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Friday, September 25, 2009

40 Whacks

People often complain about "Saturday Night Live's" crutch-like reliance on stock or recurring characters for cheap laughs, and I'm one of them. "Saturday Night Live" blows. However, lots of other higher-quality sketch comedy shows employ the well-loved device of the recurring character, even the most lionized of sketch shows, (well, I still lionize it), "Monty Python's Flying Circus" used recurring characters. One of my favorites was Graham Chapman's stodgy, uptight colonel, who frequently interrupted sketches in a low, smooth baritone, curtly commanding,

"Right! You there! Stop that. Stop it. It's silly," chomping down on that last word, as if it is the highest insult Chapman's character could conceive. Silly-- the highest insult to common decency, and the Crown. Chapman famously (well, it's famous to me) recites the following:

"Now then. Nobody likes a good laugh more than I do. Except perhaps my wife. And some of her friends. Oh yes, and Captain Johnson. {Pause.} Come to think of it, most people enjoy a good laugh more than I do, but that's beside the point!"

Oh, Graham... we miss you down here.

I like to think of myself as someone who enjoys a good laugh, too, but sometimes I find myself adopting more of the Colonel's attitude about things, and that worries me a bit. Is becoming disapproving and dour what happens as we age? Probably, and sometimes my sensibilities and my morals quite simply get in the fucking way of me having a good time.

Take, for instance, my reaction when I read on that there is a new rock-musical out, based on the case of Lizzie Borden. I was not amused.

In case you're not familiar with old Lizzie, she was a young girl who, in 1892, butchered her mother and her father with an axe. I suppose I should say "suspected of having butchered" because she was actually acquitted at her trial, though popular sentiment still regards her as guilty.

She's about as famous, or infamous, as it gets. There's probably only two women in the late 19th century who are more famous than Lizzie Borden, and their names are Queen Victoria and Clara Barton, and at least the latter two are famous for slightly better reasons than Lizzie. When I was a little boy, I can remember reciting a little poem about Lizzie Borden on the floor of my parent's bedroom. God only knows where I heard it, I have no idea.

"Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks,
And when she thought the job was done,
She gave her father forty-one."

Charming, eh?

The fact that I, in 1985 or whenever the hell it was, even knew who Lizzie Borden was or what she did proves that her grisly act has a long tradition of being celebrated in song and story in this society, and that's kind of what I'm on about today. The thought of making a rock musical out of her case kind of sickens me.

"It sure is hard not to like "Lizzie Borden" a rock musical being presented with wall-rattling glee at-- ah, savor the incongruity-- The Living Theater" writes Neil Genzlinger, of the New York Times. From what he writes, the four actresses involved in the endeavor are unquestionably talented, and I'm not questioning that. What I am questioning is, are they wasting their talents on a musical that maybe shouldn't have been written.

I realize that people will write musicals about anything. I mean, Jesus Christ-- there's an Anne Frank musical, but that's a blog post for another day, I suppose.

It's no secret that we like to glorify crime in this society, but we mostly like to come down on gangsta rappers, who effusively espouse the virtues of doggy-stylin', cop-killin', and bitch-slappin'. And, why not? They're an easy target. If there's one thing America loves more than glorifying violence ourselves, it's picking on young, black men who glorify violence. But aren't we being the least bit hypocritical when our society at large does a pretty bang-up job of making heroes out of violent felons. Hollywood is the biggest perpetrator of this. "Bonnie & Clyde" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." The Hollywood machine has also churned out, in true, hallmark excess, four films about notorious bank-robber and cop-killer John Dillinger-- one in 1945, one in 1973, one in 1991, and, of course, Michael Mann's latest romanticized opus, "Public Enemies" starring Johnny Depp, this time in minimal eyeshadow.

There's no musical about Dillinger, though. Yet.

We love to lionize butchers and murderers through music, too. Take Woody Guthrie's legendary song, "Pretty Boy Floyd," another ode to murder and mayhem. And there are those who like to proclaim, in lyrics low, that they're, "Baaaaaaad, like Jesse James."

I don't want to sound like a thin-lipped prig, but sometimes I can't help thinking that there isn't much of an evening's sport to be made out of people who shoot policemen in the head or cut their parent's legs and arms off. I also think that white culture needs to stand up and at least recognize how guilty it is of perpetuating the shameful myth that cold-blooded murder is cool, and worthy of seemingly endless rolls of film. If we don't stand up and ackowledge our obsession with blood and gore, if we just sit back in the dark and laugh and clap at the Borden quartet of talented female singers who belt out the song "Why Are All These Heads Off" then we are living in a most regrettable fantasy world, where we absolve ourselves of the responsibility for perpetuating a culture that celebrates violence and the violent, a world where Graham Chapman's colonel would almost surely have stopped the sketch long ago.


  1. I can see from the various blogs I read that there are a TON of wonderful writers out here in cyberland. It bothers me all the time that there is so much talent out there and it isnt being discovered for the general public. Instead we are stuck with something stupid like this. It will be a hit because people (lemmings?) will fancy themselves cutting edge by pushing the envelope and paying money to watch people high kick and sing with decapitated heads in their hands. I guess the box office will tell how this unfolds. All I think is that people take perfectly good stories and fuck them up. Like Titanic, I think I was the only one who hated that movie mostly for the fact that they used fictional characters when there were sooooo many fantastic non fictional characters! Sheesh.. sorry for taking up all the space.
    As you were.

  2. Wait...don't you yourself enjoy Assassins mightily, Mr. Apron? Did you not go see Sweeney Todd in theatres with me, and tell me that the stage version was "much more stylized" and not as gruesome(as I spent the last 30 minutes of the film in permanent cringe)?

    I don't know what you've got against Lizzie Borden that Charlie Guiteau isn't guilty of.

    But I love you, or what is a wife for?

  3. What is a wife for?

    Why, to point out the hypocrisy inherent in her husband's blog posts, obviously!

    P.S. - "Assassins" rocks. So? I'm not perfect. Sweeney Todd sucks ass, but you don't!

  4. Unfortunately, we like this kind of stuff because we can identify with it. Scary, I know. I'm not just taking this stance because I've spent three weeks watching The Burning Bed and have already set Carrie up to record on my DVR. I swear.

  5. Dang, I was about to point out Sweeney Todd... but your wife got there first!

    I guess the fact that Sweeney is fictional makes things a little better.

    I'd say we shouldn't go around glorifying false heroes... but that's what history's all about :(


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