A Very Special Relationship
Tony Blair comes to Washington and brings down the house.
12:00 AM, Jul 21, 2003 • By LARRY MILLER
A LOT OF PERFORMERS disagree with me on this, but I hate it when audiences whoop to show their pleasure. Before the taping of an HBO special years ago, the producer walked out to whip the audience into a frenzy, which he thought was a good thing for a comedy show. "Are you going to get crazy tonight?!" he screamed. Each time they responded, he said it wasn't crazy enough, and that they had to get wilder and wilder, and actually had them practice howling. I watched from the wings, and when he walked off, he winked at me and said, "Ready?" And I told him not to start just yet.
I took the microphone and walked onstage. The people dutifully started screaming like torture victims, but I quieted them down and said, "Please ignore everything the nice man behind the curtain just said. The poor thing wandered in off the street and doesn't even work here. We're going to give him a hot meal and send him to a decent motel. Tomorrow he will no doubt be the head of a major studio. But you don't need to whoop anymore. If something is funny tonight, please laugh, but don't bark. It will just annoy both of us. If something strikes you as especially funny, maybe you'll want to clap, but, on the whole, pretend you're an audience from fifty years ago. I'll do my best, and then we'll all get a drink."
To me, when people whoop it means they aren't listening, and I like people who listen. Incidentally, the crowd was wonderful that night, and I think I was pretty good, too. But never mind me, I hate whooping no matter who's onstage.
Once people are willing to whoop, they're just a baby step away from shouting advice, and that's way worse. I believe I witnessed one of the dumbest things ever yelled by an audience member in history, and I've seen some pretty good ones. In this case I was a member of the audience, too, back in my salad days. (By the way, how long do one's "salad days" last? Am I in my main course days? Are there dessert days? If so, when do they start? I hope I make it to my brandy and coffee days, or perhaps even the oh-come-on-just-one-more-quick-one-as-long-as-we've-got-the-sitter days.)
So here's the dumbest thing I've ever heard said by an audient (what my friends and I used to call one, single audience member): It was somewhere in the mid-'80s. Linda Ronstadt had just done the movie "Pirates of Penzance" and embraced a completely different and new style. She was touring in concert halls doing the classic love songs of the American songbook from the '30s and '40s, using the great Nelson Riddle arrangements and accompanied by a full symphony orchestra in white dinner jackets. She was always a beautiful woman with a beautiful voice, but I remember reading that she had taken voice lessons to expand her range and craft. The tour was getting a ton of well-deserved publicity wherever it went, and was an emblem of elegance in a world that seemed to be more vulgar everyday.
A comic friend of mine was opening for her, and I knew his manager, and they gave me two tickets to the Saturday night show. To accompany me I tapped one of the dozens of spectacular porn-star girlfriends I had in those days, all of whom waited breathlessly in line for their chance, each hoping against hope that she would be the lucky one I called next. (Yes, yes, I know, of course that's not true, but if that's how I choose to remember my early dating life, what is it your business to say no? Go make up your own myths.)
Anyway, I had a date, and we both got all dolled up. It was at a big outdoor bowl-type-place, and thousands of other nicely dressed folks were stretched up the grassy hill on blankets with champagne and fluted glasses. My friend did his set, a good one, and then it was time for Linda's show. This was a very special performance, too, because Nelson Riddle himself was conducting. The lights went down, and the violins burst into a lush score, which, coincidentally, was exactly what I was planning later. And through the cascading strings, down came Linda to the stage in a slow, 50-foot descent, perched gorgeously on a glittering crescent moon. She was wearing a breathtaking gown with long, white gloves, and covered in diamonds.
The moon stopped gently just above the stage, and she gracefully alighted, nodded her greetings, and glided to the microphone. The orchestra paused dramatically. She took a breath, closed her eyes, stretched out her hands . . .
And from the middle of the audience, some guy screamed, "Rock and Roll, Linda!"
I've quoted the great Bud Abbott before on this sort of thing: "How dumb can one get?" Everyone turned to see who the Fulbright scholar was. The parking guys craned their necks. I think even Nelson Riddle turned around. Then, in case any of us thought the whole thing had been an auditory hallucination from a past indiscretion (okay, that was just me), the same bonehead screamed, "Woooooo! Yeah!"
In this case, everything was fine after that. The orchestra began again, Miss Ronstadt sang beautifully, and for some reason the idiot kept quiet. I like to think an audience member with good values held him down while another spirited patriot garroted him with piano wire, but that's just the romantic in me.
So, to recapitulate: I dislike when people whoop and yell things, and I would never, ever do it myself.
HOWEVER. If I had been in Congress last Thursday when Prime Minister Tony Blair made his magnificent speech, I would have stomped my feet and whooped myself hoarse. I would've howled like a love-sick beagle, and blown kisses like a camp-follower. I would've screamed every drooling sentiment I could think of, up to and including, "You go, girl," which is one I particularly loathe, second only to, "Don't go there!"
I would've crawled after him and hung out at any door there was for hours just to be one of a thousand people waving.
I would've howled, moon-walked, clapped, and danced.
Was that guy something, or was that guy something?
I heard most of it on the radio, thanks to Hugh Hewitt and some record-setting traffic. And I read the transcript this morning. I hope you have a chance to do the same. It was stirring, heartfelt, noble--and funny. Here are the last three paragraphs:
That's what we're fighting for, and it's a battle worth fighting. And I know it's hard on America. And in some small corner of this vast country, out in Nevada or Idaho or these places I've never been to but always wanted to go--[laughter]--I know out there, there's a guy getting on with his life, perfectly happily, minding his own business, saying to you, the political leaders of this country, "Why me, and why us, and why America?" And the only answer is because destiny put you in this place in history, in this moment in time, and the task is yours to do. [Sustained applause]
And our job? My nation, that watched you grow, that you fought alongside and now fights alongside you, that takes enormous pride in our alliance and great affection in our common bond--Our job is to be there with you. You're not going to be alone. We will be with you in this fight for liberty. [Sustained applause]
We will be with you in this fight for liberty, and if our spirit is right, and our courage firm, the world will be with us. Thank you. [Applause, cheers]
Pretty great. Now, admittedly, the English will always have a big leg up on us in speechifying. It's that accent. You know what I mean. I've flown 2 million miles and haven't paid attention to the seat-belt speech in 20 years, but whenever I'm on an English plane and the pilot comes on, I sit up and listen like a first-grader.
Someone once said that an Englishman can read the instructions on a box of condoms and make it sound like the Magna Carta. (Which, incidentally, either says a lot for condoms, or very little for the Magna Carta. On the other hand, anyone who needs to read the instructions in the first place doesn't deserve the chance to use them.)
The British Empire of history has taken a lot of cultural and political slams in the last 30 years. If the proverbial Martian landed at the United Nations--and what unlucky aim that would be for him; another few blocks either way and he could've been drinking in an East Side pub--he would think that all humans in the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including the French, Spanish, Portugese, and Dutch, were dancing through nature in merry brotherhood until the English enslaved them all with their tall helmets and bad teeth.
It's not so. They were imperfect, we are imperfect, but the world was and remains a vicious place, and, make no mistake, every inch of moral progress we've made in the last 200 years is built on English Common Law and their tradition of freedom, and, yes, their victories in Europe and around the world. Here's how the prime minister put it:
As Britain knows, all predominant power seems for a time invincible, but in fact, it is transient. The question is, what do you leave behind? And what you can bequeath to this anxious world is the light of liberty.
Yeah, baby. You don't see that on a box of condoms. (Then again, maybe you do, and I've just never looked.)
By the way, I really wouldn't have whooped and stomped. That's not my way. But I would have stood and clapped hard, and whispered into the din, "Thank you. God bless you. Good luck."
Quite a guy, that Blair. Really shoots to pieces my theory that you can't trust a guy named Tony who's not Italian.
I wonder how he pronounces "nuclear"?
Larry Miller is a contributing humorist to The Daily Standard and a writer, actor, and comedian living in Los Angeles.