You remember the two look-alike protagonists in A Tale of Two Cities, right? There's Sydney Carton, the misanthropic, dissipated, cynical drunk and nihilist who eventually transmutes his world-hating self-destructiveness into a final fatal act of nobility by substituting himself on the guillotine for his healthy hail-fellow look-alike with those unforgettable words, "It's a far, far better thing that I do. ..."
But who was that other guy, the superbland fellow whose place Sydney Carton takes on the chopping block? Quick, remember his name?
It took me six hours or so to remember. I asked several friends, and they also came up blank. In part it's because, shamefully, soi-disant literary sophisticates rarely read the quite amazing Tale of Two Cities anymore, probably because they had it ruined for them by high-school teachers, or perhaps because, having seen it first through immature high-school eyes, they look down on it, thereby leaving a terrible gap in their literary experience.
In any case, his name, the name of the fellow forgotten in favor of Sydney Carton, is Charles Darnay. Described by Dickens as someone who prospered due to "great perseverance and untiring industry." What a bore!
No wonder we prefer the literary company—and remember the name—of doomed Sydney Carton, the depressive, despondent, romantic road-to-ruin guy who asks the boring Darnay what he thinks of "this terrestrial scheme" and then explains that "the greatest desire I have is to forget that I belong to it." The whole "terrestrial scheme"!
I was thinking about the two Dickens characters as I was preparing to see Jerry Seinfeld's massively hyped new animated film, Bee Movie, and comparing my loathing for everything Seinfeldian—Seinfeld the show, Seinfeld the world's worst stand-up comic, Seinfeldian "observational humor" in general, the Seinfeldian blanding-out of American comedy and culture, even the ridiculous Seinfeld Porsche collection—with the experience of seeing a far, far better comedian a few weeks ago.
A far, far lesser-known comic, the corruscatingly obscene, vicious, bitter, self-loathing, world-hating Rick Shapiro. While Seinfeld spends his billions buying up Porsches and producing insipid children's movies that are childish rather than childlike (more on Bee Movie anon), Rick Shapiro was killing (as they say) in a half-filled comedy club called the Cutting Room in Manhattan before heading off to a prestigious series of gigs in, yes, Alaska. Frozen out of the big-money, big-time, big-name recognition game.
Shapiro's an underground legend among comedy aficionados, a man who's never—except as a minor character in a failed HBO sitcom (Lucky Louie)—made it onto national TV. And probably never will. He's just far, far too obscene and extreme.
Well, you say, there's a lot of obscene stuff on HBO and the like these days. True, and I'm someone who isn't easily shocked by that kind of thing, but when I first saw Shapiro back in 2001 or 2002 in a club on the Lower East Side, he had me reeling with shock, awe, and convulsive laughter.
I thought, Oh my God, this guy has reinvented obscenity. He'd taken it to new heights (or depths), broken through to a new dimension of filthiness, where it was suddenly, searingly, snarlingly fresh again. I can't hope to reproduce it verbatim. So, I suggest you go now to his MySpace page and sample some of the clips.
Are you back? Are you OK? Do you see what I mean? Part of what gives Shapiro his obscene authenticity is that it's not just coming out of his head, it's coming out of his hide. It's coming out of his uniquely obscene background, the years he put in as a junkie who traded sex for heroin on the streets of the pre-yuppified Manhattan's hooker 'hoods.
(Jerry Seinfeld grew up on the mean streets of suburban Massapequa, Long Island, and—I say this as a Long Islander myself—it shows. Even his fake Upper West Side was second-rate suburbia. Shapiro started out in suburbia, too, but he left the hive, you might say, in a way Seinfeld never did. And wherever you start from, if you end up "sucking cocks for smack," as Shapiro likes to put it, you really can't go home again.)
Although Shapiro has occasionally seemed on the verge of breaking out of the comedy club ghetto, something always went wrong in a Sydney Cartonish way. He's become a cult figure on YouTube, but it's unlikely he'll get the grail of most comics, the sitcom—and if he did, he wouldn't be Rick Shapiro anymore. Though being Rick Shapiro seems like a tough gig. The guy is angry at everything. Really, really angry. Contemptuous, disgusted, with all of us, in a Swiftian scatological way. (Maybe it's the ex-junkie moralist in him.)
So, maybe I should issue a disclaimer about those MySpace clips: I'm not endorsing or identifying with the politically, sexually, morally incorrect, and offensive sentiments you might find there. I'm angry, at times, yeah. But not that angry.
Shapiro's riffs are not only NSFW, they're NSFL—Not Safe For Life. They're unhealthy and often deeply disturbing. They're not about Seinfeld's quotidian "nothing," they're about a profound, nihilistic Nothingness. Hilarious, yes, exhilarating to hear someone say such uncompromisingly ugly truths, but it's a bitter brew: He makes the legendary Lenny Bruce sound as bland as Seinfeld the billionaire bore.
If Shapiro is the Sydney Carton to Seinfeld's Charles Darnay, does that mean he'll also prove more memorable? Seinfeld may never be forgotten, alas, although he certainly is forgettable. But I'd argue that Rick Shapiro will be remembered, if he stays alive at least a little longer, as more important. The Lenny Bruce of our time.
I'm not the only one who thinks this way. A couple of years after I first saw Shapiro, I invited talented writer Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of the justly celebrated Random Family (about the culture of poverty in the Bronx), to speak to a writing class I was teaching at NYU. She's legendary for her obsessive pursuit of her subjects. And to my astonishment, she told the class she had spent about three years following none other than Rick Shapiro around, thinking there had to be some kind of book to write about him and his world.
I was excited about the pairing of author and subject, but some of my students were puzzled, and—at the time—I think Adrian herself was a little puzzled by her fascination, and so I threw my two cents in: In some deeply disturbed but provocative way, you could compare Shapiro and his circle of extreme comics to the circle of philosophers—Socrates and his crew—who talked trash about the meaning of life on the Athenian agora more than two millennia ago.
Because both groups were exploring a kind of terra incognita, the nature of human nature, just how deep (or, in Shapiro's case, how dirty) one could get in analyzing (or, in Shapiro's case, anal-yzing) the human mind. Asking fundamental questions (or, in Shapiro's case, fundament questions) about the relationship between mind and body, self and soul.
I recently contacted Adrian, and she told me that after five years of following Shapiro around, she was completing a book about him for Random House. No Samuel Johnson could have a better Boswell.
I asked her why this snarling, foul-mouthed, misogynist, misanthropic, venomously sleazy, Ratso Rizzo-type engaged her interest. Here's what she wrote back:
His work implicates you. I doubt you can leave his show unaffected. His rendering of his dynamic and intricate experience of the world will make you laugh, but it requires you, blessedly, to think deeply and feel. As to my idea of a book about standup comedy—contemporary American masculinity—he's grappling dearly with all it means and can mean.
I think the key thing here is "he implicates you." Because for some—not me, of course—he touches a nerve by suggesting there's some of him in you. That horrifying recognition is why you laugh and why it's scary. Adrian's words suggest that it's possible to see Rick Shapiro's stage persona as a character he's playing, knowingly trying to implicate us by acting out our rage against the Seinfeldian hive. That, for instance, he's not misogynist, but about misogyny. He raises some of the questions that Sarah Silverman and Sacha Baron Cohen do in their work, but without any of the knowing winks that in one way or another let them off the hook. He plays on that knife edge of uncertainty: Is this him, can any human go so low, so entertainingly, or is he putting some of it on?
Anyway, when the publicity-industrial complex began gearing up to force-feed us Jerry Seinfeld's sickeningly sweet Bee Movie, I was thinking that Shapiro is the antidote—the quintessential anti-Seinfeld.
I have some history with Seinfeld. I used to ridicule him and his insipid show repeatedly in print, so much so that when NBC's Today Show did a special on the final episode, they had me on as the lone Voice of Dissent. And I heard from people who interviewed Seinfeld co-creator Larry David that he'd get apoplectic denouncing me. (Too bad, since I think David, freed from the simpering Seinfeld in Curb Your Enthusiasm, has become genuinely interesting.)
When the hype began for Bee Movie, I wondered if Seinfeld's trivializing inanity could do any more damage to the American psyche than it'd already done. And it occurred to me that rather than merely denounce Seinfeld, I should suggest an alternative, his evil twin, the Sydney Carton to his Charles Darnay, Rick Shapiro. That's me, always thinking positive.
When I say damage to the American psyche, am I exaggerating? Well, I don't know if you read Steve Martin's lovely recent memoir in The New Yorker. It was about how he became a comic before the comedy club revolution and how he participated in the birth of a new, original kind of American comedy that he and few others were exploring in the '60s and '70s. It was at once incredibly funny and incredibly silly, but also genuinely and provocatively philosophical.
But suddenly almost all that died, and I blame Seinfeld and the so-called "sweater comics" he inspired for killing it off with their smirking frat-boy blandness. Their idiot "observational humor" made a religion out of self-congratulation. Most of the Seinfeld show's humor was about making fun of anyone who was in any way "different"—immigrants, people with any kind of accent, any kind of idiosyncrasy, any kind of deviation from the Charles Darnay mold.
You could argue that a nation's character is defined at least in part by its sense of humor, and Jerry gave us the sense of humor of self-satisfaction. Anything that didn't fit the suburban Massapequa mindset was something to be held up for piddling laughs. He was so deeply in love, so deeply satisfied by his own trivial quirks that those who didn't share them were alien subjects of ridicule.
The promotional booklet really says it all. I'm not going to waste my time or yours reviewing this saccharine little animated fable which is NSFD (not safe for diabetics). Instead I invite you to stare at a drawing of Jerry's bee "Barry B. Benson," and tell me that you don't eventually see Satan.
Sitting through the movie and watching Seinfeld as that witless Seinfeldian bee is almost too painful an experience to remember. It's going to take me years to get over the PTSD (post-traumatic Seinfeld disorder). But I would like to briefly review the promotional booklet.
Now, I've been a movie columnist in the past, and so I've seen all kinds of film promotional booklets. But this is pretty astonishing. Sixty-four slick pages devoted to the film and the filmmakers, roughly 40 devoted to kissing Jerry's ass from every angle possible. Making him out to be the great genius of all time. On just one page, co-workers ooh and ah: "… he's so adept …"; "he always knows …"; "… always pitch perfect"; "It was incredible …"; "I've never seen people so excited to get into a room [with him]." The word amazing appears on just about every page.
But there was one rather revealing passage in the promo booklet that brings us back to Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay.
It's when Seinfeld's Bee Movie crew gets really deep and talks about the "philosophy" of the film in a section called "Thinking Bee." The film celebrates not bees who think, but a bee who learns the danger of thinking for himself, abandons his individuality, and becomes part of the hive mind, a cog in the honey-making machine.
Seriously, that childishly totalitarian sentiment is the "redemptive message" of the movie. Not bee yourself, but bee like everyone else. Very Massapequa. But that's our Jerry.
(By the way, the booklet goes into rhapsodies about how carefully they calibrated the color of the honey. But I have a feeling that if Rick Shapiro ever saw the honey in this movie, I'm sure he'd say that you can't watch it without thinking they've made it the exact same color as urine. And once you get into that mode the whole movie become incredibly funny, if not on its own shallow terms.)
In any case, here's Jerry getting all deep and serious in his shallow way about "Thinking Bee":
One of the things that you have to know about in the movie is that we talk about the fact that all bees, once they sting, that's it for them. You sting, your life is over. So it's a big step. You really have to control your temper. You don't just sting somebody because you get upset. You have to control yourself. Makes you really think about anger management doesn't it?
Well, that's one thing it makes you think about. But notice that he's all about control, control, control.
That's the great thing about Rick Shapiro. He'll never be a billionaire, he'll always be Sydney Carton, whose fame is only posthumous. But he's not afraid to get out of control, to sting us, and himself, to death. He don't need no stinking anger management. Anger management needs him.
It's a far, far better thing he does, than Seinfeld's puny comic mind could ever imagine.