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Sunday, March 05, 2006

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 Michael on 03/05 at 01:56 PM
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