Posts Tagged ‘comedy’
June 11, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Alice, of Wonderland fame, has osmosed right on into the culture and found a life of her own; we no longer need to read Lewis Carroll’s books to feel that we know her. But we should read Carroll—there’s a certain amount of drift between his Wonderland and the one we think we understand. “Conversations about what is real, what is possible, and how rubbery the rules that govern such distinctions turn out to be abound in the tales of Alice. Yet they are sold as children’s books, and rightly so. A philosopher will ask how the identity of the self can be preserved amid the ceaseless flux of experience, but a child—especially a child who is growing so fast that she suddenly fills an entire room—will ask more urgently, as Alice does, ‘Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different.’ Children, viewed from one angle, are philosophy in motion.”
- This Saturday marks Yeats’s sesquicentennial, an occasion celebrated easily enough by reading his poems—but why not read his plays, which are always given short shrift among his work? In a way, they anticipated Beckett: “What happens in a Yeats play can be startling. Purgatory, for example, verges on the lurid. Its material is the rough red wine of sex and violence: a woman’s lust for her groom and their son’s murderous determination to extirpate her sin in blood. Yeats’s genius is to distill that red wine into a fine but heady spirit, a short, incredibly potent theatrical essence that goes straight to both the head and the guts.”
- Since Jerry Seinfeld declared, earlier this week, that he no longer plays college campuses because they’re “too P.C.”—such a taboo-buster, that Seinfeld, with his wry observations!—many have asked if comedy is in jeopardy. They often lean on the same tired rhetoric about laughter’s potential as a “unifying force”; why? “Comedy isn’t supposed to be anything, except what the comedian tries to make it—harmless, mean, political, dirty, dumb. You wouldn’t say that music or fiction are ‘supposed’ to be anything; so why do we saddle all comedy with a curative democratic mission? Too often we view comedy as a craft, a service brought to us by cheerful comfort-workers, more than the work of serious artists. Thus, when they don’t comfort us, we want to complain to the manager.”
- “I can remember in the Fifties when Goatman would come by, up near Arab, Ala. The first time I ever saw him we were picking cotton in the fields near Arab and he was coming down the road. You could hear him coming a mile away with all the bells and all the pots and pans rattling. People would come by and say, ‘Goatman’s coming! Goatman’s coming!’ We’d all rush to the end of the cotton row to watch Goatman go by.” That’s Ansel Elkins, quoting her father in a new interview about her poems and the South.
- Chinese publishers routinely censor their translations of Western books—and the West just as routinely greets this news with a small shrug. “As the anecdotal evidence started to accumulate, it became clear that though cuts tended to be surgically precise, they were also extremely common. Only rarely was there outrage. Many were fatigued by the idea of having to police all their overseas editions. With international publishing, they argued, something is always going to get lost in translation. Many had simply decided to not worry about it.”
March 3, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- After Faulkner won the Nobel Prize, he was a hot commodity abroad—he traveled to many foreign lands to bang the drum for the U. S. of A., which would’ve been fine, had he not been such a lush. The State Department circulated a memo called “Guidelines for Handling Mr. William Faulkner on His Trips Abroad,” designed to help agents curb Faulkner’s drinking. Their advice ranged from the obvious (monitor his liquor cabinet) to the subtle: “Keep several pretty young girls in the front two rows of any public appearance to keep his attention up.”
- Twenty-five years late, a novelist has at last completed and delivered her tenth-grade term paper on Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Her (perhaps convenient) conclusion: it’s about shame. “Like Tess, I spent a lot of time waiting to be found out: I worried that my adolescent failures would be exposed and that people would lose respect for me. Or love me less … Shame depends on an audience, and those who are ashamed become overly self-conscious. I’m aware, even now, of compensating for past mistakes.”
- Why are there so many more aspiring writers than aspiring readers? “I try to take a philosophical, and I hope empathetic, view of it all. I mean, we’re all going to die, and we have a short time here on earth, and we all want to achieve distinction of some sort while we’re here. Meanwhile, we all have Microsoft Word installed on our desktops. We all already spend a lot of time typing. One way to leave one’s mark would be to, say, write a great symphony, but most people don’t know how to read music. Whereas more or less everyone does have the means to put down words on a page and save them and share them. That’s a great thing—I’m all for technology eliminating barriers to communication and expression—but it can lead to delusions. Just because you’ve written it doesn’t make it worth reading. And it’s depressing when people forget that you can’t be a good writer without first being a good reader.”
- Paul Beatty has an enviable gift: he “can turn a sacred cow into hamburger with just one sentence.” His new novel The Sellout takes on race in America, sparing “no person or piety”: “The only tangible benefit to come out of the civil rights movement,” he writes, “is that black people aren’t as afraid of dogs as they used to be.”
- René Magritte, comedian: “It’s noticeable that many of the techniques Magritte uses for creating his mysterious images are to be found in comedy writing. His pictures are frequently structured like jokes … relying upon a simple (almost mathematical) function, like reversal or negation.”
December 17, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
“Do we need tea?” she echoed. “But Miss Lathbury … ” She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. ―Barbara Pym, Excellent Women
We have all experienced such “landslides of the mind”: moments that upend everything we thought we knew or believed, everything that made us feel secure. These are the moments when we grow up—or resolutely refuse to. They are the moments that define us. In my case, it was the moment, in middle school, when I saw someone actually slip on a banana peel.
If you’d asked me in the minutes—days—years before it happened, I would have scoffed at the very notion. I knew certain things as facts: The sky was blue. Everyone died. People slipping on banana peels were not funny. My certainty was so obvious as not to require conscious thought; and yet, in a sense, it underlay so many of my assumptions about comedy, sophistication, and human nature itself.
As a child I was in the habit of listening to the 1918 Prokofiev opera Love for Three Oranges (dramatized for kids by the peerless Ann Rachlin), in which a prince has fallen into a melancholy from too much tragic poetry; the only cure is laughter. Yet all the most amusing clowns and jesters in the land fail to coax forth so much as a smile. It is only when the evil witch Fata Morgana falls over and exposes her underpants that the melancholy prince is roused to helpless mirth, and his life is saved. Read More »
November 13, 2014 | by Elliott David
Forty years ago, The Dick Cavett Show was a place where luminaries sparred (e.g., Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer), where reclusive stars lowered their guard (Marlon Brando, Katharine Hepburn, Laurence Olivier), and where musicians were actually interviewed about their music (David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon). Cavett’s show put an early spotlight on the Watergate scandal, even taping a special episode with the senators in the very chambers where the hearings were taking place. It’s hard to imagine today’s major-network late-night shows doing anything similar.
The Nebraska-born Cavett began in New York as a broke Yale grad attempting an acting career while working as a copy boy at Time magazine. One afternoon, with a Time envelope in hand, he bluffed his way into The Tonight Show studios and handed said envelope, filled with jokes, to Jack Paar, who was then the show’s host. Paar used some of the material that night; Cavett was hired, and booked talent for Paar, briefly, until a writing staff slot opened up. Later, he wrote for fellow Nesbaskan Johnny Carson before going out on his own, so to speak.
Cavett, at seventy-seven, keeps busy—for the past several years he’s moonlighted as a columnist for the New York Times, and earlier this year he starred in Hellman v. McCarthy, a play off Broadway at the Abingdon Theater Company that explores the legal fallout from a time in ’79 when Cavett had the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy on his show. McCarthy lambasted Lillian Hellman: “She really belongs to the past. As I said in an interview, she’s such a dishonest writer that even her ands and thes are lies.” Cavett plays himself in the play. “The funny thing is,” he told the Times when it debuted, “I was the second choice for the role.”
In July, Cavett made a popular video with Dave Hill and Malcolm Gladwell about the Amazon-Hachette dispute; he followed this with an op-ed in Time about the prevalence of depression in show business (“Robin Williams Won’t Be the Last Suicidal Star”). That same week, PBS aired a special, “Dick Cavett’s Watergate,” about his role in having publicized the scandal.
Finally, last week saw the publication of Cavett’s new memoir, Brief Encounters: Conversations, Magic Moments, and Assorted Hijinks, with a foreword by Jimmy Fallon. To discuss the book, late-night television, and his writing process, I rang Cavett at his house in Montauk.
In Cavett, your book from 1974, you quite vehemently said you had no interest in being a cultural critic. But that’s an arguably accurate descriptor for you.
I would never think of that as a description of me. It has a nice sound, I like the alliteration, but other than that, it surprises me when I’m called that. Honestly, I don’t think it would have ever occurred to me to think of myself as a writer/commentator/ cultural critic /columnist. Especially for The New York Times. I’ve had op-ed pieces in the Times over the years when I was pissed off about something. But I always felt alien to friends who knew exactly what they wanted to be. I’m still wondering.
Anyway, the Times offer came over the transom—or out of the blue. (Is it National Cliché Week?) and I took the dive. (Another one.) I’ve been told I write well, maybe thanks to two English teacher parents who wrote well, so I took the job. It’s not for the money, I assure you. Someone said, do you want to try a column for the Times? And I thought, Sure, I guess. How much. And they said two days a week. Most writers would have meant how much money, I guess. And I said, that seems easy enough, and it was—for about three weeks when I was doing two a week. Then I started to get desperate, because I felt I had said everything I would ever be able to say in a column of any kind. It’s always nice when someone remembers a line correctly from something you’ve written. In a Sarah Palin column, I said, “She seems to have no first language.” And this is much remembered to this very day, I find. Strange.
July 25, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
“He knew everything there was to know about literature, except how to enjoy it.” —Catch-22
Can a reader and a character be simultaneously amused? I’m sure plenty of really smart people have written about this—and maybe even answered it authoritatively—but I can’t find any such answer myself. I suppose the question also holds true for movies and TV—although arguably the blooper reel changes the entire conversation—but I’m chiefly interested in the question as it pertains to writing. I really want to know!
So far as I can tell, accounts of people being amused are never amusing. (In my opinion, this also holds true for most stories involving drug-induced antics—a scourge of modern storytelling—but I’m willing to admit this might be one of my “things.”) When a character “laughs,” “jokes,” “kids around,” “cracks up,” et cetera, it is not funny, even in an otherwise funny piece of writing. (Although, I think you’ll find in the funniest, characters don’t go around guffawing much.)
I’m not saying a character can’t laugh within something funny, but, rather, that their amusement is wholly divorced from the reader’s. It’s not just that human beings are sadists who, famously, enjoy watching the misfortunes of others; we all like to see beloved protagonists find love, get redeemed, generally achieve happy endings. Emotion is communicable. Laughter, maybe, isn’t. Or at any rate, the necessary distance imposed by narration makes the communication tricky.
Nothing is deadlier than writing about the workings of humor, so I’ll keep this short. If you can think of an exception to this, won’t you let me know? Am I just reading the wrong books? Has some author cracked this code? Or is this, maybe, just one of my “things?” Inquiring minds want to know.
March 12, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- “Drunk and naked I would advance from the rear, or your rear, wearing evening clothes.” A ribald note from Hemingway to Marlene Dietrich is soon to be auctioned—their relationship was, alas, never consummated, but if the price is right, you could own a record of their long flirtation, replete with such swooning phrases as “whore blood,” “foaming at the mouth,” and “Dearest Kraut.”
- Talking doors, gossip machines, super-duper turntables: here’s what Philip K. Dick, writing from the vantage point of 1966, thought 1992 might have been like. Would that it were.
- While we’re on sci-fi: the New Museum’s new exhibition, “Report on the Construction of a Spaceship Module,” plunges you into the old socialist vision of space travel. “Filko has a wall-mounted tablet nearby where, donning a wall-tethered headset that brings your forehead unnaturally close to the screen, you can ponder his ruminations on the fourth dimension.”
- “Tomorrow starts here.” “One course at a time.” “Be the difference.” The surprisingly vacuous phrases copyrighted by universities.
- A newly reprinted 1856 essay gives German comedy quite the drubbing: “German humor generally shows no sense of measure, no instinctive tact; it is either floundering and clumsy as the antics of a leviathan, or laborious and interminable as a Lapland day, in which one loses all hope that the stars and quiet will ever come.”