In Las Vegas, There Are No Odds on ‘the Merger’

I still can’t quite pinpoint the exact moment-or the exact thing-that started to make me feel slightly queasy about all of this.

Maybe it was reading one too many articles about Kate Betts, and the earth-shattering significance of altering the Harper’s Bazaar logo-a change so vastly important to the human condition that one might think it involved a special session of the United Nations Security Council.

Or perhaps it was my daily fix from Jim Romenesko’s MediaGossip.com Web site-sort of like mainlining pure crack gossip-wherein I found that someone had actually expended precious brain cells to review, and critique, Graydon Carter’s February “letter from the editor” in Vanity Fair .

Or maybe, just maybe, it was the 867th article about Renata Adler and her new book Gone -after which I borrowed a reviewer’s copy and discovered that it’s actually a miniaturist parody of a 19th-century Gilbert and Sullivan comedy of errors (read: much ado about nothing), where the sadly naïve Ms. Adler runs around tearing her hair out, endlessly moaning, “Madness! Madness! Madness!”

Yes, forget Clinton fatigue. Forget the flu. I’m suffering from something far trendier: media overload.

Too much Tina. Too much Anna. Too much Gwyneth, AOL, Pittman, Case and Puffy-not to mention Jerry I, Jerry II, and Gerry III: Seinfeld, Levin and Laybourne.

Ordinarily, the proven antidote here is to spend two uninterrupted hours, weekly, with The Economist . Witty and urbane, it leaves you enlightened instead of sullied; it broadens your worldview, rather than just delivering yet one more piece of attitude-passing-as-punditry contemplating the latest renovations in Martha Stewart’s navel.

But alas, last week, even The Economist couldn’t lift my spirits. I was in a funk. I was in a tailspin. I was actually looking forward to watching the Golden Globes.

An then it happened. My accountant was on the phone. And with four simple words a cure was at hand:

“Meet me in Vegas.”

Ah, Las Vegas. Washington, D.C., may be our seat of government. And our New York-Manhattan-is certainly the center of culture and commerce. But Las Vegas is America. Home of the giant buffet, the Sphinx, the pyramids, the Venetian canals, the Eiffel Tower, the Manhattan skyline and two Austrian guys of mysterious sexual orientation who make Jeeps and Bengal tigers disappear for a living. It is a city without irony; a place where Tina evokes the surname Turner, where Betts is a misspelling, and where hearing the phrase “Good luck” does not cause one to wonder “What did she mean by that?” It is more than just Disneyland for adults; I suspect it’s the place baby boomers will choose over Miami for their retirement homes; it is a gaming town that lacks the desperation of Atlantic City. Nobody seems to be playing for the rent money.

On the face of it, I realize it sounds absurd-not to mention dangerous-to have a business meeting with your accountant in Las Vegas. But the truth is he was flying east, on his way home from San Francisco, and my wife and I were about to fly west, to Los Angeles. And so, on a Saturday afternoon, we were all firmly ensconced on the 17th floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino, looking north, past the demi-Chrysler Building and the semi-Eiffel Tower, playing out a scene that was eerily reminiscent of the Havana meeting between Al Pacino and Lee Strasberg in The Godfather: Part II :

“But, Bruce, these are the mutual funds we have chosen.”

That night, in keeping with the general media-free spirit of things, we went to see Jerry Lewis at the Orleans Hotel and Casino. Ordinarily, seeing a comedian is the very last thing in the world I’d choose to do. Having once spent six months locked in a room with one, writing a screenplay-suffering the ego, the mania and the grasping need to be celebrated as more than just a joke-teller-I’d prefer root canal. But several years ago, a friend was producing Guys and Dolls with Mr. Lewis in London, and his performance was a revelation-just as it turned out to be this night, at a sold-out show in Las Vegas.

Just after 8 P.M., Jerry appeared on stage (in a tuxedo, natch) with an 18-piece orchestra, and proceeded to offer up two hilarious hours of movie clips, jokes and song. No bathos, no “You’ll never walk alone.” It was filled with “My God, I finally understand what made him such a superstar” moments: You could see the direct bloodline to Robin Williams; the basic DNA for Jim Carrey’s physical comedy, and Adam Sandler; you could see where the allegedly innovative Andy Kaufman stole-yes, stole-his only funny bit, the Mighty Mouse routine. In the 1950’s, Jerry had been doing the same thing with an opera recording; Kaufman appropriated it whole, right down to Jerry’s hesitation and miscue coming in after the chorus.

The next morning, Sunday, I stayed in the room to work, while my wife went downstairs to gamble. And it was at this moment that I fell off the wagon-and was struck by a curious observation. Turning on the TV set to witness the pundits dissect the AOL-Time Warner deal, it occurred to me that the real beneficiaries here-the real boon-is it’s allowed every journalist from Frank Rich to Michael Kinsley to humbly trot out their résumés, and hype their projects. As in:

“Well, Bob, before I comment on the deal, I ought to disclose that I have a column in Time , I appear regularly on CNN; my new novel is published by Warner Books, optioned by Castle Rock Entertainment, and it’s been chosen as a featured selection by Book-of-the-Month Club, which is also owned by …”

Click. I found my wife at a blackjack table, seated next to a woman who’d been up all night, still sheathed in the green taffeta bridesmaid’s dress she’d worn to the ceremony the night before-where she had obviously not “gotten lucky.”

My wife, however, was winning.

“Do you think we’re ever going to see the end of media writing about media reporting on media?” I asked.

My wife doubled the number of chips she had on the table. The dealer passed her a 10. Then an ace. Blackjack.

“It’s a long shot,” she said, scooping her winnings from the table, heading for the cashier’s window.

“But I wouldn’t bet on it.”