The other day I heard an eye-opening piece of thinking and wanted to share it with you. So badly in fact, I spent an intense, frustrating hour yesterday on the train looping this three-minute bit of audio over and over, trying to transcribe it. Daft, because you could just go listen: it’s on a recent episode of Slate magazine’s Culture Gabfest. They were just finishing a discussion on comedian Mike Birbiglia’s new movie Sleepwalk With Me. But the subject matter isn’t important. Here’s Stephen Metcalf:
“Isn’t it amazing that the struggling lonely artist who sacrifices everything to his own vision, a romantic trope now in western culture for 300 years; [only] one person is permitted to embody it now, in contemporary culture, without being laughed at: which is the comedian. He’s the only person who can get away with it anymore. Let me tell you, if you pull that shit as a poet or novelist, you are laughed out of the room. It’s interesting that the one person who’s allowed now still to be a tortured artist is the comedian.
I really believe, starting in the 90s, probably starting a little bit in the 80s but gathering steam in the 90s, it became a social type that people were deeply uncomfortable with. It was huge in the 50s and 60s when existentialism was huge and on into the rock’n’roll era where flaming out early and the beat poets would be an example, Lenny Bruce very early on was a comic version of that.”
And his (for me extraordinary) conclusion:
“But it’s something about the cultural authority assumed by the person who presumes to suffer for all of us, attain a higher wisdom and then lay it on the rest of us? That became a form of cultural extortion that people were really uncomfortable with. The reasons have to be deep and I can’t, off the top of my head, think of exactly what they were. But the idea that someone had gone off, sat on their own in a garrett, burned the candle til late at night, explored the darkness of their own soul and come back with The Truth that the rest of us were going to have to sit and patiently listen to; that paradigm went way out the window.”
This feels on-the-button to me – and also of real concern; surely that is an exceptionally important (and broad) segment of our cultural conversation to lose, just because we’re all trying so hard to walk and talk like winners. Particularly in terms of its real usefulness to the lives of the audience – inspiring a stepping away from mundanity, or from mental slavery, or from traditional oppressive value systems of winning and losing. It’s a core pillar.
I’d say (Metcalf doesn’t imply this at all) that it will inevitably turn out to be the top-down establishment that has – consciously or not – whittled away at its coolness. Bloody Cowell, yet again, in other words.