The Tiny Line between Greatness and Failure
Everyone likes to drop into conversation the story they just heard on “This American Life” that relates to the topic at hand, so why shouldn’t we? At Nothing Special, we were particularly moved by this story about Duke Fightmaster, a former credit card debt counselor who decides, on a whim, to try to be the one chosen to replace Conan O’Brien when O’Brien was moved into Jay Leno’s spot (a move which, incidentally, was a big “Not that Special” moment for NBC). Duke does this by starting, from his bedroom, a talk show using his best friend as sidekick, his wife as guest, 2 neighbors as audience, and another shaky-handed friend as camera crew.
Duke Fightmaster’s tale is part of a “This American Life” segment called “Last Man Standing.” His story follows one about the lone juror who refused to convict Governor Rod Blagojevich, during his first trial, of trying to sell Obama’s Senate Seat. (Think “12 Angry Men” with a nice Illinois Grandma in Henry Fonda’s role). As interesting as that story was, Duke’s was the one that really sizzled. We loved it because it appears, at first, to be another cautionary tale of obsession–a man throws away everything he seems to have–his job, his good credit, a house in San Francisco, his relationship with his wife and time with his kids–as he sinks further and further into the rabbit hole of his dreams. When the talk show gains some traction, a youtube following in the thousands and a spot in the papers, this provides the dangling carrot that keeps Duke going. Even as it drains him of everything, he keeps holding out for that break. Duke himself compares his passion to alcoholism–something he would go do each night, then come home and try to kiss his kids goodnight, promising they’d go to Disneyland the next day, and then heading right back the next day, barely remembering his promise from the night before.
But give it a close listen. Imagine Duke pursuing this dream with a single focus every day: gathering volunteers, constructing the set at the local Veteran’s Hall, employing monologue writers. Is this a destructive obsession, or the only way someone can ever really pursue a long-shot goal–with blinders on, mono-focused, unflinching. How close was Duke from the tipping point? Could one more viewer have gotten him a spot on a local cable show? Could one promoter have taken his show to the next level? Is that part of the drug…the insanity, or just good old-fashioned elbow grease? What’s fascinating about this story is how we want to shake a finger and say, “Shame on you for jeopardizing everything for vanity, for trying to be Special,” but how, at the same time, we can so easily see ourselves in the same position. Why shouldn’t we sacrifice everything for something we believe could change the world? The line between Insanity and Artistic Pursuit, in other words, may be as thin as the layer of foam on Captain Ahab’s lip, or as blurry as the camerawork on the Duke Fightmaster show.