Earn This

It’s one of the corniest moments in any movie, let alone a WWII movie from 1998, but it works.

In Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) pulls Private Ryan (Matt Damon) close, and speaks his final words to the soldier he has given his life to save:

Earn this. Earn it.”

It’s honestly one of the best scenes in possibly the greatest contemporary war movie ever produced. It’s so well-known that it became a throwaway line on HBO’s The Sopranos, when movie-obsessed mobster Chris Moltisanti quoted it with dubious admiration.

Note how Michael Imperioli quotes the line as though Chrissy never even saw Saving Private Ryan. He sounds like John Houseman on the old TV ads for Smith-Barney: “We make money the old-fashioned way: we earn it.”

This is a sly wink to the viewers (in “D-Girl”, a Sopranos episode loaded with satirical jabs at the movie industry) that Christopher, like many people, just didn’t “get” the line. He just thought it was some actory thing that big-time actors do to get the Oscar.

Captain Miller said that to Private Ryan with his last breaths to impress upon him that he must become a better man in the future. If not, Miller will have died in vain. Ryan’s four brothers, as well as most of the soldiers who fought to save him, have all died. The onus is upon Ryan to be more than he can be, as they say. This is why we see Ryan, as an old man, break down in confusion and self-doubt at Miller’s grave, at the film’s coda.

I have something in my eye. Excuse me.

The lesson imparted by these scenes is that anything worthwhile in life, you have to earn. There are no short cuts. On top of that, earning anything worthwhile takes a lifetime. Your high school gym teacher was right.

When someone earns something that others can’t, or won’t, the detractors will fight the earner tooth and nail, as dirty as possible, to take away or degrade what has been earned. You see this every day. It’s a subroutine of your regular life. You don’t even notice when you yourself are doing it.

If you are doing it, you need to stop. It’s toxic and destructive, ultimately to the self.

Here’s a terrible example, that you’ll probably understand a bit more easily.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, there were four very funny guys. They were everywhere. Their names were a promise of side-splitting laughter, even in terrible TV and movies. They earned our trust as funny people, through their work. We paid to see movies because they were in the cast. Their names were a written guarantee.

Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Rick Moranis.

With Harris Yulin (l.), from 1989’s Ghostbusters II.

Ghostbusters wasn’t a phenomenon in 1984 because of the concept or the special effects (or the hit theme song); they only helped. It was a phenomenon because of the four stars. We believed in the concept because four comedians we respected showed us how. It didn’t matter if we thought the story was hokey- so did the stars. They were there to goof on it. (See also Eddie Murphy in The Golden Child.)

The problem arose in the time between 1989 and the present. Ghostbusters grew into a franchise, with Saturday morning cartoons, video games and Lego sets. The concept appeared more bankable than the films themselves. There was inevitable “EXTREME-ing” in the 1990s, complete with a guy in a wheelchair. This was the first unfortunate stab at social relevance. Even more unfortunate, it wasn’t the last.

I don’t care who says it was good. It wasn’t that good.

You don’t recognize anyone other than “Slimer” in the above picture because they hadn’t earned your recognition. They look like a mishmash of ’90s character archetypes: stoic wheelchair dude, pale goth girl, soul-patch-and-earring dude, and beatific black guy with lines shaved in his fade. Take away the tech and the logo and they could be anybody.

That’s because they’re not based on anyone. They are explicitly designed to appeal to specific groups of people. In short, they’re trading in on a reputation they didn’t earn. 

Think of it like this: you’ll never see a four-person crew of Ghostbusters without a black member. It’ll never happen. Even when Ghostbusters was remade, replacing the male cast with women, they still made sure one of the quartet was black. (Leslie Jones was even a Saturday Night Live alum, like Murray and Aykroyd before her, albeit from an era where almost nobody stayed up to watch it.)

And when the remake tanked, after alienating the original fanbase, the producers doubled down on the conceit that the film failed because men are sexist and can’t stand to see women in lead roles. Just like the makers of Ocean’s 8 did.

Out of the original Ghostbusters leads, only Ernie Hudson and Harold Ramis had never opened a movie on their own merits. Murray, Aykroyd and Moranis were all major studio film stars. Co-star Sigourney Weaver was the lead in Ridley Scott’s Alien. Harold Ramis earned his keep in perpetuity by directing the comedy juggernaut Caddyshack. Rick Moranis was on the cusp of the biggest phase of his career as an actor, which would be tragically cut short by the premature passing of his wife.

For the remake, the producers tried to sell us a reboot, retelling the classic story with other people, whom we barely knew. They expected audiences who loved the original for decades to swallow a half-baked retread that openly disrespected the source material. Not just disrespected- negated. Then they called anyone who hated the result a misogynist, as though this mutant bastard of a film was some paragon of womens’ suffrage.

Married guys with young daughters bit down hardest on the lie, shaming any male friends who might dare to utter a complaint about the unwanted remake. Hey, I get it; whatever it takes to keep the peace at home, right? I mean, it’s not like those married guys have trained themselves to settle for less in life, or anything. A guy who’s married always knows better than us shitheel singles, doesn’t he? I mean, he earned himself a wife and kids. 

One of my favorite comedians, even in this age of compromise and undue apology, is Bill Burr. I’ve never heard anything like the dressing-down Burr gave Philly after they booed Dom Irrera and Mike “Pawkward” Birbiglia. Literally, for twelve minutes, Burr pours full-strength Haterade on the Philly folk, who are actively jeering him, en masse. His stride never breaks, nor does his focus, and not for a second is he anything less than hilarious.

He leaves after winning the crowd back. He earns it.

Burr’s Monday Morning Podcast is one of the best going. Nothing is funnier than Bill rage-stammering through an angry email from a listener, or ranting about helicopter safety. Since Bill got married, however, his wife Nia makes appearances on the podcast. It never works. You can practically hear Bill flinching when she butts in. He’s trying to be a good guy, because it’s his wife, whom he presumably loves and all that. But deep down, he knows. She didn’t earn the spot. She’s only there because she married Bill Burr. She didn’t burn Philadelphia down with just a microphone. She didn’t make us laugh, over and over, and give relief to our inner resentments. Bill did.

The resentment doesn’t spring from Nia being black, or being female. The resentment comes from knowing she’s not on Burr’s level as a humorist. She’s just offering the basic female counterpoint, which always comes off as a buzzkill. We listen to Bill Burr’s podcast to hear Bill Burr. If someone is going to interrupt him, or offer a differing point of view, then that someone better be at least as funny as Bill Burr. It has nothing to do with what color or gender they are. It has to do with the ability to do the job. 

If you fail at your job, and you shift the blame to the presumed ignorance of the people who call you a failure, then you were unsuited for that job in the first place. If you are suited for your job, prove it. Do the job, and take criticism in stride. Don’t try to weld connections between your critics and “bigots”, unless you can clearly prove they are prejudiced. Otherwise you are wasting time that you could be earning. 

That’s all that matters. When you earn, you don’t have to complain that people are putting you down. It doesn’t matter. You’re in the right.

You earned it. 

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