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Friday, January 14, 2005

Flashback by Guest Poster Rich Bindell: A Post 9-11 Letter to Washington Post TV Critic Tom Shales

Hello Mr. Shales… you fellow American, you! (That includes Canada as well as countries in Latin America) I am writing in response to your review of Saturday Night Live’s first broadcast following September 11th. I should explain that the following comments are completely unrelated to my overall opinion of SNL’s ability to make me laugh over the years. If nothing else, this show has always been a postitive example of free speech in art. No matter how good or bad the quality may be, and it can be pretty bad at times, the right to critique our own society and those who govern our world must be preserved. If you can make us laugh, bravo! If you can make us laugh consistently while keeping the subject matter current for over 25 years, well that takes talent and perseverance. But can you do it at a time when our nation is experiencing grief, fear, anger, and anxiety simultaneously?

With that in mind, I question a few of the comments in your review. My first complaint is easy enough to address. You claim that SNL stole one of your jokes directly from an unrelated article you wrote for another publication. As you put it in your review, “The term Taliban was so unfamiliar, I wrote, that people may have confused it with a line from Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song: “Come Mr. Taliban, tally me banana.” Don’t you think other people make that connection themselves?

Now to the purpose of the letter. I must defend one of America’s greatest songwriters, Mr. Paul Simon. You described his performance of The Boxer on the first SNL show following September 11th as “inappropriate to the occasion, especially with its references to ‘the whores on Seventh Avenue’ and ‘going home where the New York City winters aren’t bleeding me.’" Have you listened to the entire song? This song’s message about receiving a sucker-punch from reality but getting back up to face it in order to move on couldn’t be more fitting given what’s happened. Furthermore, New Yorkers pride themselves on most things about their city. Good or bad, it’s New York. It’s reality. New York represents both the best and worst of our modern American society. I find it hard to believe that the parallels reflected in these lyrics would offend people if they really understood the song. Beware of criticizing a song unless you understand its message or you may end up like Ronald Reagan (or is it George Bush) wanting to recognize Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA as a flag waving jingoistic song while failing to understand its stinging critique of the Vietnam War and the treatment of our own veterans here at home. By focusing on one or two lines from The Boxer and taking them out of context you pretty much proved Paul Simon’s point that “a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.”

You also wrote, “The worst thing was that all those members of the fire and police departments, and the mayor, had to stand by silently and stony-faced while Simon sang on.” Did you consider that it’s possible that the guests of honor requested that he play The Boxer? It’s one if his most popular songs and a great American anthem. Heck, even Bob Dylan recorded a studio version of it only a few months after Simon and Garfunkel released it and how often does that happen? Perhaps the honored guests understood how delicately Paul could pay tribute to the blue-collar members of New York’s workforce. Police and fire departments often draw quick criticism from the public until they are needed. Then, they respond without question and without recognition because they are needed and it’s their job to help us. They save our lives every day, and yet they are blue-collar workers. Well, the New York City Police and Fire Departments got a big punch in the face when they lost hundreds of lives on September 11th, and now they must keep moving. They must help New York clean up the debris, identify its family members, and get back to normal despite their own emotions and personal suffering. “In the clearing stands the boxer, and a fighter by his trade, and he carries the reminder of every glove that laid him down all cut until he cried out in his anger and his shame, I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains.”

Paul Simon is a staple on Saturday Night Live. He has been a musical guest on numerous occasions including wonderful performances with George Harrison. He is also a distinguished member of SNL’s glorious Five Timers Club having hosted the show over, yes you guessed it, five times! Paul Simon is a New Yorker who, except on screen in Annie Hall where he lampooned the New Yorker gone California, has always remained a New Yorker. He has almost become a symbol for New York. Who does not remember seeing a picture of him wearing a New York cap or doesn’t know someone who has seen one of his free concerts in Central Park? Who could have been a better choice to help the show ease itself and ease our way back into the mundane realities of television and what better song to play from his impressive songbook than The Boxer?

How do we get back to normal? We have been told to return to our jobs. If you are in the entertainment business you entertain. The cast and crew of SNL took their turn at getting back to normal and entertaining. Yet you seem to expect some sort of sensitive, whitewashed, edited version of comedy. Should we look at previous images of the New York City skyline, with the twin towers, and remember how magnificent they were or go back and blot out all scenes featuring them in previous movies and programs? Just because we need to laugh, it doesn’t mean that we forget our pain. Laughter can heal. But, it cannot do that if it is censored. We have to face the roots of our grief before we can move on.

If people are expecting television to help heal them emotionally, then perhaps they are looking in the wrong place. Grief is very personal, whereas television is not. We should look to our families, friends, neighbors, teachers, clergy, etc. for intelligent discussions about this national tragedy. My biggest worry is that if we look to television for the answers then we may forget the wise words of a boxer that over 30 years ago warned us that “after changes upon changes, we are more or less the same, after changes we are more or less the same.”

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