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Dear Jon letter

Guest post by New Republic reviewer Lee Siegel

Hello, everyone!  Many thanks to Michael for letting me sit in today while he basks in the North Carolina sun and the glow of his Koufax nominations.  I’ve decided to take to the blogosphere because it’s come to my attention that there are some people who still haven’t responded adequately to my recent essay in The New Republic.  It’s available online to subscribers, but I hear that the good people at LBO-Talk have made the full text available on their listserv.  Please read the entire thing right now.  It is critical to the future of comedy in our country.  It takes the form of an open letter to Jon Stewart on the occasion of his hosting of the Academy Awards, and it begins,

Dear Jon Stewart,

As the entire world knows, you’ll be hosting the Oscars this coming Sunday for the first time.

On this august occasion, please allow me to appeal to you as someone who wants to be a fan but hasn’t been able to enjoy you so far. Please allow me to appeal to you as a public service. You of all people know from public service, since you are the very man who has enlisted comedy in the cause of civic clarity. I can’t imagine that what I say will make a difference to you—if you even happen to read this. No matter. Like you, I have a job to do.

First, note my “humility trope” at the end of this passage.  Despite the fact that I am a very important reviewer writing for the house journal of the National Center for Unearned Self-Importance, I say it is “no matter” whether you read my work.  But don’t fall for that little rhetorical feint—it is simply a measure of my craftiness as a writer.  For, in fact, it is critical that my words make a difference to you.  Jon, you have failed to win me over despite my desire to approve of you, and that should concern you.  It should concern all of us.  As I explain later in the essay,

I love comedians who make humor out of current events, out of bad or stupid politics. But the best of them work the stuff into wit. You just point, taunt, make faces. You say something “sucks,” and that’s the joke. You say “sucks” a lot.

Jon, I think the reason you’ve settled into this gross-out expedience is that you think, or you’ve been told, that the young audiences you supposedly draw aren’t up to more sophisticated bits. For one thing, I think you’re selling short the number of people in the magical demographic who have fine senses of humor. For another, I don’t think your audience is that focused on politics anyway. They just like to see people in authority, no matter whether they’re good or bad, torn down. It doesn’t matter whether the deconstruction is funny or not so long as it seems to humiliate the subject. So pretty soon, and especially when politics changes, you’re going to have to rethink your role as the Howdy-Doody Orwell. More importantly, when the chickens come home to roost—yes, the deficit spending on the war—and people start to want comedy with true creative-destructive substance; when they start to crave comic maturity rather than resigning themselves to pandering puerility, you’re going to be in trouble.

Yes, you read that correctly, Jon.  I think you’re condescending to your audience . . . but, you know, that’s my job.  You’re selling short the number of people who have fine senses of humor, whereas I’m quite sure that they’re not very sophisticated politically, and that’s why they’ve resigned themselves to pandering puerility.  But not for long!  Not after they hear from me.

By the way, I have a question for Michael Bérubé’s regular readers: honestly, what did you all think of the “Howdy-Doody Orwell” line?  Pretty good, huh?  When I typed that, I cried, “yes!  Lee Siegel, you have done it again!”

I slay me sometimes.

Now, I admit that every now and then, I’m a party of one in that regard.  No matter.  When I find myself in the critical minority, I know that our nation is deep in the throes of a profound cultural crisis.  For instance, when I informed the world that Eyes Wide Shut was “one of the most moving, playful, and complex movies I have ever seen,” I didn’t simply disagree with everyone else who saw the film.  Rather, I made my disagreement into a Gravely Pessimistic Cultural Statement About Our Entire Culture:

I realized that something that had been stirring around in the depths of the culture had risen to the surface.  After years of vindictive, leveling memoirs of artistic figures; after countless novels, plays, films, paintings, and installations constructed to address one social issue or another; after dozens of books have been published proclaiming the importance of the “great books” and “humanist ideas” to such a point of inflation that the effect was to bury the specificity of great books and of original ideas—after the storm of all this self-indulgence had passed, a new cultural reality had taken shape. Our official arbiters of culture have lost the gift of being able to comprehend a work of art that does not reflect their immediate experience; they have become afraid of genuine art. Art-phobia is now the dominant sensibility of the official culture, and art-phobia annihilated Stanley Kubrick’s autumnal work.

As you can see, I know art.  And I know playful!  So please, Jon Stewart, fans of Jon Stewart, and readers of this blog, take my words to heart.  Read them, repeat them, live them.  For your own good, and for the good of all humanity.  Thank you.

Posted by on 03/05 at 01:56 PM
  1. For instance, when I informed the world that Eyes Wide Shut was “one of the most moving, playful, and complex movies I have ever seen,”

    I think my Twister review was funnier than that Kubrick one.

    The Eyes Wide Shut review was supposed to be funny, right?

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  03/05  at  03:11 PM
  2. Sadly, no.

    Posted by Michael  on  03/05  at  03:19 PM
  3. I haven’t read the whole article—but did you happen to include anything about how the magazine for which you write was part of the propaganda effort for the war on which we are now spending Chinese investors’ money?  Thanks.

    Posted by Adam Kotsko  on  03/05  at  03:29 PM
  4. what the devil is wrong with saying ‘sucks’ a lot, if I may and shall ask?

    Posted by  on  03/05  at  03:29 PM
  5. Am I a dick for sort of agreeing with that passage on Eyes Wide Shut? I mean, yes, I could do without the apocalyptic, self-serious tone, but the part about the calls for a return to “great books” and “humanistic ideas” by the same people who could really care less about said books or ideas seems right to me. Someone please tell me. I need self-validation!

    Posted by  on  03/05  at  03:35 PM
  6. Dear Lee,

    People get older.  People in their 40s now say “dude” a lot.  It’s not pandering.  I imagine that people in their teens have moved on to another word.

    Sincerely,
    --Jonathan

    PS—Comedy is supposed to have a lot of scatology and cursing in it.  That’s the point.

    Posted by Jonathan  on  03/05  at  03:39 PM
  7. Roger, the problem is that it’s not a slam at people who call for art while hating art. The problem is that it’s a slam at people who call for art while hating art by someone who wouldn’t know art if Picasso painted it on his bedroom ceiling.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  03/05  at  03:45 PM
  8. Am I a dick for sort of agreeing with that passage on Eyes Wide Shut?

    Um . . . maybe! 

    Oh, you know, de gustibus.  But I thought it was ponderous and incredibly self-important (just like a certain reviewer), and yet, miraculously, trivial:  this just in—desire is anarchic! And I say this as the world’s third biggest fan of 2001:  A Space Odyssey, so I have a pretty high ponderous/ self-important threshold.

    Also, Tom Cruise sucked.

    Posted by Michael  on  03/05  at  03:49 PM
  9. In my defense, I guess I just really want someone to yell out, “Fuck Roger Kimball! I’ll take orgies and bird masks!”

    Posted by  on  03/05  at  03:54 PM
  10. Lee, dude, you suck. [Laughter.] Seriously. [Wild laughter.] Go [bleep] yourself. [Delirious laughter.]

    Posted by Steven Rubio  on  03/05  at  03:56 PM
  11. Well, say no more, squire! 

    Fuck Roger Kimball!  I’ll take orgies and bird masks!

    Posted by  on  03/05  at  03:58 PM
  12. That’ll do. I’ll make t-shirts.

    Posted by  on  03/05  at  04:01 PM
  13. So here we have a critic who claims he can’t tell if being told that you “smelled like ass” is meant to be a good thing or a bad thing?  I think I may have spotted the problem…

    Posted by Marita  on  03/05  at  04:10 PM
  14. Lee, I commend you on your cleverness in usurping Michael’s handle for this post.  I must, however, inform you that your letter to Messr. Stewart puts me in mind of another comic genius:

    Homer Simpson: Ooh, a Far Side calendar!
    Homer Simpson: I don’t get it.  I don’t get it.  I don’t get it.

    Posted by  on  03/05  at  04:19 PM
  15. Was Dale Peck unavailable?

    Posted by Gavin M.  on  03/05  at  04:25 PM
  16. Ah, Mr. Peck had an unfortunate encounter with a hatchet.

    Posted by  on  03/05  at  04:34 PM
  17. Let me try an analogy here: Seeing the Oscars as the one, only, and most important venue for non-condescending cultural commentary and political humor is like regarding an enclosure formed with hurricane fencing and barbed wire a free speech zone. Nah, that kind of sucks (am I allowed to say “sucks”?) How about regarding yet another awards ceremony celebrating the accomplishments of a third rate entertainment industry as “august” tantamount to considering a Tom Cruise movie a trenchant, yet “playful and complex” response to art-phobia? Does that suck too?  Yes, I think it sucks. I just can’t over my art-phobia to talk the cultural gravitas talk. Damn! I suck.

    Posted by  on  03/05  at  04:52 PM
  18. From Siegel’s full essay:
    “…a trusty routine, like Jack Benny’s stinginess, or Rodney
    Dangerfield’s hilarious bad luck, both of which were a lot funnier
    than your current comedic hallmark?”

    Rodney Dangerfield was never funny.

    More to the point, neither are you, Mr. Siegel, nor does it seem like you would know funny if it bit you in the ass.  Oh, I’m sorry, was that too profane?  Whether or not you think Stewart is funny seems to be a major part of your critique of his “civic mindedness,” a term you seem to equate with the quality of his humor.  Shouldn’t the point be that Stewart (and Craig Kilborn before him) attracted younger viewers to current events in droves?  Isn’t he doing some sort of public service just by trying to spark interest in what is going on in the world?  And is he really worse than Jay Leno, David Letterman, or any other “late night” comedian in terms of content (we all know he’s actually ten times funnier in terms of comedic value)?

    To conclude:

    Eyes Wide Shut, Tom Cruise, and Lee Siegel all Suck.

    Also, I have to second Marita’s comment above...get a clue already.

    Posted by  on  03/05  at  04:53 PM
  19. Uh, yeah. Desire is anarchic and people out there are dying so you can live in your nice safe bubble, so in the end it’s best to go back to your big apartment and your pretty wife and pretend it isn’t happening.

    I guess he didn’t have any trouble comprehending that.

    Posted by julia  on  03/05  at  05:02 PM
  20. Please allow me to appeal to you all as a public service. For I am, indeed, a public service. Now the Howdy-Doody Orwell was catchy, in a wtf kinda’ way, I’ll grant you. But can someone please decipher this for me?

    More importantly, when the chickens come home to roost—yes, the deficit spending on the war—and people start to want comedy with true creative-destructive substance;...

    Becuase, I gotta’ admit, I’m tempted to write a vindictive, leveling post about the artist after reading it. But I may not have the gift of being able to comprehend a work of art that does not reflect my immediate experience.

    Posted by  on  03/05  at  05:18 PM
  21. Ed,
    With regard to the “comedy with true creative-destructive substance” bit, it seems clear to me that Lee is referring here to Nietzsche’s idea of the Apollonian/Dionysian facets of art, wherein the Apollonian spirit of art affirms the creative potential of the principium individuationis, while the Dionysian, on the other hand, corrodes all worldly ties in a blissful ecstasy of un-becoming. 

    That and it’s also a well-known fact that Siegel goes apeshit for Gallagher’s sledgehammer to a watermelon act. Talk about creative-destructive!

    Posted by  on  03/05  at  05:44 PM
  22. Actually, the truth is that, like those who Siegel savages in his Eyes Wide Shut review, I too cannot appreciate art that does not reflect my immediate experience. Fortunately, as a regular attendee of Satanic orgies, Eyes Wide Shut really spoke to me. 

    “Finally,” I thought after seeing Kubrick’s masterpiece, “a film for the uber-rich, Satanic-orgy set!” Too long have we lurked in the shadows of our out-of-the-way mansion-castles. Too long have we instructed our drivers to wait outside while we mutter “Fidelio Rainbow” to the gatekeeper. It’s about time a film addressed our concerns!

    After the film, I took off my phallic bird-mask, poured myself a nice glass of wine, and listened to my copy of Gyorgy Ligetti’s “Atonal Moaning Voices #43” in order to reflect on the experience, at which point I realized that a new cultural reality had in fact taken place.

    Posted by  on  03/05  at  06:13 PM
  23. Ooh, snap!

    (as Jon would say)

    Hey, where’d the captcha go?

    Posted by  on  03/05  at  06:25 PM
  24. Hey, where’d the captcha go?

    Everyone got one except you, Emma Anne.

    Posted by Michael  on  03/05  at  06:48 PM
  25. Nicole Kidman looked amazing in it though, revealing pretty much all of herself, and that doesn’t suck.  She might even look good tonight, but not near as good as she used to.  Maybe Jon should say something about that? 

    Or maybe he should ask people how much their jewelry is worth; or how much the dress designers claim for the street value of the clothes; or if the limos are running on alternative fuels while 800 of them wait for hours idling??  Somehow i am not finding this all that funny; this insane desperation to show the world that the rich in the US are still rich and powerful really sort of sucks.

    Posted by  on  03/05  at  06:51 PM
  26. O my!  A couple of years ago, Siegel wrote a Diary series for Slate (they never throw anything away, so I’m sure it’s still there), and it was a triumph of navel-gazing.  Apparently, he keeps an imaginery cat (or did for the occasion of the Diary), which was just one of the sadsack touches that made me distrust him as a critic - on top of his actual columns, of course.
    I can see him grimly watching The Daily Show, grinding his teeth every time Jon Stewart says, “suck,” in the flickering teevee light.  And that’s only for half and hour - he’ll have to schedule a dentist appointment after the Oscars.

    Posted by grishaxxx  on  03/05  at  06:51 PM
  27. Magic Demo:

    I would rather argue that Rodney Dangerfield was RARELY funny, as opposed to never funny.  He could be funny, but was never so in any aspect that was released in a wider, mainstream way.  His stand up act, as I understand, could be funny because it was a combination of the “I don’t get no respect” shtick and a dirty mouth much like “The Aristocrats”. 

    see: Earlier comment about scatology and cursing being a large part of humor.

    Posted by  on  03/05  at  07:12 PM
  28. it seems clear to me that Lee is referring here to Nietzsche’s idea of the Apollonian/Dionysian facets of art

    At the New Republic, they think that the idea of creative destruction was coined by Joseph Schumpeter.

    Posted by  on  03/05  at  07:25 PM
  29. For a truly serious mindfuck on a similar topic, check out Bob Cesca’s seriously funny attempts to perform Bérubé-style meta-comedy on Huffington Post:

    Stephen Colbert + Adolf Hitler = Adolf Hitler
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bob-cesca/stephen-colbert-adolf-h_b_16582.html

    and

    An Apology to Stephen Colbert and You
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bob-cesca/an-apology-to-stephen-col_b_16755.html

    The only down side was when I realized that the comments weren’t a part of the comedy, but actual comments...that made me a bit sad.

    Posted by darrelplant  on  03/05  at  09:30 PM
  30. I am very likely a bad person for thinking this, but there it is:

    The world would be a better place if Lee Siegel would just crawl off into a forest glade and quietly die.

    JC

    Posted by  on  03/05  at  09:35 PM
  31. The world would be a better place if Lee Siegel would just crawl off into a forest glade and quietly die.

    If no one read his resulting column, would it make a sound?

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  03/05  at  09:55 PM
  32. You’re a bad person, John.  After all, Lee Siegel could just crawl off into a forest glade and not die.  He could lead a peaceful and productive life and stop writing tripe like this.  That would be OK too.

    Posted by Michael  on  03/05  at  10:03 PM
  33. My god.  Well spotted Michael.  That’s the most embarassing article I’ve seen in a while.

    My two favorite moments from “Eyes Wide Shut” were the hungarian count (lucky devil!) and Sidney Pollack telling Tom Cruise that there were “some really important people” at the orgy.  No, really, I thought they were plumbers and electricians.

    Posted by  on  03/06  at  12:11 AM
  34. Hmm… that’s a shame.  I really liked Eyes Wide Shut.  I’ll add that to the list of things to be ashamed for.

    Posted by  on  03/06  at  02:27 AM
  35. “no original explosive reconfiguration of
    wearily familiar features of reality....”

    “Because, you see, I get
    glimmers of authentic wit from you. ...”

    “they have become afraid of genuine art ...”

    “Much talk--some of it real, a lot of it fake ...”

    “that the effect was to bun’ the
    specificity of great books and of original ideas ...”

    “And if a genuine work of art appears that has none of these qualities, critics impose them anyway ...”

    “at a time like this, you’d think someone would have given a genuine work of honest art its due. ...”

    Short Siegel:  everyone’s lack of authenticity SUCKS!

    Posted by  on  03/06  at  05:05 AM
  36. I think you mean “everyone’s lack of authenticity genuinely sucks,” but, like, yeah dude.

    Posted by Michael  on  03/06  at  09:09 AM
  37. The “magical 18-34 demographic” just called. It wants to know “what the fuck is a Howdy-Doody?” (And yes, that awful profanity is verbatim. Must be a “young thing.")

    Posted by  on  03/06  at  09:58 AM
  38. From the Learn from the Mistakes of Others File: if invited to a satanic masque do not go as John Wayne Gacy Clown. Unless you want to be able to say you spent an evening alone at an orgy. There’s a difference between naughty and evil. Seriously.

    Captcha — syzgy (sic)

    Posted by black dog barking  on  03/06  at  10:42 AM
  39. Thank you, Michael, for noticing Lee Siegel’s masturbatory rant. I read it a week ago, and I thought I was the only one who had. Siegel’s piece had a major impact on me. Before reading it, I was a fan of Jon Stewart and a devotee of The Daily Show. Now I understand just how wrong I was. I thought I enjoyed The Daily Show for its ironic take on politics and the incompetence of the media; now I realize that I just like hearing Stewart say the word “sucks” ...

    Posted by  on  03/06  at  10:54 AM
  40. I also was one of the few who liked Eyes Wide Shut (partially because I am a pervo sickie and partially because I like films with sets which are obviously sets.) But the plot point about Tom Cruise’s doctor getting in trouble for going to the orgy was a little unconvincing.  I’ve been to many parties at Saint A’s (the preppie frat at Columbia)--- and even though there was little or no nudity, the vibe was similar to the orgy.  And I seem to recall that once you got in the door at Saint A’s, the preppies assumed you belonged there.  It woulda been the same at the orgy club: the rich guys at the orgy would’ve been “Hey Doc!  How’s it hanging?  Hanging pretty well, I see!” and all like that....

    Posted by Tim Horrigan  on  03/06  at  08:32 PM
  41. Wow. Just wow. Critics.

    The great thing about comedy is that it either works, or it doesn’t. It’s relative to the audience, isn’t it? It makes them laugh, or it doesn’t. The hubris of this guy…

    Short anecdote:

    I once lectured on a cruise ship with two critics, one was the drama critic for the New York Daily News, the other was the classical music critic for the LA Times. (Married couple). In their first appearance on a panel before the passengers, they were asked why people needed critics. The man said, “Basically, because the audience doesn’t have the sophistication to make judgements about what is good and what is bad. They have to be told what to think.”

    The kicker was, about a week later, when I told them that the passengers were rating the lecturers at the end of the cruise, and those who got low ratings wouldn’t be asked back. (This is true, by the way.) It was a very special moment.

    I realize the literary criticism is food on the table around here, and we all need to eat.(Grrrrrr, Nusbaum.) That’s different. But criticism of a comic for playing to his audience? That IS skill. And anyone who’s ever done it knows that. You can quote Shakespeare or Stoppard all day long, but if the audience wants “dude” and dooky jokes, you failed. 

    Thanks, Michael, for sharing this. I’m all steamed up now.

    Posted by Chris Moore  on  03/06  at  11:45 PM
  42. Omigod, I thought “Eyes Wide Shut” had mercifully disappeared down the memory hole, but Lee Siegel resurrects the peculiar piece he wrote at the time it appeared, a grumpy attempt to explain why everyone was out of step but Siegel.  Alas, it didn’t help the film’s reputation (that was unsalvageable) but it muddied Siegel’s.

    I speak as a Kubrick fan (we come from the same Bronx neighborhood); “2001” is 2nd on my all-time list, behind “The Third Man.” In the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, Kubrick created some great films.  But afterwards, his muse retired slowly from the scene, probably driven out by the great man’s increasingly onerous obsessons.  It all ended, sadly, with that ghastly train-wreck of a flick, “Eyes Wide Shut.” The giveaway is Kubrick’s attempt to use London streets as a surrogate for New York.  There was no reason for this other than his paralyzing fear of travel.  But it drained the film of any semblance of verisimilitude.  It serves as an instance and a symbol of the false notes repeatedly struck by this juvenile mess of a movie.  The orgy scene, with or withut the Bowdlerization undone, looks like something that belongs on soft-porn cable.  It looks, in fact, like the work of someone who has vaguely heard of orgies but never witnessed one.  It is an orgy fit for an Andrew Lloyd Weber extravaganza.

    It’s terrible to have to say it, but at that point in his life, Kubrick was deeply lost in his own neuroses; the artist within had withered away.

    Posted by  on  03/07  at  12:04 AM
  43. Eh, what’s the difference?

    Posted by  on  03/07  at  12:24 AM
  44. Lee,

    The reason that you hate Stewart is that he’s a liberal, and makes a difference, and has fun doing it.  TNR only makes a difference (at best) when it’s backstabbing liberals.  TNR has outlived its usefulness to anybody; there are a lot of magazines which are better at hating liberals, and others which are better at being liberal.

    Posted by  on  03/07  at  11:36 AM
  45. Well said, Barry.  There’s one other thing TNR used to do well:  back-of-the-book reviews that skewered overblown reputations.  But that genre jumped the shark twenty years ago when Stanley Crouch tried desperately to cast Beloved as Victim Lit, and then by the time Dale Peck showed up, the lights were already off in that wing, and all that was left was a bunch of shouts and yelps as people crashed into objects in the dark.

    Posted by Michael  on  03/07  at  11:42 AM
  46. I, too, had forgotten about Eyes Wide Shut until this very moment. And then I, once again, regretted I’d seen the unedited version.

    OK, I jest, I have a lot of very kinky friends and I thought the film quite interesting. But come on, who can’t love John Stewart? He has such a CUTE pouty face!

    I did frighten me when I first heard more people watch The Daily Show than the news, but I guess it’s better they get it from somewhere than from nowhere. Then again, I’m all for a liberal media. wink

    Posted by Kat  on  03/07  at  07:11 PM
  47. As a fringe benefit, Mr. Cates said he hoped that Mr. Stewart--whose
    show attracts a viewer whose average age is just over 41 [who would
    have thought it?] according to Nielsen Media Research--might attract
    younger people to the Oscars, whose typical viewer last year was 47.

    Don’t you appreciate that, Jon? The magic demographic that the
    Academy wants you to pull in is between 42 and 46! The young crowd.

    Is this level of math stupidity actually a requirement for TNR writers?

    Posted by  on  03/10  at  05:26 PM

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