Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Review: A Stupid and Futile Gesture, by Josh Karp

First of all, my apologies for the light, even for me, level of posting lately. I had to go on another field trip for work, which included an attempted salvage of December's conference performance, demanding no shortage of analysis (much of it from me) of my flaws as a scientist and a speaker. The stress from this crap I think has been affecting me badly. As one antidote, I've been trying to minimize the time I spend staring at screens. It's been applied with limited success, but in terms of bug-eyes and headaches, the internets can be pretty ennervating. I also had a kid's party to plan and attend (roller skating! I have moves!). I'm as sick of looking at that guy's manjo as you are, but the truth is that I'm less inclined ponder the human condition when I'm feeling a bit off, or when I'm able to enjoy childish things. Either one makes the miserable collective reality we create seem that much more farcical.

The world needs satire, doesn't it? Something to offer a good clinical bleeding, to bite us where we forget we hurt, snap us out of shock or fatigue and let us know the wound is still there, needing attention? If it wasn't for the internet, I'd have lost hope on a cogent contemporary social critique; if it weren't for Colbert and, sometimes still, the Simpsons, I'd have given it in for the popular media too, which is otherwise even worse the closer you look. I don't believe that poison pens are missing from the world--I find them once and a while!--more that my parents' generation's acid vintage gradually got blandly subsumed into the mainstream, and with all the information today, what fraction that rises above pure juvenilia or sheer meanness, we don't yet have the benefit of hindsight to tell what has been the underground phenom. Or I don't anyway, even though I'm reading some of it now. The subtitle of the book is How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever, and I guess what I'm getting at, circuitously, is that I have a fairly good idea of what Kenney and the magazine changed comedy into, I have an incomplete mosaic of what it changed from, but I missed the actual magazine in its heyday, and I rely on Josh Karp to tell me what it meant in its time. I'm left with the impression that it was to a too-long, humorless current Saturday Night Live sketch (or for that matter, the embarrassing walking corpse of the NL college humor franchise) much what every piece of crap slob comedy for the past thirty years has been to Animal House. I wish I knew for sure, though--I might well find I hate it.

Karp confirms my suspicion that the sitcom was the apotheosis of 1950s comedy writing, and the simmering reaction to that sort of spackled-over social conformity was concomitant with other cultural revolutions. (The lack of outlet was probably anomalous. Prewar humor, Karp notes, was more cutting and suggestive. The removal of class, race, and dirty politics from the national dialogue that Mom, Dad, and Doug Kenney heard in grade school was a tad premature.) Kenney's bit (or at least the bit that was focused on in the biography, and certainly mirrored in Animal House, which he co-wrote) was nostalgia for that past at war with a contemporary reality. There's some genuine love of the past, but it's trumped by the knowledge that, as much as the present, it's constructed from the purest bullshit. He understood that you had to know institutional dignity in order to mock it. It's clever in that he could take nostalgia and humor to soften the anarchic picture he was painting. Those fraternity kids were loathsome too, but they were also responding logically to their absurd times. Well, sort of.

The biographer places the tone of National Lampoon about halfway between the sophisticated humor of the prewar New Yorker essayists and short story writers (limited familiarity here), and the budding subversive satire of early MAD magazine (considerably more). It's the pure essence of "sophomoric," base ribaldry put forth by highly educated minds, not shy to put literary jokes amongst the farts, simultaneously knocking down pretension and lending gravitas to their own immaturity. It's egg-throwing at a deserving establishment by smart young white people with at least enough self-awareness to realize the position that lets them hurl in the first place. Possibly it includes the realization that you can't respect yourself either. Not exactly alien territory for me, but again I want to emphasize that any such judgement of National Lampoon magazine is necessarily the author's. Here's Karp discussing the early aesthetic vs. the downturn that eventually came due:

"[T]he [earlier] panels gave off a whiff of self-parody and mocking obsession with sex.[...] Distinguishing sexual material and exploitive sexual material is a tricky business, and [Sean] Kelly believed that they were crossing the line. [...] [T]here was a shift--as with the treatment of sexuality--from commenting on hatred, atrocity, and stupidity to making fun of its victims as well. It may have been splitting hairs, but there was a new sense of rage within the pages that lacked the righteous indignation, sophisitication, and wit that marked the first five years.
I prefer to believe I can judge that line too.

Doug Kenney seems to have been a good guy in the early years. Karp has him as straddling worlds of conformity and personal isolation, with conflicted feelings of self-wroth. He was a kid who grew up around class but not of it--more the outsider looking in or the actor playing a role. The guy who played Stork was good-looking and sharp, indiscriminate in the people he befriended, and used humor to relate to the world. I feel I've always known people like him--they're not the centers of attention, but are the foundations of the party. The sorts of people who could always manage to keep the attitudes small, and the punks lovable. For all the dichotomies that his biographer sees in there, it doesn't seem an unusual bunch of traits, although Kenney was also uncommonly bright. To hear Karp tell it, he eventually made it as everyone's friend in the ferocious personality battle at the magazine because he was smart enough to command respect in his own right. It lasted as long as he could stand it.

I liked reading how the publication developed from whole-minded but half-assed notions to something of a high-functioning bastion of brilliant disgruntlement. National Lampoon collected errant personalities like a magnet in a scrapyard, but put together the things somehow ran. For some reason, I found myself identifying with the burnouts and corporate misfits that managed to find a career there, more than the ambitious misantrhopes. Karp makes the point that there wasn't anywhere else to go for a comedy writer--it must have been like a haven, if you could take the hours, egos, and negligible pay.

Kenney burned out on the magazine after a couple years, and after a hiatus, survived as an emeritus writer. Thanks to shrewd early dealings with the publisher and the success of the movie, Kenney did hit it big, which didn't agree with his personality. He moved from recreational pot to cocaine abuse, and watched his world crumble, culminating in an untimely death. Arguments remain whether it was a suicide, but the inner conflict was tough on him, according to Karp. I don't read a lot of biography, but I'm still sensing some common literary themes here: youthful talent, meteoric rise, tragic fall. I'm not sure I trust the presentation, but one consolation for flaming out young in this way, is that you get to have a denoument. As an artist, Doug Kenney didn't have to suffer a slow descent into age and unfunniness like any number of his peers. As a human being of course, it's another loss.


Schmutzie said...

I feel the same way about Rolling Stone. Got there a little too late to really enjoy its heyday.

I did enjoy the early SNL stuff, but that fizzled quickly into whatever the hell they call that thing now.

Seems to be a common thread in all of their meteoric rises and fall-offs. Drugs.

(today's verification word: Gazeses)

Likewise I think for what was considered the most "cutting edge" music of the late 60s -early 70s. Drugs were the fuel for some pretty creative people, but you can only ride that thing for so long as Gonzo Thompson, Jimi, Janis, Belushi all proved.

You might be able to imagine why I followed Doug Kenney's career after Animal House, although it turned out to be a brief fanhood. That flick was cult-famous right when I was graduating high-school. People were constantly throwing one-liners at each other in the hallways, and of course I was always on the receiving end of "What the hell we 'sposed to do ya moe-rahn?"

I remember thinking, when he died, that it must have had something to do with drugs. I know it was never made clear whether he fell or jumped from that cliff, but his friends (Ramis/Chase) said that he was suicidal at the time.

Friggin' drugs. Glad that chapter of my book is closed I'll tell ya.

Keifus said...

I can assure you that it remained cult famous for at least into the 90s. Hell, there were parts that seemed almost like a documentary. And it deserves its criticisms, but mock pretension + total anarchy still = funny. (And good characters and well-excuted gags. I think keeping the bastards likable was a lot to do with Kenney's aesthetic. To hear the book tell it, it was lucky the talent came together as it did. The three writers fed off each other. Landis had come out of nowhere.)

Doug Kenney's next screenplay was to be Club Paradise, which eventually got produced, and was a total turd. You wonder how long anyone can really ride along that sort of youth-related groove, drugs or no. Not as if adulthood lacks absurdity and hypocrisy, mind you.

I'm no expert on drugs, skipped a lot of that chapter myself (unless you count alcohol, which I don't really trust either). I think you gotta specify which ones, and coke didn't appear to suit DK very well at all.

Out of The Loop said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Schmutzie said...

I did a little reading after you posted this. After the first reviews DK thought Caddyshack was going to bomb, and he became depressed. Oh man, if only he'd waited. Animal House wasn't supposed to make any kind of splash either.

After my little 2 year flirtation with that stuff (coke) in the early 90s I would tell anyone that would listen to me that it is the most evil recreational drug in history.

As Phil Hartmann said, just before his coke-head wife killed him, "First you do cocaine, then cocaine does you."

Exactly right. And that was before the era of crack and meth and the rest of these modern versions of a speed buzz. Bad, bad, bad stuff my friend. Thank god I walked away from it.

twif said...

other than smoking opium twice in college, i never moved beyond psychedelics. copious amounts of buds, boomers & tabs when available. i doubt i could handle hallucinogens again; at least, not acid. having your brain in overdrive for 12 straight hours does a hell of a job on the body.

other than caffiene (which is simply normalizing. ah, addiction) it never occurred to me to take a stimulant recreationally. aren't drugs for relaxing? why would you want to speed things up?

Schmutzie said...

It's the most evil drug there is Twif.

To quote myself when lecturing friends to get off the stuff back in the day "Coke makes stupid people feel smart, it makes boring people think they're exciting, it makes dull people think they're funny, and it makes ugly people think they're beautiful."

It's not just feeling of stimulation, it alters the way the brain processes data. Some of the most "deep" conversations I ever had were with my roommates at 3:00AM, and with a coke strewn mirror on the coffee table. In hindsight, they were among the most ridiculous conversations I ever had. Pointless, stupid shit. Couldn't tell any of us that at the time though.

And then, like Hartmann said, the drug started to do us. We felt like we couldn't have fun unless we were tweaked. Some of us realized we were being controlled by a little packet of white powder and gave it up, and some of us didn't. I still have friends who call me at 2AM just to say hello and ask me how life is going.

I don't bullshit them when they do. I come right out and tell them, "You gotta get off that shit man."

The question none of them can answer..."Name me one old person who does cocaine. Do you want to be an old person some day?"

switters said...

I'll just say this: America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide To Democracy Inaction will go down as one of the most important documents of the 21st century, perhaps rivaling that of The Declaration Of Independence, The Constitution, and The Bill Of Rights combined as historical touchstones!

It seems a bitter and indigestible conundrum to have to survive one's failures. Don't get me started.

Still, a good case can be made, and has, that Americans are, in general, under-medicated, for whatever reason and to whatever extent/ends.

"That's all."
-Miranda Priestly

Keifus said...

Well it beats the alternative, I suppose. And I just read that redemption is, uh, somewhere around here, even right now.