Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Baker's Dozen People Who Should Have Gotten the Mark Twain Award

...Before Will Ferrell.

I don’t like Will Ferrell. Still I recognize his popularity. At 44, he'll be the second youngest recipient of the Mark Twain Award ever. This award is for the best comedians in the country, the Immortals. George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Carl Reiner, Bob Newhart.

Someday Ferrell should probably be inducted. But not now. Not while there are people who haven't been honored with stunning legacies. Like many awards, the Twain awards are time-sensitive: they are not posthumously awarded. Here, then, are thirteen people who should get the award sooner than Will Ferrell. With luck they'll be the next winners.

1. Sid Caesar, 88

Did you know Sid Caesar was still alive? The man who helped create improv and, you know, practically invented comedy television? Well he is and if I were him I’d want my dues by now. See: Your Show of Shows.

2. Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, 85 + 74

Really, they were part of the fantastic inner circle, and wandered show to show. Two of the best of the era. See: The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Tyler Moore Show.

3. Mort Sahl, 84

Can there be a more fitting winner from the Kennedy Center? Sahl was close to John, and wrote jokes for him, besides helping invent modern stand-up comedy. See: modern stand-up comedy.

4. Tom Lehrer, 83

Considering how many great comedians got their start on albums (Newhart, Foxx) perhaps the award could go to a guy who championed musical satire. Hear: Songs of Tom Lehrer, More of Tom Lehrer

5. Joan Rivers, 78

Rivers has always been more of a profile making appearances on Late Night (which could handle her material), but she got her start by being brassy at a time when that was just starting to be acceptable. See: Any late night appearances you can find.

6. Woody Allen, 75

Allen is indisputably a great comedian. As an author and director he helped invent the romantic comedy, as well as being a gifted actor. See: Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo.

7. The Smothers Brothers, 74 + 71

Tommy and Dicky were wonderfully sly subversives, as well as silly. Besides their Comedy Hour the never-quite folk singing duo recorded numerous classic records. See: Mom Always Liked You Best, My Old Man, I Talk to the Trees.

8. Garrison Keillor, 69

The mind behind the Prairie Home Companion and the folks of Lake Woebegone. So quintessentially American I'm stunned he's not yet been honored. See: The Prairie Home Companion.

9. Christopher Guest, 63

As an actor he has plenty of great roles, but he's also been the writing (and directing) force behind many classic comedies. His style and humor have helped defined three decades. See: This is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride, Best in Show.

10. Robin Williams, 60

Williams started as Mork from Ork, and played his manic lunacy into a very successful stand-up career, winning oodles of awards. "There's no one faster." See: Mrs. Doubtfire, Aladdin, Good Morning, Vietnam

11. Harvey Fierstein, 59

He wrote La Cage Aux Follies and got a Tony for it. He’s received other Tonys, including his comedic role in Hairspray which earned him a Drama Desk Award. See: La Cage Aux Follies.

12. Jon Stewart, 48

If you are going to award someone in their forties, why not Stewart? The Daily Show is probably going to have a longer legacy than Thirty Rock anyway. See: The Daily Show, Colbert and Carrell's careers.

13. Chris Rock, 46

Heck, even if you’re going to give it to an SNL star from the 90s – I’d still nominate Rock over Ferrell. He’s had a great television and stand-up career, often ranked as one of the best out there, and he's still more likely to kick the bucket before Ferrell. See: Bring the Pain, Never Scared

Note: I took Mel Brooks and Carol Burnett off the list since they’ve both at least received Kennedy Center Honors, which is sort of more prestigious anyway. (Didn’t stop Steve Martin or others from getting both, though.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

50 Characters Who've Stuck With Me: Part Five

10. Moore – Ozymandias/The Comedian, Watchmen

“I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”

Ozymandias and the Comedian are a joint entry for the reason that they both see the world the same way. Their actions, or interpretations, of how to deal with the world is what separates them, and their encounter is no coincidence. The Comedian remains troubled by his morals whereas Ozymandias tries to solve them.

9. Dostoevsky – Raskolnikov, Crime and Punishment

“When he was in the street he cried out, "Oh, God, how loathsome it all is! and can I, can I possibly.... No, it's nonsense, it's rubbish!" he added resolutely. "And how could such an atrocious thing come into my head? What filthy things my heart is capable of. Yes, filthy above all, disgusting, loathsome, loathsome!—and for a whole month I've been...." But no words, no exclamations, could express his agitation.”

Raskolnikov is the classic brooding troubled mind. An early existentialist whose freedom is too much to bear he is keenly aware of his choices and actions. Plagued by his mind and deeds (yet more sane than Poe's narrator of the Tell Tale Heart) he eventually comes to term with his freedom.

8. Lagerkvist – Barabbas, Barabbas

“Then the man had been led out to be crucified - and he himself had been unshackled and told he was free. It was none of his doing. It was their business. They were quite at liberty to choose whomever they liked, and it just turned out that way. They had both been sentenced to death, but one of them was to be released. He was amazed himself at their choice.”

Few English-speaking readers may be familiar with the Nobel Prize-winning Lagerkvist, but this portrayal is a cornerstone for his accolades. Barabbas has to grapple with his unique position for the rest of his life, and goes about doing so while seeing the emerging Christian sect develop and react to him (especially when he meets one of the disciples). His is a singular portrait that we can still identify with.

7. Huxley – John, Brave New World

“"Exposing what is mortal and unsure to all that fortune, death and danger dare, even for an eggshell. Isn't there something in that?" he asked, looking up at Mustapha Mond. "Quite apart from God–though of course God would be a reason for it. Isn't there something in living dangerously?"

"There's a great deal in it," the Controller replied. "Men and women must have their adrenals stimulated from time to time."”

John, the Savage, leaves the Native reservation he knew and enters the anesthetized modern dystopia of 632 A.F. (after Ford). Alone, he rebels as best he can, for the sake of humanity. There may be no better portrayal of lone resistance to an unfeeling state than John's attempts to bring feeling to civilization.

6. Austen – Fitzwilliam Darcy, Pride and Prejudice

“"Come, Darcy," said he, "I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance."

"I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with."”

Darcy is hard, maybe impossible, to live up to, many guys would contend. But, really, they forget that it was his faults, his pride predominately, which are examined for the first half of the book. What makes him stick is that he can be full of contradictions and still do the right thing – and that's not such a hard template to live up to.

5. Tolstoy – Ivan Ilyich, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

“The pain did not grow less, but Ivan Ilyich made efforts to force himself to think that he was better. And he could do this so long as nothing agitated him. But as soon as he had any unpleasantness with his wife, any lack of success in his official work, or held bad cards at bridge, he was at once acutely sensible of his disease.”

Ilyich is (surprise!) another existential character, only his dilemma is one we all face: dying and death. While it begins as chastisement for a life poorly spent, the drawn-out process of Ilyich's demise resonates. Tolstoy's characters sometimes are a little two-dimensional (The Cossacks, many in War and Peace, and his short stories). But between moralizing in Family Happiness and musing in “Master and Man” he got it right.

4. Salinger – Holden Caulfield, Catcher in the Rye

“When the weather's nice, my parents go out quite frequently and stick a bunch of flowers on old Allie's grave. I went with them a couple of times, but I cut it out. In the first place, I don't enjoy seeing him in that crazy cemetery. Surrounded by dead guys and tombstones and all. It wasn't too bad when the sun was out, but twice - twice - we were there when it started to rain. It was awful. It rained on his lousy tombstone, and it rained on the grass on his stomach. It rained all over the place. All the visitors that were visiting the cemetery started running like hell over to their cars. That's what nearly drove me crazy. All the visitors could get in their cars and turn on their radios and all and then go someplace nice for dinner - everybody except Allie. I couldn't stand it.”

Note – “characters who stick”. Caulfield, love or hate him, is a character who has been crafted so well that he sticks with everyone who encounters him. He's an awful pain, in my opinion, but when I'm old and gray Caulfield's self-absorbed adolescent words and actions will remain with me. And that's what's being counted.

3. Twain – Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

“I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

"All right, then, I'll GO to hell"--and tore it up.”

It would be easy to suggest, from this list, that I prefer a certain type of character: the person who must confront themselves in order to make an important choice. I would argue that most all great literature deals with this theme, whether it is deciding who to marry, how to kill, whether to be lawful, and so forth. In this sense, Huck's dilemma, that of his escape with the slave Jim, will probably no longer be encountered – it is not, perhaps, as practical a guide as some other entries. But Huck's process in his decision is one of the best crafted, and identifiable.

2. Joyce – Stephen Daedalus, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

“He turned the handle and opened the door and fumbled for the handle of the green baize door inside. He found it and pushed it open and went in.

He saw the rector sitting at a desk writing. There was a skull on the desk and a strange solemn smell in the room like the old leather of chairs.

His heart was beating fast on account of the solemn place he was in and the silence of the room: and he looked at the skull and at the rector's kind-looking face.

—Well, my little man, said the rector, what is it?

Stephen swallowed down the thing in his throat and said:

—I broke my glasses, sir.”

Joyce’s young Daedalus experienced childhood as I felt it. The confusion, the fear, the wonder and nervous shy quality – even in his circumstantial details, from the blonde hair to the all boy’s school to the boarding school – I felt instant kinship. I would try and deal with the subject objectively, but Daedalus just got to me. The only other author who came close to the emotional life of childhood is Proust, and there his narrator is a bit too precious.

1. Cervantes – Don Quixote, Don Quixote

“At this point they came in sight of thirty forty windmills that there are on plain, and as soon as Don Quixote saw them he said to his squire, "Fortune is arranging matters for us better than we could have shaped our desires ourselves, for look there, friend Sancho Panza, where thirty or more monstrous giants present themselves, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay, and with whose spoils we shall begin to make our fortunes; for this is righteous warfare, and it is God's good service to sweep so evil a breed from off the face of the earth."

"What giants?" said Sancho Panza.”


50 Characters Who've Stuck With Me: Part Four

My computer literally had a melt down in mid-June. After a long delay here are the last two installments of the Characters series.

20. Melville – Captain Ahab, Moby Dick

“''Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! THUS, I give up the spear!"”

He’s a bit over the top, that Ahab. I’d just be like, “OH SH*T WHALE! KILLITKILLITKILLIT!” But that’s why I’m not a character of classic literature. Melville made some very memorable characters – Bartleby, Ishmael and the rest – but Ahab, who at worst is a living personification of vengeance, is not larger than life. He is kept – just – within the bounds of reality.

19. Rowling – Severus Snape, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

“…you have your mother’s eyes.”

Perhaps it’s because I’m so uncultured. Snape is the first character of his sort I ever ran across. His tragic arc was, for me, new. Not new in that I hadn’t already encountered the concept in life, or ‘Love Actually’ (which also has Alan Rickman) but the first good depiction I’d encountered in literature. His tragedy, perhaps the most common in life, is not Medea’s, or Hippolytus’ or Antigone’s; and Rowling pulls off her most interesting character in the process.

18. Turgenev – Bazarov, Fathers and Sons

“Madame Odintsov looked at Bazarov. His pale face was twitching with a bitter smile. 'This man did love me!' she thought, and she felt pity for him, and held out her hand to him with sympathy.
But he too understood her. 'No!' he said, stepping back a pace. 'I'm a poor man, but I've never taken charity so far. Good-bye, and good luck to you.'

'I am certain we are not seeing each other for the last time,' Anna Sergyevna declared with an unconscious gesture.

'Anything may happen!' answered Bazarov, and he bowed and went away.”

Bazarov – the haughty intellectual torn between the nihilism of the age and his deep commitments to humanity. He is, like many on this list, a tragic figure: destined for great things with his resolutions but brought down haphazardly, inconspicuously almost, having only just begun his story. Written off as an afterthought of accident he had only just begun to make peace with his conflicts.

17. Gilman – The Narrator, The Yellow Wallpaper

“Of course I never mention it to them any more—I am too wise,—but I keep watch of it all the same.

There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.”

Gilman’s story is apparently rather contentious. It was my literary introduction to feminism, and the narrator, forced to stay bed-ridden, causing her mental deterioration, made me shiver. The recognition that Victorian and Edwardian women often were amongst the most repressed in modern times comes through with a stark shudder from our narrator’s tale.

16. Solzhenitsyn – Ivan Denisovich, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

“Shukhov licked his spoon clean and returned it to his boot, then put on his cap and made for sick bay.”

The lean prose of this classic was so well-crafted so as to merit a Nobel Prize, rarely given for a single outstanding work. Denisovich – Shukhov to the narrator – is a gulag prisoner whose life in the camps is one of sweat tempered by cold, hard beds and rules, and spoons kept in one’s boot. That he manages to eke out a personality in the midst of describing the wretched conditions of prison life instead of a generic scene of suffering endows Denisovich with its classic quality.

15. Eliot – Dorothea, Middlemarch

“"They are lovely," said Dorothea, slipping the ring and bracelet on her finely turned finger and wrist, and holding them towards the window on a level with her eyes. All the while her thought was trying to justify her delight in the colors by merging them in her mystic religious joy.”

Woolf said that Middlemarch was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Dorothea is not a simple sketch – she does not exist as just a torn lover or a trying to reconcile her joys in life with her religious reveries. Eliot was better than that and portrays Dorothea as a very complex character who does not have all of her problems solved. Nor does Eliot leave the resolutions unresolved for shock value. Instead they are left, for that is how life is.

14. Faulkner – Joe Christmas, Light in August

“He looked like a tramp, yet not like a tramp either. His shoes were dusty and his trousers were soiled too. But they were of decent serge, sharply creased, and his shirt was soiled but it was a white shirt, and he wore a tie and a stiffbrim straw hat that was quite new, cocked at an angle arrogant and baleful above his still face. He did not look like a professional hobo in his professional rags, but there was something definitely rootless about him, as though no town nor city was his, no street, no walls, no square of earth his home. And that he carried his knowledge with him always as though it were a banner, with a quality ruthless, lonely, and almost proud. ''As if,'' as the men said later, ''he was just down on his luck for a time, and that he didn’t intend to stay down on it and didn’t give a damn much how he rose up.''”

Faulkner has a seriously impressive gallery of characters. From autistic Benjy to a boy who thinks his mother is a fish, to a bear, his were all memorable. Christmas is, to me, a distillation of many of the themes and traits of Faulkner’s writing. He is utterly alone – neither comfortable in white society or black, or with the woman he loves, or with the people he works with. His isolation is total.

13. Fitzgerald – Jay Gatsby, The Great Gatsby

“I tried to think about Gatsby then for a moment but he was already too far away…”

Jay Gatsby is the central character, and a seriously lacking presence, in Fitzgerald’s novel. Even after the reveal, the whole back story, every intimate moment and confession, you are still left without a grasp on him. Nick’s five-year odyssey leaves him hardly better off than the first wild parties in understanding the man even though their relationship changes vividly throughout. Gatsby is not some lame excuse at creating an enigma, however. He is experienced as we truly experience others.

12. Doyle – Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet

“"The train of reasoning ran, 'Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.' The whole train of thought did not occupy a second. I then remarked that you came from Afghanistan, and you were astonished."

Holmes specifically sneers at Poe’s rational Dupin. Holmes initially has much in common with Dupin, though, when he puts his mental faculties to use to solve mysteries of the criminal sort. But Dupin is one-off, a scribble of sorts. Holmes over the years got richer and more interesting. His failings were many, and from the start. But his status as one of the world’s most beloved characters is not for nothing.

11. Woolf – Clarissa Dalloway, Mrs. Dalloway

“She was not old yet. She had just broken into her fifty-second year. Months and months of it were still untouched. June, July, August! Each still remained almost whole, and, as if to catch the falling drop, Clarissa (crossing to the dressing-table) plunged into the very heart of the moment, transfixed it, there--the moment of this June morning on which was the pressure of all the other mornings, seeing the glass, the dressing-table, and all the bottles afresh, collecting the whole of her at one point (as she looked into the glass), seeing the delicate pink face of the woman who was that very night to give a party; of Clarissa Dalloway; of herself.”

Woolf, who praised Eliot’s efforts in creating English literature for adults, then surpassed her. Mrs. Dalloway’s inner monologue threading together the different character’s accidental meetings slowly reveals a woman who is identifiable, taken from reality rather than created for a message. A sequencing of thoughts which does not seemed forced.