In memoriam: Bruce Jay Friedman

Bruce Jay Friedman in 1967. Photo: Sam Falk/The New York Times.

You hear an awful lot about the “fading line between fantasy and reality” in the modern world and I had better put that in fast or else I am not going to get to do any more Forewords. So here it comes. I agree. There is a fading line between fantasy and reality, a very fading line, a goddamned, almost invisible line … Then, too, if you are alive today, and stick your head out of doors now and then, you know that there is a nervousness, a tempo, a near-hysterical new beat in the air, a punishing isolation and loneliness of a strange, frenzied new kind. It is in the music and the talk and the films and the theater and it is in the prose style of Joe Heller and Terry Southern. You can find it in Gogol and Isaac Babel, too, and perhaps they saw it all coming. …

What has happened is that the satirist has had his ground usurped by the newspaper reporter. The journalist, who, in the year 1964, must cover the ecumenical debate on whether Jews, on the one hand, are still to be known as Christ-killers, or, on the other hand are to be let off the hook, is certainly today’s satirist. The novelist-satirist, with no real territory of his own to roam, has had to discover new land, invent a new currency, a new set of filters, has had to sail into darker waters somewhere out beyond satire and I think this is what is meant by black humor.

–Bruce Jay Friedman
Foreword, Black Humor (1965)

Those words from one of the greats, Bruce Jay Friedman, who sailed into rather different waters yesterday at the age of 90. He knew us then, and he certainly knows us today; see, especially, his story “Black Angels,” published in the December 1, 1964, issue of Esquire.

Bruce Weber’s obituary for the writer can be found in the New York Times here.

Coming soon: “Trots and Bonnie”

Shary Flenniken‘s “Trots and Bonnie” ran from 1972 to 1990 in the late National Lampoon (Flenniken also served as an editor of that magazine from 1979 to 1981). “Trots” contributed a radical feminist and sexualized perspective to the comics styles of the 1930s and 1940s, right down to what Walt Kelly would call the “blunked-out” eyes of its main human character, Bonnie (itself a tribute to Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie). Well, you can now sell those old copies of the Lampoon on Ebay; NYR Comics will publish Trots and Bonnie: A Selection on September 15. Sez the publisher:

Bonnie stumbles through the mysteries of adulthood, as Flenniken — one of the few female contributors to National Lampoon — dissects the harsh realities of American life. Dating, marriage, sex, and violence are all confronted with fearlessness and outrageous humor, rendered in Flenniken’s timeless, gorgeous artwork. After all these years, they have lost none of their power to shock and amuse.

More information from NYR Comics here.

Although it’s true that Flenniken was “one of the few female contributors to National Lampoon,” it should be said that the female contributors to Lampoon, among them Anne Beatts and Emily Prager, were some of the most accomplished writers and artists in that magazine and take the edge off the justifiable accusation of sexism that is often hurled at the Lampoon. In addition, the Lampoon in 1978 published one of the few English-language collections of the work of Claire Bretécher, the fine French feminist cartoonist who recently shuffled off our mortal coil. So, as they say, there’s that.

Below, a few additional notes on the magazine, first published here in 2017.


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.

William Gaddis in the Age of Trump

Satirist William Gaddis‘s first two novels have gone out of print at the Dalkey Archive Press, but fear not: NYRB (New York Review Books) has picked up the rights to both. The Recognitions (1955), an encyclopedic satire of the role of forgery and fraudulence in post-war American cultural, artistic and spiritual life, and J R (1975), a bracing comic examination of the corruptions of American capitalism and how they affect learning and art, will both be issued by that firm with new introductions by Tom McCarthy and Joy Williams respectively on October 6 — precisely four weeks before Election Day 2020.

Alas, four weeks won’t be enough to read and contemplate both novels, not at 992 pages for the first and 784 for the second. Nonetheless, these two books, as well as Gaddis’s later novels, provide a concise roadmap describing how we got where we are, politically and otherwise. Carpenter’s Gothic (1985) is a bleak romance of cynicism and geopolitics, a mordant consideration of globalization; A Frolic of His Own (1994) describes the deterioration of the law from a mechanism for dispensing justice to a weapon of bureaucratic revenge; and Agapē Agape (published posthumously in 2002) is a tortured monologue mourning the disappearance of authenticity and musing upon the possibility of a redemptive art. (I should add also that Gaddis is one of the great New York City novelists; very little of the action of all five novels takes place outside of a 100-mile radius of New York, a feature of his work that has been somewhat neglected.)

In the months between now and November, Gaddis’s work may well prove an oasis of sanity in the midst of ever-increasing, maddening chaos. You don’t have to wait for October; if you start now, you may find, by November, that we’ve been living in Gaddis’s world all along.

No such thing

A 1995 US postage stamp adapted from artwork by Rube Goldberg in Collier’s, September 26, 1931. Abrams ComicArts/© 2020 Heirs of Rube Goldberg.

In “Foolish Questions,” his new essay for the New York Review of Books, Art Spiegelman eases from a review of a recent touring exhibition of Rube Goldberg (which closed at the Queens Museum earlier this month) to a consideration of screwball comics and their potential for upending conventional attitudes towards reality. Their potential for doing this, though, is ambivalent: “Cartoons are a visual language of simplification and exaggeration whose vocabulary was entirely premised on them,” Spiegelman writes. “It’s as if the N-word was the only word in the dictionary to describe people of color, and even the poetry that comics can offer had to be written in this debased language. We humans are hard-wired toward stereotyping, and, alas, comics echo the way we think.” One of the reasons, perhaps, that they were so frequently denigrated as trash in the more innocent past.

Towards the end of the essay, Spiegelman muses over the future of the screwball perspective, and it must be said that he is not sanguine about it.

Yet the legacy of Mad is still with us. Trump is often referred to in the press as a “screwball,” but “screwball” — an ironic term of endearment, a synonym for “lovable eccentric” — just won’t do for a pathological, lying narcissist with dangerous sociopathic tendencies.

The existential threat facing screwball humor today comes from a “screwball” president who has weaponized postmodernism. Mad taught me to be skeptical of all mass media and to question reality (including my beloved Mad), but the lesson requires a belief that there might actually be something like consensual reality. Nonsense assumes there’s such a thing as sense and puts it in relief by denying reality’s power even if just for a moment.

Spiegelman, I think, is right here: This is the legacy of the postmodern philosophy that gave us contemporary academic departments dismissive of the idea of consensual reality as well as children’s movies like The Matrix, which characterized consensual reality as fraudulent. Unfortunately, as we’re finding, it’s not.

Read all of “Foolish Questions” here.

Backward, forward, up and down

Nathanael West.

Yesterday I mentioned Nathanael West with regard to literature and comic books, and I only wanted to add that the relationship was first introduced by West himself in an essay called “Some Notes on Miss L.,” a few marginal considerations of his short novel Miss Lonelyhearts. In describing his search for a  proper form for the novel, West weighs the value of structuring it as a comic strip or comic book before rejecting the idea, but before he rejects it he offers a good technique for introducing oneself to the form of graphic novels or comic strips or books — how to read them, how to approach the page itself, as well as the challenges of and opportunities in creating them. Said West in 1933:

I cannot do a review of Miss Lonelyhearts, but here, at random, are some things I thought when writing it:

As subtitle: “A novel in the form of a comic strip.” The chapters to be squares in which many things happen through one action. The speeches contained in the conventional balloons. I abandoned this idea, but retained some of the comic strip technique: Each chapter, instead of going forward in time, also goes backward, forward, up and down in space like a picture …

Forget the epic, the master work. In America fortunes do not accumulate, the soil does not grow, families have no history. Leave slow growth to the book reviewers, you only have time to explode.