"Don't be a palm, be an oak"

Of course LA should plant actual trees before the Olympics, but which trees should we actually plant?

John Mulaney, in a suit on the set of his live variety show, standing in front of a poster of a palm tree.
On his live Netflix show, John Mulaney explained the greatest existential crisis faced by Angelenos today

John Mulaney Presents: Everybody's In LA is a six-night live variety show about Los Angeles framed like most LA-focused media: through the lens of New Yorkers who are coming to visit. While comedians are in town for the Netflix Is a Joke festival, Mulaney reasoned, it would be a good opportunity to seat them on a couch next to city of LA experts "and we'd all get together and try to figure out just what the hell is going on here."

The show, which is happening right now — episode 5 airs tonight at 7 p.m. — is chaotic and uneven and often less about LA than it is about Mulaney's personal therapy journey. (Or perhaps that's the most LA topic of all?) While the interstitial comedy sketches mostly don't land for me, the talk show portions have been fascinating, if only to reveal how little famous people who live here actually know about the city. I might not have tuned in otherwise, but faithful readers of this newsletter alerted me to the fact that an entire episode was devoted to the same questions we've been asking right here at torched dot la. It's entitled: "PALM TREES."

In his monologue, Mulaney admirably supplies anti-palm advocates with our best talking point yet: palms are "gorgeous but useless, like the fountain at the Grove or Gavin Newsom." And while LA's palm trees aren't going to fall over dead all at once as Mulaney insinuated — I wish! — he is right that many of them are near the end of their lives. "The city has to make the decision whether to just let them die or replace these iconic trees with brand-new iconic trees," he said. "But the reason that people might want new beautiful palm trees is because we're about to host the Olympics in 2028."

Overall, Mulaney accurately conveyed our collective civic anxiety about the games. "Making LA host the Olympics?" he said. "That'd be like if you had a friend and she was having a nervous breakdown, and she had no money and part of her house was on fire, and to cheer her up, you made her host the Olympics." He also worried the Olympics would mean "more driving," which means LA28 chair Casey Wasserman isn't doing a good enough job of getting the "car-free games" word out to his entertainment industry peers.

It all could have digressed quite quickly into an evening of lazy traffic jokes until the evening's expert, the radiant Amanda Begley, made her way to the stage. Begley, the watershed senior program manager for TreePeople, confirmed Mulaney's palm facts: they're dying, they use a lot of water, they don't provide shade. (She also got to drop what Mulaney called the "M. Night Shyamalan reveal" of the night, PALM TREES ARE ACTUALLY GRASSES.) But what seemed to connect most with the comedians, who appeared to harbor a complete unawareness of the LA that exists outside of their Teslas, was the fact that palms aren't native. In contrast, the coast live oak is a true local, Begley told them. "There is substance with the oak tree versus the superficiality of the palm." Exactly, Mulaney agreed, that's the advice he gives human transplants when they move to LA: "Don't be a palm, be an oak."

It all came back to the games at the end of the show when "Kelly from Silver Lake" — actually V. Kelly Turner, a UCLA urban planning professor, heat expert, and long-distance runner — called in and valiantly attempted to explain how important trees will be for Olympic marathon runners forced to trek LA's shadeless streets. (Remember, the annual LA Marathon is held in March, the Olympics will be in July.) Mulaney asked her: "Do you think we should plant trees before the 2028 Olympics that provide shade?" Turner said yes, and also suggested awnings, but the conversation was drowned out by laughter as Jon Stewart fiddled with a roaming delivery robot. Which is, if you think about it, quite an accurate metaphor for LA's tree policy!

Of course LA should plant actual trees before the Olympics, but which trees should we actually plant? I called Begley after the show to ask. "The priority should always be native trees, if we can: coast live oak, western redbud, desert willow," she says. But LA faces a challenge, she says, often, in the communities that need shade the most, the only available space to plant is a tiny tree well surrounded by pavement, where a native tree might not thrive. "Part of that discussion is rethinking the right of way as much as we can, and really looking at how much space we are giving to parked or moving vehicles," says Begley, who envisions tree-planting that shades new infrastructure to help people shift away from cars, like wider sidewalks, bike trails, or bus lanes. In the meantime, TreePeople has been working with the city of LA on a roster of "climate-appropriate" street trees that may not be native, but are more likely to survive our increasingly hotter and drier urban conditions. (Don't worry: LA doesn't plant palms as street trees anymore.) And if LA wants shade fast, one of these climate-appropriate species might be a better bet. "Four years is not going to be the full canopy," says Begley. "But with the care piece that TreePeople is committed to — three years of watering, pruning, re-mulching — four years later there will definitely be some canopy that can have an impact."

TreePeople, as I've mentioned before, is part of the LA28 sustainability task force, which will apparently be discussing the possibility of tree-planting in 2025. But who might actually plant these trees? Will it be LA28? The city of LA? It's notable that Rachel Malarich, LA's city forest officer, was originally scheduled to be a guest on this episode, but didn't appear on the show. What is LA's shade strategy for streets currently lined with 90-year-old palm trees? How long are we going to keep planning our whole city around a bunch of dead grass? Are we finally ready to embrace our inner oak? 🔥

"No mayor, right?" and other LA moments from the show

People seem to be troubled by the LA map that Mulaney showed in the first episode. Although it misleadingly does include separate cities as "neighborhoods" that are not part of LA — Beverly Hills, Culver City, San Fernando, Santa Monica, West Hollywood — I feel like they did a pretty good job overall. The biggest error on the map, in my mind, is that Silver Lake is one word — yikes!

"Fun fact, did you know LA has a mayor? If you were rolling around town you'd be like, no mayor, right? And then you'd be like, for no mayor, it's going okay?"

The recurring delivery robot character Saymo (haha), is product placement for Serve Robotics, the actual company that deploys these robots on LA streets. Serve Robotics also had demo units out at the Melrose CicLAvia, and this is all surely an attempt to humanize our new overlords.

Related: We are all Lee Ving taking a hammer to a dockless scooter.

Watching a cement truck try to extract itself from a patch of wet cement in Koreatown, as narrated by a guy who changes billboards, was like what it must have felt like to see the mastodon get trapped in the La Brea Tar Pits.

The center of LA is actually in Beverly Hills?

I highly recommend watching "HELICOPTERS" (episode 3) to see reporter Zoey Tur — who famously located fleeing murder suspect O.J. Simpson's white Bronco from the air — having a conversation with prosecutor Marcia Clark about whether or not crime is actually bad in LA or if it just feels that way because of Citizen and NextDoor. "It's really safe," Tur said. "The numbers prove it out." She would know!

The Leonardo DiCaprio Computer Center was not a bit! The Los Feliz branch of the LA Public Library was actually built on the site of DiCaprio's former childhood home and the library made a cute video about it last year.

Andy Samberg played an extremely convincing version of James Goldstein, who Laker fans will know as a courtside fixture at games and architecture fans will know as the owner of the Sheats-Goldstein House (aka Jackie Treehorn’s house). Goldstein did, indeed, add a nightclub to his John Lautner-designed home, which he opens regularly for public events and tours. In recent years Goldstein's other properties have made headlines, which Stewart brought up: "You know how he made his money? Buying up mobile home parks and jacking the rent on people." (Recommended reading: Sam Lubell in the New York Times, Gary Baum in the Hollywood Reporter.) Upon Goldstein's death, the home will be gifted to LACMA, including his entire alligator-skin wardrobe.

I'm very much looking forward to tonight's "EARTHQUAKES" episode with seismologist Lucy Jones, who is quite simply one of the smartest people in LA. Hope the comedians are actually listening. 🔥

🎧 If you're looking for an LA talk show without (as many) comedians, I co-host one of them, the extremely un-Google-able LA Podcast. As legally required of all LA talk shows, we have a slightly modified version of Wang Chung's "To Live and Die in LA" as our outro music. Stay tuned for some important podcast announcements coming soon

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