A toast to … Leon Redbone

This week I delighted in my daughters’ first launch into the field of nihilistic satire, then explained how it probably had a genetic origin.

Anybody who is aware of Leon Redbone is by this time similarly aware that the musician “crossed the delta for that beautiful shore” yesterday morning. I don’t have much to add to the obituaries and appreciations that have been appearing here and there (especially Megan Pugh’s exemplary profile of Redbone that appeared in March in the Oxford American). Two things worth noting, though: First, that Redbone was himself an anti-celebrity, whose self-conscious eccentricities served solely to foreground the early American music that seemed to be the love of his life; it’s a rare thing. Second, there is a vibrant if small subculture of other American musicians who are doing their best to keep this kind of music alive; Redbone was far from alone, if he was the most visible representative of this subculture. I recommend checking out these fine people.

Social media and the internet are littered with Redbone clips and tributes, so instead I offer something in his memory that I hope would meet with his approval, Laurel and Hardy’s performance of “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” one of Redbone’s signature songs, from their 1939 film The Flying Deuces; it’s a charming two-and-a-half minutes from the past, featuring Stan’s light and loose-limbed dance and Ollie’s very pleasant Georgia baritone. I’ll be lifting my glass to Mr. Redbone and Messrs. Laurel and Hardy at Cafe Katja this afternoon. See you there.

The good kind of corruption

The cover of a 1967 anthology I owned in my teen years.

While the roots of the literary genre of “black humor” lie in a variety of places (certainly many of Mark Twain’s novels, stories, and essays exhibit the dark, hallucinatory qualities associated with the genre; Jonathan Swift, Nathanael West, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline qualify for the label, and André Breton’s Anthology of Black Humor, gathering more than 40 mostly French specimens, was published in 1940), it wasn’t until 1945 and the post-WWII era that it truly blossomed in the United States. Perhaps it was the development of the atomic bomb that led to a deeper sense of nihilism and pessimism; perhaps it was the increasingly consumerist nature of American culture and entertainment; perhaps it was the yawning gap between American ideals and American reality, becoming ever more obvious after the war, that inspired the writers who placed the absurd lengths to which hypocrisy could extend under their microscopes. Instead of subjecting this hypocrisy to handwringing sorrow, though, the genre subjected it to ridicule. If WWII was supposed to be a war that made the world safe for peace, love, and understanding, it was also a war that generated the weaponry that could destroy the entire human race, and the world it infested, in the space of just a few hours; in the meantime, the corruptions of the culture wormed their way into the hypocritical corruptions of Americans themselves, generating an almost desperate denial of the condition into which the race had contorted itself. The black humorists decided the only sane response was to laugh, especially at themselves, as guilty as the rest of the species.

As I noted yesterday, I blame myself for the corruption of my daughters, budding black humorists themselves; I blame my parents for my own corruption. Among my earliest memories is the night that my parents, wanting to save a few dollars on a babysitter, put my brother and I in the back seat of the car, then drove to a local drive-in theater to see Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb. Of course, they wanted to see the movie themselves (Bambi was a more acceptable children’s film), and I can’t vouch for the validity of this, but something must have rubbed off, even at that young age. Within a few years I was subscribing to Mad magazine; by the time I was in my teens I’d moved on to National Lampoon, Paul Krassner’s briefly revived The Realist, and R. Crumb, but I was also turning to more literary exemplars of black humor: Joseph Heller (my father owned a well-thumbed paperback copy of Catch-22), Terry Southern, and William Gaddis, as well as their ancestors Swift, Twain, West, and Céline .

Lucky I was to live in that time, because the values which this work instilled in me have stood me in good stead: a rejection of blind, moralizing authority; a healthy disrespect for pretension and arrogance; a preference for difficult and ugly truths over comforting and self-satisfying lies; and the bravery and courage to confront hypocritical authority, pretension, arrogance, and lies with creative, subversive, comic ridicule, preferably accompanied by a good stiff drink. Good lessons, I think, for me to pass along to my daughters, and it’s a joy to revisit these works again in the company of my own children. As Twain himself — speaking through Satan — wrote at the end of his life:

Will a day come when the race will detect the funniness of these juvenilities and laugh at them — and by laughing at them destroy them? For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon — laughter. Power, Money, Persuasion, Supplication, Persecution — these can lift at a colossal humbug, — push it a little — crowd it a little — weaken it a little, century by century: but only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.

And, as God Himself recently said,

Drunk, stoned, brilliant, and still dead

Last night my daughters (nine- and ten-years-old) did their father’s heart good by suddenly launching into the creation of some of the most nihilistic, in-bad-taste, NSFW comics I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy. At first I thought that the girls had gotten into my R. Crumb collections, but a quick reconnoiter of the bookshelves revealed that they’d been untouched. Larded with references to popular culture (even Dr. Phil and Juul), their comics exhibited the frenzied, id-driven coarseness and humor that I’ve enjoyed since I was their age, poring over the pages of Mad magazine. Truly, they are their father’s children. Their mother viewed the comics with some dismay, but unfortunately my genes seem to have ranked supreme in the sense-of-humor department.

Interesting that these traits should appear now, as they’re just on the cusp of puberty and adolescence, but there is a time for everything. It reminded me of the below essay that first appeared here in 2017; I will follow up with additional notes, inspired by the work of my own darling satirists, in the next few days.

It appears that outrage-fatigue is beginning to affect American comedians as well as everybody else. After a few months of the Trump administration, SNL, after a promising start, is recycling rapidly aging caricatures of Trump and figures in his administration as they used to recycle sketches like “The Coneheads” and “The Bees,” each iteration becoming more tired; even John Oliver, in the first episode of the latest season of his otherwise laudable investigative-satire program Last Week Tonight, seems a little lost.

Earlier this week Marilyn and I turned to Netflix to watch Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, Douglas Tirola’s 2015 documentary about the late National Lampoon magazine, which flourished in the 1970s before declining to a state at which, currently, it’s the clearing house for a brand name that can be rented then attached to pretty much anything or anyone that has the money to purchase it. During its glory years — 1970 to 1975, more or less — it was one of the best-selling magazines in the nation. Deliberately positioned as a humor magazine to bridge the MAD Magazine-New Yorker age gap, it was always a commercial endeavor, but the stars so aligned that it also proved an outlet for some of the best, most outrageous literary parodists and satirists of post-Kennedy America. Its quick demise begs the question: What happened in the first place?

Some satire, like Gulliver’s Travels, Candide, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, lasts, and some doesn’t. “Satire is what closes on Saturday night,” as the decidedly non-satiric American comic playwright George S. Kaufman once put it. Well, the bad sort closes, but obviously there are exceptions, and that’s because although most satire is directed at corrupt contemporary targets that are rapidly lost in the midst of time, those targets stand in as metonyms for the deeper corruptions of the human heart. The British/French military and political conflict that Swift parodies in the first book of Gulliver stands in for the arrogance and foolishness of nation-states; the attack on Leibniz’s philosophy which sparked Candide is also an attack on sentimental optimism itself; and Twain’s satire of race relations and clannish feuding in the pre-Civil War America of Huckleberry Finn is now read as a satiric exploration of the American ideals of democracy and community themselves. Eighteenth-century European politics, a philosophical dispute from the same century, and the socioeconomic situation of the American South in the 1830s have all become somewhat academic, but not the observations about the human condition that these satirists drew from these local circumstances.

The triumvirate of satirists who steered National Lampoon through its first five years — Douglas Kenney, Henry Beard, and Michael O’Donoghue — were, first and foremost, literary satirists. Kenney’s influences included Evelyn Waugh, James Thurber, and Ronald Firbank (the last also a major influence on British playwright Joe Orton); Beard decided to devote his career to literary humor after his exposure to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, perhaps the greatest of post-war American Menippean satires; O’Donoghue’s background was extraordinarily wide-ranging as a habitue of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, though he seems to have been most inspired by the novels of Terry Southern and William S. Burroughs. The best of the short prose essays and other material that appeared in National Lampoon from those years, and the level of baroque style and parody, easily rank with and outshine those of Thurber, Robert Benchley, and S.J. Perelman in their heyday, and unlike the pieces by Woody Allen and others in the New Yorker (however accomplished and of permanent value as some of these are), their work was tinged with the fire of outrage and a keen anarchic sense of the fraudulence of the time and the heart. Even more than Twain, their immediate satiric ancestor was Nathanael West, whose apocalyptic vision of an urbanized, trivia-besodden America in the 1930s, especially in the revelatory riot that closes The Day of the Locust, offered no hope or respite from the corruptions of the spirit.

The Lampoon‘s best work exemplifies all this. Kenney’s spot-on parody of Che Guevara’s diaries reveals the blind, insipid, delusional idealism at the heart of political revolution (especially in an age of celebrity); O’Donoghue’s “Vietnamese Baby Book” is a masterful deconstruction of the savagery and sentimentality that exist simultaneously at the heart of American culture; and Henry Beard’s “Law of the Jungle” is a genuinely astonishing satire not only of the law but also of the human race’s relationship to the natural world. Later, the best movies under the Lampoon banner also transcended their initial subjects. Animal House (co-written by Kenney) explored the disasters that occur when naivete meets reality, Vacation laid bare the anxieties that the commodification of leisure time produces. (I apologize for all this, and thoroughly deserve some lampooning of my own for these interpretations for what are, after all, just barely grown-up versions of the funny pages.)

In 1975 or so, O’Donoghue left the National Lampoon for what he thought were the greener pastures of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, which debuted in that year. Kenney and Beard were, in a way, luckier. Their friend Rob Hoffman in negotiating their contacts in 1970 schemed to include a clause in which publisher Matty Simmons could buy out their contacts based on a multiple of the percentage of the magazine’s value. Kenney and Beard opted to take the buyout, which made them multi-millionaires before they were 30. Kenney went Hollywood and, unable to negotiate the demands and successes of fame, died in a fall from a Hawaiian lookout (whether he jumped, slipped, or was pushed remains a matter of conjecture) in 1980; Beard retired into private life, still writing, and refused to discuss his career with the magazine until he resurfaced in Tirola’s documentary four decades later; the magazine itself had a few more good if not great years under the supervision of Tony Hendra, P.J. O’Rourke and others before its precipitous decline.

Ironically, the reasons for its decline are more numerous than the reasons for its success. By 1975 the political scene in America was becoming more fractured and polarized, and students were increasingly irritated to be told by a bunch of white, upper-middle-class Ivy League elitists that their ideals were illusory at best (while several women were regular contributors to the magazine, including Anne Beatts, Emily Prager, and Shary Flenniken, the skin color in staff photographs of the time is as white as the driven snow); the sophomoric-tastelessness-for-the-sake-of-sophomoric-tastelessness that was always a feature of the magazine began to overtake the more ambitious satires as publisher Simmons strove to drive profits higher and higher; magazine circulations themselves became locked in a struggle against the growth of electronic media. And perhaps the most influential of early Lampoon staffers, Michael O’Donoghue, found that he was unable to tailor his own dark apocalyptic vision to the requirements of the entertainment industry — and O’Donoghue desperately sought commercial success — before his own early death from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 54.

So what of literary satire in the Trump age, given the great achievements of American satire in the half-century before it? Are irony and satire dead — has the future become so dark that we can’t joke about it any more? The same things were said after the Nixon administration, after 9/11, and we’re no closer to a response now than we were then. I doubt there’s an answer in the small shelf of books (and a documentary) now devoted to the history of the Lampoon, its influence, and its offshoots. (These include Tony Hendra’s still-indispensable Going Too Far, Ellin Stein’s That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick, and Josh Karp’s biography of Kenney, A Futile and Stupid Gesture, which is now being adapted into a film for Netflix.) But inspiration can still be sought in the best of its achievements, even if where we go from here is still something of a mystery.

A toast to … Henry David Thoreau

This week I offered a few suggestions on how to jumpstart your personal resistance, learned a little more about Philadelphia history, and anticipated with pleasure the return of a favorite musical of my youth.

In preparing for a trip to Concord later this summer, I’ve been reading a little of Concord’s favorite native sons, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. I came across the below video about Walden Pond in my background investigations, and though I have my problems with Thoreau, I have fewer and fewer problems with Walden Pond. As the photograph at the head of this post indicates, the pond is a far cry from the Lower East Side of New York, but later this afternoon I’ll lift my glass to Henry David Thoreau from the bar at Cafe Katja; the pond seems to beckon even from there.

Coming in 2020: 1776

1776 at the 46th Street Theatre, New York, c. 1968. Forty-seven years later, Hamilton would also open on Broadway there (the theater had been renamed the Richard Rodgers Theatre by then).

I was delighted to hear a few weeks ago that the 1968 musical by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone, 1776, will be revived on Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company and the American Repertory Theater in 2020 in a production directed by Diane Paulus. I first became familiar with the show through the 1972 film version, which I saw when I was ten years old, and I’ve been an enthusiast for early American history as a result since then. It helped that I spent much of my youth and young adulthood in Philadelphia, living not far from Independence Hall (indeed, I was born only a few blocks from it, at Pennsylvania Hospital). Although the film was not shot on location, it was very hard for me to walk through that neighborhood later without remembering the musical and the story that it told. Perhaps the time has come around for 1776 again; the threat of tyranny in America, it seems, has never really gone away.

1776, as a musical about American history, has been somewhat overshadowed by the success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, and I’m not sure that many critics — or audiences — would agree with me in giving 1776 the edge. No matter; but I’d like to direct your attention to this conversation with Miranda and William Daniels, who played John Adams in both the Broadway premiere and the film of 1776, in which they discuss the salutary influence of 1776 on Miranda’s own work. Said Miranda: “1776 created such an iconic, indelible image of Adams that we just know who that is now. It’s also, I think, one of the best books — if not the best — ever written for musical theatre … ” There are a few interesting parallels between the shows (see the caption for the photo at the top of this post, for example), and, though you wouldn’t think it a controversial show, 1776 also ran afoul of then-President Richard Nixon, as Daniels discusses.

You can find the full interview here.