I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy’s Golden Era

David Letterman Kayaking

David Letterman on CBS’s Battle of Network Stars, 1978

Based on a passing recommendation by Marc Maron on his podcast, I just read I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy’s Golden Era by William Knoedelseder.  It’s a juicy group biography about the late 1970s/ early 1980s scene that developed around Mitzi Shore’s Comedy Store in L.A. and the emergence of Jay Leno, David Letterman, Andy Kaufman, Robin Williams, and Richard Lewis, along with some now comparatively lesser-known figures, like Letterman’s best friend George Miller, whose 2003 funeral begins the story, and Elayne Boosler, who is a key figure in the development of female stand-up — I wrote about her in re: the book We Killed: the Rise of Women in American Comedy by Yael Kohen a while ago.  (Interesting parallel between the two book titles – a lot of killing & dying in stand-up.)  Another significant lesser-known player in the narrative is a guy named Steve Lubetkin, a comic who was Richard Lewis’s best friend and whose tragic arc of disappointment provides a throughline for the book.

Letterman and Leno both come across as, along with Richard Pryor (whom they all worship) and Robin Williams, probably the most talented of the bunch, also standing out for their sobriety (neither one did drugs, un-coincidentally) and their generally hard-working, stable qualities.  Letterman especially is depicted as a mensch who is universally liked and respected by his peers, which was a little bit of a surprise given how well-known he is today for his prickly qualities; there’s a joke in the book about how he is known for his loyalty to old friends, and for the fact that he had not made a new friend since 1979 when his career started to take off.  There are some charming photos of Letterman and various others in uniform in 1979 on the Comedy Store “Bombers” basketball team that would play pickup games at the Van Nuys YMCA.

I had not realized how close Letterman and Leno had been.  “They quickly formed a mutual admiration society, watching and learning from one another.  Night after night at the Comedy Store, when they weren’t onstage, they were standing together in the back, taking it all in, studying everything.  Their fellow comics came to think of them almost as a team, connected by an ampersand like Abbott & Costello.”  That changed later.

The second half of the book is about the labor dispute that erupted when all the comics in Mitzi Shore’s stable asked her to consider paying  a token payment (as little as $5 per set was first proposed, as gas money!) for their shows.  The concept was always that the Comedy Store was a “showcase” where comics could work on their acts and gain visibility, and thus did not need to be paid.  This stopped making as much sense when the club was grossing thousands of dollars a night, and some of the performers who had not managed to land lucrative gigs elsewhere were still sleeping in their cars because they did not earn a penny.  The strikers eventually triumph, more or less, but the book depicts the strike as a necessary and just cause that nevertheless marked the end of an era of camaraderie and relative innocence in the scene.  Letterman comments at the end, “I have undying affection for those times and for all those people, because the older I get, the more I realize that they were the best times of my adult life.”

One shocker for me was that Gary Shandling was part of the small group of comics who sided with management against the working comics who went on strike.  “Gary Shandling was the scion of a family with manufacturing holdings and decidedly antiunion views. He had not shared the struggling comic experience.”  Once he crossed the picket line, Mitzi Shore rewarded him with a regular standup gig that he hadn’t previously been able to attain.  “Regarding Gary Shandling, the only strikebreaker who went on to achieve bona fide stardom, [one of the main strike organizers Tom] Dreesan said [years later], ‘I wish him all the success in the world.  He’s a funny guy as a good writer, but as a human being, as a man, I don’t have any respect for him.'”

Very disappointed about Shandling’s role in this!

No one gives a shit about your dog: *Difficult Men*

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: from the Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad.  (Is it OK for a title to have two colons?  I don’t think so, personally.)  Though at times it falls into a slightly rote magazine-profile mode, I found this a pretty interesting read.  Some of the juiciest details relate to the weird and often nightmarish qualities of the some of the famous show-runners and head writers behind these shows.

So, for example, a young writer named Todd Kessler is basking in David Chase’s approval as a writer on The Sopranos.  “He became close to the Chase family, often going out to dinner with them;” he co-writes an episode with Chase that is nominated for an Emmy.  Within minutes of getting the call about the Emmy announcement, Chase calls him in and announces that he wants to fire Kessler: “I think you’ve lost the voice of the show.”  Kessler, for whom the show is his entire life at that point, is devastated; Chase ends up giving him a second chance but then fires him for real soon afterward.

A few years later, Kessler wrote the pilot for a new series of his own….The plot revolved around a terrible boss — brilliant but manipulative, vain, imperious, unpredictable — and a young, talented, but impressionable employee who finds herself seduced, repelled, and ultimately both matured and corrupted by coming into her orbit. It was, he said, based on no small part on his experiences working on The Sopranos.  The show was called Damages.

I love the thought that Glenn Close’s character is based on David Chase!

Mad Men‘s Matthew Weiner also sounds like a challenging boss.  “Weiner demanded a strict protocol… based on age and experience” in the writers’ room.  There’s a story about a time the legendary screenwriter Frank Pierson started visiting the show’s writers’ room.

One day, [Pierson] was telling a story about his dog, and a young writer made the error of interrupting with a story of his own pet.  “This was somebody who was very low on the totem pole,” Weiner said.  “I literally pulled them aside afterward and said, “No one gives a shit about your dog.” When Pierson was talking, he said, “only I interrupt him.”

addendum: I’ll add that Deadwood’s David Milch comes across as a slightly quite nuts genius/ visionary (which I already knew from a memorable New Yorker profile of him years ago); Six Feet Under‘s Alan Ball and Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan as good guys/ reasonable people.

Tangible manifestation: two Richard Matheson episodes of *The Twilight Zone*

Every episode of the original 1959-1964 The Twilight Zone is streaming on Netflix; realizing this gave me one of those moments of thinking, “wow, we have so much culture available to us at the click of a button”… even though often we end up watching American Idol anyway.

A couple months ago I got the whole family to watch “Walking Distance,” apparently J.J. Abrams’ favorite all-time episode, an exceedingly melancholy one that the girls found a bit too slow and sad, I think.

Last night, inspired by the obituaries of writer Richard Matheson (who also wrote numerous sci-fi classics including I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man (on which The Incredible Shrinking Man [and Woman] were based), I decided to call up a couple of his classic episodes.

First we watched his famous “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” starring a handsome, young, non-jowly William Shatner.  Shatner plays a man, Bob Wilson, whose wife has fetched him from a post-breakdown stay in a mental hospital.  His previous breakdown occurred on a plane, so this plane-ride back home is tense; the episode begins with their boarding the plane and trying to settle in for the ride.  There are of course some amusing circa-1960 air travel details, e.g. she scolds him for lighting up during takeoff; you have to wait until airborne to smoke in the cabin.

The story is simple: Bob looks out the window and sees a strange creature, a Sasquatch/ Yeti, furry ape humanoid-type, prowling around on the wing.


Is he seeing things?  Or could there be something to this seeming hallucination? There’s not much more to it.  As is often true on the show, the special effects and costumes are somewhat risible; the “gremlin” (as Bob refers to him, seeming to be thinking of WW2 aviator lore) looks to be covered in a fuzzy plush rug, and it’s hilarious when he gets very obviously lifted up by a wire and zips off backwards into the air (with a hint of a wave, or am I imagining that?).  According to Wikipedia, Matheson himself complained that the creature was basically “a surly teddy bear.”  And yet… the effect is quite uncanny and disconcerting. The scariest moment is when, having pulled back the curtain, Bob wincingly forces himself to draw it open again to check, to find the creature’s face pressed right up to the window/ our t.v. screen.


I kind of leaped and grabbed both Celie and Iris, who didn’t react as strongly as I did (they did find it scary, though).  As you can see, the gremlin is pretty definitely racialized, with exaggerated lips and nose and a bit of a cliché “witch doctor” appearance, especially in this closeup.

I won’t give away the ending; the show concludes with a typically overwrought voice-over spelling out the final irony & twist: “For, happily, tangible manifestation is, very often, left as evidence of trespass– even from so intangible a quarter – as – the Twilight Zone.”

Next we watched another celebrated Matheson episode, “The Invaders,” featuring a superb, mostly silent (aside from some moans and other wordless vocalizations) Agnes Moorehead as an old lady who lives alone in a cabin, without electricity or power, in the middle of nowhere.  She’s preparing an inexplicably enormous pot of soup (I was sure this would have to play some role in the plot, following the Chekhov dictum– the pot seemed too over-sized not to serve a purpose, but it did not) when she hears a strange crash and a series of electronic beeps from her roof.  She climbs up with her lantern and finds a little spaceship — resembling a kid’s paper mache art project– from which a couple tiny silver wind-up toy spacemen come toddling out.  The rest of the episode features her battle with the “invaders,” armed only with an enormous wooden spoon (!– guess you need that to handle that amount of soup), a hatchet, and a blanket that she uses effectively at one point to catch up one of the guys and smash it to pieces on a table.


The big final irony/twist/reveal on this one is kind of silly, yet sort of thought-provoking in that Twilight Zone way. (It has a Planet of the Apes element to it.) But what makes the episode is Moorehead’s over-the-top, hyper-expressive, silent-film-style performance.  (And the great black and white cinematography.)

Iris declared as we began that she has never in her life had any nightmare or bad dream inspired by a movie or t.v. show- haven’t had a chance yet to ask if this broke her streak.

Marc Maron: Cats know more than we can understand

cat-Marc-Maron-Boomer-by-Dimitri-von-KleinMarc Maron with Boomer: [Photo by Dimitri von Klein from Catster]

I kind of wished I’d blogged about Marc Maron before he suddenly became ubiquitous… I’ve been listening to his podcast WTF (I get it on iTunes) occasionally but regularly for the past year or two.  I’m not sure what his secret is, but some of these conversations have been really memorable, so much so that I can remember where I was walking the dog or walking home as I listened to some of them. David Cross, Fiona Apple, Pamela Adlon, Mike White, John Oliver, Stephen Merchant, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, Diablo Cody… I guess those are the ones I remember most vividly. Maron is an over-sharer, he’s self-laceratingly critical and confessional, smart but insecure about his knowledge & status, obviously needy and competitive, but not too aggressively so, melancholic, eager to connect… And he seems to bring out a similarly confessional, over-sharing spirit in his guests.  Part of it may simply be the podcast’s length and flexible structure — it’s an open-ended conversation (conducted in Maron’s garage studio, which is now immortalized in the opening credits of his t.v. show), and as far as I can tell, he’s not aiming for a particular length, so the exchange can go into some slow patches, and then can pick up or open out into something new. (For example, I was feeling disappointed by his Lucinda Williams podcast– he seemed nervous, and interrupted her too often — but then eventually she got into fascinating stories about life as a child with her bipolar, alcoholic mother.)  The Mike White conversation was especially great, with some pretty startling moments of self-revelation on White’s part (but I am a huge fan of his anyway- he’s the creator of Enlightened as well as movies like Chuck and Buck).

Btw, one tip — although I know this makes Maron mad: every podcast begins with about 10 minutes of him riffing and ranting and promoting Stamps.com, so if you mostly want to hear the interview, you need to fast-forward.  (There’s often good stuff in the rants, though!)

I also just read Maron’s memoir, Attempting Normal, which is good.  You have to have a certain degree of patience for incessant discussion about his grim-hotel-room (and other) masturbation habits — generally pretty amusing, though.  The book more or less tells the story of his comedy career, his two marriages, his career slide and serious depression that preceded his comeback that began with his beginning WTF.  It’s episodic, though, and many of the chapters are basically little mini-essays or fragments, some of them artfully constructed.  The chapter “the Clown and the Chair,” about the role played by a particular piece of thrift store furniture in the endgame of his second marriage, is excellent, for example.  I also really liked his discussions of the weird, exhausting, and often alienating life he led in the late 80s and 90s as a “road comic” playing casinos, restaurants, and small clubs, in his case mostly around New England. There’s an amazing story about a comedian, Frankie Bastille, who’s since died, who snorted heroin in the passenger seat as Maron drove them to a show out of town (Maron was opening); when they got to the club, Maron had to physically haul in the seemingly comatose Bastille, who then proceeded to deliver a killer show, and then nodded out again on heroin on the drive home.

One thing that struck me, and that I found refreshing, is the degree to which Maron is basically a male Crazy Cat Lady.  The chapter “Cats” explains how he acquired his collection of formerly feral pets; they come up repeatedly elsewhere, and the book ends with a moving tribute to Boomer, his favorite cat who disappeared right when Maron was beginning to tape his new IFC show, Maron. [That is Boomer in the photo above.]

Why he vanished just as my life was changing drastically demands interpretation. I am not religious or spiritual, but I am prone to connecting dots in equations so that they defy coincidence.  Someone suggested that maybe this was the end of our journey together, that he had taken me as far as he could and that it was time for him to move on. I like that angle….

If you are awake and alive, sadness is a fluctuating constant. Hope is fleeting, a decision you make out of faith, desire, or desperation. Cats know more than we can understand. I don’t care about biology or brain size.


So far I’ve seen two episodes of his new show, #3 and #4.  I give it a 7.5 so far… or maybe an 8… It’s good and smart in some ways, and funny, but he and his story feel a bit constrained by the scripted sitcom format, and a lot of it feels a bit like a slight variation on Curb Your Enthusiasm: needy, narcissistic comedian in L.A. playing a just slightly fictionalized version of himself.  Louie too, I guess (Maron and Louie C.K. are old friends; there’s an amazing conversation about how they had a falling out and kind of patched it up on Maron’s recent Fresh Air interview), but so far I don’t think Maron has managed to get to the kind of raw insight, formal innovations, and originality that Louie offers.

The last episode, in which Maron decides to date “an age-appropriate woman” for once (i.e. not in her early/mid 20s), was seeming not-so-great to me, and then it took a twist and actually became much better than I expected. Maybe Maron is Marc Maron’s Lucky Louie and he needs to have this one cancelled and then regroup for his next great one. Or maybe this one will get better as it goes.

Maria Bamford Driven Crazy By Bullshit

[with apologies to Elayne Boosler]


I’m totally pissed I missed Maria Bamford when she performed in Bloomington a year or so ago (I didn’t know about her then).  Like Louis C.K., she offers a standup comedy of abjection & anxiety, with a quality of pleading loneliness and reaching out for connection.  Part of the tension of the routines is in the sense conveyed of someone who feels locked up into him/herself, trying to communicate, and simultaneously undercutting and commenting on those efforts.  Both Bamford and LCK have a similar kind of trademark apprehensive/amazed/horrified look, and an almost-cringing physical quality– a sense of someone used to getting beaten up by life.

Bamford’s supposed current Match.com personals ad: “I can wear the same outfit for five days straight!  Or, I can crouch in the shower and make myself real small.”

I think I first heard about her in this fascinating piece in Slate,Stand-up Comedy and Mental Illness: A Conversation with Maria Bamford,” in which she discusses her history of mental illness and how she incorporates it into her comedy.

Bamford: People get really irritated by mental illness. “Just fucking get it together! Suck it up, man!” I had a breakdown, and a spiritual friend came to visit me in the psych ward. And they said, “You need to get out of here. Because this is the story you’re telling yourself. You know, Patch Adams has this great work-group camp where you can learn how to really celebrate life.”

It’s something people are so powerless over, and so often they want to make it your fault. It’s nobody’s fault. I started thinking of suicide when I was 10 years old—I can’t believe that that’s somebody’s fault. Like, “Oh, you’re just an attention getter.” Mental illness isn’t seen as an illness, it’s seen as a choice.

Slate: Or a weakness.

Bamford: Yeah. I have a joke about how people don’t talk about mental illness the way they do other regular illnesses. “Well, apparently Jeff has cancer. Uh, I have cancer. We all have cancer. You go to chemotherapy you get it taken care of, am I right? You get back to work.” Or: “I was dating this chick, and three months in, she tells me that she wears glasses, and she’s been wearing contact lenses all this time. She needs help seeing. I was like, listen, I’m not into all that Western medicine shit. If you want to see, then work at it. Figure out how not to be so myopic. You know?”

Slate: Right. And then people who suffer from mental illness feel ashamed, making it even harder for them to talk about it with other people—where if you had a “regular” illness, people would speak much more openly about it.

Bamford: Yeah, it’d be like, “Let’s pink-ribbon it up!”

Slate: By talking about these things in your act, you’re countering some of the silence that otherwise clouds them. Is that something you’re conscious of as you work on your material?

Bamford: Well, a lot of it is selfish, I think. If I talk about it, then maybe somebody will talk about it to me. I don’t know if there’s as much much nobility in it as I would hope…I feel super insecure and embarrassed and ashamed about mental health issues. That’s why I want to talk about it. There’s sort of a hostility even, where you go, “I’m just gonna say what I am and then see if you can’t handle it.”

Bamford has this brilliant new special called The Special Special Special that’s available for download or streaming for $4.99.  Here’s her website for more details.  It’s a standup routine she performs in her own home to an audience of two, her parents, sitting there on the couch.  (Plus a guy playing keyboards.)  She has to stop at one point to give her pug his eye drops, and to get some cookies from the oven for the audience. Imitations of her mother are almost as much a part of Bamford’s routines as they are in Margaret Cho’s.  So seeing Bamford imitate her mother and father, to them and only them, generates a special kind of excruciating discomfort.  Although in a way, maybe that’s not quite true, because the affection you sense between Bamford and her parents comes through clearly, and they also seem to find the stand-up pretty hilarious.  It is awkward, though.  And sometimes it gets to a place beyond mere awkwardness, such as when she discusses her suicidal episodes and desire to die.

But if you don’t know her, you might as well start by checking out some of the episodes of the 20-part 2009 web series The Maria Bamford Show.  I’m not sure to what degree this is factual (it seems obviously based on reality), but Bamford sets up the scene in the little pseudo-theme-song she sing-songs in the first episode:

I was a marginally successful comedy living in Los Angeles for fourteen years… But I never got my own sitcom and then my boyfriend turned out to bisexual… And then I forgot to pay my insurance premiums so I couldn’t afford my medication for OCD, depression, anxiety… So I started driving cross-country in a blond wig and bathing suit looking for ‘angels’ with a drug dealer named ‘Lips’…  My parents found me on a sidewalk selling clock radios in Detroit… And they said, hey why don’t you come live with us in Duluth, Minnesota so you can get your medications kind of stabilized… and they took me back to their house where I’m living in the attic with my 11-year old pug Blossom… It’s the Maria Bamford Show!

The addictive show, which consists of 20 3-6 minute episodes, chronicles the various embarrassments and humiliations of living in Duluth with her parents and encountering old friends and enemies as an apparently-failed would-be showbiz comedian.  It becomes difficult to draw the line between the necessarily or accidentally low-budget, awkward, or even bad/ low-quality, and the intentionally so.  Blossom the pug is a great presence; there’s one fantasy-horror (Holloween?) episode where Blossom kills and, if I recall correctly, eats Bamford.  A lot of formal experimentation playing around with the limitations of the cheapo DIY production and the larger conceit of Bamford licking her wounds, back in Minnesota from L.A. and finally producing the pseudo-homemade star vehicle sitcom she would never be allowed to do in reality.  (But maybe now she can??) She’s kind of the anti-, abject Marlo Thomas or Mary Tyler Moore.

Ideally you’d watch the episodes in order, but if you want to try another one, I really like this Mother’s Day special in which Maria’s (actual) mother tries out for the role of her mother (and tries to convince Maria that she might want to become a lesbian).  It ends with this little encomium: “Mom?  Thanks for letting me do less-than-accurate and highly-embellished portrayals of you for the internet and on television and in movies, if they’d let me… Happy mother’s day!”

Check her out!  I love this woman. Shell out the $5 for her special, it’s great and she deserves it (and she definitely needs to keep those insurance premiums paid, too).

*We Killed*: Elayne Boosler driven crazy by bullshit

I read a lot of We Killed: the Rise of Women in American Comedy (by Yael Kohen) the other day; it’s an oral history and I started reading it in the 1970s or so, skipped the earlier parts of the history about Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, et al (I may go back to read that).

One figure I found fascinating in this narrative was a stand-up named Elayne Boosler, who grew up as the child of a Russian acrobat and a Rumanian ballerina in Brooklyn.  I’d never heard of her, although she was quite prominent in the 70s and into the 1980s.  She dated Andy Kaufman and achieved a fair amount of success; she even did a Dry Idea anti-perspirant commercial in what looks to me like 1982 or so:

There are three “nevers” in comedy.  Never follow a better comedian.  Never give a heckler the last word.  And no matter how badly a joke bombs — although it’s never happened to me personally — never let them see you sweat.

She is viewed as a pretty important figure by many of the commentators and she emerges as a slightly tragic or melancholy one in the sense that her career seems emblematic of female comics of this generation: she was super-talented, she did well, but she hit what seems to have been a kind of glass ceiling.  Richard Lewis comments that he always thought of her as “Jackie Robinson of stand-up in my class… There was like, a guy, a guy, a guy, a guy, and ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Elayne Boosler!’ And she would come on and rip up the joint, and I just found it astounding, because she had to overcome so many obstacles.”

As the author explains, one of the most problematic blocks to the advance of female comics in this era was The Tonight Show.  Appearing on the show was one of the crucial routes towards stardom and Johnny Carson admitted outright that he found most female comics “a little aggressive for my taste”; as Kohen comments, “the women who suited Carson’s taste were, for the most part, blond, buxom, and willing to play dumb.”

Someone else (Joanne Astrow) comments, “There are always complex stories.  There’s another side to it.  Elayne Boosler has what I would honestly call anger management problems.  And Elayne has an obsessive craziness about material being stolen from her.”  Then someone (Claudia Lonow) chimes in, “Did she have a chip on her shoulder or was she a creative person who was being driven crazy by bullshit?  That’s what I think.  She was systematically being driven crazy.”

I find this convincing partly because she was obviously so good and there seems no good reason why she would not have broken out in a bigger way (as many of her male peers did) were it not for the endemic structural sexism of the comedy scene of the era.

Check out this hilarious clip about the awkwardness of one-night stands:

And this clip of Boosler appearing on some kind of strange Andy Kaufman special, in which he sits high above her at a giant desk as they bicker about their breakup, is amazing:

Boosler now seems to have become a progressive activist of sorts (writes for the Huffington Post sometimes) and an animal rescue advocate.  I’m sure she’s doing fine but my sense is that she never got her due.

Following a victory lap about Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, the book concludes somewhat depressingly with the recent emergence of a new ideal of model-level hotness for female comedians; notwithstanding occasional exceptions that prove the rule like Melissa McCarthy, it’s pretty clear that nowadays if you don’t look like Chelsea Handler, Whitney Cummings or Natasha Leggero you are likely to get shunted away from performance towards the writers’ room.

Dylan’s *Tempest*, *Where’d You Go, Bernadette*, *Homeland*

Several great things I have recently read/seen/heard:

The new Bob Dylan album Tempest (I try not to buy everything on Amazon these days but I will note that it is $5 for the Mp3s on Amazon).  I’ve only listened to it 2-3 times can say that it continues his amazing late-career run.  For a long time I took for granted that nothing Dylan had done since 1975 (Blood on the Tracks) was even remotely in the same ballpark of quality or significance of much of his music before that point.  But ever since, I guess, World Gone Wrong in 1993 it’s all been great, much of it amazing.  (I don’t know about Christmas in the Heart, I gave that to my dad for Xmas but have not really checked it out myself!)   Some of the new one sounds like, I don’t know, Western Swing, Johnnie Cash, Nashville Skyline; weird, craggy, old-timey; funny, tender, & mean.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette.  This is the funniest book (novel) I have read in quite some time– totally sharp, witty, entertaining, and moving too.  The author, Maria Semple, used to write for Arrested Development so the funny part is not surprising.   One reviewer sums it up pretty accurately as “a wry slice of a life– one that’s populated by private school helicopter parents, obsessively eco-conscious neighbors, and green-juice swilling, TED-talking husbands.”  The social satire is hilarious and spot-on even for someone who doesn’t know Seattle– Seattle stands here for a certain kind of techie contemporary bourgeois bohemian that one finds everywhere.  The private school shenanigans are priceless. What’s most immediately impressive and amusing is Semple’s facility with the different voices, jargons, and styles contained in all the documents she incorporates seamlessly into the novel — which is a dossier of texts, somewhat in the style of Clarissa or Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, I suppose, with no real central narrator but only Bernadette’s 8th-grade daughter, who (we eventually figure out) has collected the set of texts and is collating them and turning them into a narrative.  There are emails back and forth from various parties; a psychiatrist’s report; memos from the head of the not-quite-A-list Seattle private school; a cruise ship’s log; a news article or two; tributes by famous architects to the protagonist Bernadette, who designed an influential early “green”/eco house, won a MacArthur, and mysteriously retired; some IM messaging within Microsoft’s system, etc.  In this way it brings to mind A Visit From the Goon Squad a tiny bit — and there’s one riff about the pauses between songs on a CD that almost seems a homage to Egan’s novel — but the mode is more brightly comic and satirical.

Homeland, the Showtime show starring Clare Danes.  Season one is recently out on DVD and we are devouring it (waiting for the 3rd and final DVD to arrive).  Danes is fantastic and the show is addictively suspenseful– I’ve never seen 24 but I imagine it has some things in common with that?  It is, interestingly, a remake of an Israeli t.v. series.  Danes plays a somewhat unstable C.I.A. officer who has become convinced that Nicholas Brody, a war hero and former POW recently captured and brought back from Iraq, is in fact a mole or double agent who was turned by Al Quaeda.  Three episodes left and I do not know how it’s going to turn out, although I have some theories.  Season Two starts pretty soon.

“Racial Tone-Deafness” on “Girls”: Where’s the Black Best Friend?!?

[image stolen from NY Magazine’s Vulture blog]

I am actually kind of pissed off at this Jon Caramanica piece that begins, “Those looking for hints of racial tone-deafness on the second episode of “Girls,” last Sunday on HBO, wouldn’t have been let down.”

The evidence for this?  “Jessa (Jemima Kirke), nervously facing down an abortion, insists, ‘I want to have children with many different men, of different races,’ as if they were trinkets to be collected, like key chains or snow globes.”  Yes, this is an instance of a character, a hilariously fatuous 23-year old, revealing (in a moment of heat and personal crisis) “racial tone-deafness” in a conversation with a close friend.   The whole point is that she is fatuous and un-selfaware.

What irritates me is the hypocrisy of the New York Times* criticizing a (IMHO) very smart and funny show for depicting the lives of (so far) four relatively privileged (though not actually remotely near member of the 1%– they all have to work day jobs) white girls living in Brooklyn.  What, this should be like the beer commercial where every white person has one reassuring best friend of color with them at the bar?  Please, just read through an issue of the Sunday Styles section in the NYT and then watch Girls and tell me which one reveals more unselfconscious, unexamined privilege.

*Yes, I do realize that the Styles section is not actually Jon Caraminica’s fault or responsibility.  But that is a weasly formulation: “those looking for hints… won’t be let down.”  Of course, this writer is just using the pseudo-controversy over the show as a hook to write a piece about the politics of representation on t.v.

In an email exchange on this topic, a friend who basically agrees with me observed, “The one thing I would say is that the portrayal of the Asian-American girl in the publishing office as ‘bitch w. computer skills’ did seem slightly jarring in the all-white context.”  That is actually a good point; I’d forgotten about that, but it’s true, that scene (and I can’t think of any others) could possibly be read as a somewhat Curb Your Enthusiasm-like wince-inducing moment.  As my friend also commented, however, this scene takes place in an utterly realist context — the rival editorial assistant with better computer skills (she just learned Photoshop) might very well be Asian-American, there is no reason why she might not be.  The bottom line for me is that unless you are shocked, shocked, that in a group of four recent liberal arts college graduate buddies in Brooklyn, all are white (where’s the black best friend?), it seems absurd to pick on Girls for television’s (very real) larger failings of diversity.  (Of course Caraminica did eventually say more or less this.)

So far I am loving the show.  Part of my thinking here derives from a “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” principle of popular aesthetic criticism.  A favorite moment, for example: the scene where the Lena Dunham character’s job interview is going great until she, flushed by success and unable to bite her tongue, makes a joke suggesting that her interviewer was a notorious date-rapist in college, and is told (as the interview screeches to an unsuccessful close) that this kind of humor isn’t appropriate in “an office environment.”  Cut to her maneuvering her dejected and wonderfully imperfect (just normal) body down the street…

Music Videos @ Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati

Another visit in Cincinnati was to the Contemporary Arts Center, which for a while was the only building in the U.S. designed by Pritzker-prize-winning, Rem Koolhaus-protege, Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid.

From wiki: “A winner of many international competitions, theoretically influential and groundbreaking, a number of Hadid’s winning designs were initially never built: notably, The Peak Club in Hong Kong (1983) and the Cardiff Bay Opera House in Wales (1994).”  It’s funny to look at a (seemingly abandoned/ not up to date — only up to 1990) accounting of her early works: over and over, “Not Realized.”  Here is a good, albeit somewhat skeptical, analysis of the Cincinnati museum.  I like the building, although it is showy and I agree with the critique that “we are often forced to acknowledge the building at times when perhaps we should be admiring the work presented inside the building instead.” Although maybe that is not such a problem really.

(I just remembered an amusing bit in Bruce Wagner’s good novel Memorial — the protagonist is a semi-successful bitter architect who is always mentally fulminating about various international art and architecture stars including, obsessively, “fucking Zaha Hadid.”)

Right now the whole experience is very 21st-century and postmodern (or late 20th-century anyway) since the building is full of a show about the history of music videos.  I actually thought it held up pretty well — although most of the videos are things you could easily pull up on Youtube, they did make sense as a curated collection, and the experience of watching them on large screens with headphones in this context was often pretty engaging.  No question of course that music videos have been a major occasion for groundbreaking aesthetic experiment over the past 30 years.  A lot of Bjork… there was one whole little room based around her amazing video for “Wanderlust” featuring these somewhat Snuffleupagus-like felt yak creatures.  Also several Kanye West videos (“Can’t Tell Me Nothing” lip-synched by Zack Galifianakis and Bonnie Prince Billy in the sidekick/Flava Flav role = great; the “Runaway” video featuring an apparent Victoria’s Secret model in painted-on feathers in the Man Who Fell to Earth angel role = crap), early David Bowie, LCD Soundsystem, several Michel Gondry videos, Missy Elliot and Hype Williams’s fantastic “The Rain,” all kinds of other stuff.

There was a huge, noisy school group there (once they left, we were almost the only ones in the whole place) and the guards kept shutting off certain screens in order to protect the sensibilities of the little brats.  There was one little room specifically dedicated to “Controversial” videos which featured little peepholes you had to peer through — quite irritating actually as, ironically, you had to kneel to see them if you were over 5′ 5″ tall.  These mostly weren’t too exciting — the one I’d never seen that made an impression was the rather creepily erotic and fascinating video for a song called “Twin Flames” by the Klaxons.

*Louie* and experimental sitcom form

I’ve become sort of obsessed with Louie, the sitcom starring comedian Louis C.K.  Someone I know who’s in the comedy biz raved about him a while ago which finally prompted me to check out the show (which is on FX — I think the second season is currently going?  I have it set to “record all” so I’ve been watching a lot of shows from earlier this year, I think.  Season one is on DVD.)

It’s pretty brilliant!  Probably the best new comedy show I’ve seen since Curb Your Enthusiasm, with which it has some things in common.  The structure is basically like Seinfeld: Louis C.K. is playing some version of himself, a (now) recently-divorced father of two girls, 5 & 9, and a somewhat successful standup comic, although the t.v. Louie is somewhat less successful than the real Louis.  Every episode includes some of the Louie’s (or is it Louis’s?) standup routine, which usually relates in some way to what it going on in the show… although it doesn’t always.  In fact part of what I find striking about the show is its embrace of discontinuity, loose ends, and incoherence.  Sometimes there’s just an element of sloppy production, but it also seems intentional, part of an purposefully loose-ended aesthetic strategy.  Louie himself is a a schlub, overweight, balding, with money issues since the divorce, lonely and depressed.  42 years old (maybe that’s one element in my bonding with the show; the show is about what it feels like to be 42 in various ways… from a certain perspective anyway).  He has an expressively dour face which often falls into a look of suppressed desperation.  Louie’s experiences as a (divorced) father play a major role, and the show is hilarious and unusually honest/realistic about parenting & kids.  (Someone told me that his kids remind her a bit of our daughters, which I can kind of see!)

So, there’s some Seinfeld, some Curb Your Enthusiasm (often wince-inducing, feels improvised), and some influence from Taxi or other 1970s shows.  Louie has a blue collar vibe, presents himself as a regular, beaten-down NYC guy (although he grew up in Boston, Newton specifically).  In the opening credits, which show Louie lumbering up the stairs from the subway, eating a slice of pizza and then heading into the basement comedy club, the lettering is very retro 1970s, a lot like Taxi specifically I think; I heard Louis C.K. on Fresh Air mention his admiration for The French Connection so perhaps there’s a more general 1970s media influence.

The show’s theme song, playing as Louie eats his pizza etc., is a new version of that early 1970s song (about an inter-racial relationship, interestingly) “Brother Louie:” “Louie Louie Louie Loo-ee, Louie Louie Louie Loo-ayy, Louie Louie Louie Loo-ee, Louie you’re going to cry,” although cry is changed to “die” in this version.  Super grim.  Gee, you can really see why the producers would think that would be an irresistibly catchy theme.

The show has occasionally made me laugh until I had tears in my eyes… Although lately I’ve been laughing out loud less often, more often admiring it and sometimes being rather amazed at the very dark, sad, or ambiguous places it goes.

The best example of that (the dark places) might be an episode I just saw.  The show begins with Louie’s routine; as he heads backstage he finds what appears to be an old friend he has not seen for years.  This guy is also a comic, someone who started out with Louie when they were in their early 20s.  It becomes clear the guy is pretty depressed and not doing that well.  He explains that he’s on the way to Maine for a gig in Bangor and just stopped to try to say hello to Louie, whom he convinces to drive around with him.  First they go to a liquor store, where the friend buys a big bottle of vodka which he starts drinking in the store.  When the guy at the counter tells him not to do that, the friend rails against him with racist insults (“curry jockey” or something — the guy’s South Indian).  Louie is disturbed, but gets back in the car.

They end up hanging out in a parking lot in Brooklyn drinking vodka.  The guy is bitter, sarcastic and obviously jealous of Louie’s success.  Louie obtusely does not get it for a while, but finally the penny drops that when his friend talks about “stopping,” “ending it,” he is not talking about his career in standup, but his life: the plan is to do the final show in Bangor and then take some deadly pills a doctor prescribed to him for some reason.

Louie is stunned, but tries to argue with him; his friend cuts him off, mocking him for his big life-affirming speech.  Then he relents and says more kindly, “I just wanted to say goodbye.”  Finally Louie says something like, “OK.  I guess there’s not much I can tell you.  I found reasons to keep living, I can’t find those for you.  I really hope you don’t kill yourself.  I need to go, I have to take my kids to school tomorrow morning.”  They embrace, and Louie heads towards the subway.

End of episode!!!!!   This one did not really have a single laugh in it (well, maybe a few very uncomfortable ones).  Pretty radical.  Oh, I forgot one key element: a few times the show cuts to a black-and-white flashback featuring two actors portraying Louie and the guy twenty years ago.  It’s very stylized, almost in a 1940s movie mode or something — like we’re seeing the gangster and the priest when they were kids, before their lives diverged, or something — and these younger actors don’t look much at all like the two guys.  As far as I could tell, there is no subsequent reference to the suicidal buddy (although I may be watching all out of order so maybe I did miss something).

Ever since Seinfeld it’s been axiomatic that a smart sitcom must at all costs avoid the “very special episode” trap: the occasional “serious” episode that aims to tug the heartstrings.  This has been a good discipline for many shows, but I think Louie shows how much is left out if a comedy can’t also try to tackle more emotionally powerful material as we’d expect a novel or movie to do.

Another strange episode, this one also very funny.  In the hall at the elementary school, another parent, a mother, asks Louie if he would be willing to sign on to a petition to protest a new flat-screen t.v. that’s going to replace the message board at the school entrance.  This woman thinks it sounds “propagandistic” in aim.  Louie admits he has not thought about it and does not really have an opinion, which the woman characterizes as a sellout position.  She starts to leave, but then returns and asks if Louie might be interested in going out some time.  Before he can say much, she cuts him off and explains that she has no interest whatsoever in a relationship, she just hasn’t had sex for a very long time, “and you seem safe and discreet.”  He agrees to come over that night.

Once he arrives (and finds her in a dowdy nightgown), she asks if he brought condoms.  When he shows them to her, she makes a face and instructs him to go to the deli downstairs to different non-Latex ones, along with some Monistat (or something for some vaginal ailment) and blueberries.  She hands him a twenty dollar bill and when he says he can cover it, she says “oh no, I’m not going down that road!” and forces the twenty into his hands. (The actress is hilarious.)  He buys the condoms and the medicine and has to go to another store for the blueberries.

Once in bed, all she wants to do is to have him spank her; he hesitantly does so, which prompts her to start crying and calling out, “daddy, daddy, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’ve been so bad.”  The episode ends at the kitchen table where the woman repeatedly takes a little mouthful of whipped cream from the canister and then a small spoonful of blueberries, while Louie looks on in stunned silence.  She says to him, “so, have you begun thinking about middle schools yet?”

End of episode.  Really more like a Mary Gaitskill story than a sitcom.

Although Louis’s standup mode is on the crude and direct side, there’s something very artful and even experimental about the show, which seems interested in playing with the (under-explored) possibilities for innovation within the rigid sitcom form [as our friend Josh observed, I should have credited him].