THE LAST TIME Adam Pitluk did not write an “Editor’s Note,” he was not missed. Not at all. If people noticed, they said nothing. That may seem a little harsh, but there is an explanation. In the July 15 issue, Master Sgt. Christian “Mack” MacKenzie replaced Adam and wrote about his experiences being wounded in Iraq and later meeting Medal of Honor recipients. Adam has a loyal following, but tales of true American heroes lap all competition.The time before that, however, a replacement columnist made the Adam brigade a little nervous. Nothing against the substitute writer, the subject or the effort, but the email I read in our “Air Mail” email account indicated concern because of Adam’s absence. One woman, in fact, said she panicked. I was tempted to suggest that that was a little extreme, but because Adam is the boss, I wrote a soothing answer and assured her that Adam’s column was safe and sound and that he would return.
After that experience, when Adam told me I would be his next sub because he was busy writing our cover story on Michael J. Fox, I wanted no part of it, even for one issue. The “Editor’s Note” is Adam. Adam is the “Editor’s Note.” His fans don’t want a replacement. It’s a little like watching The Simpsons with no Homer.
Well, maybe that’s an overstatement. But you get the picture. There is a reason the expression “tough act to follow” became a cliché.
That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. When thinking about the task at hand, I remembered a famous story about a Rolling Stones concert appearance in 1964 in Santa Monica, Calif. They were the last act in a two-day show and were preceded onstage by James Brown, who stunned the crowd with a theatrical dancing-and-singing performance that was nothing less than electrifying. The Stones, then in their early 20s and new to superstardom, were blown away by the act, and reports later claimed that they were so unnerved that they had to be talked into going onstage. They went, however, and put on an excellent show (videos of both acts are available on YouTube).
But James Brown was a tough act to follow.
So was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He played in the NBA for 20 years and scored 38,387 points, the most in league history. When he retired in 1989, he was replaced at center by Vlade Divac, a 21-year-old center from Serbia who did not speak English. At the time, I was writing about basketball for Newsday in New York. At the Lakers’ media day, I casually asked an interpreter to ask Vlade what his thoughts were on replacing Kareem. I figured he’d say it was an honor or a wonderful challenge or very inspiring.
Instead, he launched into a Serbian diatribe, spewing out about 400 words per second, and I assumed that some were not very nice. When he finished about a minute or so later, I looked at the interpreter, who said: “He thought a question about being as great as a legend was dumb.”
I was not offended because I know that dumb is not always bad. But apparently, dumberer is — at least when it pertains to movie sequels. When Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels starred in Dumb and Dumber in 1994, they probably did not realize they were creating a comedy classic. But dumb was funny and dumber was great, and the movie grossed more than $127 million in the U.S.
Based on that success, someone decided it would be a good idea to do a second movie — the prequel Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd — with no Carrey and no Daniels. The public decided it wasn’t, and the movie grossed about $100 million less than the original.
For some activities, there is no replacement. If you want to experience how tequila is made, where better to go than to eight distilleries in and around the town of Tequila, Mexico? If you want to see why tiny Green Bay, Wis., which the U.S. Census Bureau lists as the 268th largest city in America, has an NFL team, what better way to do it than to send a Chicago Bears fan to investigate the Packers phenomenon? And our annual holiday gift guide? There is simply no substitute.
Evidence suggests that the best replacements are those who do not realize the enormity of their tasks. When John Adams, James Madison, Andrew Johnson and William Howard Taft — the second, fourth, 17th and 27th U.S. presidents, respectively — were elected to office, they undoubtedly knew they were following distinguished men. What they did not know was that their predecessors — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, respectively — would have their faces chiseled on the side of a mountain.
Mount Rushmore. Now that’s a tough act to follow.
Some substitutes have widespread popularity: substitute teachers; sugar, salt and egg substitutes; the great song “Substitute” by The Who.
Some replacements have been successful: replacement hips and knees, replacement windows, hormone and hair replacements, alternative rock group The Replacements, the movie The Replacements (assuming you agree with me that dumb is good).
Tough acts to follow are a way of life. And what you discover is that the most effective replacements, the most respected substitutes, are those who simply accept the challenge, do the work and keep the whining to a minimum.
Adam will be back next issue.