I’m a hard hotel case. My demands and anxieties tend to match the price of the room. When we travel, my wife won’t allow me direct access to the front desk anymore. So I was happy to be able to report to her that I’m an absolute pleasure to deal with compared with the Hollywood machers, kingpins, comic geniuses, and myriad supporting stars who were in Aspen two weeks ago at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.
There was, at the St. Regis hotel, nearly everybody who was anybody who had ever generated a laugh line. This included some of the oldest living specimens of modern comedy, Jerry Lewis, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and Dick and Tommy Smothers; their successor generation, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Martin Short; and a sea of semi-famous faces (is that Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees? Dr. Melfi of The Sopranos? Sabrina, the Teenage Witch’s bosomy aunt?) as well as the guys who make money off of them, from Gerry Levin and Mike Ovitz and Bernie Brillstein to a retinue of producers and booking agents. And at every position at the front desk, at seemingly any hour of the day, there was a recognizable figure or his wife making intricate and precise demands (tropical rather than winter fruit), or insisting on corrections to previously made intricate and precise demands (that flower versus this; liquid soap versus cake), or insisting that the hotel show cause why it could not meet said demands (“Why do you think they call it a service business, huh?”).
Such a sense of entitlement, the frantic need to be pampered (I am pampered, therefore I am) among Hollywood folk is hardly a surprise (although to see it in action is to experience a force of nature). But what was really stunning was to see the classic Hollywood way, that most extreme form of royal behavior, or royal bad behavior, being played out just when the only thing anybody was talking about was the end of all this. Or, if not the end, the beginning of a new world entertainment order that would, at the very least, upset billings, hierarchies, and pay scales. And that was what the optimists were feeling. For many others, here and, the week before, at Sundance (many came to Aspen direct from the film festival), there was, for the first time among show folk, a serious face-to-face coming-to-terms with the rough beast (a.k.a. the new paradigm waiting to be born).
My contribution to the panel was to argue that Time Warner would inevitably screw up AOL, just as I noticed Gerry Levin sitting studiously in the audience.
This sudden recognition of mortality was provoked not only by dot-com market penetration, and the creation of vast new fortunes that mock Hollywood wealth, but, in this most insular of businesses, by something closer to home. That is, the merger of Time Warner with AOL. Indeed, the festival was a vivid reminder of just how much of Time Warner is Warner – that is, how much of the company is plain old show business rather than distribution monolith and New York media power. And, accordingly, how difficult it was going to be to move much of Warner’s business – big stars and comedy routines – into a new-media world.
A kind of mournful undercurrent of the festival, whose primary sponsor is HBO, was that this would be the last time Time Warner would be here in its current form. Gerry Levin, who in ordinary times has a forlorn look, seemed now practically poignant as he moved through the St. Regis and outside on the slippery streets to the Wheeler Opera House and the Red Brick theater.
The two themes that ran through the four-day conference were the brave new world of broadband (there was probably not a conversation that didn’t include the word; people said things like “As we march into the new broadband frontier”) and the eternal need for laughter and storytelling. This last was evoked as a sort of whistling-in-the-dark defense. Laughter and storytelling confirm our humanity, etc. Laughter and storytelling are like oxygen or sex. And, because humanity needs such funny stuff, humanity will always need Hollywood. Right?
Broadband itself (although largely undefined) was interpreted as a possible instrument of salvation. What broadband meant, or what it meant to many of the people here, is that they would be able to keep doing what they did, or some order of what they did. That is, what they did depended on moving pictures, and what broadband meant was that it would be easy to get moving pictures on the Internet, ergo … they would still be in business, wouldn’t they?
There was, on the part especially of the agents, a dead-set determination to believe that the Internet could be an entertainment medium, damn it, and that the segue, while it might be bumpy, would be no more bumpy than silents into talkies, say, or movies into television. Existential resignation was mixed with an Alamo spirit.
“I’d rather be at the top of the Internet than the bottom of cable,” Politically Incorrect’s Bill Maher was saying to an Internet producer who was eager to get Maher to think about doing a version of the new show Maher was producing, and which Fox had passed on (twice), for an Internet site.
“It cost us $250,000 for a half-hour segment; can you handle that kind of cost yet?” asked Maher.
“Well, maybe – but that’s for a half-hour. What about for a few minutes?”
So here was the new notion: Yes, mankind would always need laughter and stories – if they were very short. The Internet had not only compressed attention spans but algebraically increased viewing options. So to the extent that laughter and stories were universal needs, they would just have to be supplied on a significantly more economical basis.
This was, of course, the nub of it. The anxiety in Aspen was about money. You didn’t need to be a comic genius to realize that if all entertainment was available all the time, that if you could “stream video on an à la carte basis,” the entertainment world would be forever transformed.
There were many bewildered agents talking about their clients being offered option packages. “While there’s no cash in the deal, there’s a potentially big, big upside,” said an agent trying to believe. Old-media hustlers were, appropriately, being out-hustled by new-media hustlers.
The panel that I was here to speak on was called “The Networks & the Net” and was moderated by Dateline correspondent John Hockenberry. It replaced last year’s panel, which featured just network bigwigs. This year the only television heavies were Stu Bloomberg, the co-chairman of ABC Entertainment; James L. Brooks, the legendary sitcom creator; and Larry Divney of Comedy Central. Jamie Kellner of the WB and Leslie Moonves, the CEO of CBS Television, were last-minute dropouts (afraid of being lambasted by the new-media people, the scuttlebutt said).
On the new-media side, there was Leo Hindery, late the head of AT&T’s cable and Internet business, now an Internet entrepreneur (proclaiming the future to be “niche-y, replayable content”); David Neuman, of DEN.Net, an Internet video company focused on Generation Y (“If you’re inauthentic when it comes to Generation Y, you’re dead”), which just withdrew its IPO because of its founder’s involvement in a sex scandal; The Blair Witch Project’s co-writers and co-directors, Eduardo Sanchez and Dan Myrick, who were largely nonverbal; Jim Banister, who runs Warner’s infelicitously named Entertaindom.com, which produces interactive entertainment (“a cultural, sociological happening”); and then representatives from two of the festival’s new- media sponsors, Margaret Heffernan, the COO of iCAST, a multimedia production company, and Joe Kraus, the twentysomething founder of Excite (“Information is not a product; it’s a service”).
Kraus, who would later pronounce the discussion a great disappointment, was the only honest-to-God pure Internet guy on the panel, untainted by any old-media involvement. His youth, together with his absolute certainty about the scientific marketing capabilities of new media, together with the fact that the Excite brand and banners decorated every inch of the festival (an Excite executive in Excite-logoed polar fleece presented some of the awards), gave him the air of a conqueror. In that role, he was clearly impatient with the hand-wringing tone of the panel, with the lack of fluency with Internet lingo, and with any doubts that the world might not be changing altogether for the better.
(My contribution to the panel was to argue that Time Warner would inevitably screw up AOL, just as I noticed Gerry Levin sitting studiously in the audience.)
I wonder if Kraus, who works in an industry where the average age is probably about 25, was struck (I was) and perhaps even dismayed by the realization that the entertainment business, and especially the comedy side of entertainment, is quite an older person’s business – alter kocker heaven, practically.
After the Smothers brothers tribute, the bigwigs (“special friends”) were bused over to Merv Adelson’s Lazy-A Ranch, an out-of-scale home with a hotel-lobby-size living room (with Western-theme décor). Adelson, the 70-year-old founder of Lorimar and member of the Time Warner board (speculation is that he will lose his board position after the merger) and, more recently, through his venture capital company, a significant Internet investor, bounced his young daughter on his knee and entertained guests with an as-though-just-yesterday account of the intricacies of how he had arranged the syndication of Laugh-In.
From the Adelson dinner, the bus took all the special friends over to the Nichols-and-May tribute. Each of the festival’s tributes was a kind of mini Academy Awards, with a rigid Hollywood seating plan. First the seats with names on them, then the block of seats marked off for HBO guests, then the more anonymous but still exclusive green-tagged seats, then (egad) the open seating.
The Nichols-and-May tribute, which consisted of Steve Martin interviewing the former comedy partners, was the funniest hour-and-some I have ever spent in a theater (not everyone agreed: “I’m a Smothers brothers sort of guy,” Simpsons creator Matt Groening leaned over and said; “Nichols and May were for the cool kids”). For a moment, I even thought that Nichols and May might not be such an extreme disjunction with all the talk of new media. Nichols described what it was like to perform in the late fifties in Chicago, a town, he said, that had no hype, no notion of what was hot or not, no sense of fashion. People just came to the performance, enjoyed it or didn’t, and went home. That quality, that lack of attention, that hitlessness, in fact, describes a lot of the Web.
Robin Williams, too, I thought, hilarious on the stage in Aspen, might benefit from the limits and cheapness and unmass quality of the Web. I’m pretty sure in a new-media world he’d have avoided making Patch Adams.
But that, of course, is the difficult point. The rub. The dissonance. The cultural revolution, this dismantling of the entertainment power structure – the perks, the royalness, the big budgets, even, maybe, the moronicness, of a highly regulated, monopolistic industry – is a terrifying thing.
“What do you think of the personalization of the Internet?” a young woman from the open-seating area asked poor Jerry Lewis (shortly before he attacked all womankind) in the Q&A period that followed his long and rambling interview with Martin Short.
Lewis, who seemed, for a second, lost, all of a sudden focused and angrily shouted, “Needless!”
And then, with the audience holding its breath, barked: “The Internet is a joke!”
A beat. Another. Then another.