Looking for life in all the wrong places

Thanks to snorefests like the Umbilical Brothers' "Thwack," comedy is deader than Lester Bangs -- and someone is not amused.

Published June 16, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It's been one of those weeks where the real-life happenings, the stuff of the present, the real human beings perched before me, fizzling their atoms in dynamic play against the screen of time, have been nothing but hackety, tepid suckwater bores -- and practically inanimate compared to the books I've been reading, which have taken on a far more demanding vibrancy and a thicker presence of immediate human feeling.

I was to cover some comedy performances this week. Mainstream comedy is an endangered species, because political correctness is doing everything it can to clip all its limbs into useless stumps and/or kick it in the head until it stops moving altogether. Comedy, at its most potent, tends to be based on cleverly viewed insights about the eclectic differences between people and miscommunication between groups. These hearty revelations can now be identified not as comedy but as sexism, racism or frightening and offensive to our corporate sponsors. The funniest people in the world, I've always felt, were smartly cruel teenaged boys, and those who recognized this natural comic supremacy and emulated it.

Very little that is astonishingly innovative and funny has happened in comedy since the 1970s, which was the absolute zenith -- the adolescent male comedy renaissance of the world. "Saturday Night Live" was the gold standard, up until the original members started dying. National Lampoon writers were comedic Sun Gods. All the comic greats were wretched cocaine fiends, and were boldly and dangerously sly and irreverent about everything. And somehow, back then, major corporations were less Maoist and killjoy-esque about censoring them to death.

The current corporate oligarchy that controls fame would never bring us another vague, disturbing wonder like Andy Kaufman; only low-brow, obvious, scatological sports fan humor enjoyed by Adam Sandler and other mullet-necked dipshits can get any serious backing these days. The more weird, nervy and sophisticated stuff either gets ghettoized to HBO or never makes it out of the dining room. Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal are America's beloved comic laureates now, and who cares? Does anyone actually find them scathingly, electrically funny? As far as I can tell, they've just become incredibly adept at provoking thoughtful semi-chuckles while carefully being totally inoffensive to anything that ever walked or crawled. Thank God for the Onion, the great hope of comedy today, which previous to its new mega-popularity seemingly subsisted solely on ad sales for Wisconsin subway sandwich shops and a tall, round student apartment building that apparently never got any tenants, ever.

I'm absolutely stupefied by what people will laugh at lately. Last week, I saw two "comedy" events that caused me varying degrees of terrible pain. One was Richard Belzer, an actor from the defunct TV show "Homicide," having a "comic conversation" with talk show maven Joy Behar as part of a lecture series at the 92nd Street YMCA, which is where the white, middle-aged campus that is New York's Upper East Side goes and gets its middle-of-the-road, leather sandal-wearing, intellecto-yucks.

Belzer was unscripted and a little wine-smeared, telling stories from his life, peppered liberally with the "f" word; a "lively" discussion about how he bought his summer home in France by suing Hulk Hogan, who accidentally choked him into unconsciousness on live TV, once upon a time. I think I might have been the only person in the audience actually thinking of writing the Hulk a glowing fan letter for this accomplishment. I snuck out of the auditorium before the first half-hour; it was just too gruesome, all those gray-haired, expensive glasses-framed people tittering in a civilized fashion, ho ho ho, their tired, pear-shaped desktop-computer asses slog-full of Chardonnay and goat cheese, having a little low-volume fun-time before collapsing from the weight of their adult responsibilities into a seven-hour rest. Belzer was the laugh-show equivalent of the calisthenics done in old-folks' homes, where anything but raising your arms and wiggling your fingers is too strenuous for the withered, juiceless body. Real, hard laughing is too demanding, apparently, for the jerky-dried baby boomer spirit.

I couldn't seriously cover the Belzer travesty, I decided, so I checked the New York papers for some off-Broadway thing that promised serious, jugular entertainment. I chose the show with the most hyperbole: "Thwack," whose press suggested its two stars were the Next Big Thing. Now, I know from being close to theater and its workings that having a full-scale Off-Broadway show in New York is about as easy as getting together a bobsled research expedition to Antarctica. You have to make a whole lot of people with money and connections fanatically believe in you. Then you have to convince them to give you money with solid blood-pact contractual commitments, which, given the palsied economic norm of American theater, is tantamount to hustling someone into gambling thousands on a long shot double-exacta. Then, you have to sustain this hypnotism of the investors for the six or seven months it takes for various time-eating fuck-ups to happen, i.e. other shows' unplanned extensions to peter out, too-similar shows to close, etc.

The Umbilical Brothers, the stars of "Thwack," were apparently able to
cultivate this rare enthusiasm and now have an astonishingly
well-reviewed "hit show." The brothers are two "wild and crazy guys"
from Australia who were about as wild and crazy as you'd expect
"cut-ups" who are "real class clowns" who really "got in a lot of
trouble in drama school" to be. They were nerdy, footloose bastards,
wearing what I've come to identify as the "a cappella singing-guy
outfit," i.e. suspenders, brightly colored wife-beater shirt, pleated
slacks. Capezio jazz-dance flat shoes (optional). Christ, they were
un-hip. Their absurdist, fairly physically inventive show was sort of
cute, but remarkably non-vital. Kid's birthday party kind of cute.
Tourist mime-act kind of cute. Stultifyingly non-vital. Ho ho ho clever.
In short, mildly amusing. A fucking snorefest.

Now, a good movie is a great cocktail for the psyche, but a good live
performance practically initiates the audience into lavish pagan
mysteries. You get a feeling of exploding magnificence from a radiant
performer who gives you physical pain that either A) you're not them,
having that much exalted, free-blasting, soaring joy and brilliance, or
B) you can't take them home, and have that exciting power-creature
around you all the time, like a pet leprechaun. Seeing someone truly
great blows your bangs off your forehead like a strong prevailing wind.
Your heart crawls up into your neck and you liquefy, you laugh out all
the air in your lungs, you cry real tears. It's a stunning, spinal
experience of excruciating pleasure that almost scars you in some way.
Their sorcery changes you; you drive home in a dazed, heart-dipped fever
and you demand better of yourself, for weeks afterward.

I was 0-for-2 this weekend, for inspiration and sanguine entertainment,
and feeling desperate, as if I'd been coated up to my scalp in beige
stucco. All of my senses were weakening, and all of my spiritual
energy-seeking tendrils were curling brown and dry into themselves like
a dying fern, and I made my third mistake : I saw "Star Wars: the Phantom
in the hopes of catching a moment of escapist numb. I was
stunned how utterly devoid of connective human feeling it was -- how all
of the potentially emotional moments were subservient to the
multimillion-dollar explosive juggernaut techno-wank; what an empty
fluorescent ejaculation it was. George Lucas must be so drunk and bionic
in his daily life that he can only get passionate about stuff like laser
cornea surgery.

Natalie Portman's queen outfits were by far the most awe-inspiring thing
on the screen. In the original "Star Wars," I remember being thrilled by
the two shimmering moons on Luke's home planet. Simple, maybe, but there
was lingering delight to these brilliant, easy touches. You didn't need
the whole fucking galaxy to explode. When Han Solo took the ship to
light-speed and all of the stars stretched into straight lines, you
believed it.

The good news is I've got a book for you that is so full of swervy
ectoplasm and life-roaring vividness you won't need to leave the house
for weeks: "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung," by the late, great
Lester Bangs, rock critic for Creem magazine in the good ol' '70s.
I actually can't live without Lester now. I sat in the bathtub and
cried the other day because I would never get to meet Lester; we'd never
talk at 2 in the morning all fucked up on inferior whiskey; I'll never
get to sit on his lap and tug on his handlebar mustache. But his words
are still here; Lester is more brightly here, in a lot of ways, than the
majority of dim bozos who are still up and dorking around in front of
us, those Next Big Things, consuming our cash and time, boring us like a
degenerative disease into complacent, empty-faced neutral, hacking a
grateful chuckle out of us every here and there. Dead Lester is 10
times more alive.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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