Comedians in Line at the DMV Getting Licensed

When Seinfeld the television show was on, a guy in my office gig at the time used to come by my desk in the morning after each episode and ask me did I see Seinfeld last night. I never did. My colleague would then repeat over the course of the day practically the entire episode for me, scene by scene. “And then Kramer comes in and says, ‘…’.” That sort of thing. And he was really good, too. He could have been a stand-up on his own. In fact, he ended up doing a few shows of his own. Very witty guy, good mimic, remembered all the good lines from the classic movies and shows.

Eventually, I did watch some Seinfeld, new and reruns. Funny stuff, the four friends and their meaningless, purposeless adventures, circuitous – but there’s truth in comedy, and while the Seinfeld episodes might have failed to high jump the MASH bars in the handling of controversial issues, they were subtly subversive in their almost zen like refusal to acknowledge the importance of quotidian values. Seinfeld crossed into farce, while MASH was embedded in satire.

So it was with interest I listened to Susan who first told me about Seinfeld’s newest venture, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” an independent, on-line show now in its 7th season and 50th episode. The premise is Jerry calls up one of his comedian buddies and invites them to get a coffee, to which they drive in paradisiacal Los Angeles weather in some American Graffiti like cool rod. Susan and I watched the latest installment together on her laptop this morning. Jerry picks up Judd Apatow and they head out in a 1968 candy apple bougainvillea red Firebird. And while we were watching, the idea came to me for this post.

You see, the problem with comedians in cars getting coffee is that there isn’t anything intrinsically funny about getting coffee. And there’s not much funny about souped up, expensive cars – retro, restored, like they’ve never been taken out of the garage.

How about, Comedians in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. “What number are you, Jerry?” “I’m number 236, Judd, how about you?” “33.”  “Really, how lucky is that? When did you get here?” “Yesterday, around noon.”

“Number 236? 236?” “Hey, man isn’t that you?” “Number 237, 237?” “Oh, bummer, man. You gotta go pull a new number. Otherwise, you’ll be like taking cuts.”

Or how about, “Comedians without medical insurance coverage in line at the ER with a strange raspberry red itchy rash all up and down their arms and legs. “You, know, Jerry, when we got here the rash was only around our ankles.” “Don’t worry, it’s got a ways to go yet before it gets to our eyes and ears.”

And why comedians, anyway? Why not a car pool full of adjunct instructors in an old beater on their way to night classes? Oh, wait, I guess those are comedians.

Or how about a couple of plumbers in tee shirts and blue jeans getting hot dogs and beers at a food cart in Culver City across from one of the old studios? “Hey, Jocko, You think maybe you can come over my place take a look at my plugged up toilet you get off? “Sure, Mabelline, love too.” “What, around 5, 6?” “Yeah, yeah.” “I’ll put some cool ones on ice for ya, Jocko.” “Swell, lovely.”

Postal workers getting their feet rubbed with coconut oil at nail salons, complaining about all the junk mail, but without which they’d probably be unemployed.

Paparazzi taking a Pierria bottled water break on the beach at Malibu.

But I’m glad to see Seinfeld’s project a success. There’s a sponsor now, so Jerry’s presumably broken another preconceived assumption too long controlled by network TV and others in advertising – and social media wonks and the like. In any case, if I’ve said it once I’ve said it more than once, you should not criticize a work for not being the work you want it to be. The good critic considers intent, intended audience, type of argument, persuasive appeals. There are many types of argument, many ways to persuade. Some audiences are friendly, others hostile, and they can change direction like a spinning top. Besides, it’s not easy being funny. Many folks have very little in the way of a sense of humor, and they don’t tolerate fools or clowns with their time.

There are other getting coffee like projects, involving all the arts. Indie ideas. In Poets Online Talking About Coffee, Berfrois editor Russell Bennetts conducts a series of interviews ostensibly about the poet’s relationship with coffee. But relationships with coffee can be complicated. And you can get your own coffee.

 

The Hep Cat Book Club

IMG_20160513_072133What are we reading?
Joe wrote a book.
Really? What’s it called?
Penina’s Letters.
Who’s Penina?
Are there any cats in Joe’s book?
One, Castus.
Hmm.
I hear Joe’s working on a sequel.
Tell him to put more cats in it.

“Penina’s Letters,” get yr copy!

Book Review: Penina’s Letters

Over at the It Kind of Got Away From You blog, Dan Hennessy has posted a thumb’s up review of my novel, Penina’s Letters. Paddle on over and check it out!

Happy Bloomsday Interview at Queen Mob’s Tea House

Russell Bennetts, editor extraordinaire (Berfrois, Queen Mob’s Tea House), interviews the Prince of the Toads for his popular series “Poets Online Talking About Coffee.” Head on over for a cup and check it out.

Below: “The Dance Lesson,” 32 x 64, oil paint and oil pastel over acrylic:

Penelope Fitzgerald

Susan, post El Porto

Susan, post El Porto

Hermione Lee’s recent Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life occasioned a number of reviews in the usual places. Most touched on the questions of how did Penelope do it (the uncanny way she cleans up the mess by throwing out the novelistic clutter extraneous to her enriched needs, leaving almost every sentient sentence embering in its own mystery), and when did Penelope do it (she did not write and publish her first novel until around age 60). Writing and publishing a novel are two different activities. Writing one at any age seems unremarkable; publishing one, at any age, may be. Readers often gawk and might wonder if Penelope was a so-called “late bloomer.” But the flower seduced into blooming too early may come to regret a late frost. In any case, there is little evidence that Penelope was a late bloomer. Her writing seems set in her past. The novels are reflections, reconsiderations of experience, of a life rooted in the mutation and gestation of failure. Failure, like slapstick, can be funny in a way success can never be, but only a writer bloomed wise (rather than, say, embittered) from omission will get this. Slapstick, too, is found where the waves of success (swells that break in a timely manner) dissipate on the strand of a listless audience.

The narrator of a Penelope novel, always in third person, tells only what she wants to when she’s good and ready, often slipping very close to first person in what James Wood calls “free indirect style,” but might pull back and mention a year, not all that useful a piece of information, actually, considering 1960 aboard a barge on the Thames hardly suggests an environment the same as 1960 up from the Strand at El Porto, except that later it might help explain a question of whether or not television was invented yet or were the characters too poor or too bohemian to own one, and one begins to see the ship of one’s own home going down in a domestic storm just as easily on 44th in El Porto as on the Thames in London. Domestic themes are at once both universal and local; what matters is both what is said and how it is said. One doesn’t navigate one’s way through domestic turmoil following some staid rubric or outline; one lives through the hullabaloo and just maybe survives alone to tell the tale. And you must tell it as it happened, full of confusion and doubt about what might come next, wind always full in the sails, or might have happened, if someone, anyone, had their hand, even once in a while, on the tiller.

Of the reviews of Lee’s Life I reviewed, I’ll only mention a few: Caleb Crain in Harpers, “Her Struggle: The reticence of Penelope Fitzgerald” (which I saw note of on his blog but had to renew my lapsed subscription to Harpers to see, only to be thwarted by a six week delay before my first issue arrived, which by then was the next month’s; no matter, by then, impatient, I was able to read Caleb’s review on-line, having gained re-admittance via subscription to go behind the Harper’s pay wall – you need a hand stamp); James Wood in The New Yorker, “Late Bloom”; Alexander Chee in Slate, “The Lady Vanished”; and Levi Stahl, on I’ve Been Reading Lately, “Penelope Fitzgerald’s notebooks.” I mention Caleb’s review because he waited until 46 to write and publish his first novel (following a novella published in n+1 and a number of non-fiction works, including articles, book, and blog); is Caleb a late bloomer? Of course not, but it’s interesting that the setting of Caleb’s Necessary Errors, like most of Penelope’s, occurs decades ahead of its writing and publication. Doesn’t wine aged twenty years taste different from the day it was bottled? Some writers are everblooming. Alexander Chee mentions not just the idea of the late bloomer but recounts the actual critical reaction to Penelope’s success that at the time combined skepticism with derision, as if to have arrived late and wearing a housedress provided adequate support for the claim unprolific oldster can’t write or she would have by now. And Levi Stahl’s review is interesting because it references an earlier review he wrote of Penelope’s The Afterlife, a collection of her non-fiction articles, and on the strength of his review, I picked up a copy and quickly saw that this whole late blooming explanation of anything is a dodge. The clue to understanding Penelope might have something to do with knowledge of patience, as this comment, from Bridget Read’s Paris Review “How She Knows,” explains:

“It is vital to emphasize that Fitzgerald’s novels were not achieved in spite of her domestic life; they were borne directly out of it. Her work is radical in that it suggests that, in fact, a feminine experience, a liminal experience, might be better equipped than a male one to address the contradictions of human existence taken up by the greatest literature.”

Levi Stahl’s review was of Penelope’s notebooks, and he quotes Penelope saying:

“I am drawn to people who seem to have been born defeated or, even, profoundly lost.”

It’s possible that Penelope’s testimony, expressed in her novels, belies even her most perceptive reviewers: did she not feel herself, during all those years of veritable single motherhood and low rung jobs thanks in large part to the miscreant missing husband – did she never feel neither beat nor no direction home?

I am reminded here of Daisy from Penelope’s The Gate of Angels. Maybe Daisy wasn’t born defeated, but loss came nevertheless, which perhaps makes things even worse, for if one is not born defeated, one may not have the skills necessary for sane survival (wit and sense of humor, irony, empathy, honesty, ability to pack quickly and travel light) yet Daisy, in so many ways, never seems either defeated or lost. Even when she is actually lost, as in without a map, she manages to find a way out of that lostness. And of course the lone woman going astray into the for-males-only cloistered arena of Fred’s college is hilarious with irony. Daisy, for her obvious suffering, is existentially happy, the most telling characteristic of her personality, upon her like a birthmark, that she finds it easier to give than to take, to provide for than to ask from.

This sense of being born lost, though, surely is gender neutral, but to find oneself lost with children in tow is a condition most often reserved for women. Reading Penelope, I am reminded of both Stevie Smith and Clarice Lispector, Stevie for humor, Clarice for a style of omission, and both for a hold on the occult. While I was reading The Bookshop, which employs a poltergeist, coincidentally Susan informed me a squirrel had taken up residence in an eve recently slightly opened by ice damage to a fascia board of our old house. I argued, since we had not actually seen the squirrel, that it could be a poltergeist. But Susan said, no, because the squirrel only made noise in the early morning, just before dawn, whereas a poltergeist prefers the hour just after you’ve fallen asleep.

What else characterizes the style of Penelope’s short novels? The narrator often comments on the behavior of characters as if there are three parties at play at once: the character, the narrator, and the author. While to some readers, this may seem like a loose grip on point of view, it’s actually a way of condensing and rotating observation, like with a kaleidoscope. The action is close in, the distant details of world news obviously irrelevant. The focus is on detail – if things seem vague, it’s not for lack of detail, description, or dialog that reveals character. Character as Chaplinesque cog, subject to naturalistic randomness. Free indirect style, with the narrator making evaluative, reflective, and analytical comments, as if claims made may indeed be challenged, though of course there will be no reply. Still, almost everything continually on the go, or on the move, coming, as it were, as surprise. But isn’t that the nature of the domestic, which cannot be domesticated?

So, I’ve read so far, of Penelope novels, in this order, as they came up in library queue: Offshore, my favorite I suppose for its setting of water and boats and mix of characters major and minor as well as the unexpected turns; At Freddie’s, again, a mix of young and old characters, age sometimes having little to do with maturity, and Freddie’s is how all schools should work; The Bookshop, atmosphere so strong you can smell the water and the books and hear the poltergeist and the cash machine; The Golden Child, bit of a mystery this one, though they all contain something of that genre; The Gate of Angels, again, while the plot is dated in a specific time zone, it hardly seems relevant in the sense the characters and their predicaments could be playing out even as we read. And I’m opened now to Human Voices. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I started Innocence, but did not finish it. I had read about a third of it when I nonetheless had to admit that I couldn’t get my ear around it. I think something of the “historical novel” angle and too much of the fairy tale got in my way. Maybe I’ll go back to it some day. It’s often I pick up an old favorite book and wonder, how did I ever find this enjoyable? Likewise, I might pick up a book I long ago was unable to get into, and wonder, how could I not have appreciated this? Maybe I’ll have to wait until I turn 60, a late blooming reader. Meantime, I’ve also put Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald in the queue.

The Audience

The AudienceThe audience appeared waving umbrellas from drinking happy hour beer, or hurrying from work or dropping off the kid, driving in from the aloof burb or sliding down from the hep pad on the hill, making a splash, alighting from cab or bus amid the rush. Coming from everywhere, the audience began to cohere.

The audience entered the hall dressed to its drollest: dressed in red down gown, hair whiffed and coifed like a pastry croissant, smelling of perfumes; dressed in jet-black tuxedo, in tight shoes and diminished socks, with small bottle of whiskey packed discreetly in coat pocket, hair polished with floor wax; dressed in polka dot shift over silver flats; dressed in loose corduroy and plaid flannel; dressed in pressed denim pants over soft loafers or heavy boots. In any case, dressed: dressed to the nines, dressed to the gills, dressed to kill or to be killed, dressed like a cat or a pig, dressed and de-dressed and redressed, but not to digress.

The audience performed a wave. The swell rose from the back rows and swept forward down the aisles, rising and falling until it broke upon the stage. The audience pulled at its hair, feet patting the flowered floor. The audience was absorbed in felt. The audience was loosely packed, like popcorn, knee-to-knee, and bounced up and down in its box.

The audience yawned. The audience fidgeted. The audience teared. The audience popped bonbons and sucked jujubes. The audience cheered. The audience hissed. The audience levitated. The audience milled. The audience was blindfolded and applauded by the players. The audience walked out. The audience considered what fun to yearn through the years the discerning one.

The audience abandoned its mess. The audience crawled beneath seats, searching for lost touches. The audience stuck wet purple platitudes under seats. The audience retreated patiently without panic up the slow aisles. The audience left behind a coin purse of cough drops, a pair of plastic reading glasses, an empty bottle of whiskey, a set of earphones, a Moleskine pocket notebook full of lists, a psychedelic scarf, a citizenship test study guide, and a paisley golf umbrella.

The audience walked out into a breezy evening on the neon avenue, and a few unpopped kernels fell from wrinkled lapels. The audience went this way and that, for cigarettes or toilets, for coffee or cocktails, whistled for a taxi or waited for a bus, climbed into a cold bed or gave the babysitter a ride home.

The audience disagreed with the critic’s review in the morning blog. The audience told the coworker all about what was worn the night before. The audience the following weekend was unable to remember. The audience slept through the off-season, dreaming of animated spring costumes, of walking through the park, watching for peacocks, down to the theatre, the marquee illuminating the wet pavement, the hot buttery popcorn freshly popped. The audience awoke and wanted more.

Coelho & Doyle on Joyce

Every person alive has a story, but some don’t have voices. But there are many ways to tell a story, and stories can be told without words. Still, for the story to emerge, the storyteller must develop some kind of voice, allowing others access to their text – again, even if the text is without words. But some persons with voices remain unaware of their story, even as their story is read or enjoyed or devoured and repeated by others. Still others may be aware of their stories and have voices but choose not to share. Can all these stories be told, and who will tell these stories, using what voice?

I am moved this morning to tell this story as a consequence of a Twitter “interaction”: “Well, about Coelho, what can we say?” For I had re-tweeted a tweet calling attention to a Guardian Books post quoting the Brazilian writer Paul Coelho: “One of the books that caused great harm was James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is pure style. There is nothing there. Stripped down, Ulysses is a twit.” The same article refers to a previous Guardian article, an interview with the Irish writer Roddy Doyle, who said: “You know people are always putting Ulysses in the top 10 books ever written but I doubt that any of those people were really moved by it.”

I think part of Roddy’s point, in the context of the interview, was to bemoan all the attention Joyce has received over the years, possibly to the neglect of other Irish writers just as deserving of readers’ attention. But both Coelho’s and Doyle’s criticism of Ulysses is grounded in their literary values – they think that for a literary work to have value, the reader should be moved, changed, brought to tears or laughter, that we should leave the theatre wanting to change our lives or somebody else’s life. For a story to be good, the Coelho-Doyle argument goes, the voice must be immediately recognizable, accessible, and force feelings to surface in the audience. And since Ulysses, for most readers, probably doesn’t do that, it’s not a good book, and since it’s nevertheless received so much recognition and so many writers have tried to use Joyce’s voice, it’s been harmful because it’s diminished the development of other voices, voices that might have reached readers and transformed their lives.

I’m reminded of the barbershop on Center Street in El Segundo, where I once dropped in to get a haircut. It was a one chair shop, and someone else was in the chair, so I had to wait, and while I waited, I listened in on what amounted to a lesson in art criticism. The barber had hung on the wall a painting of a mountain lake. “And I have a photograph of that very spot,” the barber said. “And if I hang both of them side by side, I defy you to tell me which one is the photograph and which one is the painting.”

Related Posts: Where Winston Churchill meets Roddy Doyle; or, the Library is not a Zoo. The Elite and the Effete: From Access to Egress.