Disclosure up front: CityLife is sponsoring Neon Roundtable, the homegrown video talk show created by filmmaker Daniel Lowber, for all the reasons it’s worth writing about here: It’s an interesting, entertaining attempt to chase ideas through some of the key issues facing Las Vegas, perhaps airing some useful bits of insight, while avoiding the usual gang of pundits and quote-providers who typically weigh in on these things.
Each episode, Lowber gathers three or four people to talk, really talk — about saving the Huntridge, about empty social-media pieties (an episode I appeared on), about education in Nevada, about marriage, about culture, about hipsters, about loneliness. Anchoring and channeling the talk is the voluble Lowber — deep of voice, bushy of beard, tattooed of arm, large of head — who has a natural ease in front of the camera, a smooth way with everyone from artists to congresswomen (look for Dina Titus in a future episode).
Season 2 launches in September on lvcitylife.com. (Previous episodes are available on YouTube.) It’s taped entirely at the iconic Atomic Liquors on East Fremont, apropos considering Lowber’s deep interest in Vegas history.
How much should I couch my answers, or censor what I say?
We’re not afraid of the F-bomb or free expression …
We’ll just have to keep it away from my mom when she stays with us next week. “Sorry, Mom, I don’t know where the CityLife is …”
So, first question: How and why?
I always was fascinated with the Algonquin Round Table growing up. For those who don’t know, back in 1919-1929, at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City, every day some of the city’s best and brightest would gather for lunch. Playwrights, reporters, critics, actors, politicians. And basically the goal of those lunches was to try to crack each other up.
Some of the stuff I read about it just cracked me up. I always wanted to see something like that in the modern age. My favorite show like that now is Dinner for Five with Jon Favreau, where he’d just have some of his showbiz friends who were funny come in and talk about shit behind the scenes and how stuff really worked.
Good conversation is … not a lost art, but it’s not given as much attention these days as it used to be. We used to talk about men and women of letters. It used to be expected. Sometimes people now might play piano at dinner parties, but they used to recite poetry, or have these really high-level, high-concept discussions about the issues of the day. The old salons of Europe, gatherings of intellectuals who would have dinner and amuse each other.
I’ve always wanted that for myself, selfishly, and I’ve always liked watching it on TV.
I’m a filmmaker, I have a production company, and I’ve always had it in the back of my mind that if I ever achieved some success, I’d like to try something like that. My friend Anne Mulford, who’s now in New York, on the Great White Way, gave me the idea to do it now. She said, “You know a lot of people in the arts community, something like that would be good for Las Vegas, so just do it locally.” I thought that was a good idea. I started talking about it with my business partners in November or December, then just started doing it upstairs at the Arts Factory [in the Studio West space].
I have three criteria for people to be on the show: funny, smart and interesting. Two of the three — two of the three and you’re good. We all know funny people who are not too bright and not very interesting; everyone knows people who are one of the three. But two of the three guarantees a good time.
We bring ’em in, shoot for an hour on a couple of topics, get everyone a little liquored-up — we do shoot at a bar. And just talk.
I like to talk about things that, if they’re not controversial, then things that maybe have a local focus but have a national implication. For instance, we talked about the campaign to save the Huntridge, whether that’s a good or a bad thing, and why. The Huntridge is obviously specific to Las Vegas, but that tension is everywhere, in this country and throughout the world, where people want to institutionalize their history, but at the same time it’s all this money, and it’s an eyesore, but maybe it would be good for the community to save it. Talking about things specific to Las Vegas but hopefully have a broader application is interesting to me.
Also to focus on the history of Las Vegas. Most places do have museums dedicated to their history, and they try to institutionalize their history. We always blow it up in favor of shinier shit. The Dunes, gone. The Riviera, gone. The old Desert Inn, gone. The old Sands, gone. And the people who worked there, who built those places, who lived, laughed and loved there, are dying off, and there’s not a whole lot of capturing of that history. I’m a history fan, always have been, so one of the things I’m doing with the new show is interviewing people who were around back in the day. Like, the guy who sold me my house told me an incredible story about Redd Foxx pissing in Steve Wynn’s valet back in the day. Stood on the sidewalk, yelled, “I’m the only motherfucker who ever pissed in Steve Wynn’s valet,” hopped into his Ferarri and went zero-to-60 right into a palm tree.
Not just that, but about how this place got made. It’s one of the last remnants, I think, of the pioneer spirit. Even though today it’s so much more corporatized than it was 30, 40 years ago, there’s still not much in the way of obstructing infrastructure. You wanna come here and start a band, you can. You wanna be like me, come here and start a production company and start making movies, you can.
So I want to bring that kind of spirit and the history of the place to the community at large. We’ll probably never have the size audience as Honey Dildo or whatever that fucking show is called, the absolute bottom-feeding, lowest-common-denominator entertainment will have, but I’d like to think there’s enough of an audience out there who just want to see funny, interesting people shoot the shit while getting slightly buzzed at a cocktail party.
That’s why I do the show.
And the how is, I just pressed all my friends who were filmmakers into service. It was a chance for us all to hang out and do it.
You’re the host. How do you keep a conversation lively as opposed to four duelling monologues? How do you keep interaction happening?
We’ve gotten really lucky so far with the alchemy of the guests. I talk to them beforehand, let people finish their thoughts, it’s fine to disagree — it’s a very short conversation if five people sit there and say, “I agree on all counts!” We had an episode where we talked about sex work — stripping, call girls. I had a friend who’s a good Catholic girl on the show, and some friends who were more liberal, for some contrasting viewpoints. And it ended up happening that way.
I’m pretty facile and glib when it comes to conversation, and I think that helps. I like to open up a topic and see where it goes. In one recent episode, one of the topics was, why do hipsters suck, and how did that happen? We started out talking about how the word hipster meant “a jazz fan,” 40 years ago, and ended with me ranting that if they liked Che Guevara so much, maybe we should just line them up and shoot them, because he killed 1,200 people via firing squad. I didn’t have that planned in my mind, that’s just the way the conversation unfolded.
You referred to conversation as a lost art. What happened to it?
Listen, here’s the problem, and I run into this problem on the show all the time: I’m smart enough to see that there are problems. I’m not bright enough to see any cause, effect or solution. It’s not a fun place to be; it leaves you vaguely disgruntled most of the time.
I’m not sure.
I’m sure it’s some combination of the proliferation of avenues of communication, with Twitter and Facebook and MySpace and Friendster and the news and the Internet and forums and message boards and instant messages and texting. There are so many ways to immediately get your thoughts out there.
I think there’s a lot less time for contemplation and reflection. I think it is just the pace of life and the pace of communication.