2010 Person of the Year in TV: David Simon
When the creator of the show many critics call the greatest of all time premieres his followup show, it’s a big television moment. When that show settles itself in, and examines, and grieves with, and pays weary homage to a great American city still woozy from the shock of the greatest natural disaster to hit America, that transcends television. That’s a big cultural moment. For creating the wonder of Treme and assembling the stellar talents of Melissa Leo, Kim Dickens, John Goodman, Wendell Pierece, and so many other greats to bring it to life, David Simon is Paste’s 2010 Person of the Year for TV.
Simon is deep in the midst of creating more Treme magic, and unavailable for interviews for a few weeks yet. But in the meantime, we thought we’d get show reactions from a true New Orleans hero. Ray Cannata is a Presbyterian pastor who moved his family from New Jersey to New Orleans shortly after Katrina in order to help the city rebuild. In the best tradition of firefighters worldwide, he was running in while everyone else was running out. He fell in love with the culture and decided to become the first person in history to eat a meal at every restaurant in the entire city, a feat he will complete in June of this year. Along the way, his tiny little church coordinated volunteer teams from all over the country and has rebuilt over 500 homes (and counting). Ray is the subject of a documentary film Paste is co-producing called The Man Who Ate New Orleans.
Paste: Like The Wire, Treme is just chock full of great characters. Tell me some of the ones that resonate with you, or that look familiar to you, being a New Orleanian.
Ray Cannata: The thing is, we live in this magical, kind of national treasure of a city. It’s utterly unique. But it’s so notoriously difficult to communicate what it’s like. You have something like 850 movies that were either set in New Orleans or made in New Orleans, and very few of them are recognizable to the locals in any way. The last one we had was K-ville on prime time TV, and it was utterly ridiculous. They were talking about gumbo parties and things no one’s ever heard of. But then you have these characters in Treme that resonate with people here, because he nails it. They’re so authentic. And of course some of them are actual New Orleanians, too! But the characters really ring true, and that’s really hard to do, because if you spend any length of time here, you find that people are really different here.
You have Delmond Lambreaux, the Big Chief’s son who’s the jazz musician making it big in New York, and he’s tempted to turn his back on the city, and he’s looking down on New Orleans as he’s getting this acclaim. You know, celebrity is different in New Orleans. If he’d stayed here and been the celebrity here, people love you but you don’t get the big house and all that. You don’t get the jet set; you have this sort of gritty lifestyle. So he gets pulled in by the romance of New York, but then he’s starting to see the beauty of New Orleans.
So that’s one type of character, the guy who makes it big and leaves. And then there’s the John Goodman type character, with just this visceral rage that he feels.
Paste: [laughing] You know some guys like that in New Orleans?
Ray Cannata: Ohhhh, yes. I’ve been that way. For the first couple of years, you’d get me talking about the Army Corps of Engineers, and it’d be impossible for me not to have the veins popping out of my temples and start screaming and cursing in front of sweet church groups who had come down here to have a nice time and help us rebuild. That stuff about the Army Corps of Engineers, it was the type of stories that now I find hard to even tell people, because they just won’t believe them. So that character rings very, very true.
Melissa Leo’s character, the civil rights attorney, is another great one. Here’s a person that’s very principled, but also very pragmatic, very earthy. You see her going out during Mardi Gras and taking a break from it all and dancing, you see her interacting with her husband in a very practical way. So she’s not this complete head-in-the-clouds idealist. I think she’s a very New Orleans kind of character.
And of course Kermit Ruffins, I think they probably just told him to be himself.
Paste: Because why wouldn’t you?
Ray Cannata: Exactly, why would you want to change Kermit? Who can invent a character better than that guy? I mean, one of the great scenes in all of TV last year was the scene with him and Elvis Costello. You know that if that didn’t happen that way, it certainly could’ve. You know Elvis recorded that River in Reverse album with Allen Toussaint here. And Ruffins doesn’t even know who the guy is; he thinks he’s the reporter from the Times-Picayune. And then, isn’t that same scene where they tell him he’ll never get out of town with that attitude and he says, “Why would I want to?”
Paste: Yeah, Steve Zahn’s character says something like, “Kermit, do you mean you’re just going to stay here at Vaughan’s for the rest of your life, cook your barbecue, smoke pot, and play your trumpet?” And Kermit says, “That’ll work!”
Ray Cannata: (laughing) “That’ll work!”Right. But that’s celebrity in New Orleans. You know, I have this misanthropic friend who always finds the dark side to everything. He’s the only person in New Orleans I’ve ever met who doesn’t like the show, although he watches every episode, so I think he secretly likes it. He was complaining about it being unrealistic, “You know, that guy is walking down the street and just happens to run into Deacon John. And then a few minutes later he runs into Trombone Shorty. Give me a break.” I am not kidding you Michael, five minutes later he and I run into Deacon John! And twenty minutes later we didn’t run into Trombone Shorty, but we ran into Michael Stipe! And I look over and I say, “Don’t you ever again doubt the existence of God. Or that he’s got a sense of humor, or that he watches Treme.”
But that’s kind of the way it is. These guys are really down-to-earth people, driving regular cars. I mean, you and I were sitting in Tuba Phil’s living room in his three bedroom place in Gentilly, watching The Chipmunks. And he’s a hero, that guy! I mean, he is a music god! But he’s not in it for the money.
And Simon really captures that. He’s got that great quote about how American cities used to make things. Pittsburgh made steel, Detroit made cars. And New Orleans still makes something, but what it makes is moments. And that’s exactly it. Kermit Ruffins and Tuba Phil, they’re living for the moment. They’re not living for the houses and cars and stuff. They’re making those moments. That’s what New Orleans makes, and that’s really hard to communicate to people in a tangible way. And the brilliance of David Simon is that he’s been able to communicate that in a way that people can taste and touch and feel, and it’s real to them. And if they give it a chance they’ll get it.
And another thing he gets right is the cadence of New Orleans. It’s not just the vocabulary or the accent, it’s this ornate oral cadence. It’s the rhythm of the speech and the way in which conversations happen, and the ease in which they happen, the long-winded nature of it. Lunches here are two hours long. People in the rest of the country aren’t used to that. And he nails it.
Paste: How do New Orleanians feel about the show?
Ray Cannata: Well, locals here are very, very protective of the local culture. But people overwhelmingly love this show. My family never watched the show alone. We always had a party, a bunch of people over, for every episode. Every time, we filled the living room. And I literally don’t know anyone in the city who missed a single episode. It was probably second only to the Saints as far as daily conversation. I mean, my family got HBO for the first time in twenty years just to watch this show.
Paste: And it’s an accurate reflection of the city in some way?
Ray Cannata: Yeah, I mean something else I love about it is that almost all the characters are in some way creatives, artists. And I think one of the things he’s showing is how the creatives in New Orleans, the art they bring is woven into the fabric of everything here. Art in New Orleans isn’t just this added-on extra. I’m on this blog with fifty other urban church planters, and last week we were all posting on our favorite live music that we heard last year. And one of my friends, this great guy who lives in Seattle and really loves music, realized that he hadn’t gone out once last year to hear live music. Not once! And he’s younger than me! He’s about thirty! And other people listed these arena shows – “I drove two hours to go see U2.” And that was it. And I made my list, and off the top of my head I came up with about forty favorites from last year. And I feel like I missed a lot last year. But that’s not me, that’s New Orleans. Art is integral to the whole culture here.
And I also love how he portrays that old, proud, African-American Creole culture here. That’s something that’s innate to New Orleans; it really doesn’t exist anywhere else. And these are the folks that were free 100 years before the Civil War, had a thriving middle class. They were the center of that neighborhood, the Treme. They were the the birth of jazz, they were the artisans, they were the woodworkers that did all the beautiful work that everybody talks about all across the city, the fine millwork. It was a culture that was distinct from mainstream African-American culture. And you see some of that. You and I heard some of that when we talked to Leah Chase; she’s very proud to be a Creole woman.
Paste: You’re in there every week, every day, trying to rebuild the city. And there are a lot of people down there with you trying to do the same thing. What does a show like this mean to people like you, who are doing what you do?
Ray Cannata: Well, just practically, for people that are tired of hearing about Katrina, tired of the preachiness, and understandably so, it gives them a reason to be interested in our city again. And some of them are going to fall in love with our city, or even just be curious about our city, and want to come and help out. So there are certainly houses that have been rebuilt in New Orleans, and things that have been done to help New Orleans, that have happened because of this show, even if we can’t see the connection. There is no doubt in my mind that lives have been changed in a positive way because of this show. And also, it’s employment and exposure for all of these musicians that I want the rest of the country to see and know. That’s all part of the recovery. Lloyd Price has been on the show, Kermit Ruffins, Rebirth Brass Band, Coco Robicheaux, Uncle Lionel Batiste, Trombone Shorty, Deacon John, Allen Toussaint, Galactic, John Boutte of course with that amazing theme song. So many of these people are getting exposure now. And people Shazam it, and order the record when the show is over. All those things are part of the recovery.
But also, it’s telling our story. I travel all around telling our story. And people listen carefully, and they’re lovely, but they can’t really picture what we’re talking about. But this show is really able to tell it. And it also captures a moment in time that is already gone. New Orleans in 2006 was very different than it is in 2011. That’s gone now. And to show that and let that story live on is really important, and encouraging for people like me who were in the middle of it, slugging it out. And it also provides a way for us to process it. During that time we were just so busy, racing around, putting out fires. There were so many more people that needed help than we could get to. Resources were piling in, but they were just so much less than what was needed. I was in panic mode all the time. And it’s good to be able to sit back and reflect and process it. I mean, I cry every episode. And I’m not the only one in the room crying, either.