Whatever Threatens Us

 

Anger can be righteous while comedic, though the balance is usually off, and it’s a rare person who navigates the difference. Barry Crimmins was a rare person who managed it, to the degree that he did.

I knew Barry over the last decade of his life. He emailed me from out of the blue, having read a blog post of mine satirizing US nationalism. A friend of his thought Barry wrote it under a pseudonym. Barry said he was honored by his friend’s mistake. “I love your stuff. Just love it,” he wrote, giving me his number. “Call me sometime – in fact anytime. Brilliance like yours is in extremely short supply.”

We became fast friends, talking several times a week. We were both off the grid — Barry in upstate New York, me doing janitorial work in Michigan. I’d empty cubicle garbage late at night while Barry riffed into my earpiece, attacking the surrounding madness between sips of beer. These were intimate performances. I’d add a few cents of my own, but Barry set the tone.

There were few casual conversations with Barry. When he rang, you had to be ready for an emotional outpouring. There were times when I ignored his calls; I simply lacked the energy to engage. Most times, Barry knew I was dodging him and let me have it on my voicemail. His putdowns could be poetic. But there was love. Barry showed me lots of love.

He also demonstrated his faith and support. When Barry roused himself from exile, he brought me along. As my marriage fell apart, I went back onstage trying to reclaim an earlier version of myself. Barry understood this and opened doors. His endorsement went a long way. Through him, I met and connected with some truly remarkable talents. I performed on stages that otherwise would have been closed to me.

When Barry returned to the Boston stage, he asked me to open for him. I said he was nuts. First, this was Boston, his home turf. Second, my sets were more autobiographical than comic. Surely he’d want someone attuned to the comedy of the moment. “Fuck ’em,” he replied. “D’you wanna do it or not?”

I did, and it was great. Barry stood in the back, laughing with, at times without, the audience. He gave me notes while lauding my effort. Then he went on and blew away the room. His energy carried the material. Even if you weren’t sure that what he was saying was funny, Barry made you a believer by the punchline.

That’s what stuck with me — Barry’s ability to close. No matter how seemingly detached his ad libbing, Barry brought it all back on a dime. It was amazing to watch. And then things changed.

Barry wrote a screenplay called CALL ME LUCKY for his best friend Bobcat Goldthwait to direct. It became a biopic depicting Barry’s insanely rough life, from childhood rape to showbiz marginalization. Barry helped launch the careers of numerous famous comics, while taking down AOL’s child porn chat rooms. It was a long overdue, much deserved tribute. For once, the lone spotlight was on him.

This, based on my personal experience, triggered Barry in various ways, the most prominent feature being entitlement. Barry was owed this. His ship had finally come in, as it was bound to, setting in motion the next phase which would put Barry back on top.

I applauded and supported this. Yes, Barry should be as big as Chappelle, Rock, and Louis C.K. He forged the path. I was fully in Barry’s corner. We spoke often as he prepared for a stand up special to be produced and directed by Louie in Lawrence, Kansas. The iron was hot.

Barry played small venues in order to sharpen his act. I caught up to him in Queens. He seemed distracted. A couple of younger comics flattered Barry as we said hi to each other. He drained a beer then grabbed another and went onstage.

The audience loved him, laughing and clapping as Barry ranted and raved. And that was pretty much what he did that night — rant. There were no punchlines, at least none that I recognized. Each rant ended with “Fuck you!” and “Go fuck yourself!” and “Get the fuck outta here!” The young crowd ate it up. I was confused. Was this what Barry intended for the special?

Afterward, Barry and I talked about the set. I wasn’t honest with him, not that it mattered. His younger fans were impressed, and Barry went off with them into the night, smoking a cigarette, mumbling goodbye. He looked lost in their admiration.

I next saw Barry in Lawrence. He seemed upbeat but angry, which was nothing new. Only this anger was different. Barry could be and often was extremely angry. It’s why people who knew him rarely crossed him, regardless of intent. Barry would make you pay. He had plenty of hurt to spare.

I experienced this. I know many of Barry’s friends did. I’ve had late drunken nights with Barry where he probed and poked and tried to get a negative response. He sometimes screamed in my ear. I refused to scream back. Eventually, it was laughed off as a test. Barry testing you was a privilege. It meant he took you seriously.

In Lawrence, the tests bordered on abuse. I don’t know what the fuck was up with him; he acted like he was a big star. In a way, he was, but he really pushed it. Lawrence was his town. Everybody there loved him. He couldn’t walk down the street without people asking for his time. Barry stopped short of talking about himself in the third person, but he didn’t have to.

He busted my balls up to his first show, and then became friendly again, asking for my feedback. The first show was tight and moved well. It helped that there was a time limit, as a second show audience was waiting outside. They got the untethered Crimmins experience. Barry was all over the place, doing bits from the ’80s, occasionally repeating punchlines. It seemed like every joke he ever told came spilling out — his Greatest Hits. Barry put everything he had into that set. By the end his exhaustion was evident.

He sat on a stool in his dressing room, slumped forward, sipping a beer. “You look like Ali after his third fight with Frazier,” I said. Barry brightened. “Yeah. Ali. I like that.” He leaned back against the wall and sighed. The night was over. I went back to my room and crashed.

I left Lawrence early the next morning. Barry later texted, thanking me for my support. He expressed love and promised to talk soon. When he next reached out, it was through a very terse text. Barry claimed that someone told him I was bad mouthing him behind his back. This was news to me, so I asked what I supposedly said. Barry replied that I knew precisely what I said, and that my denial only made things worse.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I texted. “If you have a quote, please share it.”

Barry said that he was too busy to deal with such formalities. I clearly betrayed him and he wanted nothing more to do with me. Then he vanished. I never spoke to or saw Barry again. This broke my heart.

I never understood why Barry behaved this way. I was told that he’d done the same with other friends. Maybe he did; it wouldn’t have surprised me. A year later I heard he was sick and didn’t have much time. When I learned of his death, I wept and thought of all the unnecessary pain Barry endured and meted out. He was truly tortured, and though capable of tremendous love and caring, Barry could also be thoughtlessly cruel and petty.

When he was making CALL ME LUCKY, Barry insisted that I be interviewed for the film. I didn’t see the point — he had far more famous friends than me to testify, but that’s what Barry wanted. So I came to the set, was interviewed on camera by Bobcat, drove Barry to a store to buy beer, then went home.

As I expected, my segment didn’t make the final cut. But if you watch the film’s ending closely, you’ll see me next to Barry, smiling. It was fitting, I suppose. And now he’s gone, and that’s the way it goes.

In A Defect’s Mirror

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“Why can’t I have normal sex fantasies?”

If an artist’s life and work are inseparable, then Louis C.K. must be one of the purest creators in recent memory.

His stage act and TV shows are filled with masturbation jokes, shameful sexual thoughts, and general confusion about how to romantically approach a woman, if that’s even possible. Louie is pretty much always the butt of the joke, punished by ridicule and rejection, left to further ponder his inadequacy.

It’s a very Catholic outlook, as any veteran of the Church will recognize. I don’t know if nuns whacked Louie’s hands with wooden rulers as they did mine, but their savage lessons must have had a lasting effect. The priests were no picnic, either. They could fuck you up without even touching you.

So Louie goes into the world, wanting to be a comedian. Pryor and Carlin are major influences. It’s a confessional form, and Louie has a lot to say. The comedy boom guarantees a stage for anyone game, regardless of talent or insight. But Louie has talent; he’s bright, committed and determined. He’s in it for the duration, however tarnished and compromised that might be.

Problem is, Louie comes of comic age in a time of angry male reaction. The ’70s and ’80s rubbed a lot of young male comics the wrong way. They viewed that period as soft, effeminate, weak. Women were pushy, gay men a threat, hence the constant queer-baiting and bashing. A new generation of male comics would assert its manhood.

Their boys’ club was aggressively juvenile and showed up everywhere. Even SNL was dominated by it for a brief time. Women were seen as bitches, whores, idiots, and extreme mother figures. Saying cunt became common. Ball busting focused more on vaginas than testicles. Male toxicity was the New Funny, and if you didn’t appreciate it, then you were gay or a girl, and girls had no sense of humor.

Louis C.K. worked in the middle of all this. Some of his best friends were misogynistic comedians. But unlike most of them, Louie had more artistic goals in mind. He saw things cinematically, knew that comedy and drama were essentially the same. He began making short films while writing for established comics. His stand up was a storyboard for the deeper themes he wanted to explore.

Of course, this more or less dovetails into the sordid stories that are now common knowledge. In the midst of Louis C.K.’s creative evolution, he misbehaves. Horribly. Abusively. Repeatedly. Pushed against the wall by The New York Times, he confesses to all of it. Many women are angry that he didn’t say “I’m sorry,” but honestly, that wouldn’t have seriously mattered. As the most accomplished comedian of his generation, Louie must pay a higher price. Just saying “sorry” could never cover it.

“I wish I was one of those people who has clean sex. Nice clean boners.”

Much of Louis C.K.’s output reveals an obvious, steady pattern of confession. He’s clearly conflicted about sex and his relationship to women — at least those women he wanted to fuck or masturbate to. Professionally, many women who’ve worked with him sing his praises, so obviously he can control his desires.

Maybe he no longer behaves that way and hasn’t for awhile. It would explain his extensive self-autopsies. In a sense, Pryor and Carlin’s influence is even more profound. Jokes are nice; ripping open your chest to an audience requires a certain critical focus.

Given the period in which he creatively grew, Louis C.K.’s level of work is remarkable. He’s the misogynistic era’s Byron. He has serious chops, and one wonders what he might have accomplished in a more expansive time. It’s never too late, even for the worst of us.

Contrition Nation

If there’s anything cheaper than life in present day America, it’s the public apology. Bad behavior, criminal choices, sociopathic outbursts, even murder, can be mitigated somewhat with the right plaintive tone. (Except for cops — cops never apologize.) Doesn’t matter if it’s sincere, so long as the intended audience believes it’s sincere. Which they usually don’t.

Louis C.K. is finding that out, assuming he’s still paying attention. If he’s smart, he’ll take what money he has left and go into hiding for three or four years. Discover Buddhism. Practice yoga with a morally-strict instructor. Deny himself the pleasures of the flesh, which inevitably lead to pain, destruction and ruin. All life is suffering. You bet.

In my day, comedians set themselves on fire, shot up their cars, freebased coke until their hearts exploded — and that was just Richard Pryor. Freddie Prinze briefly ruled before ending his career with a bullet to the brain. Belushi, Farley, Mitch Hedberg, and Greg Giraldo overdosed. That’s how comics used to do it. Louie’s crash is decidedly softer, which is why a lot of people aren’t satisfied with his mea culpa.

A random scroll through Twitter reveals various desires for Louie’s death, imprisonment, castration, or whatever torture a cubicle drone can imagine while sitting on the office toilet. Twitter may not reflect all Americans who use it (or we are seriously fucked), but much of it puts the lie to the perennial canard that Americans are a forgiving people. Not when there’s blood in the air. Not when the powerless can momentarily elevate themselves through shared moral outrage.

Of course, what Louis C.K. did was reprehensible, maybe even criminal, depending on how the law is interpreted. Those close to him knew, or had to have some idea, thus their relative silence so far. (Expect plenty of “What? I had no clue! My heart’s broken!”) Rumors are one thing, but as we’re discovering daily, there’s a lot of truth to them. In a country this twisted, is that any real surprise? Rape, sexual abuse, harassment, and all the shit that goes with it are no longer in the shadows. Women have truly had it. They’re done, which means they’re only getting started.

At least when it comes to showbiz. Countless wrongs may never be completely righted, but there are plenty of cases to work with, and you can almost smell the sweat coming from talent agencies and entertainment law offices alike. A lot of anxious professionals are going to log some serious overtime before this is over, if it’s ever over.

Meanwhile, those who rape the economy and financially bludgeon the populace are doubtless unconcerned with the current uproar. It must amuse them to see their underlings exposed, disgraced, perhaps even prosecuted. So long as the real power brokers aren’t dragged into daylight and set aflame, it’s all good. In fact, for them, it’s probably better than ever.

As for Louie, well, there’s always that yoga retreat in the distant hills where he can watch I LOVE YOU, DADDY on a loop, as did the hermetic Howard Hughes with ICE STATION ZEBRA. Life may be suffering, but that doesn’t mean you make it worse for others. Lights out at 10. No exceptions.

Wankers

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I’ve always loved comedy. In a sense, comedy saved my life. But comedians are some of the worst people I’ve ever met.

Self-loathing. Contempt for others (audiences and fellow comics alike). Anger. Pettiness. Bitterness. And in many of the men, misogyny, casual racism, sexual confusion, all couched, naturally, in The Joke. Because once the stage lights dim, no matter how vile the material, it’s considered little more than a fading joke.

The comic minds who moved me were absurdist and satirical — not that they didn’t utter awful things or explore twisted premises, but there was, ideally, something behind just getting laughs. When I entered the NYC comedy world of the early-1980s, most performers I encountered had no interest in conceptual bits. They mined familiar themes for easy laughs and hoped for commercial success. Thus was the tenor of that decade’s comedy boom.

I was there for most of it, yet not really a part of it. The only reason I performed stand up was to have my writing heard. I had no intention nor desire to be a club comic, and this put me at a distance. But my writing kept me close enough to the game which disabused me of any lingering romantic thoughts about comedy’s potential power. I was young. It was heartbreaking.

So does this mean I believe what’s being said about Louis C.K.? Yes, I think the accusations are most likely true. Given the sexual masochism of Louie’s work, the open shame and self-flagellation, it’s nearly impossible to think that this isn’t part of the real him. Sometimes comedians behave worse offstage. This clearly seems to be the case here.

Again, it’s part and parcel of that world. Even as recently as six years ago, when I returned to the stage out of curiosity and a feeling of unfinished business, I was shocked by how degraded the stand up form had become. I wrote about it at the time, and felt badly for the women who endured sexist, garbage material in an effort to realize their own comedy dreams.

Women aren’t funny. Bullshit — plenty of women are funny. Feminists have no sense of humor. Ha — I know and have worked with witty feminists. Having seen how lesser male comics treated the women in their midst, Louis C.K.’s alleged behavior rings true. As ugly as this is, maybe it will inspire a comedy boom led by women. It’s well overdue, and we certainly could use some fresh jokes.

UPDATE: Louis C.K. confessed to it all. Not much else he could do and still be taken seriously, yet he seemed relatively contrite (though for many it’ll never be enough). Moving on, hopefully to a women’s comedy era.

When Clowns Cry

“You wanna pet my dawwwg?”

Jerry Lewis offers his tiny dog to me. I’m hesitant to touch it because this is Jerry Lewis, comedy legend, pop culture icon. Though he’s using his little boy’s voice, Jerry has a reputation for sudden anger, and he’s bigger than I’d imagined. Hair slicked down, aviator glasses, sports jacket, open collar shirt, expensive watch. Just like he looked on Carson, Cavett, and Merv.

I’m a bit frozen, but I pet his dog regardless. It has long white fur flecked with black. I don’t know its sex and don’t venture a guess. I pull back my hand and smile at Jerry. He briefly smiles, then leaves.

It’s November, 1983, SNL’s Studio 8H. Jerry is that week’s host, and I’m lucky enough to watch him rehearse. He seems casual but aloof. Save for Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo, I doubt he knows the names of the rest of the cast, and probably doesn’t care. He questions some of the jokes in each sketch. He takes issue with one writer who assures Jerry that a green-screen piece will kill on-air. Other writers mutter jokes about Jerry, but he doesn’t hear them. He looks like he wants to get through this as quickly as possible.

My comedic interest in Jerry Lewis then was recent. I never really liked his work growing up, but honestly, I never truly studied it. Jerry Lewis seemed like another fading hack from yesteryear, doing ancient bits for nostalgic applause. I was attracted to newer, daring forms — Python, National Lampoon, and of course SNL, which was the main reason why I was at 8H in the first place.

When I moved to NYC the year before, I’d gotten to know a few comedy writers who respected Jerry Lewis and were astonished by my agnosticism. One had written a manuscript analyzing Jerry’s films which he suggested I read. It painted a different Jerry Lewis from the one in my head. He was a conceptual, innovative genius who navigated rough showbiz waters with confidence, arrogance, and bizarre, inexplicable behavior. Jerry was a complicated comedy giant. There was no one like him before, and there certainly wouldn’t be one after.

At the time, NYC had numerous theaters that featured old films, so Jerry Lewis’ work was never far away. With a fresh perspective, I went to see THE BELLBOY, THE PATSY, THE ERRAND BOY, THE LADIES MAN, and of course THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, which I’d remembered from childhood. But these viewings were different. I began to understand what those other writers told me.

The precise physical timing; the comic framing and use of bold, contrasting colors that created a hyper-reality; the surrealist slapstick that was as dazzling as it was often baffling. The total commitment to it all. I didn’t connect to every gag, and was put off by the more maudlin scenes (what Dean Martin called “that Chaplin shit”). Yet here was a definitive brilliance that I had missed. I was converted.

Unfortunately, most people will remember Jerry Lewis primarily as a difficult celebrity, the guy who’d weep, rant, and sing on the Muscular Dystrophy telethons. Younger comics, especially women, will see him as an unrepentant sexist, homophobic asshole. Cinéastes will appreciate his films, great, bad, and awful, as a peculiar, singular genre. Then there are those, some of whom I still know, who’ll forever revere Jerry Lewis simply as Jerry — the larger-than-life comedy force that mesmerized them as kids.

I appreciate and share elements of those takes. But if you limited me to one tribute, it would be THE KING OF COMEDY, Martin Scorsese’s dark meditation on fame and delusion. To me, it’s Jerry Lewis’ best work, a solid, honest performance that will never age. Amid the film’s chaos, it’s Jerry who provides the steady flow. You get a vivid sense of who he was and how he viewed his professional career. It’s as close to Method Jerry as we ever got.

And I got to pet his dawwwg.

The Saga So Far

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Yes, I know — I go to the trouble of starting a new site, only to let it rust after a few entries. I have my reasons, though few are terribly compelling.

Basically, the current political/cultural climate sickens me so much that I prefer to read books about time travel and old Hollywood debauchery than type out broody observations. Rejecting a political writing career was a wise move, as the partisan noise that passes for commentary would have long ago had me gnawing on my straitjacket.

Perhaps if I were new to the scene, eager to tear through its rotting flesh. I once felt that way, raising the black flag and ready to cut throats, as Mencken put it. But everything now seems like a crude rerun. There are those who navigate this terrain well and they have my respect, however puzzled I am by their commitment.

I suppose it’s because I’ve seen too many minds warped by this environment. It’s a measure of how preposterous US political culture has become that such violence is commonplace.

I was reminded of this while watching TRUMPED, a behind-the-scenes campaign diary on Showtime. Political reporters Mark Halperin and John Heilemann follow candidate Donald Trump from his first announcement to his stunning victory. The basic arc is the same: Trump spouts crazy shit while the corporate media rolls its eyes and barely stifles its contempt.  Halperin and Heilemann are especially smug, secure in the belief that Trump doesn’t stand a chance against the superior Hillary. Knowing what ultimately happens makes their behavior unintentionally amusing.

Indeed, their shocked expressions on election night made me laugh. The experts got it completely wrong. How could this happen to such smart people? It’s like they hallucinated Trump’s win and hoped that by morning their heads would clear to the proper reality of President Clinton.

What was presumably intended as a historical document comes off as dark comedy. Yet what really struck me was the lack of perception. I also assumed that Hillary had it sewn up; nearly the entire corporate political establishment was behind her. But I didn’t enjoy Halperin and Heilemann’s inside access to Trump’s campaign. If I’d seen what they recorded, I might have still bet on Hillary, though not as confidently. It’s clear that Trump tapped a serious, populist vein, regardless of intention or sincerity. Hillary and her followers ignored that, when not mocking the concept and demeaning those who gave Trump a shot.

Since then, American politics have gone haywire, primarily among liberals who peddle conspiracy theories while clinging desperately to the established Dem order — what remains of it, that is. Trump’s presidency is an erratic nightmare, but apart from Bernie Sanders and those radicals who support him, there isn’t much serious resistance from the liberal camp. For them, Trump is a stylistic embarrassment. They don’t oppose corporate capitalism, just Trump’s chaotic version of it. Their main belief is that once Russian interference is exposed and punished, things can get back to normal.

This is why I hesitate to write extensively about our present moment. Distributing political views in a madhouse holds little appeal for me. Maybe I’m selfish, maybe I’m tired. Maybe the laughs I do find hurt too much to share. I’ll let you know if my condition improves.

Punch Drunk LOL

Piece-Now.jpgHave you ever hit someone so hard that they cried? How well do you take a punch? Ever been on the ground, trying to fend off kicks to your head? Ever been cut? Ever been shot?

These questions aren’t meant to be rhetorical. I’m curious in the serious meat/real world sense. More and more younger people of my acquaintance are, if not directly advocating “punching Nazis,” sympathetic to the violent concept. Given the current landscape, such feelings are probably inescapable, however inadvisable.

But, fascists don’t deserve free speech! They must be pushed back, made afraid, and ultimately defeated!

You’d think we were fighting for the Spanish Republic. Yet a 21st century America led by a media-created, soft-skinned narcissist doesn’t rise to the level of Falangist Spain, much less Nazi Germany. We have our own brightly-lit, pulsating hell to deal with. I’d like to say that it’s unique, and in many ways it is, but imperial decline is nothing new. Only the toys get more expensive.

When it comes to denying fascists free speech rights, Noam Chomsky would disagree with you. After all, Noam defended the free speech rights of French writer Robert Faurisson, who trafficked in Holocaust denial and was fined by a French court (also, allegedly physically attacked). While Noam deplored Faurisson’s views, he nevertheless felt that the state should not determine historical truth. Promoting a vulgar theory of history should not get you fined or imprisoned, and certainly not punched.

Ah, but if we don’t stop fascists at the polemical stage, their dangerous ideas will spread and lead to another Nazi state!

I’m not a historian of fascism (though I’ve known a couple and have read from their shelves), but I do know that the US is nothing like 1933 Germany. It’s larger and more culturally diverse; dissent has in many ways been marginalized, yet remains strong and influential, thanks to social media. In other words, we’re not heading to the camps anytime soon.

The spontaneous defense of Muslim immigrants and refugees is not strictly an answer to encroaching fascism, but a widening and deepening awareness of the present moment. You don’t need to sucker punch Richard Spencer to show fascists where you stand. Strength in numbers and solidarity is a more effective, lasting reminder. Under Trump/Pence, that collective strength will further solidify.

Still, there are adventurist souls who seek direct confrontation. They’re welcome to it, but what’s the end game? Assaulting some asshole scrawling swastikas on public transit may feel good, yet does nothing to undermine the larger problem. And I wonder to what degree this actually happens. There’s lots of talk, but where’s the daily, hourly video feed?

I’ve met and spoken to some of the people calling for this, and like many domestic radicals before them, most couldn’t kick open a bag of flour. Their romance with violence remains theoretical and, in the Twitter age, a spectator sport. Which brings me back to the top of this piece.

I’ve been punched, kicked, stomped, and thrown against walls; I’ve returned the favors, though not as sadistically as my tormentors. I’ve been cut. I was once shot at and somehow wasn’t hit. I’ve fired automatic weapons, a rocket launcher, and thrown live grenades (courtesy of Uncle Sam).

I’ve known violence, and it’s not a meme. We should be bashing corporate capitalism. It’s not as immediately satisfying and is much more elusive, but it’s the true face we need to punch.