April 30, 2015
(+++) A TIME TO LAUGH, A TIME TO CRY
Monologue: What Makes America Laugh…Before Bed. By Jon Macks. Blue Rider Press. $25.95.
Hell from the Heavens: The Epic Story of the USS Laffey and World War II’s Greatest Kamikaze Attack. By John Wukovits. Da Capo. $25.99.
It is hard to imagine a much greater contrast in nonfiction books than the disparity between these two. Jon Macks’ is simply a sort-of-behind-the-scenes, sort-of-humorous story based on his 22 years of writing for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. That means the book is strictly for fans of that show, and even more strictly for people interested in (and familiar with) all sorts of celebrity gossip and other utter trivia that somehow make viewers’ lives seem better, or at least less bad. “The types of people and entities in the news who make the monologue have remained the same” decade after decade, explains Macks. “There’s always been the female celebrity who’s a mess, the bad-boy athlete, the bad actor, the moron in the news, the befuddled Royal Family member, the incompetent business executive, the tin-pot dictator, the clueless southerner, and the cheating male politician.” But, Macks hastens to tell us, his monologues for his on-air personality were not as nasty as others: “Jay liked to break balls, but only with those who could take it. There’s no mean streak in him that you sometimes would see emerge in other hosts.” Added to this particular bit of hagiography (there are others) are matters such as a listing of the number of Leno jokes about specific politicians during 22 years, as compiled by the Center for Media and Public Affairs – and you get some passing humor along the way, provided you are sufficiently in tune with pop and political culture to understand it: “It’s a little bit odd that [Osama] bin Laden made this list [of politicians], as he wasn’t elected. And if he was elected, I’m guessing women didn’t vote. Also I’m also [sic] guessing he did really badly with the Jewish vote. So I’d replace him with Herman Cain, because there is nothing odder than a pizza shop owner who runs for president so he can harass women.” The humor throughout Monologue is of the smirking type, clearly designed for people already quite familiar with and enamored of what late-night TV is all about. For example, when discussing jokes he did not write but wishes he had, Macks introduces the section this way: “It’s not the women I’ve had sex with that I think about, it’s the ones I haven’t. I can’t remember a lot of my jokes, but I sure remember those of others I wish I had written.” There is a bit of information offered here, pretty much in passing, about the realities of being a late-night-TV comedy writer: “As a general rule I didn’t write for the guests on the show. They had their own material, or stories that they had reviewed with the producers. But sometimes the producers would ask the writers to help out the talent with a bit they wanted to do on the show and the writers would help; or there would be times when a friend of mine was coming on the show and if he or she called needing a few lines, I’d break out the laptop.” But by and large, Monologue is an excuse for Macks to showcase his comedy abilities and give readers who liked his material on The Tonight Show (whether or not they knew it was his) some more of the same. Thus, “for some reason Republicans are much better at self-deprecation. Maybe because they believe they have God on their side. Which is the same thing ISIS says.” If you enjoy this sort of thing, there is plenty of it here.
What made the world, or at least vapid American television, safe for people like Macks to build a career in is an entirely different sort of story, one that is as intense and frightening as Mack’s is frothy and frivolous. The story of the USS Laffey is just a small part of that story, but it is one told in exhaustive detail by military historian John Wukovits in Hell from the Heavens. The readership of this book will be strictly limited to people fascinated by the minutiae of World War II and the often-forgotten, always-intense battles that brought it to an end. The particular story of USS Laffey is one from very late in the war, dating to April 16, 1945. After a variety of major battlefield defeats and vast economic destruction, the Japanese had launched kamikaze attacks in October 1944. They were highly dramatic but not very effective – only about one-fifth of kamikaze pilots managed to hit their targets. The largest single-ship kamikaze attack of all was the one on the destroyer named USS Laffey, but the ship was not sunk: 32 sailors died and more than 70 were wounded, but the ship remained afloat and managed to get home from Okinawa, where the attack occurred. Wukovits’ book about the battle follows a tried-and-true formula for modern war reporting, combining considerable research with contemporaneous correspondence from crew members and numerous personal reminiscences of survivors. Books like this need heroes, and of course the entire crew of USS Laffey is described as heroic, but one man in particular is the focus of the book and the heroism: the ship’s commander, F. Julian Becton, who took a crew whose members were inexperienced and largely untaught and molded it into a strong, adept fighting force that actually managed to shoot down nine of the 22 kamikaze attackers. Becton died in 1995 at age 87, having retired from the Navy in 1966 as a rear admiral, but it sounds from Wukovits’ book as if his men, scattered after the war as so many were, retained a special place in their hearts and memories for him. Indeed, his eulogy was given by one of the men he commanded aboard the USS Laffey. The story of this ship and its battle with the kamikaze attackers is not well known today, but it has garnered periodic attention in many places: True Comics featured the story of the attack on the destroyer in its Winter 1945 issue, for example, and the ship and its surviving crew members appeared on the NBC show Real People in 1982. The USS Laffey was permanently decommissioned in 1975, and it is now one of three ships berthed at the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. The detailed reporting of the kamikaze battle may make Hell from the Heavens a difficult book to read for those not already entrenched in their interest in the specifics of World War II fighting, but the overarching story of men battling long odds, fighting opponents who were not only ready but also determined to die rather than surrender, is one that continues to resonate today – making this book’s story the other side of flippant late-night-TV jokes about terrorist murderers such as the Islamic fanatics of ISIS.