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HLG Notebook | May 2015

1. Letterman’s Last Laugh

fantastically detailed account of preparing for David Letterman’s final show, written by his longtime gag writer, Bill Scheft. A poignant reminder that writing jokes is a process:

The monologue, my main responsibility (along with Steve Young), had been put together the night before. We never do it this far in advance, but because there were no jokes based on topical material and Dave wanted no distractions on the final day, we compiled it just after the Tuesday night taping and just before a 7 pm technical rehearsal. We settled on 11 straight jokes and five enhancements (one live element – the giant print on the cue card, and four short tape pieces) for 16 total jokes, which is the number we usually shoot for. We knew if we got anything on Wednesday that we really liked, we could slot it and replace what we had.


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 2. Take Out Remove Extra Words 

“Few people realize how badly they write,” wrote William Zinsser, author of the indispensable On Writing Well, and muse to countless blocked and frustrated authors, writers’ scribes, journalists, and note-takers. Zinsser’s overarching advice: every sentence could be improved by cutting fancy and unnecessary words. Zinsser died earlier this month, triggering an outpouring of much-deserved (and appropriately terse) tributes. This from the Washington Post:

Mr. Zinsser showed that writing is hard work but does not have to be a mystery. Not merely the province of the professional writer, it is a craft that can be of practical use to business executives or to someone composing a church newsletter. “The only important distinction, ” Zinsser wrote, “is between good writing and bad writing.”

Still worth reading: this classic essay in which Zinsser described his experiences teaching writing at Yale.

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 3. The Politics of British People 

Soon after the surprising Tory victory in the UK, The Guardian‘s parliamentary “sketch writer” John Crace offered this definitive guide to the epicenter of British politics:

Westminster is frequently described as a bubble. It’s less fragile than that. Bubbles are more easily pierced. Rather, it is a hermetically sealed environment that encourages introspection and self-importance, and from which the outside world is largely excluded. It is the centre of its own universe. Politicians frequently talk about how much they enjoy meeting the public, but they seldom look more awkward than when meeting real people, and their minders go to great lengths to ensure they don’t have to.

No topic escapes Crace’s scorn. Here, for example, is his priceless send up of the new book by Google’s head of HR.

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4. Westminster in Better Days

This month marks the 75th anniversary of Churchill’s “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech that he delivered when Britain was ramping up its war against Hitler. No one in politics could pull this off today:

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.

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5. The Strange Persistence of the Nigerian Prince Scam

Who falls for email scams? Economist Robert Frank explains why fraudsters continue to use the Nigerian Prince con, long after we would have assumed that no one would fall for it:

The scams are actually more likely to succeed the less convincing their narratives are. In order for the target of a scam to cooperate, he must believe that the value of a stranger’s promise of a fortune is greater than the thousands of dollars he is being asked to front. This requires an extremely naive buyer who is just greedy enough to forget that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. How do scammers find these people? They are careful to use storylines that are unconvincing enough to weed out anyone too savvy to be scammed.

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6. Why Are DC Restaurants Slow to Integrate?

Todd Kliman, a veteran DC food critic, has written an astonishing examination of why, 50 years after restaurants were desegregated, dining establishments in the nation’s capital still fail to bring together black and white customers. Kliman describes the scene at one of the restaurants that tried to make it work:

From the time it opened until about seven o’clock, the room was predominantly black. From seven until closing, it was predominantly white. In the sweet spot of about 6:45, the dining room was, yes, the fulfillment of King’s vision. [The proprietor] told me that it bothered her to see this division, and that she tried hard to integrate the room. To little avail.

A brutally honest report, free from any clichés or ax-grinding.

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