Monday, April 14, 2014

Jimmy Fallon: from altar boy to priest (Picking up where Teri Gross left off….)

If you have any interest in late-night TV or comedy or SNL or just good (mostly) clean fun,  you probably know that Jimmy Fallon took over the Tonight Show from Jay Leno recently (February 17, to be exact). There was some fanfare and, for a few days after his opening night, there was some particular interest in Catholic circles, stemming from the fact that Jimmy Fallon was raised Catholic, went to Catholic schools (included his college experience at St. Rose where he majored in Communications before dropping out), and (at least according to his interview with Teri Gross), tried going back to church while he was out in LA but got discouraged by what he saw there.

(no this video has nothing to do with post. I just like it.)

Teri Gross is a great interviewer and has a wonderfully wide repertoire and rapport with her guests. But I felt like she couldn’t quite get what Jimmy Fallon was saying in his interview—there is a real (albeit surprising) connection between what he does and being a priest. If you look at Fallon’s comments, he is letting Teri lead him to calling himself the priest-performer at church, but what he relates most to is the altar boy role. He loved the way people felt at the end of mass. Either way, what it gets at (and which Teri, understandably, didn’t seem to get) is the unusual nature of the priest’s role: he’s central to the mass, he is the principal agent, but the mass is not really about him: it’s about Someone Else. Fallon is very much like this as the Tonight Show’s host: he’s funny, but he doesn’t really make the show about him. This was particularly obvious on his opening night of the Tonight Show, where there was a lot of very sincere thanking on Fallon’s part and a sort of glad surprise that he had gotten to this place. Fallon is funny, but he’s not that witty. He’s a great comic actor and imitator, but he’s not a verbal jabber.  There is a gentleness, a charity in his dealings that makes the show fun: he wants people to feel good at the end of a show, just like he saw people feeling good after going to church. If I were a celebrity, that would be very appealing to me: a show where I get to have fun and look good to boot. What’s not to like?  Jimmy’s years spent as an altar boy must serve him well: years mirroring the priest at mass, even imitating him, but not really mocking him. That’s obvious in the funny but somewhat wistful nature of Fallon’s remarks to Teri Gross, and it’s exactly what makes him such a great host: he seems to genuinely like and be excited by the people on his show. There is a warmth and humility and generosity of spirit that in his approach that might seem just naïve if he weren’t such a natural. He’s not there to bring them down, he’s there to lift them up. And if he gets to go along for the ride, that’s even better.  No wonder he is so good at it.

Here is the “Catholic” portion of Fallon’s interview on NPR in 2010 with Teri Gross. The entire transcript is available at:

GROSS: So you went to Catholic school when you were young.
Mr. FALLON: Oh yeah.
GROSS: Did you have..
Mr. FALLON: I wanted to be a priest.
GROSS: Did you really?
Mr. FALLON: Yeah. I loved it.
Mr. FALLON: I just, I loved the church. I loved the idea of it. I loved the smell of the incense. I loved the feeling you get when you left church. I loved like how this priest can make people feel this good. I just thought it was, I loved the whole idea of it. My grandfather was very religious, so I used to go to mass with him at like 6:45 in the morning serve mass and then you made money too if you did weddings and funerals. They'd give you, you'd get like five bucks. And so I go okay, I can make money too. I go this could be a good deal for me. I thought I had the calling.
GROSS: Do you think part of that calling was really show business? 'Cause like the priest is the performer at church.
Mr. FALLON: Yeah. You know what - I really Terry, I'm, I recently thought about this. Again, I've never been to therapy but I guess that would be, it's being on stage. It's my first experience on stage is as an altar boy. You're on stage next to the priest, I'm a co-star.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FALLON: I'm, I've got...
GROSS: Also starring Jimmy Fallon.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FALLON: Yeah, I have no lines but I ring bells. I ring bells and I swing the incense around. But it was my - and you know, you are performing. You enter through a curtain, you exit through the, I mean you're backstage. I mean have you ever seen backstage behind an altar? It's kind of fascinating.
GROSS: Right.
Mr. FALLON: So I think it was, I think it was my first taste of show business and I think - or acting or something.
GROSS: And there are comparisons, I think, between a theater and a church. There are just kind of places that are separated from outside reality.
Mr. FALLON: Yeah. And I remember I had a hard time keeping a straight face at church as well.
GROSS: Did you?
Mr. FALLON: Which - yeah...
GROSS: Did you do imitations of the priest?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FALLON: Oh, of course. Yeah. I used to do Father McFadden all the time. He's the fastest talking priest ever. He's be like...
(Soundbite of mumbling)
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FALLON: And then you leave and you go, that - what was that?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FALLON: That guy's the best. I mean that was church? Sign me up. I'll do church I'll do it 10 times a day if that's church. He was great.
GROSS: Do you still go to church?
Mr. FALLON: I don't go to - I tried to go back. When I was out in L.A. and I was like kind of struggling for a bit I went to church for a while, but it's kind of, it's gotten gigantic now for me. It's like too, there's a band. There's a band there now and you got to, you have to hold hands with people through the whole mass now, and I don't like doing that. You know, I mean it used to be the shaking hands piece was the only time you touched each other.
GROSS: Mm-hmm.
Mr. FALLON: Now I'm holding now I'm lifting people. Like Simba.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FALLON: I'm holding them (Singing) ha nah hey nah ho.
(Speaking) I'm I'm doing too much. I don't want - there's Frisbees being thrown, there's beach balls going around, people waving lighters, and I go this is too much for me. I want the old way. I want to hang out with the, you know, with the nuns, you know, that was my favorite type of mass, and the Grotto and just like straight up, just mass-mass.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Do you ever think how needy YOU are?

(Embarrassingly, it took this First Things piece to make me realize I'd never posted this blog entry...But honest, I was thinking about that piece of music in mid-February, though not as thoughtfully as Stephen Webb).

A few years ago, I happened to be sitting next to my favorite Catholic Communist at a university event. One of the speakers was a young woman who shared her experience doing service work in Central America and noted how very, very lucky she felt when she got home and got in her hot shower—a sharp contrast with the reality of the people she’d met. My friend and I looked at each other and sighed --and then had a vigorous discussion about the problem with her attitude. Because it is the thing we both hate about service work. To be clear: I think service work is a good thing; even a great thing. I’d dare say even a necessary thing. Many people do it beautifully and sincerely. But too often, it is undertaken or encouraged in a spirit that is antithetical to the task: It easily becomes a sort of Post-Modern neocolonialism. Oh, look at these poor people! They have nothing. We, on the other hand, are fat and rich and happy. We will go and help these poor people with all our money and talents: they will learn from us. And we will remember how good we have it back home when we return. A win-win: how good we are, and enlightened, too! At the end, we get to come home and live our regular lives, feeling even more smug and self-contented. (Though this recent post really took down the voluntourism phenomenon, in a pretty rough way: She’s on to something, though I’d say Pippa misses something, too).

Another story:   When I was living at home about fifteen years ago, my father got hold of a CD. It’s Gavin Bryars’ recording of “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” and it features a recording of a homeless man singing that line repeatedly to instrumentation. It moves me to sobbing tears every time I listen to it. Music has a power to touch the soul that is impossible to explain, and I won’t try to penetrate its mystery fully. But I know that part of what moved me was the fact of this poor homeless man singing this song of praise and gratitude—a praise and gratitude that is and was much rarer to find coming out of my lips. This man wasn’t grateful for his home or his clothes or his accomplishments or his talents. His gratitude was more elemental: he was grateful for his very being.

This gets to the heart of what service truly is: something I do because I need it. Selfish me, I need to be reminded of my need to give myself by giving of myself. I need to see people who are truly needy and aren’t spending all day faking it so I can remember that I’m needy.  Then, I get a chance to understand who I really am. And my experience with service can become solidarity, self-realization, and true self-giving, rather than naïve and patronizing work which may or may not really help the people I set out to serve.  The more deeply I realize my need, the more I can give myself truly.

The most extreme and beautiful case of this awareness is a place in Kampala, where women afflicted with AIDS live with a tremendous hope: a hope that is visible in their approach to life. I learned that these women, sick with HIV and poor themselves, had taken on extra work to make money to send to the Katrina Victims. And I thought, how lucky these women are! To see the world through the lens of their own need and their own gratitude without polluting influences. I’d like to go there and learn to live like that. Because it’s what I need

Here’s the trailer to a documentary made on the life and hope of these women in Kampala: