Archival #3: The Eternal War Against Wangst

Right.  This is my epic declaration of war against wangst, against the Comedy Ghetto, and against the pomposity of Tom Batiuk in particular.  I'm particularly proud of it, as it sums up my complaints about everything from the fallacy of "true art is angsty" to the fetish-culture the media has built around cancer to why my favorite movie is what it is.  This was originally written on Livejournal on 9/16/2009.  Enjoy.  Oh, and for the record, let's all wait for Batiuk to try & get this blog shut down for somehow infringing on his copyrights by criticizing his work - that's his #1 tactic for dealing with negative feedback.

This is a long, long piece of work. Consider its title to be the "too long, didn't read" version. Otherwise, please, press on.

Let me start with a personal anecdote. My favorite movie is The Producers - the original version with Zero Mostel & Gene Wilder where Hitler was played by an overbaked hippie. I can quote whole chunks of it if prompted because I love it that much. Besides being possibly the only Mel Brooks film with a genuine sense of heart, it's also side-splittingly funny. It was also nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay.

That's the only time in my entire life I've heard of a real comedy nominated for a top-tier award. It's not a smug modern satire, it's not a poignant tale of morality - it's a comedy about two con artists looking for a ticket to riches & Rio. I'll bet there was a stealth rule change like the Pulitzers did after Maus was given an award to prevent it from ever happening again.

This all begs a pretty big question. Why does comedy get no respect? Why do people seem to think it is somehow a lesser art form? And why do people automatically assume that even the worst variety of melodrama is somehow superior to humor and instantly elevated into the lofty realm of Art?

I ask this because I want you, dear reader, to ask this in turn to critics & creators who hold these fallacies as an uncontested truth and not to leave until you get a legitimate answer. In particular, I want you to ask Tom Batiuk and keep asking until he gives an answer besides his usual excuse of "It's called WRITING". Keep in mind that WRITING as he knows it is patently different than actual writing.

I was quite a fan of Batiuk's Funky Winkerbean strip back when my local rag paper carried it. It wasn't gut-bustingly funny, but it had more than enough surreal whimsy to become a fond favorite. Les' armed & barricaded Hall Monitor desk, Cindy's zero-gravity hair, the implausible natural disasters that thwarted every Battle of the Bands, Crazy Harry's musical pizzas, the Scapegoat as the school mascot - it was quietly insane and thus loads of fun. But sometime in the early 90s, my paper dropped the strip; it's probably the only smart thing they've done their publishing history, since it spared me the decline that followed.

The strip deteriorated into After-School Special material and kept right on going down into some of the most dreadful soap I've seen outside of the Lifetime Network. Now, instead of surreal whimsy, Batiuk has given readers half-baked treatments of the following "important issue" stories: date rape, alcoholism, cousins hooking up, severred limbs, POW storylines, and truckloads of cancer. When he decides to try & be funny, it's false irony indicated as amusing by the characters' smirk towards the fourth wall. To him, this status quo is an improvement that has elevated his strip into Art by somehow "challenging" the notion of content for a comic strip.

To lovers of fiction, Batiuk's stories are riddled with gaping inaccuracies from a noticeable lack of research and massive logic holes. To those of us whose lives are connected to the military or who have lost loved ones to terminal cancer, these stories are so atrociously melodramatic that they start to become outright insulting.

The worst part is that Batiuk pretends that his stories are ways of showing support for and heightening awareness of these issues. Really? Would anyone who has a loved one in the service - or, God forbid, one that's a POW or has been KIA - think that the recent storyline with Wally's release & abrupt dismissal by his family to be terribly supportive? He uses these topics for attention and nothing else; there is no evidence in the work itself of any basic human respect for real-world analogs.

But now we have a new target for Batiuk to ruin - comedy as a valid genre. The latest run has Les, the strip's true protagonist, being grilled by angry parents over the choice of Wit as the school play; they want something "soothing" and "diverting", in particular Spamalot. Their ringleader is a morbidly obese man whose design is largely identical to Funky's current look aside from his ill-fitting trousers. It seems to be aimed at the Mudges (regulars at The Comics Curmudgeon) in particular, under the guise of defending "dramatic" stories in comic strips as more of an Art than humor.

Putting aside the childish portrayal of his critics for now, this story especially shows Batiuk's signature inability to do any solid research before he starts WRITING.  Wit is a one-woman show - even without the nudity in the second act, it'd be a poor choice for a school play because of its tiny cast. By all accounts, it's also achingly pretentious. Odds are all Batiuk saw about Wit was that it's "artsy" and about cancer, so that was all he needed. And more on his choice of Spamalot an its anti-play in a bit.

But who needs research in Art? We have a point to make here and that - in the words of his strawmen - that anything funny, by its very nature as amusing, is not Art. And that anything that addresses death in any manner, regardless of quality, is automatically Art - doubly so if it's his strip.

So, back to Spamalot. Anyone familiar with the work of Monty Python would (if they have any taste) recognize them as artists. They deftly played with the audience's expectations of structure & genre in their TV show, and they treated slapstick & sight gags with as much thought as they did wordplay.  Spamalot in particular plays with the common elements of the musical and with Broadway/theater-buff culture. The canon of Monty Python proves that comedy requires thought, intelligence, and attention to detail that its audience not only can see but can openly appreciate. Yet, it is entirely without pretention or non-ironic delusions of grandeur. But because the audience is laughing instead of weeping or "hmming" in contemplation, it can never be considered true Art.

This is not just Batiuk's prejudice & arrogance; this is across nearly all media. A philosophy has been created that allows this mindset to fester develop - that true Art much "challenge" you and to be "challenged" is to be somehow upset/depressed/made uncomfortable. By this criteria, every movie made for Lifetime or every student-written play at my horrible college should be high Art by virtue of being depressing & proud of it. The rub is that this works - audiences love garbage like The Christmas Shoes because of this philosophy. Batiuk is living proof that the creators have noticed and embraced this fallacy like a lover, thus justifying its continued existence.

Comedy is not easy & not lazy, not if you're gonna do it right. You've got to treat your audience as inherently smart - that they're passingly familiar with (say) science, that they under the difference between TV sub-genres, that they will know the difference between the symbolic and the absurd. There is nothing deeply symbolic about a tripped-out hippie as Hitler, nor is there supposed to be; neither is there anything deep about a Cat of Mortality or Tuxedo Mask as Death, but with these we're expected to see them as such. If we laugh, we are somehow ignorant proles who just don't "get" Art, not intelligent people with a finely tuned sense of the absurd. That's when you step over into outright pretentiousness - when you consciously decide to show your audience just how much smarter, more clever, and just plain better than them you, as the great creator, are.

(Kinda like this essay. Okay, not really - I'm wordy & rambling, not pretentious. But I digress...)

Tom Batiuk needs to realize that his audience is smart - smarter than him in all regards. We don't read his strip because it is genuinely good anymore; we read them at best out of masochistic nostalgia, at worst out of morbid fascination as it continues to deteriorate. He has become the Uwe Boll of the funny pages, only somehow more thin-skinned and arrogant. Disrespecting the intelligence of your audience (especially some of the Mudges) puts you in the same boat as the bank that simply refused to acknowledge Douglas Adams' change of address, and you will only be similarly humiliated for it. Putitng yourself on par with legitimate comic masters (Herrimann, Crane, Schultz, Watterston, and many more) as a maker of Art as you have in this story only adds to your image as a delusional goon. Your disrespect for not only your audience but also your craft & medium marks you ultimately as an utter failure.

But at least we, the audience, can find some amusement in your flailings. We're proles, and we're drawn to that non-Art, after all. We might not know this WRITING you speak of, but we know funny.

Comments

  1. The sad part about this blog entry is that it's true now that it was almost three years ago.

    ReplyDelete

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