Tuesday, October 17

And the Search for a Ginny Heffernan Review That Doesn't Reference Chevy Chase Continues

Virginia Heffernan, "Funny Business", a review of A FUTILE AND STUPID GESTURE: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever by Josh Karp. New York Times October 15.

Between sometime in 1971, when the Girl of my Dreams introduced us, and sometime in autumn '73, when I realized I'd actually have to do the reading if I wanted to get by in college, The National Lampoon was a boon companion, giver of strength, enlivener of study halls and peddler of comic book smut, and a guru of sorts. I looked forward to each month's issue with an eagerness topped only by sex, dope, or both.

I have never had that sort of relationship with the work of someone who criticizes teevee shows for a living.

So take that as an admission of bias, right off the bat.
Plenty of goateed comedy writers, Harvard Lampoon veterans and Hollywood people in Brioni suits still mist up at the memory of Kenney, the raffish humor whiz who helped start National Lampoon in 1970, helped write “Animal House” and “Caddyshack” and then fell or jumped off a cliff in Hawaii in 1980. He definitely had one blowout decade. But from his parodies and japes, which have dated unevenly, as well as his life’s erratic plot points, it’s hard to get exactly why people thought he was so cool. Even “A Futile and Stupid Gesture,” Josh Karp’s painstaking argument for his supergenius, doesn’t close the case.

They ship the free books to the Times by the truckload, but not many fly my way, so for the moment at least I have no opinion on Josh Karp's case for Kenney's supergenius, if that's the case he makes.

But that "dated unevenly" there--we detect a hidden theme. So has Mark Twain. So has Perelman. So has Thurber. I dare you to read his "Dare dey iz" colored dialogue on a full stomach. Anyone writing topical material will date. It's not a fair criticism. But I don't think it's meant to be:
So what did Kenney and National Lampoon actually change? Well, for one, Kenney and his jerky clowns — in creating a magazine that begat a stage show, a television show (“Saturday Night Live”) and a movie franchise — staple-gunned a certain kind of absurdist conceptual humor to gross-out jokes about puking, violence and masturbation. That worked well. Today we can see it in Kevin Smith movies and “The Andy Milonakis Show” on MTV2. These guys also put on paper a mouthy, enraged countercultural comedy — the kind that aligns itself with rock ’n’ roll, and not with the Catskills — for which future generations of blander comedians would pine, as they do on Aaron Sorkin ’s new television drama, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”

Hmmm. I don't think the ugly commercialized anthem rock of the 70s is a rebuke to Chuck Berry or the Beatles, and what some character in a Brat Pack movie said about either is utterly immaterial, unless, of course, it was interesting enough to, I dunno, actually quote or something.

And I'm pretty sure the point isn't lost on Heffernan, but nothing is going to get in the way of some good historically uninformed intergenerational sneering. "Absurdist conceptual humor staple-gunned to gross-out jokes" might be an accurate description of Kenney's movies, but it short-changes NatLamp's literary tradition and its political humor, something Heffernan apparently has combined with the booger jokes to construct a nice solid chip for her shoulder.

Look, the one critical faculty that's absolutely essential if you're going to write about it is the ability to tell chicken liver from chicken shit. Even my eighteen-year-old self found some of the gross-out humor of the old Lampoon disturbing and unfunny. But we might at least acknowledge that they didn't invent the concept of mingling high and low comedy in 1970, and that in context of something like Michael O'Donoghue's "The Vietnamese Baby Book" is 180º from some guy diving into a pool of pig shit on teevee.
This is how prestigious colleges, notably Harvard , Kenney’s alma mater, came to function as comedy schools that offered immersive lessons in life-defining irony: America’s would-be laureates wasting their brains on panty raids and toga parties. (By introducing date-rape culture, coeducation dampened the comedy, replacing it with sadder genres, like the college melodrama and the P.C. procedural, including “Oleanna,” “The Human Stain” and the trials of Larry Summers.)...

From the moment [Kenney] and his enigmatic Harvard classmate, Henry Beard, signed on with Matty Simmons...to take The Harvard Lampoon national, they seemed to enter into a stoned and never ending bull session. They cracked each other up, and though their knockout one-liners seem slightly less uproarious on paper, they considered themselves and their recruits — sharpies like Michael O’Donoghue, Brian McConnachie and Sean Kelly — to be comedy’s leading edge....

The sophomore pose Karp must have affected when listening to bumptious showoffs like Tony Hendra and Chevy Chase talk about their glory days was surely equally demanding; unfortunately, he reprises that naïveté in the voice of the book. In fact, Karp seems to have come away from talking to these old comics and hustlers, many of them famously bad company, without forming any opinion of them, except that to a man they were larger than life. That’s too much larger-than-life. Not everyone can be romantic, tragic, glamorous and brilliant — and yet almost everyone here is. For a gang that purported to hate pretense, it’s hard to think of a group more intent on self-exaltation.

Just a buncha drug addicts cracking themselves up and imagining they're comedy's leading edge...is there someone left who can apologize in the name of the Sixties for Ms Heffernan being forced to choose at an early age between being a hopelessly passé stoner girl and a humorless careerist drudge? Or could we at least get her to stop stalking Chevy Chase (she not only reviewed his Friars' Club roast (why?) while she was at Slate, she also managed to work into a piece about Stephen Colbert a suggestion than Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon were funnier than he on Weekend Update, something which should have triggered an intervention)? We get it already. A certain percentage of you were so smitten with the Nancy Reagan view of the universe you were force-fed in junior high that we're being forced to listen to an endless repetition of those arguments as a justification for a remarkable lack of accomplishment, an unfeeling devotion to consumerist culture, and a self-aggrandizing faux-libertarian unconcern with politics which has robbed you of much of your birthright without so much as a peep from your general direction. But you didn't choke to death on your own vomit, no. Congratulations.
And that’s where P. J. O’Rourke comes in handy. Along with the brilliant Bruce McCall, O’Rourke is probably the most resilient comedy writer to come out of the early National Lampoon. He saw through the anarchists’ narcissism, and has been satirizing it for years in “Rolling Stone” and elsewhere. But the conservative O’Rourke was reviled by the Lampoon staff, who saw themselves as consummately left-wing — or disorganized, or real, or drunk, or something. For his pains, O’Rourke, who was more professional than they, and more reliably funny, won the indignation of his colleagues, whom he later left in the dust. If anyone “changed comedy forever,” it was O’Rourke.

I briefly considered just letting this end the piece, and letting Ms Heffernan return to the important work of unmasking YouTube personalities, but please. By your mid-late 20s you ought to realize that the world is not bound by your personal CD collection.


Harry Cheddar said...

O'Rourke lost teh funny some time ago. I saw him live about 20 years back at a college speaking engagement, and he failed to elicit more than a few titters from the large audience.

Scott C. said...

If anyone “changed comedy forever,” it was O’Rourke.

I'll abide a lot of incandescent wrong-headedness in the name of free expression, but I'm damned if I'll stand by and let her short-change Dennis Miller!

R.Porrofatto said...

When I read this review I kept waiting for Heffernan to say something explicitly positive about somebody, something, anything. But no. Just one long stream of Maureen Dowdy-like gibber over stereotypes—I was fully expecting the year 1970 to be ridiculed for having bell-bottomed digits or something. Of course, when she brought in the admirable and pure O'Rourke dressed in hero tights, it all became clear.

Now that their work has been so embraced and celebrated by neocon post-adolescents, I guess Heffernan considers Trey Parker and Matt Stone the heirs to the O'Rourke mantle of highbrow genius.

DBK said...

Um, didn't a lot of people see those movies and buy that magazine and so on? My point being that, if you appeal to just as many people as, say, Bob Hope's corny shtick did in its day, maybe you have something going for you. Comedy is about making people laugh, not about stringing together a bunch of pithy phrases and thinking you're really clever because you reject someone else's premise. And comedy doesn't have a right or wrong kind of value judgement attached to it; comedy that makes a lot of people laugh but is gross isn't "bad" and comedy that makes a couple of people laugh but is nice and wholesome isn't "good". Based on your review of her review, I get the feeling Heffernan doesn't get that.

Maybe I didn't understand this posting.