Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Louis CK

I was thinking recently that it was unlikely that any work of art from the past couple of decades was going to rival the best seasons of the Simpsons. What books (in English at least) are definitely going to survive from the same time period? And I remembered something that Borges wrote about artists working in media that are not given literary respect. He was writing specifically about Shakespeare and why none of his contemporaries seem to have taken any notice of the magnitude of what he was producing: "Every era believes that there is a literary genre that has a kind of primacy. Today, for example, any writer who has not written a novel is asked when he is going to write one." And in Shakespeare's day the prestige genre was the epic poem - drama was throwaway popular entertainment.

And he goes on to mention that so much of the best art is produced, to some extent, under the artistic radar of its times. In his own era, he mentions how people were finally coming to see film as an art, but utterly ignoring the screenwriter. "Ben Hecht had to a die a few days ago," he writes, "in order for me to remember that he was the author of the screenplays of these films that I have so often watched and praised." The same is still true of all the people who wrote those Simpsons episodes: it is now common enough to praise that show to the skies, but how many people know who those writers are, search out more of their work, or rank them with the great artists of our time?

After reading this Borges essay (it is "The Enigma of Shakespeare," if anyone is interested, from the Selected Non-Fictions collection - a book that is absolutely wonderful) I started to think about what other works of art might now be hiding in popular but low prestige areas. Television writers, certainly, still get very little credit. Comic books and graphic novels as well, although I have been less impressed with some of the apparent classics of those genres (the only one that struck me as having the same merit as a great novel is Ghost World, although I admit I've only read about a dozen graphic novels).

There is another genre that reminded of what Borges said about drama in Shakespeare's time -- that it was considered primarily a performer's showcase instead of a literary art -- and that is stand-up comedy. People praise certain comics, but I don't think it has ever been really appreciated as literary art form, despite the fact that good comics seem just as hardworking and concerned with craft as the most diligent writer of fiction or poetry. I recently read a wonderful interview in the AV Club with Louis CK, and I started looking up some of his material on YouTube. And it's seriously brilliant. I do like the absurdist one-liner comics, but the ones that really stick with me are the storytellers - Cosby and Pryor and CK - that make you forget the obvious artifice behind a guy standing up and telling jokes. Anyway, here are some of my favorite clips, but there are plenty more - uneven of course but the good parts are really inspired.


Thursday said...

The best work on the show actually comes from a relatively small team that coalesced around the 2nd season. There was of course Groening, who set out the broad vision for the show. But the tightest episodes are almost all directed by Rich Moore or Jim Reardon and most of the really classic episodes seem to come from a relatively small stable of writers: George Meyer, Jeff Martin, John Schwartzwelder, Jay Kogen and Wallace Wollodarsky. By the end second season this team had picked up a lot of creative momentum and going into the third and fourth seasons were all working on an extrodinarily high level. But, from the fifth season on, the show started to slowly lose some of its focus, not coincindentally, I think, as some of these people started to drift away. A few great episodes aside, it hasn't ever fully regained its glory.

With regard to standup comedians, I think you're right. Some of them undoubtedly will come to be seen as great artists; as writers and performance artists they deserve to be taken as seriously as anyone. But you have to be careful; some humour really dates. Is Lenny Bruce funny anymore? I (and a lot of other people) don't think so. I remember, in particular, the scene from Lenny where Bruce rants about how ridiculous it is that gays aren't allowed to become teachers. "What, do you think they are going to start teaching two minutes of cocksucking before recess?" Setting aside the merits and demerits of gays becoming teachers, its ironic that that is often exactly what happened, as anyone familiar with the sex ed wars can tell you. The same with that preachy bore George Carlin. A rant like "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" loses something of its lustre in an age where even toddlers feel free to come up and tell you to "fuck off," and where sites like cater to every vile perversion you can think of and are now available at the click of a mouse in almost every household.

As for Shakespeare not being fully appreciated in his lifetime, I think this had something to do with the fact that his texts were not fully available to the public. Ben Jonson famously accused Shakespeare of lacking art during his lifetime (though he always insisted that he loved the man). David Riggs, Jonson's biographer, suggests that it was only after Jonson got ahold of the texts being prepared for the first folio, that he realized just what Shakespeare's achievement was, resulting in Johnson's famous poem in which Shakespeare triumphes over Chaucer, Spenser, Marlowe, Kyd, Beaumont, Aristophanes, Terence and Plautus. Only Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes are his equals. I would further note that Shakespeare was easily the most influential writer among his peers: Ford, Webster, Tourneur, Beaumont and Fletcher, all show more of his influence than of anyone else. So, it can hardly be said that he was that neglected.

Akshay said...

Wow, I bow to your obviously greater knowledge of both the Simpsons and Shakespeare's era. My only possible clarification is that, by contemporaries, Borges seems to mean not other dramatists but the sort of people engaged in the writing of now forgotten epic poems.

I am also clearly not up on the sex ed wars: are people advocating the teaching of fellatio techniques? That seems incredible to me. And how are gay teachers involved?