"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Eight isn’t nearly enough
Remember when the word “dysfunctional” was still fun to use? I fancied myself a laugh riot when I overused it in my Filler column for Suck.com back in 1999. I know that was only five years ago, but somehow, back then, you could still feel daring and witty, just by using words like “bipolar” and “borderline.” These days, bandying about terms from the DSM-IV is like plastering your hair with Aquanet and squeezing on a pair of acid-wash jeans two sizes too small. Everybody hurts, just like they always have, but nobody cares exactly how anybody else is hurting, or what clinical term best sums up your particular flavor of pain.
So, what once felt like cutting-edge wit has now trickled down to the world of sitcoms, and zany dysfunctional families are for the new millennium what zany functional families were for the late ’70s. It’s simple, really. Just replace hugging and learning with slugging and yearning. Skip the sweetness and the smiles and the moral of this story for manic, rapid-fire absurdity and severely deranged characters spouting farce.
OK, it’s not really that easy to do this sort of thing well, as evidenced by “Cracking Up,” the new Fox sitcom starring “Rushmore’s” Jason Schwartzman and “SNL’s” Molly Shannon. Written by Mike White, the guy behind “Chuck and Buck” (sad and funny), “Orange County” (fun) and “The Good Girl” (just OK), “Cracking Up” has a lot going for it: a great cast, a strong premise and a very timely tone (which in TV terms means that it feels 5 years old instead of 10).
But, strangely enough, sitcoms are incredibly difficult to pull off. Even though Schwartzman is pretty good (although not showing nearly as much charm or restraint as he did in “Rushmore”) and Molly Shannon is, as always, extremely funny, and even though the stories are fine and the single-camera style works well for this show, the whole thing doesn’t quite add up yet.
But, you know, sitcoms are like couples’ therapy. Just as it takes at least six months, $2,400, and probably 10 to 12 boxes of Kleenex simply to learn how to say “good morning” to your husband without contempt in your voice, a sitcom requires about half a year, maybe $5 million and 25-30 takeout lunches from California Pizza Kitchen just to usher a few mildly amused chuckles from the back of your average viewer’s throat.
Take “Arrested Development.” I was half-amused and half-annoyed the first three or four times I watched it. Then I was about 30 percent annoyed and maybe 70 percent amused, but I still thought the characters were too weird and flat for me to care what happened to them. Finally, about a month ago, I watched four episodes in a row (TiVo Purging Day, a beloved holiday in my household) and, within the course of two hours, eliminated all annoyance and fell in love with the show.
I guess shows featuring quirky assholes take a while to warm up to. It took me a long time to dig “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” too, come to think of it. Or maybe I’m just slow. The point is, “Cracking Up” could go either way. Mostly I just wish being a narcissistic sociopath was still as fun and endearing as it used to be.
Arrested development executives
In the immortal words of that little redheaded girl on “The Waltons,” “How come every time I love something it dies?” Just when I’m starting to love “Arrested Development” in earnest, creator Mitch Hurwitz claims that they’re “fighting for [their] lives.”
The cast and writers of the show were on hand at the Museum of Television and Radio’s Paley Festival last Thursday night, gushing about how much they’re enjoying the show and how much they’re hoping it’ll stick around for another season. Everyone seemed very concerned over the show’s future. But when the talk of ratings and the show’s impending renewal got to be too much, David Cross quipped, “My dream has always been to work on a show that holds ‘Malcolm [in the Middle]‘s’ numbers. And if that doesn’t happen, well, you move on.”
Questions from the audience were pretty tame, particularly compared to the insanity at the “OC” event, which we’ll get to later. The “Arrested Development” demographic appears to include a wide range of ages, from teenagers to the gray-haired, but all present seemed somewhat brainy and very, very shy. Unfortunately, shy people don’t make very good activists — witness the death of “Freaks and Geeks,” “My So-Called Life” and most other programming targeting the shy. Maybe that grass-roots organization Television Without Pity will rally the shy troops a little more effectively and a few quality shows will survive to supplement the endless flow of loudmouth-thug favorites like “Forever Eden.”
There’s one cracked nut in every audience, of course. Thursday’s nut stood up and asked Tony Hale, who plays Buster, what it was like to kiss Liza Minnelli.
Nut: Can you get the David Gest off your breath?
Hale: Um …
Cross: (scolding) David Gest never kissed Liza Minnelli!
Cross is funny. It would be nice to have him around for social events, picnics, small cocktail parties. I wonder if I could rent him.
I’m pretty sure that half of the shy, shy people in the audience were also wondering if Cross would be their friend if they paid him well enough for his time, but instead they stared at their laps and rubbed their shy little eyes. But when my boyfriend insisted that we talk with a writer from the show that he used to work with, the shy people bum-rushed the stage seeking autographs and shoved their shy elbows into my ribcage on the way there. I think I like shy TV fanatics a little better on “Television Without Pity” than I do in person, but then, I’m an antisocial depressive.
Give me liberty or give me Seth!
I may be a schizotypal obsessive-compulsive, but I’m not a big sucker for teenage heartthrobs. Sure, I had a little crush on Shaun Cassidy when I was about 9 years old, but after that I decided it was easier and less demeaning to trade in my imaginary friend (Albert) for an imaginary boyfriend (Mark) than it was to rip pictures out of Tiger Beat magazine. Besides, the idea that someone like Scott Baio or Leif Garrett would look twice at me stretched credibility beyond reasonable limits. Rather than deluding myself (and throwing myself, screaming, into the path of creepy drug-addled boys with bad perms), I used my powers of imagination to conjure scenes of great sincerity and depth (and some heavy petting) with my doe-eyed, tousle-headed fictional boyfriend, Mark.
But now I find myself at an important crossroads: It seems that Adam Brody, the slightly dorky star of “The OC,” looks and acts exactly like my imaginary boyfriend did. Thus, when Brody’s character, Seth Cohen, rolls his big doe eyes or spits snarky comments at his parents, all I can see is Mark, witty yet sincere Mark, the bane of all my nonfictional boyfriends’ existences. What does it all mean? Seth and Mark are exactly the same!
OK, maybe not exactly the same. Mark really listened a lot more than Seth does — Mark was so sympathetic! He felt my pain! — and he would never tell a joke in the middle of one of my really intense, important proclamations (example: “I am sooo mad at my mom right now!”). Mark would never, ever date the adorable, popular girl at school, either. He really liked the adorable, popular girl’s slightly dorky, slightly less adorable friend much, much more than her. Also, Mark didn’t play video games like Seth does. He preferred to walk around in fields of flowers, holding hands. He also loved to talk, for hours and hours, mostly about how pretty I looked.
All right, so Seth is nothing like Mark. But what many rabid, horndog fans of “The OC” will be disturbed and titillated to discover is that Adam Brody is exactly like Seth. He said so himself just the other night when he stopped by my place for a glass of wine. No wait, that was Mark. Adam said so last Tuesday at the Paley Festival.
Naturally, there was an audience of swooning, screaming fans present for the presentation on “The OC,” including two preteen girls in white T-shirts and hats, one with a big orange “O” on it, the other with a big orange “C.” I don’t quite understand how anyone but demented geeks and so-called professionals like myself find out about events like these, but the tickets for this one sold out on the first day, so apparently information travels fast among the swooners.
The swooners did not leave disappointed. Everyone from the delightful Peter Gallagher to boy genius Josh Schwartz, the show’s creator, was friendly, sharp and pretty to look at, to the extent that it makes you feel like a curmudgeonly, dimwitted frump by comparison. Even the actors you might think would be annoying were likable. Mischa Barton, who plays the pretty but slightly dull lead Marissa, and Benjamin McKenzie, who plays the pretty but slightly dull lead Ryan, were both much more assertive, funnier and livelier than their bland characters would lead you to believe.
Melinda Clarke, who plays Marissa’s demonic mother, Julie Cooper, playfully sat in the lap of Chris Carmack, who plays cookie-cutter bully Luke (their characters are having an affair on the show). Later, Clarke recalled her horror at reading the description of Julie Cooper, a role the producers said she would be perfect for: “It said ’40 going on 16, plastic everything, tan skin becoming leathery.’”
Carmack, who has spent most of his on-screen time either punching people or seducing them, says his audition didn’t go so well, so he wanted to do something extra to separate himself from the pack. So, as he was leaving and another guy was coming in, “I socked him in the gut, and then started making out with his mom.” It’s nice to see that Carmack also prefers fiction to the true story, which probably involved showing a roomful of producers his man-titties.
Meanwhile, Tate Donovan, who plays Jimmy Cooper, said that he got his part by winning an essay contest. Later, when that night’s nut stood up and asked if Peter Gallagher had any advice on how his daughter might break into show business, Donovan cut in and said, “There are these essay contests …”
When it came time to take questions from the audience, I geekily raised my hand, determined to find out, once and for all, for my sake and for the sake of all of you gentle readers out there, why Oliver put the gun next to his head instead of pointing it at his head when he was threatening to kill himself. Was it a style choice? Is this the widely approved gesture for suicide in Orange County?
But then a nerdy guy stood up and complained about the little inconsistencies on the show — like when Ryan fell in the pool in his tux and later he’s got a dry tux on? You know, stuff I don’t give a crap about because I’m too excited about Seth’s cute sweater. The guy wanted to know if these things happened because of “network pressure,” or what. After a pause, Schwartz deadpanned, “It’s contempt for the audience.”
That was the moment I decided not to ask about the gun thing, and the moment I made Josh Schwartz my personal lord and savior — supplanting my imaginary lord and savior, Derrick.
Like taking Shandi from a baby
In case you doubted the power of the boob flash, look no further than UPN’s recent crackdown on the omnipotent one, Tyra Banks, whose powers far exceed those of both Josh and Derrick combined, but unfortunately don’t exceed those of the FCC. As if there weren’t enough reasons to strongly recommend “America’s Next Top Model,” last week’s episode was said to contain an orgy scene involving aspiring models and hot young Italian men. Yes, that’s right. Models and hot Italian guys. Ever been to Italy? No? Ever seen any World Cup soccer?
So how much are we hating Janet Jackson and her dumb boob right now? If the FCC is going to go ballistic and make all of the networks flinchy, you’d at least hope that it would be over something truly dirty and exciting, like, for example, an orgy involving aspiring models and hot young Italian men. I think I could write that all day: hot young Italian men. Italian men who are young and hot. Hot young men from Italy. Hot young Italians.
While those of you whose inner preteens died of overdoses years ago are wishing that tape of Link TV’s “Ethics and the World Crisis: A Dialogue with the Dalai Lama” got here on time for me to review it, I know the rest of you are concerned about the Pulled Orgy Crisis. Apparently, all of the models and the hot young Italian men got into a hot tub together and made out, and according to last week’s teaser, Shandi had sex with one of the men and ended up crying to her boyfriend on the phone about it. We’ll be treated to a toned-down version of the whole thing Tuesday night at 9 p.m. on UPN, but our sick minds will wonder what we’re missing the whole time.
Now I understand that any mature adults who still read this column might be appalled, but you really have to watch the show to appreciate that this is exceptional television in motion. Or maybe you just have to relate to the idea of being young and pretty and drunk on wine in a hot tub in Milan with a bunch of naked Italian men. I guess that means you either have to be gay, or a former slut. Or maybe you just have to embrace the concept of sluttiness. I don’t know. This year’s aspiring model finalists are all so smart and nice, I want them to have as much stupid fun as I would’ve had if someone had thrown me into a hot Italian Man Soup back then — which they didn’t, damn it. And I want to be able to see it all on TV, of course.
Oh god. How did this column get to be so long? See what happens when you try to cram the genealogy of family sitcoms, Adam Brody, Josh Schwartz, David Cross and hot young Italians onto a few pages? I have so many Good Things on my hands I feel like Martha Stewart, but without the big bank account and the criminal record. I also have five or six more personality disorders than Martha, but that comment is litigable, and it hasn’t been funny for at least four years now.
Next week: The strange, soothing powers of those bickering couples on Bravo’s “Significant Others.” Plus: Would you rather have MTV pimp your ride or give you a famous face?
Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.More Heather Havrilesky.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)