffing on his own persona, as he did earlier this year in Get Him to the Greek), and bizarre public appearances, peaking with Phoenix’s now-legendary February 2009 beyond-awkward non-interview with David Letterman. Throughout, Affleck tails Phoenix (without much explanation as to why) but largely refrains from intervening in the action, which is enabled by Phoenix’s entourage of two: a “general assistant” named Antony, and Larry, billed as Phoenix’s “caretaker.”

It’s hard to doubt the veracity of what’s onscreen: Much of what Here depicts happened in real life and in plain sight, and all throughout this period, the gossip media breathlessly reported on Phoenix’s every increasingly curious move. But just after Phoenix announced his retirement, Entertainment Weekly quoted an unnamed source who claimed that Phoenix and Affleck were perpetrating a “hoax” for the purpose of a faux-documentary. I’m Still Here was thus the target of skeptical speculation from shot one, a potential liability that Affleck and Phoenix drag into the frame, with Affleck angrily interviewing the EW reporter on camera, and Phoenix accusing Antony of selling his secrets.

Perhaps it goes without saying that Here was more provocative when it couldn’t be seen, when it existed for most of us purely in the realm of rumor. Despite, say, a report from an early screening that the film included “more male frontal nudity than you’d find in some gay porn,” I counted just two penises, both flaccid and neither filmed more gratuitously than the naked breasts that Phoenix at one point nuzzles, or as graphically as an extended shot including a still photograph of Britney Spears’s bare vagina. All of which—like the p.o.v. puke cam and the many grating scenes of Phoenix berating his paid hangers-on—feel like stock shock tactics, set within a structure too bloated and without rhythm to sustain any sort of sensation. Ostensibly the uncensored story of a life in free fall, Here doesn’t offer anything that feels as queasily startling as that Letterman performance.

Think of I’m Still Here’s first hour as prologue to that epic event of self-destruction. By the time Here regurgitates the late-night TV highlight/career lowlight, Affleck has built enough of a context—about the beleaguered artist whose true identity and creative impulses have no outlet in commercial culture—that its impact is inverted. When the studio audience laughs, it’s clear they’re laughing at him, which comes off as cruel; Phoenix seems less apathetic or out of it than paralyzed with sadness. And after the taping, he’s all too aware of what’s happened—“I’ve fucked my fucking life,” he wails. “I’m just gonna be a joke forever.” With this outburst, I’m Still Here’s psychological strategy clicks into place, and its dramatic momentum increases considerably.

Was this all staged? Probably, but does that matter if it feels true? In fact, the end credits more or less confirm I’m Still Here to be, if not a traditional work of fiction, then at least primarily a performance produced for cameras. It seems that this is a secret that the filmmakers and their distributor have been trying to protect through cryptic advertising and limited advance screening (I was required to sign an embargo/confidentiality agreement before entering the theater), hoping to keep the mystery alive. But now, knowing that I’m Still Here was more invented than accidental raises more questions than it answers.

In other words, the question of whether or not they’re fucking with us is easily settled; it’s much harder to determine why they’re fucking with us. And are they even fucking with us—the average viewer with no direct experience of what it feels like to be a celebrity, who can only make inferences and judgments based on the images that are presented to us—or are they fucking with their fellow celebrities, who stand to feel the force of the less than flattering aspects of themselves in Phoenix’s portrayal? Though clearly mocking the delusions of grandeur embodied in one of Phoenix’s rap verses—“I’m still real/I won’t kneel/I’m the one God’s chosen, bitch”—most of the film isn’t that broadly funny, or apparently playful. At once deeply felt and devastatingly cynical, I’m Still Here’s bone-dry satire couldn’t exist without the celebrity media feedback loop. But its apparent attack on the Hollywood machine is so insidery, so vicious, that to us—the everyday consumer—it’s just not clear why this stunt needed to exist at all.



Mayor Bloomberg’s “dumpster pools” seemed like a joke when first announced—certainly to David Letterman’s audience—but after the sweltering summer of 2010, they don’t look so bad. There are, however, many great “real” pools in the city, and here are three of our favorites, rated on quality of facilities and lack of crowds:
Asser Levy Rec Center: There are two free outdoor pools, and for a reasonable membership fee ($75 a year for adults, $10 for seniors and free for kids up to 18), you have access to a gorgeous indoor pool and recreation center. East 23rd Street at FDR Drive, 212-447-2010
Asphalt Green: Manhattan’s only 50-meter Olympic standard swimming pool, Asphalt Green is a bit pricey ($35 a day for adults and $10 for kids), but the daily cost goes down with a membership, which lets you participate in a number of year-round programs for kids and adults. And the pool is lovely. 555 East 90th Street, 212-369-8890,
Highbridge Pool: The outdoor Olympic-size pool and wading pool are free, and the park has spray showers, fitness equipment, plus volleyball, baseball, and basketball facilities. There is also a great playground and a barbecue area—who could ask for more? Amsterdam Avenue and 173rd Street, 212-927-2400

Wednesdays. Starts: Aug. 25. Continues through Sept. 15, 2010


Barack Obama is Golden, Rush Limbaugh is Screwed — Predictions for the Year of the Tiger!

By Fatimah Surjani Ortega

Yes, Tiger, this could be your year
Yes, Tiger, this could be your year

Sunday ushers in the Year of Metal Tiger, which sounds like a golf club. That’s actually appropriate, because things look auspicious for Tiger Woods — as long as he can keep his dick in his pants.

Just in time for Chinese New Year, the Voice offers up this celebrity-centered translation of what’s in store for all you furry animals. We’re basing it on the teachings of none other than the Feng Shui Grand Master himself, Singapore-born Tan Khoon Yong.

Let’s start at the beginning, with those of you born in the Year of the Rat (1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008): Your advice for 2010? Pray hard, and pray often.

Governor, you're screwed
Governor, you’re screwed

You have a rough road ahead. Being a rodent, you tend to run and hide from big things. That’s not the game plan for this year. You need to find some courage and bluff your way through this year’s maze. Only through sheer self-confidence, and, well, assholery are you going to find your way to the cheese. Be brave, be a jerk, stay supremely self-assured, and you won’t end up some pussycat’s lunch. If people bitch and moan about you, put on earphones and turn up the volume.
In for a bumpy ride: Ben Affleck, Cameron Diaz, David Duchovny, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford

Year of the Ox (1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009)

The future is bright, Barry
The future is bright, Barry

Barack Obama, an Ox, won the presidency in the Year of the Rat, which was a very lucky year for him. He took office in his own year, 2009’s Year of the Ox, which sounds just perfect, doesn’t it? Actually, it predicted disaster: when you meet your own year, Tan Khoon Yong tells us, you challenge the Grand Duke Jupiter God, and although we aren’t really sure what that means, it sure doesn’t sound good, does it? Well, that’s all over with now, and the GOP can really start sweating. Tiger and Ox get along just fine, and Obama should have a monster year. For all you Oxen out there, just keep this in mind: Don’t mix work with pleasure. You tend to work too hard, you lose focus, and your health suffers. Find time to chill. And men, treat your wives well and keep your eyes off the cute cows at the office.
Ready for a bull market: Susan Boyle, George Clooney, Mos Def, Heidi Klum, Barack Obama, Meg Ryan

Year of the Tiger (1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998)

It's not Rush's year
It’s not Rush’s year

Sorry, Tigers, but you’re fucked. The Feng Shui masters say you’ll be offering up a challenge to Tai Sui, the Grand Duke Jupiter, or God of the Year, and with every freaking thing you do, you’ll have to watch your back. This is not a year to take chances, and if things aren’t going your way you’re going to feel like crap. All the time. But don’t lose hope entirely. This is a year to count on yourself, because you won’t find help from others. Create your own opportunities through careful, logical planning, and count on your imagination for ideas. Be cautious and wise, and you can give Grand Duke Jupiter — and everyone else — the finger.
Who’s in deep shit: Tom Cruise, Jenna Jameson, Jay Leno, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Sanchez

Year of the Rabbit (1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999)

Get tanned and rested, and then make them pay, Conan!
Get tanned and rested, and then make them pay, Conan!

The lovable hare. Your charm makes you popular, and you feel good, but you might be looking for trouble. The new year should start with a plan to fix some lingering problems. Why? Hare men tend to cheat. And when you’re both rabbits — we’re looking at you, Brangelina — well, the tabloids may be in for a banner year. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that Tiger Woods is a randy rabbit, but if he’s really determined to change his ways, this year is on his side. Rabbits, stop trying to charm the rest of the world and use your powers instead to improve things at home and at work. And get some sun. Vitamin D can be the difference between a gloomy or glorious year.
Who needs some beach time: Angelina Jolie, Michelle Obama, Conan O’Brien, Sarah Palin, Brad Pitt, Alex Rodriguez, Tiger Woods

Year of the Dragon (1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000)

Keep the change, Fiddy
Keep the change, Fiddy

You self-obsessed lizard, you thought everyone was having a shitty 2009. Well, there has been a recession on, but things were tougher on you than others. And you aren’t getting a break any time soon. Yes, it’s another tough year for the dragons, and watch out for unpleasant surprises, all related to your usual shortcomings (you know what they are). But fuck it, don’t listen to this prediction. You did survive the worst recession in a generation, and if you did that, you’ll be fine. Cheer up, Smaug.
Keep your wings tucked and your head down: 50 Cent, Courtney Cox, Bret Easton Ellis, Courtney Love, Liam Neeson, Reese Witherspoon

Year of the Snake (1929, 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001)

John, you ignorant slut
John, you ignorant slut

Things look good for snakes, but don’t get pleased with yourself just yet. Serpents tend to celebrate success with sexual adventure, and some of you will be determined to turn this into the Year of the Slut. Down, boy! Try to redirect that energy into your career or something, because giving in to your impulses is not a good idea this year.
Who’s champing to whore around: Mike Bloomberg, Tina Brown, John Edwards, Maggie Gyllenhaal, John Mayer, Sarah Jessica Parker, Taylor Swift, Oprah Winfrey

Year of the Horse (1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002)

Stay warm-blooded, Kristen!
Stay warm-blooded, Kristen!

Healthy as a horse? Tell that to Barbaro. Yes, it’s going to be that kind of year, Seabiscuit, and you better watch it. Trouble is looking for you, and it’s your health that’s likely to suffer. Avoid disputes, particularly anything involving documents that have your name on them, and gallop away from a deal that isn’t guaranteed. That said, a modest investment in real estate might be wise, and whatever you do, donate some charity or at least some blood while your health still holds.
Constitutionally challenged: Halle Berry, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Cynthia Nixon, Gov. David Paterson, Kristen Stewart

Year of the Goat (1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003)

Everyone loves you, Steve
Everyone loves you, Steve

So long, bad luck, here comes good fortune. If Steve Jobs knew what was good for him, he’d have delayed introducing the iPad until after Chinese New Year (and given it a better name!). At least he’ll have a good chance to gain some weight this year. Goats are in luck: other people will favor them this year, and they’ll find assistance from places they didn’t expect it. But Billy, don’t be a show off. Play things right, and you’ll gain back more than you lost last year.
Not scapegoats this year: Anderson Cooper, Benicio Del Toro, Steve Jobs, Rupert Murdoch, Michael Musto, Liev Schreiber

Year of the Monkey (1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004)

Jen knows from bad luck
Jen knows from bad luck

Monkey, your cycle of good luck has run out. Like the Tigers, you’re also offending the grand god of the year, and 2010 looks like twelve months of suckage. But monkeys often find ways to outsmart their misfortunes — except that they’re also accident prone. So figure things out with that nimble and creative mind, but don’t take risks or you’re likely to slip on a banana peel.
In the jungle this year: Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Aniston, Daniel Craig, Salma Hayek, Jason Schwartzman, Will Smith

Year of the Cock (1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005)

Time to make the big move, Jay-Z!
Time to make the big move, Jay-Z!

We know, we know, it’s always the year of the cock, at least in the Village. But this year, seriously, you roosters have much to crow about. The stars have all aligned, and you need to make your big moves RIGHT NOW. Andrew Cuomo? Nothing can stop you, certainly not the likes of David Paterson and Rick Lazio. The feng shui masters say that this is the year for cocks to lay the foundation for a brighter future (and yes, they really do talk like that, so stop giggling). Don’t mess up this opportunity. Be smart, but be bold.
Who wins: Beyonce, Gerard Butler, Andrew Cuomo, Jay-Z, Spike Lee, Taylor Momsen, Gwen Stefani, Tila Tequila

Year of the Dog (1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006)

These dogs won't hunt
These dogs won’t hunt

Sorry, puppies, you’re in the doghouse this year. Not only is your luck poor, other people are going to shit on you all year long (and not pick up after themselves!). But look, there’s only one way to deal with it: Don’t complain, don’t whimper, take your losses in stride, and stay out of other people’s business. Don’t drive yourself insane waiting for your luck to turn. There’s an end to this, and it’s just twelve months away. Until then, just take it like a mindless, happy puppy.
Bad dog, no biscuit: George W. Bush, Kelly Clarkson, Bill Clinton, Joseph Fiennes, Queen Latifah, Anna Paquin

Year of the Boar (1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007)

No one needs to tell Dave this is his moment
No one needs to tell Dave this is his moment

Boars have had it tough. Hard work didn’t pay off for political pigs Eliot Spitzer and Hillary Clinton in 2008. Last year, 2009, was also supposed to be a lousy one for porkers, but somehow David Letterman watched it happen to the other guys. For the rest of you pigs, 2010 might just be your year. Shrug off the uncertainty and make this a year you take a chance. Sure, others think you’ve been beaten — but now is the time to surprise them with your resilience. Spitzer wants to run again? Do it, man, and not just in your socks.
Who gets a break: Lance Armstrong, Hillary Clinton, Nicky Hilton, Mila Kunis, David Letterman, Ewan McGregor, Eliot Spitzer