Finally, a few minutes before noon, the staff gathers around Gafni’s laptop for the announcement: “For coverage of the fatal Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, California, the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting goes to the staff of the East Bay Times.” Exultation. Now champagne is needed, stat. And cigars. As the reporters saunter down Broadway with stogies, Peele runs into a friend who starts shouting at random people on the street: “These guys just won the Pulitzer Prize!” he tells construction workers. “These guys just won the Pulitzer Prize!”
A week later, Bay Area News Group, the paper’s corporate owner, announces it will be firing many of its copy editors and designers. This comes as a surprise to approximately nobody.
“Keeping secrets was my career,” Daniel Ellsberg says. “I didn’t lose the aptitude for that when I put out the Pentagon Papers.” This might come as a shock, considering that the former Defense Department analyst is best known for leaking classified information nearly half a century ago, thus bringing about a landmark legal precedent in favor of press freedom and, indirectly, hastening the end of both the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration. But for many years, even as Ellsberg beat prosecution, became a peace activist, and wrote an autobiography titled Secrets, he still had something remarkable left to disclose.
It turns out that Ellsberg also took many thousands of pages of documents pertaining to another subject: nuclear war. Ellsberg, a prominent thinker in the field of decision theory, had worked on the military’s “mutual assured destruction” strategy during the Cold War. Once a believer in deterrence, he now says he was a collaborator in an “insane plan” for “retaliatory genocide.” He wanted to tell the world decades ago; with nuclear threat looming again, he’s put the whole story into a new book, The Doomsday Machine.
In the worst month of the most severe drought in California’s history, my parents built a swimming pool. Reserve your judgment for a moment: they also replaced the lawn with native planting and powered the thing with an Israeli solar-powered saltwater filtration contraption strapped to the roof. Their architect said Tom Brady and Giselle also used it; my dad wondered whether the Brady-Bundchens had as many problems with it as he did.
If you still question this choice for either hypocrisy or environmental irresponsibility, I refer you to Joan Didion’s 1977 defense of swimming pools written in the midst of the second worst drought in California’s history. Rebuking those not from California who took smug pleasure in the idea of Californians having to drain their pools during drought, Didion explains “in fact a swimming pool requires, once it has been filled and the filter has begun its process of cleaning and recirculating the water, virtually no water.”
In the stark silence of memory, I am young. Young enough to be riding inside the shopping cart at the Stater Brothers grocery store on Magnolia. I am old enough to know what my parents mean by “you spoil him” but not old enough to understand why my grandmother, pushing the cart, has darker skin than I do. She holds my amateur hand in hers, wood-brown and well-lotioned. I don’t understand her Spanglish. I am frightened by the brimstone imagery of her Catholicism. I don’t know what she’s trying to erase with a facelift. The market beeps, the turnstile squeaks as she guides us back out into the world. Corona, California is quiet. Bent October sun in the parking lot. There is a saturation of confusion, and it won’t ever leave. Sometimes I will remember this moment, caught in the spaces between shadows of leaves, casting a net over the sidewalk, during golden hour.
“Mr. Dickens and His Carol” is a novel for those who think they love Charles Dickens because they enjoyed film adaptations of “A Christmas Carol.” Samantha Silva’s confession that “the book is, most of all, a fan letter — a love letter” may explain why it reads at times like a treatment for a holiday comedy. Clearly she thinks it’s funny, for example, to have Dickens step in “a steaming pile of dog excrement.”
But the book rises above farce when Silva lavishes her attention on moments that sparked her own imagination. She nicely captures the spirit of Dickens’s favorite escape from his desk or from fights with his wife, his long midnight walks around London: “Fog hovered in the hat brims of cabdrivers, rolled into stairwells to blanket snoring beggars, crept down the Thames bridge by bridge.”
Wasson casts a wide net, discussing “Ghostbusters” and “The Colbert Report” alongside the brilliant current long-form team T.J. and Dave, but at times, he becomes more exclusive, declaring, for instance, that commedia dell’arte is not part of the history. He rightly emphasizes that long-form improvisation is a distinctly American form, but overstates the case — you see this even in his title — ignoring major figures and traditions in other countries. What makes this more than a minor omission is that the globalization of improv would be powerful evidence to support the book’s effusive arguments. After all, the late-night host Seth Meyers got his start in an improv theater in Amsterdam, and a new club in London, the Bill Murray, offers improv classes run by Second City. To do justice to the impact of improv comedy, you need a wider lens, one that explores the increasing importance of improv theaters in the comedy ecosystem, the various schools of pedagogy and how the principles of improvisation have infiltrated the business world, traditional acting and popular culture.