Volume 4, Issue 33: Falling Apart (Right Now)
"You're gonna have to learn, learn when it isn't your turn."
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This morning, I turned on my computer and Ben Stein was yelling at me. He was yelling at me—and you, and everybody else—about some social media network that the former President uses, a social network that is apparently struggling financially. I don’t know much about the finances of social networks, so I can’t speak to how much it’s actually struggling, but Ben Stein seems awfully worked up about it.
Ben Stein has been in the public eye, and specifically at the center of my specific generation’s popular culture, for nearly 40 years. He was a speechwriter for Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford—he was once speculated to be Deep Throat, but not only was he not Deep Throat, he considered Deep Throat a traitor—and was a conservative columnist for various publications as well as a law and economics professor at American University, Pepperdine University, the University of California-Santa Cruz and UCLA. In 1985, he happened to be friends with an executive at John Hughes’ production company who asked him to do him a favor: Could he read some off-camera lines with the young actors for a new teen comedy they were putting together? According to Stein, “I had a bad cold, so I'd had all kinds of cold medicine, so I was woozy. And I started reading the role off-camera, and the students laughed so hard that John Hughes said to me 'would you ad-lib a scene just as if you were teaching economics, and we'll see how it goes.’” They ended up casting him in the part, his first-ever acting job, the movie was of course Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and suddenly we had ourselves the most unlikely of pop culture figures.
Stein would parlay this scene into a whole new acting career, showing up in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Ghostbusters 2, Honeymoon in Vegas, Dave (as himself) and, most ubiquitously, “The Wonder Years,” which, if you’re in your mid-40s, was such a formidable program that at times it felt inextricable from your own growing up experience. (I cannot be the only boy who was convinced he was going to marry Winnie Cooper. Also, please do not check out what Fred Savage has been up to. For what it’s worth, Stein, back in 1991, wrote a lovely little essay for Entertainment Weekly about being on that show.) Ben Stein became an avatar for adulthood, how dull and droning and oblivious adults could be, yet another example of why we should all stave off growing up and being responsible as long as we possibly could.
That was Stein’s heyday as an actor, but he was smart, savvy and opportunistic enough to parlay it into a second career as a pitchman and voice actor. I vividly remember his commercials for “Red Eyes” eyedrops, probably because there was something hilarious about this guy, of all people, doing advertisements for a product I thought people only used to hide how stoned they were from their college teachers and their parents.
And, of course, I had my own experience with Ben Stein.
You could even argue that my experience on his old Comedy Central program “Win Ben Stein’s Money,” would, in a roundabout way, helped determine what sort of writer I would be. For better or for worse.
(Also, note the co-host of that show: A young up-and-coming Los Angeles radio DJ named Jimmy Kimmel.)
The point is, for much of my, and your, life, Ben Stein was a basic background character in our lives, a guy we’d see on our television screens and grin a little bit, Bueller, Bueller, anyone, anyone? Stein was in on the joke, and made sure to straddle that line where his pseudo-celebrity status benefitted him—it certainly granted him opportunities he wouldn’t have had otherwise, including a regular column in The New York Times—but never teetered over into that place where many celebrities (quite understandably) reach, where they stop remembering that they are an actual human being, where they forget none of this shit is actually real.
But then it turned. Maybe it was always there and he was just unable to hide it anymore. There was the time he said Michael Brown “wasn't unarmed. He was armed with his incredibly strong, scary self." There was his increasingly unhinged views on evolution, including a documentary he “starred” in called Expelled which featured him comparing the teaching of evolution to the holocaust (while literally standing in Auschwitz). As you can see from his Twitter page, he kept putting a camera on himself, and he kept stepping on his face over and over and over.
And now, nearing his ninth decade, he is screaming about Devin Nunes and claiming the former President is the “least racist person on the planet” (a claim I find somewhat specious) and calling Joe Biden “the Iranian President.” (I do not believe Joe Biden is Iranian though perhaps I should do more of my own research.)
I mean not to veer into some sort of polemic here: I’m not sure any of Stein’s rants have anything to do with politics, actual policies and views on actual issues, anymore. And that’s sort of the point. The point is not that Ben Stein’s politics are bad. The point is that Ben Stein, that funny character actor and wry commentator and even-not-that-bad game-show-on-a-comedy-network host, has gotten old. And when you get old, and you have a camera on yourself all the time, you start doing some demented shit. It happened to him, it has happened to those you care about, it’ll happen to all of us.
I’ve always felt fortunate that, as my parents have gotten older, we haven’t had to deal with some of the ugly family fights that have popped up over the last near-decade of public discourse. My parents and I don’t agree on everything—though we’re aligned on the big, important stuff—but that’s OK, that’s not what our relationship is about anyway. There are more important things. Others have not been so fortunate. I have friends who have had to block their parents on social media or, worse, have struggled connecting with them at all during a time when, well, people in general have not necessarily been at their best. I have one friend who told me how she spent a wonderful afternoon with her father and her toddler son, playing and bonding and laughing, an afternoon where, throughout, her dad would occasionally pick up his phone, type for a few seconds, and then come back to playing. When she saw his Facebook page later that night, he had posted truly vile things, all day, things she had never heard her father say about anything or anyone in real life, about the Vice President, the most recent Democratic President, the wife of the one before him, and the current President’s son. She was taken aback: Who was this person who could say such awful things? And he was saying them while he seemed in such a good mood.
But at a certain level, it does feel a little inevitable, because getting old takes a lot out of you. It makes you think weird things, it makes you forget stuff you should remember, it makes you cranky and certain that you’re right even when you’re wrong. This is already happening to most people I know my own age, myself included, and we’re only going to get worse about it. So you start being composed and poised and judicious, and you become, because you’re older and just don’t care anymore, this:
I cannot fathom a situation, if I am fortunate enough to make it into my 70s and ‘80s, where I am ranting and raving nonsensically into my computer about Devin Nunes. But I bet Ben Stein didn’t think that was going to happen when he was 46 either. I’m don’t know what’s going to happen to me when I get old. But for God’s sake don’t let me near a camera. And try to remember me the way I was before. Whenever “before” might have possibly been.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
The Worst Part of Getting Older Is All the Dying, Medium. Well, it is.
The NFL Has Become Too Big to Fail, New York. My annual State of the NFL season preview.
Five Things We’ve Learned Since the Trade Deadline, MLB.com. Hello, Jordan Montgomery.
Liz Truss Is a Gen-X Leader, Which Means She’s Doomed, Medium. Continuing my self-appointed role as chronicle of Gen-X failures.
Tom Hanks Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. With Pinocchio.
Your Big Rest-of-Season Wild-Card Breakdown, MLB.com. Sorry, Orioles, it was a fun little ditty there for a while.
Your Friday Five, Medium. This is actually the last one of these! I think I have exhausted the list concept.
Grierson & Leitch, we previewed the Toronto Film Festival.
Seeing Red, Bernie and I talked all sorts of giddy things.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, we previewed the Georgia-Samford game and recapped the Georgia-Oregon game.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
“Darling, the Worrying Ain’t Stopping,” Hunter Harris, Hung Up. I not only don’t keep up with gossip very well, I actively dislike it; it always feels like I’m barging into a room in which I do not belong. But I still read every word Hunter Harris writes. She’s so smart and funny, but she’s also an unappreciated explainer: I always understand the main players, the backstories and the key plot points in every story she writes about. She also legitimately cares about movies in a way that’s pivotal to write about this stuff the right way. You really should subscribe to her newsletter, it’s so great.
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CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Dull Life,” The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. This is a band I’ve never seen in concert but really need to. They’re actually on tour right now!
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
I’m OK if this turns out to be the playoffs.
Have a great weekend, all.