Today is the first day of a new year, but I feel I’m still saying goodbye to the year that just ended. There have been a lot of changes in my world over the past year, and along the way I’ve had to say goodbye to some people who had an influence on my life in one way or another. So before I get too far into a fresh new year, I want to be sure I put out some final words of thanks to those I’ll be missing.
Thankfully, there have been a few I was able to actually thank personally, like the boss who hired me. She was a major anchor in my work life and career. Losing her set me somewhat adrift, but also gives me new freedom to grow and build on my strengths in the year ahead.
Another anchor many of us lost this year was that of Jon Stewart when he left The Daily Show, which seems odd to say because he didn’t die or completely retire, and I didn’t even know him. But like many of his TV audience, I still felt I knew him and I didn’t realize how much I really appreciated him being there throughout my week. It’s going to be a very different election year without him around, but at least there is hope that his sharp, smart, comedic voice will return someday in the future.
Same goes for David Letterman, who officially did retire this past May. Late night TV is definitely different now without him, his voice, his point of view, his connection to the old-school tribe of broadcast TV pros. I’ll understand and be okay if he doesn’t reappear in some way — he’s earned the right to disappear from view just like Johnny before him. But there will always be a small part of me that will hold out hope to see him reemerge, well-rested, full-bearded, and with something worth saying.
Sadly, there are others we lost this year that we won’t be hearing from again, but the work they left behind in our culture will continue to be discovered and influence other humans just as they influenced me with their creativity, their skills, and their dedication to making art, music, films, and even advertising that used those forms in new ways that hadn’t been done before.
Most recently, we lost two masters of the visual arts on the same day this weekend, both of whom have created work that has had an impact on me over the years.
Painter/sculptor Ellsworth Kelly died on Dec. 27 at age 92. You can find a great overview of his work on the MOMA website, but there is nothing that can compare to seeing his work in person. The physical dimensionality, the context of where his pieces are displayed, and the way the parts of a work interact with each other, are as much a part of his expression as the colors themselves. He had a talent for showing the complexity that can exist between simple panels of painted canvas, yet also the ability to distill the complex beauty of a flower into simple lines on paper.
Cinematographer Haskell Wexler also died on Dec. 27 at age 93. There are a couple good stories about him in this memorial post on the ASC website but really I think of him for two major films: his Oscar-winning black & white work in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? and his work as writer/director/cameraman for the film Medium Cool, which I can’t recommend enough. It’s equally a product of the moment it was made in 1968, yet also a prescient commentary on the social media world we live in today. It’s a great film to watch during an election year.
The composer Gunther Schuller died in June of 2015. It’s not even any particular work of his that I admire as much as who he was, and what he did for modern American music with his enthusiasm; he coined the term “third stream” music for the magical place where modern classical and jazz intersect. I think it was this broader mission to celebrating and performing the works of American jazz and popular composers that may be his most lasting and important contribution, though his own compositions are just as profound. They sound like the music of someone who is having fun putting notes on the page, and perhaps even with the awareness of how much fun it will be for the musicians to play a particular part. His pieces could be personal and sentimental, like the elegy for his wife “Of Reminiscences and Reflections” which earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1994. But I find myself much more drawn to his album “Journey Into Jazz” for its complexity and the sense of joy it shares among the players, the composer, and the listener.
Finally there was the satirist/composer/performer/advertising genius of Stan Freberg, who died in April. I definitely took that one personally:
Not only was Freberg a brilliant performer and writer as himself, but he was also a savvy, forward thinking creative mind who changed how the world of media thought of itself in many ways. He understood the power of humor in radio and TV advertising, and he had fun breaking the rules even as they were being written.
I was probably about ten years old when Stan Freberg first made me laugh. It was during one of the first tracks on the record Stan Freberg Presents: The United States of America in which Christopher Columbus is sailing to the New World and hears rumblings of mutiny from the crew – actual chanting of “rumble, rumble, rumble; mutiny, mutiny, mutiny.” I have never forgotten that line, and I’ve been hooked on Freberg ever since.
My dad had a lot of comedy albums in his record collection—mostly classics from his college days in the 1960s—but this Freberg album was one I returned to over and over. The more I listened, I began to appreciate not just the content itself but the artistic and technical work behind it: the way it reenacted historic moments through modern language and cultural references was funny and hip, with edges of subversive social commentary and meta-humor that used every tool available for telling jokes with sound. Freberg knew how to deploy just the right sound effects at the right time, and of course, brought in his friends who were some of the top comedic voice actors of the day. He also wrote songs that were full of witty lyrics and snappy muscial arrangements by one of the best in the business. Each of the individual tracks on the album can stand alone as unique comedy sketch, and yet they tell such a complete story together it sounds like the original cast album from a broadway show that (infamously) never made it to the stage.
And that is just his most well known work. His entire career is full of brilliant work that was often ahead of its time. Or at least, broke new ground for advertising. For a long time, ads were only funny when they were in the middle of a comedy show. Freberg was one of the first to make commercials that were funny for their own sake, to make them entertaining and memorable regardless of where they were seen or heard. Take a few minutes to listen to two of his most popular examples of radio ads: “Stretching the Imagination” and “Truth in Advertising” and you can hear how he acknowledged the rise of media-davy audiences. In many ways, he made us more media savy by calling attention to the work of adverstising within the ad itself. He knew that we knew this was an ad, so why be pretend to be otherwise? It’s a method that many advertisers still emulate today, but none have ever managed it with the style and economy of Stan Freberg.
If you haven’t heard it already, I encourage you to listen to his best-selling “United States of Amercia” album—it’s witty and smart and wonderfully performed, and it’s one of the classic comedy albums of all time.
Those are some of the humans I’ll be missing in the year ahead. I’m grateful for all of them, and especially for the one thing they all had in common: a devotion to their work, and their own personal evolution of that work, that continued through all their life.
It’s the best thing that any of us can hope for with our time on earth, and it’s what I’m going to continue to strive for myself this year, and every year that I am lucky enough to have ahead of me.