Most Super Bowl Spots Didn’t Score a Touchdown This Year

The 52nd Super Bowl sizzled instead of fizzled, with a record amount of offensive yardage and drama down to literally the last play. Some years the ads that run during the Super Bowl are better than the game itself, but not this year. “A pretty lame year,” said one advertising agency president; “a little quiet” was the quote from another ad agency executive regarding the game’s first quarter, when often the best ads appear. Plenty of commentary will analyze why, but only here will you learn the biggest reason why so many TV spots, Super Bowl vintage or not, are losers year after year.

“I’m ready for my close-up” says the faded movie star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), one of Hollywood’s most famous lines and yet one the agencies—and their paying clients—seem to forget all the time. With the average 30-second spot costing the sponsors over $5 million to air (over and above the production costs), Norma’s request isn’t just worth heeding; it’s essential.

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For two decades, I’ve been a market researcher using the tools of eye tracking and facial coding to learn people’s intuitive, natural, see-and-feel response to TV spots— and the results are crystal clear. As much as 70% of people’s gaze activity centers on the actors’ faces, and a similar percentage of all the emotional response to a TV spot will be linked to viewers taking in the emotions shown on the actors’ faces—especially during close-ups—because emotions are, frankly, so contagious. What the actor shows (if authentically rendered), the viewers feel because in life we’re looking for personalities that interest and matter to us. In business, never forget that the words “emotion” and “motivation” come from the same root word in Latin: movere, to move, to make something happen (whether a purchase or inspiring an employee to be more engaged).

A few spots this year heeded Norma’s request better than others. The Sprint ad full of robots with more animated faces than their stern human colleague was as close to a commercial with striking production values as any ad aired in the game’s opening moments. A Ram pick-up truck ad brimming over with Viking warriors offered us plenty of angry-faced close-ups of men who were as intense as they were lost. A T-Mobile ad used the strategy of resorting to babies or puppies by giving us a diverse rainbow of surprised, open-eyed infants.

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But against those minor successes, the commercials shown during Super Bowl LII featured the usual reliance on lots of action—too much—with often too little reason to care. A Kraft spot showed us far too many faces, and too quickly, for any of them to light an emotional spark. (When will agencies stop being so enamored by machine-gun-paced editing?) And while Intuit’s “The Thing Under the Bed” ad wasn’t so bad, its “Noise in the Attic” ad failed to leverage the power of facial expressions by showing us a cloaked ghost, then a CPA’s tiny face on a laptop computer, and finally the equally distant face of a spooked homeowner opening his attic’s trap door to see what was going on. Emotionally speaking, the answer for viewers in their homes: almost surely nothing.

In that way, “Noise in the Attic” joined many of its fellow Super Bowl spots this year in being the commercially still-born equivalent of how Sunset Boulevard opens—with a man floating face down in a swim pool, utterly, irretrievably dead.

Trump’s State of Suffering

Comparisons are always tricky: reach too far afield, and you risk looking preposterous. But despite his surname being German (Trumpf), as I watched Donald Trump deliver his first State of the Union speech, I found my mind drifting further south in Europe, to Italy, and in specific to a pair of Italian leaders: Silvio Berlusconi and Benito Mussolini. Comparing Trump to Berlusconi is inevitable enough, two businessmen turned politicians with sexual misdeeds part of their legacy. But due to Trump’s vainglorious nature and related poses, comparing Trump to the man who boasted of having conquered Ethiopia in an earlier era is inevitable, too.

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Nevertheless, forget the repetition of Trump’s chin stuck out in anger and his chin raised in a sign of anger, disgust and sadness. Trump surveying his “troops” from the podium, namely, the Republican members of Congress seated before him, wasn’t the most emotionally memorable part of the speech. That would be all the attendees honored by name among those sitting in the chamber’s balcony. Like Trump, some of them were proud. Like Trump, almost all of them were given to sadness –many profoundly so. I’m thinking now especially of that pair of parents, each of them having lost a daughter killed by MS-13 gang members, as well as the parents of Otto Warmbier, the young man let free by the North Koreans at the point where he was already practically a corpse.

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You have to hand it to Trump: he’s as egocentric as anybody who’s ever walked the earth, and yet his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” had more of a memorable “we” to it than anything Hillary Clinton summoned during the 2016 campaign. Tuesday evening in giving his State of the Union speech, Trump invoked the personal stories of fellow Americans far more than the single time Ronald Reagan did so in initiating the practice of naming guests during his 1982 State of the Union speech.

Was Trump being Reaganesque, however, or still Trump? For my money, I’d say still Trump. Both Republican presidents might be known for signaling resolve, but Reagan is also associated with hope, whereas for my money Trump will forever be associated with grievances and, in a word, suffering. Those parents were clearly still grieving as they sat there in the balcony, the women dabbing away tears, the men likewise with faces contorted by sorrow.

Meanwhile, nearby sat Melania Trump, a fellow sufferer given the recent Wall Street Journal revelation that her husband likely paid $130,000 for Stormy Daniels to remain silent during the 2016 campaign. Why the alleged pay-off? Apparently, Daniels “slept” with Trump back in 2006, four months after Melina gave birth to the couple’s only child: their son Barron. There Melania sat mostly close to stone-faced in the chamber’s balcony last evening, as if playing den mother for all of the suffering on display around her.

It’s enough to make you wonder how both Barron and the country alike will turn out over the long run. Just ask his White House staff. When Donald Trump is involved, happiness is a rare bird. An old joke is that the shortest book in the world is Italian War Heroes. The second shortest book might be Donald Trump Happy. Instead, being satisfied with a state of being endlessly dissatisfied is often about as good as it gets with our current president.

An “Insidious Monster”: Olympics Gymnast Guru Dr. Nassar on Trial

The sentencing hearing for the disgraced sports medicine “guru” Dr. Lawrence G. Nassar has now finally ended in a Michigan courtroom, with judge Rosemarie Aquilina imposing a 40 to 175 year prison sentence. She delivered it with this news for Nassar: “I just signed your death warrant.”  In all, over 150 women—U.S. Olympic gymnasts in particular, as well as dancers, rowers and runners—testified against Nassar during the seven-day hearing, but questions linger.  How could this sexual abuse have gone on for over two decades? To what degree if any did Nassar’s employers, including Michigan State University and the U.S. Olympics Committee, turn a “blind eye” to what was happening? Those are among the obvious questions. But another is wondering what the face of the man called an “insidious monster” by the mother of one of Nassar’s abuse victims might reveal. Did Nassar show signs of remorse as he listened to his victims testify?

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That last question is the easiest to answer. As might be expected given the tear that rolled down Nassar’s cheek in court the other day, sadness and fear constituted nearly half of the emoting the guy showed in court. But right alongside those two emotions was an equal amount of surprise and anger, plus truth be told an occasional slight, would-be Mona-Lisa type smile. Remorse? Yes, apparently. Fear? Why not, given that Nassar had already received a 60-year sentence for child pornography and surely knew that the newest sentencing would be even more severe.

Nassar’s other three emotional responses, however, were at first blush bewildering. Could he actually have been surprised to learn about the physical and psychological pain he inflicted? Did the anger mean that to some degree Nassar was resisting the validity of the graphic stories being shared in court (if even just out of psychological self-preservation)? And most of all, what about the slight smiles? One can only hope that deep-seated chagrin masquerading as muted happiness explains those expressions.

One other question remains. From his photographs publically available over the past two decades, did Nassar ever betray by his emoting patterns a hint of what has ultimately unearthed regarding his abusive conduct? There, the answer is equally clear: no. Various degrees of happiness, and not enough anger or fear to raise a red flag was the emotional portrait on display in the years preceding the trial. The patterns here aren’t new. The case of assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky at Pennsylvania State University is an obvious antecedent. But farther back in time, so is what Hannah Arendt wrote about the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the Nazi’s Final Solution for the European Jews unfortunate enough to live—and die—within the borders of the Third Reich. Not a monster but somebody instead “terribly and terrifyingly normal” is how she described the man sentenced to hang in Israel, in coining her much-debated term: “the banality of evil.”


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While U.S. Government Reopens, Can McConnell, Schumer, Ryan and Pelosi Ever Get Along?

As if party loyalty and public policy issues weren’t enough of a barrier, consider the personality differences that keep Congressional leaders from finding common ground. Sure, the leaders on Capitol Hill have found a way to stumble along until the next funding crisis threatens a new government shutdown on February 8th. But then, as now, the top Republican and Democratic leaders in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are emotionally an uneasy mixture of characters.

The highlights of my facial coding all four of these politicians:

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  • Mitch McConnell is 10x more negative emotionally than the next most negative person among these leaders (Nancy Pelosi).
  • Almost 50% of Pelosi’s emoting involves being alert to danger (surprise and fear).

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  • Chuck Schumer is at once both the happiest and angriest of these four leaders. Those two approach emotions make him the likeliest wheeler-dealer of the leaders here.

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  • Paul Ryan and McConnell are 5x more prone to sadness than their Democratic counterparts, so they rarely harbor high hopes.

In depth, let’s start with McConnell. The wily boss of the Senate engenders so little trust across the aisle that Senator Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, uses the same phrase Ronald Reagan used to apply in dealing with America’s arch-enemy, the Russians. “Trust but verify” King says regarding any promises McConnell makes. For his part, who does McConnell trust? Probably no one, as he registers the highest levels of the scorning emotions of contempt and disgust among these four leaders.

For example, does McConnell trust Schumer? Not since 2008, when a Schumer-led Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee funded attack ads accusing the Republican leader of being to blame for the Great Recession. Attacks fit the style of the anger-prone Schumer, whose tendency to feel anger means it accounts for fully 40% of the New Yorker’s emoting.

If there’s any chance of finding some emotional chemistry on Capitol Hill, Schumer and Ryan negotiating with one another might actually be the way to go. They’re the most given to joy of these four leaders, a mark of creative thinking in trying to hammer out compromises. Both of those men also suffer the least from fear, which McConnell and Pelosi have in common to a degree that must make it hard for them to craft bipartisan deals.

Minnesota Miracle Brings Range of Emotions to NFL Fans

It takes two players, working in tandem, to complete a pass play, let alone a desperation pass in an NFL playoff game with time expiring.  But afterwards, quarterback Case Keenum and receiver Stefon Diggs weren’t on the same page emotionally.

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After the 61-yard completion, a stunned Keenum kept saying “Oh my God.”  In contrast, Diggs, devoutly assured that God’s will had shown its hand in a play that marked the first ever, fourth quarter walk-off victory in NFL playoff history, was instead proud: a mixture of happiness and resolute anger.  As for the Minnesota Vikings’ long-suffering fans, there were tears of joy and relief.  After four Super Bowl losses, four NFC Championship losses, blown field goals in playoff games (29-yards against Seattle in 2015; 44-yards against Atlanta in 1999) how could any of their fans have welcomed another field goal attempt in order to win the game against the New Orleans Saints?  The Saints’ Mardi-Gras fans often party; Vikings fans normally weep.

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Senator Perdue Denies the Undeniable, Trump’s “Shithole” Comment

There’s no sure-fire way in which a person’s face reveals lying, but one can look for patterns. Consider three patterns from Sunday’s interview of Senator David Perdue (R-GA) by ABC’s “This Week” host, George Stephanopoulos:

  • First, count up all the nervous blinks by Senator Perdue when the interview starts and he knows he’s about to deny the undeniable: a minimum of 28 blinks within the first 50 seconds, or nearly two blinks per second.

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  • Next, when Senator Perdue calls the reported use of the term “shithole countries” by Donald Trump a “gross misrepresentation” of what the president said in a White House meeting on immigration reform in reference to Africa, Haiti and El Salvador, what does he do? Why, the guy closes his eyes—a look that often conveys sadness in cases of dishonesty because people are disappointed in themselves for not telling the truth. Senator Perdue’s eyes also partially close when he insists later in the interview that Trump “did not use that word.”

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  • Finally, when confronted with the reminder that Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) had basically affirmed the incident at the White House, Senator Perdue’s mouth pulls wide with fear. That give-away happens not once, but actually four times during Senator Perdue’s interview, including when Stephanopolous asks: so “what did the President say?”

How bad were Senator Perdue’s odds in denying the undeniable? Pretty steep. Consider, all of the other disparaging comments President Trump has made about other places, from “Paris is no longer Paris” to calling Germany “a total mess” and of course his infamous remark suggesting Mexico is full of rapists. As to President Trump, he vaguely denied making the comment but admitted to using “tough language.” Coming from a germaphobe who won’t shake hands with people and seems to have a thing about orifices (remember his comment about Megyn Kelly and “blood coming out of her whatever”), hey, Senator Perdue you did the best you could. It’s tough first failing to recall what President Trump uttered in that meeting, only to then remember that it wasn’t supposedly memorable.

Oprah’s Phenomenally On-Emotion Golden Globes Speech

In life, we dance to the music, not the words. That’s a reality forgotten by those speakers who may get the words right, but don’t express their feelings in natural rhythm with their words. No matter how eloquent, they’re on-message, but not on-emotion: by failing to show the right emotions at the right time in sync with their words, they don’t move us nearly as deeply as they otherwise might.

And then there’s Oprah Winfrey. Let us note other good moments at the 2018 Golden Globes awards ceremony, from host Seth Meyers’ opening line (“Good evening, ladies and remaining gentlemen”) to Natalie Portman inserting “all-male” into her introduction of the Best Director nominees. But neither compares to Oprah’s tour-de-force on receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement. Among the highlights of Oprah being on-emotion:

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Eyes wide, in recalling the revelation of being a young girl watching Sidney Poitier receive Oscar for Best Actor in 1964: “I’d never seen a black man celebrated like that.”

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Skin below the eyes wells up, in sadness, also expressed by a raised chin; both that upward thrust and the pressed lips show determination and fortitude simultaneously: Paying homage to women who have endured “years of abuse” because of “bills to pay and dreams to pursue.”

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Lower lip pushes down and out in disgust: Beginning to recount the story of Recy Taylor, a black woman kidnapped and gang-raped by six white men in 1944, who weren’t ever prosecuted.

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A welcoming though not obsequious smile in inviting support for the #MeToo movement from “every man who chooses to listen.”

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After her eyebrows have been furrowed in concentration, a stretched mouth sounding the clarion call: “A new day is on the horizon.”

Week 1, 2018: Trump and Bannon Feud, Saban and Smart Prepare to Do Battle, and Thiel Gets Even Richer

Grumpy Old Men

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While North and South Korea try talking out their differences, war has broken out elsewhere here at the start of 2018. Don’t expect Donald Trump and former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, to be talking again anytime soon (except through lawyers). In Michael Wolff’s newest  book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Bannon gets quoted calling Donald Trump Jr. “treasonous,” Ivanka Trump “dumb as a brick,” and the president himself likely to be in legal trouble for money laundering.  For his part, Donald Trump is suggesting that Bannon has “lost his mind” and is “simply seeking to burn it all down.” Despite the verbal warfare, it’s not just the nationalist-populist, alt-right movement the two men brought to the White House that links them, however. They also remain strikingly similar in emotional terms: precious little happiness, above-average disgust and—most of all—a wealth of sadness, all the better by which to instinctively appeal to those who want America to be made “great again.” With a now backtracking Bannon reminding folks that Trump is “a great man,” Bannon looks to be the likelier of the two feuding men to be adding soon to his natural store of regrets, disappointments and all-around woe.

Close Quarters?

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Some scores get settled in courtrooms, other scores emerge on a football field. With the national college championship getting decided this year by a game between Alabama and Georgia, the official word is that there’s “nothing personal” about a contest that pits Alabama’s head coach Nick Saban against his long-time assistant Kirby Smart. Eleven is the key number here. For 11 seasons, Smart helped Saban amass victories; and 11 times, Saban’s former assistants have come up against him and lost. Will this time be different? It could be. Already, Smart’s won one battle: Just two seasons after Smart left Alabama, Georgia finds itself now atop the 2018 recruiting class rankings, with Alabama in fifth place. So if Smart can’t win this year, maybe next. What might be helping Smart lure the best players? It could in part be as simple as the fact that emotions are contagious, a principle that carries over into happiness. Smart shows a third more happiness than Saban does over the course of patrolling sidelines and sitting in press conferences. Smart also smirks less. Are those kinds of emotional tendencies just plain, well, smart? Do they not only possibly help win over high school players and their parents, but also help settle a team down and lead to victory? We’ll find out after the kick-off if the underdog Bulldogs of Georgia can keep the game close. (Saban’s 11 victories against former assistants have all involved wins by a margin of at least 14 points.)

Serious Money, After All

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Back in my junior high days, a friend and I printed our own currency, Krump Notes, all the better by which to bet on poker games at lunchtime in the cafeteria. We didn’t want anybody’s nose getting bent out of shape by losing a pile of real cash on a losing hand. Now comes word that PayPal co-founder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel is sort of all in when it comes to Bitcoin. Thiel’s Founders Fund has amassed holdings of between $15 and $20 million (chump change for Thiel, actually) in Bitcoin during 2017, causing the newly disclosed holdings to inspire a 13.5% climb in the virtual currency’s value after some recent volatility in its outlook. Thiel could yet take a bath on Bitcoin, but don’t bet against him. From bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s suit against Gawker to seeing his candidate take the White House, Thiel’s on a roll. What kind of person can be so successfully opportunistic again and again? To me, with Thiel it’s all in the eyes. Some years ago, I decided to investigate what might help make somebody a great lead-off hitter in baseball. The strongest statistical pattern in terms of facial expressions was a tendency to come to the plate with eyes open wide, seemingly looking for gaps into which to poke the ball. Think of hunters. Think of Derek Jeter. Think of Peter Thiel. Think about Cooperstown’s heroes or Silicon Valley’s serious money entrepreneurs, or me with my former stash of Krump Notes: same stratosphere, not really.

The Kyrie Irving Trade and the Pursuit of Happiness

The space available to a point guard wanting to dart between two defenders and get to the rim in basketball is often just a sliver. By comparison, how big or small was the say/feel gap during Kyrie Irving’s answers on ESPN’s “First Take” program the other day when asked about the trade he sought, the one that has now taken him from The Cleveland Cavaliers to the Boston Celtics? The show’s main host Stephen A. Smith remarked afterwards that you have to go to the non-verbals in situations like this, situations where the answers given are cryptic. So let’s do that, using facial coding to judge the amount of space between what Irving said on the air and how he actually felt.

Here is arguably the key passage from the on-air interview, as Irving denies that his being the second best player on a team with the NBA’s best player, LeBron James, was a big factor in seeking a trade: “It didn’t have anything to do with not wanting to play with the best player on the planet. It didn’t have anything to do with not wanting to be the second fiddle . . . being a second-class citizen, I have no idea what that is. Or being a second banana, I don’t have any idea what that is.”

Reality check: The first detail is that Irving signed his previous, five-year contract extension believing the Cleveland squad would be built around him. Then 10 days later, James let it be known he would like to return to his hometown. Second, who sold the second-most Nike sneakers in the NBA last season? That would be Irving. Guess who came in first? At the same time, however, it’s hard to see how Irving was stunted given that with a steady diet of passes from James last season, Irving sets career highs for shots taken and points scored. Moreover, Irving averaged more touches of the ball than any member of the championship-winning Golden State Warriors, including their star Stephen Curry; held the ball more often than James and shot more often than James, too.

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Now, let’s replay the passage and add in the emoting that is going on simultaneously: “It didn’t have (eyes closed, skeptical smile) anything to do with not wanting (eyes narrowed, anger) to play with the best player on the planet. It didn’t have (eyes closed, skeptical smile, upper lip flares slightly in disgust) anything to do with not wanting to be the (lip suck followed by lips tightened in anger, plus again eyes close) second (outer eyebrow arches in surprise and fear, skeptical smile, another upper lip flair) fiddle . . .

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being a second-class citizen (eyebrows knit in anger, anxiety and sadness), I have no idea (head tilts back, outer eyebrow arches) what that is (eyes narrow in anger). Or being a second banana, I don’t have (eyes close, lips tighten in anger) any idea what (lower lip stretches slightly down and out in a sign of disgust) that is.”

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In short, has Irving made a dispassionate decision to move on to Boston, and away from James? Hardly. There’s far too much emoting going on, despite the innocuous language being used here. Is Irving being less than straightforward? Certainly. Here’s his dilemma. Irving is rightfully pursuing his dreams (and probably making a shrewd bet that the Cavaliers aren’t likely to win another championship anytime soon), but he also doesn’t want to come across as too selfish in what is, after all, a team sport. For people trying “to square a circle,” there is no lying muscle in the face that gives away their struggle to make palatable what isn’t going to be fully palatable to everybody else. But among the items to look for is whether somebody dissembling is, in effect, disappointed in him or herself for doing so by showing sadness. In this case, the repeated instances of either a downcast look or Irving’s eyes closing entirely for a moment could easily be interpreted as clues that he’s choosing “to be blind” as to the less than candid nature of his remarks. How about the signs of anger and disgust? Surely, they could be seen as clues to Irving resisting the idea of, in fact, being the second best player when matched with James on court (anger) as well as rejecting that situation (disgust) as he, in fact, did by asking for a trade.

Moreover, have we seen this situation before? Yes, we did just last year when Kevin Durant jumped from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Golden State Warriors.  Then, Durant like Irving, here, said all the right things about wanting to develop as a player and also as a man. Only what did Durant tweet over the past weekend? Referring to himself in the third person, he wrote: “He didn’t like the organization or playing for Billy Donovan [the team’s coach]. His roster wasn’t that good. It was just him and Russ [Russell Westbrook].” A second tweet added: “KD can’t win with those cats.” Caught, at least Durant was honest in saying at a conference days later: “I happened to take it a little too far.”

Can we expect something similar, someday, from Irving? I suspect so. The Cavaliers have all sorts of issues to content with, ranging from good odds that James will leave after next season for the Los Angeles Lakers, or somewhere else; that the roster didn’t strengthen this off-season, leaving the Cavaliers no match for a Warriors squad that upgraded during the off-season (a likely, attempted trade of Irving by the Cavaliers may have been the final straw for Irving in deciding to leave on his own terms); to an organization in plenty of disarray. Is it easy playing with James? Surely, no easier than playing with Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant was, to name but two super-stars with hyper-competitive personalities. Like Durant as well as San Antonio Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich, James tends to pout some and is rarely satisfied with anything short of stellar, on-court performances.

Several times during his on-air interview, Irving returned to this theme: a desire to be “extremely, extremely happy in perfecting my craft” (a big happiness smile). But then when the point guard said he “had nothing but love for Cleveland,” an equally big show of happiness was accompanied by a flaring upper lip betraying disgust. In other words, Irving was being on-message but only partially on-emotion. More disgust and anger was shown in Irving saying he wanted a “truthful environment, and I wasn’t getting that.” With James as the Cavalier’s star, and de facto coach if not also the team’s general manager, yes, anybody else is second fiddle there. Now in Boston, Irving can show everybody just how well he can or can’t play first fiddle instead.

Ambitious Humor: Jerry Lewis & Dick Gregory

So, here’s a quiz involving two men: the son of frequently absent, on-the-road vaudevillians (Jerry Lewis,) and a kid raised in a single-parent household where poverty meant him and his five siblings didn’t “eat off the floor” because if “you dropped something off the table, it never reached the floor” (Dick Gregory). These two major-league comedians passed away on adjoining days this August. Now for the first quiz question: which of them felt twice as much fear as his fellow funnyman?

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Let’s assume you didn’t get fooled by Jerry Lewis at the height of his success, performing in The Nutty Professor (1963). In that movie, Lewis is at once both the inept, shy Professor Julius Kelp and the swaggering nightclub lounge singer Buddy Love. Was that hit a retelling of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or an echo of Jerry Lewis’s decade-long collaboration with Dean Martin; who can say for sure? Either way, the vote for greater anxiety should go to Dick Gregory, shown here with deep forehead wrinkles. As a stand-in for an ill comedian, Gregory got his big break taking the stage at the Playboy Club in Chicago in 1961, where he faced a convention of frozen-food executives from the South. How did Gregory win over the audience members? Maybe most of all by telling them this joke: “This white waitress came up to me and said, ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’” Gregory’s supposed reply: “That’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.”

The next quiz question is, who showed the most anger of these two comedians?

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It’s not even close. Described in a New York Times obituary as “A mercurial personality who could flip from naked neediness to towering rage,” Lewis wins. Indeed, nearly half the emoting evident from a range of photos spanning his career involves anger. What Lewis’s on-stage and on-screen screwball capering partially hid was raw ambition and drive. Lewis wanted to control his own destiny. When his collaboration with Martin fell apart, Lewis and his dominating hand in shaping their routine was the primary cause. That set-back hardly gave the guy pause. Soon a record by Lewis reached No. 3 on the Billboard chart and, given a contract on his own terms by Paramount, Lewis would then direct five movies in five years. With the first of those movies, The Bellboy (1960), Lewis also invented the video assist: a still commonly used device that allows directors to review their output immediately on-set.

Lewis sought to be loved through achieving show-biz success, and his anger was expressed with tightened eyelids and lips pressed firmly together. In contrast, Gregory sought to pursue justice and while his anger could appear in ways similar to Lewis’s anger, more characteristically Gregory’s anger emerged from eyes wide and alert as well as through the contemplative vertical crease between his eyebrows. Prior to his extended contract at The Playboy Club, Gregory had worked part-time sorting mail in a post office, where he tossed letters intended for Mississippi into a slot marked “overseas.” By 1962, Gregory had joined a protest in favor of black voting rights in that same Southern state, and a lifetime of social activism followed.

Gregory showed twice as much sadness as Lewis, and compared to Lewis’s many broad grins rarely ever offered more than a slight, wistful smile. He would perch on a stool on stage, hardly moving except to take a drag on his cigarette while delivering lines like, “I heard we’ve got lots of black astronauts. Saving them for the first spaceflight to the sun.” In comparison, Lewis’s forte was leavening his career-focused anger with big smiles and plenty of trust-nobody-and-nothing contempt. Lewis might well have enjoyed his success. But after having been passed among relatives as a boy, while his parents were away entertaining, Lewis had become a star who didn’t like to rely on anybody but himself. Note the tight smirk atop the right side of Lewis’s smiling publicity photo.

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As to their respective legacies, Lewis is lionized in France. Why, the celebrated New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard even once declared Lewis to be greater than Charlie Chaplin. The explanation is that Lewis’s movies are seen by intellectual anti-intellectuals in Paris both as satires on American society and as Surrealistic exposes on the limits of language and reason. Here in America, however, Lewis never received a single Oscar nomination, not even for the more serious role of playing a talk-show host kidnapped by an aspiring comedian in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982).

Gregory fared no better in contests, if you count the 47,133 votes he received running for president in 1968 on the Freedom and Peace Party ticket. But Gregory had his successes, too, and plenty of sway. Gregory was part of the chorus chanting on John Lennon’s impromptu recording of “Give Peace a Chance,” and was a cross-over pioneer who reached white America before Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor got there. What Gregory didn’t care about was money, and the $2 billion that Lewis raised during the 40 years he hosted telethons for the Muscular Dystrophy Association separates these two men just as distinctly as does their very different emotional profiles.

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