Two Musical Comedy Legends

Stephen SondheimTwo great musical composers have birthdays today, so let me start with the one I don’t like: Andrew Lloyd Webber. Now notice: I do think he is a great composer. I just don’t especially like him. He’s not big of melody. I mean, he can do it. But he usually limits such exercises to two songs per show. Also, I don’t especially like him as a lyricist. For that, we have to wait for the second great musical composer today.

The very great Stephen Sondheim is 84 today. He writes a lot of catchy melodies. Call me old fashioned, but I like a tune I don’t have to hear a half dozen times to remember. But even more than that, Sondheim is one of the greatest lyricists ever. That was very clear in 1957 with West Side Story. I also happen to think that the music by Leonard Bernstein is perhaps the best of any musical I’ve ever heard. And then he followed that up with Gypsy, where the great Jule Styne wrote the music.

From then on, it was all “music and lyrics” by Stephen Sondheim. He did A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Sweeney Todd, and much more. This presents a problem in providing a song. I decided to go with “Everybody’s Got the Right” from Assassins. I just love how Sondheim manages to write upbeat songs about such dark subjects.

Happy birthday Stephen Sondheim!


I do feel bad that I didn’t mention that William Shatner is 83 today. I think he is a totally awesome guy. Next year for sure!

GOP Millennials Ad Parodies

Via the always and forever wonderful Digby, I found out that Last Week Tonight with John Oliver did parodies of those awful Republican “Millennials” commercials. All I’ve done is create a playlist so the original runs followed by the parody for the two. Enjoy:

White Power and Black Oppression

Ta-Nehisi CoatesLet me go through the history here, step by step, because it is a bit complex. First, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, The Secret Lives of Inner-City Black Males. In it, he argued that liberals should not be so upset about Paul Ryan’s racist dog whistle, because it is essentially the same thing that President Obama says. My only problem with what he wrote was the application of the term “liberal” to Obama and his supporters. But otherwise: that’s absolutely true, as I discussed recently regarding Obama’s “Popeyes Chicken” speech in relation to Adolph Reed’s excellent article “Nothing Left.”

Next, Jonathan Chait wrote a kind of apologia for President Obama, Barack Obama, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Poverty, and Culture. He argued that there is a very important difference between Ryan and Obama. But he isn’t all that clear as to what that difference is. Supposedly, Obama only believes that culture is part of the problem whereas Ryan, like a good Republican, thinks it the entire problem because, you know, racism is a thing of the past. Ultimately, Chait sees the difference in the conclusions. Ryan wants to pretend that all we need to do is take away any help from the black community and all will be fine. Obama does not.

It isn’t surprising that Coates found this argument wanting. After I first read it, I thought it was something of a straw man. After all, Coates was not saying that Obama and Ryan were exactly the same—only that their perspective is the same, which is that there is some cultural problem with the black community. So Coates came back yesterday with an extremely powerful article, Black Pathology and the Closing of the Progressive Mind. You should read the whole thing because it is finely argued. But it really comes down to this: there is no evidence that black oppression is due to cultural problems. There is an enormous amount of evidence that black oppression is due to, you know, oppression—for lack of a better term: white power.

What really stands out are the jailing statistics. Is it a black cultural problem that black men are arrested for cannabis possession far more than white men, even though they don’t use the drug any more? That sounds more like a white power problem than a black cultural problem. And something that Coates doesn’t talk about (although I’m sure he has elsewhere), the problem with incarceration is not the time spent in jail; it is the fact that you are labeled a felon for the rest of your life and your opportunities are greatly reduced. And this is on top of the fact that blacks already have many fewer opportunities. As Coates points out, black men without a criminal records are as likely to be hired as white men who were just released from prison.

What really is problematic here is that Obama shouldn’t place himself in the role of cheerleader for the black community. It is one thing for a black father to tell his son, “Regardless of the problems you face, you can succeed if you keep your nose clean and work hard!” When the President of the United States says that same thing, he is minimizing structural problems and maximizing individual problems. Rather than highlighting the social problem (white power is oppressing black individuals), he is highlighting the individual problems (blacks could succeed if they just tried hard enough). Everyone knows that a remarkable person with a fair amount of luck can overcome hardships. But that is not a social plan. And that is the basis of both Obama’s rhetoric and Paul Ryan’s.

H/T: Kathleen Geier

Wonderful Legacy of the Krofft Brothers

Sid and Marty KrofftWhen I was a kid, H R Pufnstuf was a big show. It seemed to be on all the time. But I did a little research last night and found out that only one season of the show was ever produced—just 17 episodes. But my perception that it was on all the time was right. Although NBC did not make any more episodes, they repeated the show for a total of three years. Then they showed it on Sundays for a year and then over a decade in syndication. So the show was extremely successful.

As a result of this spurt of interest, I sat down and watched the first episode. It holds up rather well. But what’s most notable about it is how revolutionary it was. It premiered in 1969 and I don’t think there had ever been anything like it. But the success of Sid and Marty Krofft greatly affected children’s television with their many later shows like Sigmund and the Sea Monsters and most especially Land of the Lost. And then, of course, there scores of people copying them.

Based upon the shows, I always thought that the Kroffts were a couple of hippies. Certainly the Mr Show parody of their work—Sam and Criminy Kraffft—went right along with that thought. So I don’t think I was alone in assuming that. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend watching it. It is a loving and very funny tribute:

But it turns out that the Kroffts were not hippies but rather members of that small group that brings joy and light everywhere they go: puppeteers. In fact, Sid Krofft started working vaudeville, circuses, and burlesque shows, and eventually had his own one-man show, “The Unusual Artistry of Sid Krofft.” Marty is eight years younger and joined with Sid when the older brother got a gig opening for Judy Garland in Las Vegas.

I doubt that the impact of Sid and Marty Krofft can be overstated. It seems that every decent children’s show that comes out draws a direct line back to them. And that often involves explicit allusions to their work. For example, check out this opening to Pee-wee’s Playhouse:

We don’t tend to appreciate the artistry of stuff that we enjoy as kids. It’s always fun to go back and check them out. It’s also a good reminder of just how boring adult life tends to be. And sadly, adult entertainment. It’s why The Muppet Show still works. You can’t go wrong appealing to kids.


Both the brothers are still alive and (I assume) well. Sid will turn 85 this July.

Marriage and Bad Economics

Bad MarriageSometimes a headline will tell you everything you need to know about a news story. That was certainly the case with the Metro headline, Husband Locked Wife in Shed for Singing “Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead” When His Mother Died. There is slightly more to it, but it’s in the weeds. Like the husband’s comment, “She never really got on with my mum or any of my relatives and when my mum died she was horrible and offered me no support—she was extremely unsympathetic.” He also thinks she’s having an affair.

It’s funny, but it is also really, really sad. Many marriages go this way. Clearly the man behaved very badly but it was quite explicitly provoked. And I’m sure that this is not an isolated episode. These two should not be together. Now, I don’t know what the divorce laws are like in the United Kingdom. And it is certainly true that a lot of people stay in bad marriages out of inertia. But it does bring to mind the conservative push to make divorce harder. The assumption is that marriage is a public good. See, for example, ever other Ross Douthat column.

I’m highly skeptical about this. From my own experience, the single most important component of marital bliss is economic stability. Having problems paying your bills infects every part of the marriage and doubtless does all kinds of harm to the kids. Pushing marriage as the answer to our social ills is just avoiding the big issues and focusing on the small. The tragedy of this is that if we instituted policies to make people economically more secure like a living wage, it would strengthen marriage and families. So I really think that when conservatives push marriage as an answer to all our problems, they are doing it as a way to avoid doing anything productive that might, you know, take a little money away from the rich.

Dean Baker brought up this issue this morning regarding George Will’s most recent column, George Will: A Man Impervious to the Evidence In His Own Column. Will, like the good social conservative he is, argued that out of wedlock births are the real cause of poverty. Baker notes that this rate is higher among whites today where the poverty rate for them is 10% than it was for blacks 50 years ago when their poverty rate was 40%. So the numbers seem to indicate that if marriage is an issue, it is a small one.

Baker goes on to explain the primary problem:

The far more important factor is the earnings potential for the children’s parent(s). This is determined by the factors that Will discourages us from considering, such as macroeconomic policy, trade policy, policies toward labor organizing, and other policy choices that will determine the health of the labor market facing parents of young children. Of course their access to health care and quality child care will also be important factors determining the children’s well-being…

And it is easy to show that government policy has made poverty worse on this score. The fall in employment rates following the 2001 recession was associated with a rise in poverty. The much sharper fall in employment rates following the 2008 recession was associated with an even larger rise in poverty. The decision of Congress to run high unemployment budgets (i.e. lower deficits) also will predictably result in a higher poverty rate for children.

The whole “social dysfunction” argument of conservatives strikes me very much like the guy searching for his keys under a street lamp. When a good Samaritan helps and finally asks where the man dropped his keys, the guy says, “Down the street, but the light is much better here.” Conservatives create a kind of ideological darkness over all the policies that they don’t like. So they look only in the bright spots, which turn out to be either minor help or actually harmful.

And this leads us back our poor English couple. There is no doubt that making divorce harder to get will keep some marriages together. But it will at least create some where people stay together and one ends up locking the other in the shed. It’s not at all clear to me that bad marriages prolonged will be offset by the happiness of marriages saved. Regardless, the issue from the government’s perspective should be its overall social value. And the conservative economic argument for it is very weak.