9/21/2005

I watched the premier of the NBC sitcom My Name is Earl last night. Cute (especially Jason Lee, who looks like a flashback to the seventies here, but yummy enough to eat). It’s smart, aside from all the boob jokes, and walks a fine line between irony and earnestness. That is to say, it’s safely irreverent. The show is all about Earl trying to repair his karma. The first episode was about Earl trying to make up for bullying a kid all through grade school. He finds the guy, and discovers he’s gay. In order to repair his karma Earl decides he has to find his old playground victim a man, but the guy is still so traumatized by his bullying that he’s afraid to go to a gay bar alone. So Earl accompanies him, marking him off his to-do list. Like I said, there’s a very subtle line, and there are moments when the comedy turns trashy. If not for Jason Lee’s earnest and winning Earl, the show could easily become totally tasteless. It pokes fun at white trash (Earl’s ex-wife, Joy, played by Jaime Pressly, is an absolute riot), but seems to know its subject, so it’s OK. It is, in its weird way, a product of the culture war, and a way forward from it, a seamless blend of red and blue. I liked it, I'll admit. Even the boob jokes, truth be told.

I've just noticed that the New York Times has added “funny pages” to its Sunday magazine. I remember when—not too long ago, in fact—they went to color photos on the front page. This was actually about the same time Tina Brown tarted up the New Yorker, and my highbrow friends were having conniptions left and right. It seemed like the end of the world. But now we understand that middlebrow is not only about dumbing down, it can also smarten things up. Unfortunately, the Times is trying too hard. Its funnies are more clever than funny, and clever in a strained way. Earl had its strained moments, too. The fact is, we are living in more strained and clever than funny times.

As for the Times' funnies: following the Earl formula, Elizabeth Gilbert (author of the forthcoming "Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia”—yikes) offers her “true-life tales”. This week’s: “Yoga, Y’all: When yoga meets Tennessee.” You see the blue meets red trend here? Problem is, Elizabeth Gilbert comes at it from the above and to the left. And it’s not funny. A morsel:

"I was living in eastern Tennessee because I'd accepted a temporary teaching post at a university there. I had never lived in the South before, nor had I ever taught, yet there I was. Having just returned from more than a year spent traveling the world alone, with nowhere to go next and all of America feeling equally foreign to me, I'd figured, Hey, why not? So I moved into a decaying old residency hotel, which was great except that it offered little variety in the way of recreation (drinking yourself to death while wearing a soiled pink negligee sounds like more fun than it actually is), and that's why I so often found myself wandering the streets in search of healthier diversions. And that's how I discovered the yoga class.

"My new yoga teacher reminded me profoundly of Julie McCoy from 'The Love Boat.' She wore a pink leotard and I'm pretty certain was also the grand mistress of Cardio-Burn Stepping. She bounded up to me, placed her nose an inch from mine and demanded, "What's y'all's name?" with such friendly enthusiasm it made me wish I had more names. Class began only after Julie had set her Kenny Chesney CD to the proper volume.

"'Take yer PLAY-sez!' she hollered.

"Julie, I soon learned, had an accent that favored four-syllable commands with the emphasis on the third syllable.

"'Stretch yer HAM-strings!'

"'Grab yer ANK-ulls!'

"'Push it HARD-er!'

"Over the next hour, Julie proceeded to do everything - I'm not sure how to say this politely - dead wrong. When she wasn't coercing stiff middle-aged beginners into weak-necked unsupported headstands ('You can DO it!'), she was encouraging us to compete against one another - the ultimate yoga sin. ('Stretch like BETH does!') I wanted to beg the other students to please not imitate Beth (who clearly had the flexibility of a cheerleader) as I winced and waited to hear the banjo-string-snapping sounds of Dixie tendons popping all around me."

There is nothing generous in Gilbert’s humor. It lacks the self-deprecating style or even the self-awareness that characterizes good comedy. Whereas Earl and his band of white-trash misfits have affection for one another that’s infectious, Gilbert sees herself as more of an anthropologist on Mars, an outsider, a critic of the so-called culture of a primitive people. She spends two paragraphs preening, relating her résumé, and telling us where she’s been and what she knows, and then several more making fun, before finally having her all-important epiphany:

"I stole a glance around the gym, checking out the other students. To my surprise, they did seem relaxed. Everyone else was in their all's own quiet place. And that's when I got it. While I had had my privileged moment of transcendence in India, this is where they found theirs - on a one-hour lunch break with Julie McCoy. Transcendence, Tennessee-style. So now my options became clear. I could resist and remain a critical outsider forever. Or I could do what Julie's students do - search like heck for the bright lights in my soul, surrender to the cacophonous moment and even try to absorb a little benefit from the stretching and straining. I'm still not sure if I can achieve all that, but I'll tell you what - I'm workin' my boobs off trying."

This is a pretty typical “noble savage” narrative.

Chris Ware’s strip, “Building Stories: the thoughts of a building” is mildly diverting, if only for the clean graphics. The Times has also recruited Elmore Leonard for a gritty, graphic novel-style serial, “Comfort to the Enemy,” which is really about as far from funny as you can get. It’s a little tedious. The whole enterprise is an exercise in overgroping.

But you knew the Times could not have funny pages that were actually funny. They have to be meta. The pieces here are never laugh out-loud. They offer only a certain smug self-satisfaction. I can imagine someone reading them and thinking, “yes, she gets it,” and “mmm, he’s in on the joke.” This is what red America justly hates about blue America.

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