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

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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.

Deny Everything

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In 1979, Dead Kennedys released “California Über Alles,” a satirical attack on then-California Governor Jerry Brown and his “Zen fascists.” It was rumored that Brown would challenge Jimmy Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination (which he briefly did); DK lead singer Jello Biafra imagined a New Age Nazi regime where jogging and mellow vibes would be mandatory.

Funny for its day.

Brown never became president, but Ronald Reagan did, bringing with him a darker blend of fascist notions. Biafra’s parody of Brown was suddenly pointless. He rewrote the song, casting Reagan as an American Shah bent on war and Christian conformity. It was re-titled “We’ve Got A Bigger Problem Now.”

Accurate, though given present reality, increasingly quaint.

Is Trump worse than Reagan? Hard to say this early in, but the signs aren’t encouraging. I don’t recall this much craziness at Reagan’s dawn — and Al Haig was Secretary of State! (“Scary man, with morals of a styrofoam cup” as SNL put it at the time.) But then, elites were pretty comfortable with Reagan who was much more popular than Trump. There’s nothing like an unstable narcissist to drive a wedge into the so-called “consensus.”

As we’ve seen, liberal reaction to Trump is all over the place, ranging from conspiracy theories to left-bashing to calls for a military coup (Sarah Silverman’s brilliant suggestion). Marches and demonstrations have increased (I went to three in one week), and there are pleas for a general strike or anything that will slow if not hinder the machine. Bernie Sanders’ campaign anticipated this, but it took Trump to get liberals off their asses and into the streets.

It’s nice to see liberals arise from their eight-year slumber. I don’t know how long it will last or how deep their waking commitment runs, but with President Trump there is no lack of stimulation. Of course, mainstream Democrats remain loyal to the system, regardless of who’s managing it. For many, Trump loses on style points, not for using the weapons honed and passed on to him by Obama. And in case anybody was confused, Nancy Pelosi reminded us that capitalism rules.

Vive la résistance!

Some radicals are opting for more direct confrontations. After fascist dweeb Richard Spencer got sucker punched in DC, and a group of demonstrators aggressively shut down an appearance by alt-right celeb Milo Yiannopoulos in Berkeley, violence is being considered as a viable tactic. We’ve been here before, usually with disastrous results (there are those who think that the anti-WTO protests in Seattle in 1999 were successful, but somehow global capital survived). I suppose each new generation must experience this personally, so we’ll see how violent resistance flies this time around.

I would counsel my young, eager radical friends to think this through. Captain America knocking out Hitler is cute, but physically confronting domestic fascists carries serious risks. Unless you’re armed or know how to fight, chances are good you’ll get the worst of it. Ask the survivors of the Greensboro massacre of 1979, where communists took on the Klan and paid dearly, five with their lives. And don’t forget the fascist-minded in uniform, who have the increasing power of the state behind them. Something to consider before donning the black mask.

It appears, dear ones, that we are in deep shit. And it’s only just begun.