Pre- and Post-Modern Comedy

Mack SennettMy but I am getting a late start on the birthdays today. Sorry about that. I’ve been doing a number of other things. And it’s too bad, because we have a number of interesting birthdays today.

On this day in 1899, the alpha gangster Al Capone was born. There is something about him that always makes me want to like him. There was, of course, nothing likable about him at all as far as I can tell. But then he caught neurosyphilis, causing brain damage that caused him to regress. And then he died of a stroke at 48. But watching even the worst person fall from great power to childish insanity is sad. He should have been gunned down in his prime at the age of 30, right around the time of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Betty White is 92 today. I’m really not a fan. She really has very limited appeal—or at least she did before she got so old. I have nothing against her. She seems to be decent person. She has long been an animal health advocate. To me, she’ll always been one of those celebrities who were on game shows when I was a kid. My problem with her is that people make a big deal out of her when she is and always has been a middling star. I believe in respecting our elders, but our society doesn’t seem to care about any of our non-celebrity elders. So I bristle at the unwarranted praise heaped on her.

The great comedian Andy Kaufman was born in 1949. Kaufman was probably the first entirely postmodern comedian. Much of Albert Brooks’ material was postmodern, but it was still at least half regular comedy—the kind that is still the standard. I thought it was sad during Kaufman’s tragically brief life that most people didn’t get most of his act. That was completely true of the wrestling that I immediately got because I had read my Roland Barthes. But what was most funny about his Elvis impersonation was not the obvious joke of his naive foreigner character who can’t do any impressions suddenly doing a great Elvis impersonation. What is most funny is how he asks for whatever clothes he’s thrown to the audience. In that link, he not only falls out of the Elvis character, he falls out of the foreigner character, in his effort to get his clothes. It plays with the whole idea of reality and fantasy, and it plays rough. His Might Mouse routine is the same kind of thing. He provides perfect lip syncing along with almost missed cues. He’s contrasting the perfection of the performance with the imperfection of the non-performance, which is, of course, part of the performance. I’ve always thought that by the time of his Carnegie Hall performance, he was pandering a bit. But still, when the cowgirl seems to die, he pushes act far longer than any other comedian of that time. I think it is one of the best comedy performances ever:

The singer Paul Young is 58. He has a great voice and I’ve always liked this song (I won’t speak for the video):

Other birthdays: the great actor James Earl Jones (83); the great boxer Muhammad Ali (72); yes, I know, the great actor Jim Carrey (52); writer Sebastian Junger (52); and the great theatrical actor Denis O’Hare (52).

The day, however, belongs to the great Mack Sennett who was born on this day in 1880. Really, he was the man who defined filmed comedy until Max Linder revolutionized it. Sennett’s work really didn’t depend upon characters as later comedies did. Instead there were “types” and often not even them. These are actually a lot harder to make work. As you will see in the following compilation, there is a great deal of creativity. In fact, there really isn’t much difference between this work and what Benny Hill was doing 40 years later. But a couple of these bits actually made me laugh. (Note: Sennett is in a number of them.)

Happy birthday Mack Sennett!

The Rich Should Plan Ahead

MonopolyThis is a slightly different take on income inequality than I normally propose. I say that the rich should want more equality because great inequality breads revolution. In this clip, Bill Maher makes a more immediate argument. If people are desperate enough, they will kidnap the rich. Of course, I suspect most rich people will look at that bit and say, “Well, I’ll just get one of those flaming cars.” Or, “I’ll hire a private army to surround me.” Sadly, one thing that history shows us is that the rich never learn. I’m not saying they are different than anyone else. Everyone thinks things will just continue to be the way they have been. And in fact, that’s a good way to predict the weather. You will be almost 50% accurate predicting that tomorrow will be just like today. But eventually, the clouds roll in. Eventually there is a hurricane. And the rich have far more to lose than the rest of us.

In America, the Dummy Controls the Ventriloquist

Ventriloquist DummyEarlier this week, I wrote about the movie Cradle Will Rock. It really is a good film and an indication of this is that I had totally forgotten that I had already written about the film. I was still thinking, I’ve got to figure out how to write about the film. And this morning, it hit me, “My Suitcase and a Clown.” But all it really meant was that I have more to say about the movie. For a general discussion of it, go and read what I wrote.

I write songs and in my lifetime, I’ve certainly written over a hundred and very likely double that. My style was always a bit unusual, but in the last decade it has gotten to the point where it is mostly bizarre—or at least that’s the case in the songs I most love. I can still write a blues song. Not that long ago, I wrote a song in iambic pentameter called, “Angela’s Drilling a Hole.” (Regardless what you think, it’s not about that.) And I can still grind out the kind of post-punk I cut my teeth on like a song all my friends hate, “Jimmy Burned His Hand.” (That one probably is what you think, as long as you assume he did it intentionally and that there are lots more like him.) But these more recent ones—the bizarre ones—are, according to those who have heard parts of them, unlistenable.

As far as I can tell, they are unpleasant (But not to me!) because they are highly syncopated and repetitive. They are, in fact, the kinds of songs I tried to write when I first started writing songs. But people told me that they weren’t songs. And they were right: they were more along the lines of chants—but really “in your face” chants. The first of these more recent “bizarre” songs I remember writing was, “You Make Me Want to Be a Meat Inspector.” (You can probably guess that’s a love song, but you probably misunderstand the meaning of “meat.” Don’t think sex, think 1 Corinthians 13:11.)

One of the problems with these songs is that I so love them that I never really finish them. They’re like those old Bob Dylan tunes that have dozens of verses. But because no one is paying me or even willing to listen, I never have to stop. And that brings me to “My Suitcase and a Clown.” Obviously, this is about a a labor dispute between a ventriloquist and his “dummy.” Okay, it isn’t obvious at all, but that’s what it’s about. The “clown” in the title is the ventriloquist, not the “dummy.” Just like the labor struggles of old, it starts violent, but it ends with respect and profit sharing.

As you know if you’ve read my other article on Cradle Will Rock, Bill Murray plays Tommy Crickshaw, an old vaudeville ventriloquist. He is one of the anti-communists, but it is pretty clear in the film that the main reason he testifies against the FTP that he is part of, is that he has fallen in love with Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack). But his testimony has put him out of job and now all the other artists hate him. He’s in his dressing room talking to his puppet and it is implied that Crickshaw used to be a communist himself. And then we get the following scene (don’t worry about the length, it is cued to the right part):

And then we know. He sings (as his puppet) “The Internationale”[1] by heart. He was a communist. And he is lost. We only see him very briefly later where he and Huffman meet, perhaps implying a relationship, but they both seem broken by the experience.

What I think is interesting is that I’ve always flattered myself that I was unique. And I do think that labor relations from the perspective of a ventriloquist and a “dummy” is fairly creative. What’s more, my take on it is quite different. But I admire Tim Robbins for coming up with the idea and putting it into this film in this way. It really is brilliant. And when the puppet falls off the stand and onto the floor, it is shocking—perhaps the saddest moment in the film.

Clearly, puppet is an inanimate object. In the scene, Crickshaw is doing all the work. In our society, things are the reverse of that. We have a system where the puppet is what is most valued. After all, he’s the funny one; he’s the one who appears to be delivering the goods. But without Crickshaw, he is nothing. By this I absolutely do not mean that capital shouldn’t be privately owned or that it doesn’t deserve a cut of the profits. But for almost 40 years—the vast majority of my life—productivity gains have gone almost exclusively to those who own capital. The Crickshaws, who make everything work by, you know, working have gotten virtually nothing.

In the movie, Crickshaw’s puppet is a symbol of lost innocence. But in our world, the dummy is now in control of the ventriloquist. I do not wish it, but one day, the cradle will fall.


[1] In case you aren’t familiar:

Robert Gates’ Duty to Cash In

Robert GatesOne of the first things that Obama did that angered me was to keep Robert Gates on as Defense Secretary. Of all the cabinet positions to put a Republican in, that is the worst. The Republicans have been (wrongly) hammering Democrats for being soft on the military for decades. So what was Obama saying other than, “I can’t find a Democrat as good for this job as this almost random (just happens to be the current office holder) Republican.” Now, I’m not an idiot. I know what Obama was trying to do; he was trying to “reach across the isle”; he was trying to show that he was open-minded. As I’ve pointed out, he was (and in many ways still is) a very naive politician.

But the thing is, I didn’t like Robert Gates under Bush and I didn’t like him under Obama. And now, he is out with a tell-all book about his time under those two presidents. I am not going to read Duty, of course. These kinds of books are always the most tired and useless things. Life is too short. But I have been really interested to hear what Gates had to say about Harry Reid because it is really unfair.

The biggest thing is that Harry Reid said that the surge in Iraq was a bad idea because the war was already lost. Gates thought this was treasonous. Well, this kind of thinking is exactly what I expect from a man like Gates. Yes, no one should ever be allowed to express a negative opinion about a war. But someone should be allowed to make a bunch of money writing a book that takes potshots at a sitting president and vice-president. I’ve got it: IOKIYAR.

The other thing is that Gates is mad at Reid because Reid asked him to put a study of “irritable bowel syndrome” into a military appropriations request. But this is how politics works. If Gates thinks that the Secretary of Defense is not a politician, then he is an idiot. In fact, anyone who claims that the top tier generals in the military are not politicians are totally ignorant of what they do.

Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal takes Gates to task, summing up the book, “Now he wants you to know he was offended, irritated, enraged, scandalized, ‘too old for this $%*&,’ and just plain itching to quit nearly every day he spent at the top.” But as he notes again and again, Gates didn’t step down. It isn’t like he needed the money; he’s valued at $5 million. As Stephens also notes, “Serving as secretary of defense, after all, isn’t really a duty; it’s an honor and a privilege.”

The only duty I see in Robert Gates is his duty to cash in even more on his government work.