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Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.

– Thomas Paine, from the first pamphlet in his The American Crisis series, December 23, 1776.

An excellent article in the latest issue of Harper’s, about the current cultural significance and historical context of animated comedy television for adults, from the Simpsons to Family Guy to the latest one, Archer. Charles Bock delves deep into the brilliance, depravity, and ubiquitous cultural presence these shows have produced.

The same year “Cape Feare” aired, David Foster Wallace published an essay in which he commented on how irony — formerly a weapon of the avant-garde — had been co-opted by corporate America: Isuzu winking at itself with a lying salesman named Joe Isuzu, so we’d remember the name. “The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching,” Wallace argued. “Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.”

Wallace sensed that undercurrent wherein smart young adults who’d grown up on popular culture, and who now considered it their canon, were not simply aware of and charmed by and fluent in its forms but also exhausted by those forms, distrustful of them. Which didn’t mean slackers were going to stop consuming, commenting on, or making references to pop; and they assuredly weren’t discovering the golden hues of the sincerity for which Wallace eloquently pined, or eschewing any kind of ironic anything. The Onion’s deadpan generic AP-style headlines (“Death Star to Open Day Care Center”; “Scissors Defeats Rock”) were finding an audience in cities and college towns (though the paper was not yet successful enough to pay its writing staff salaries); Seinfeld had devoted a chunk of its fourth season to a plotline in which Jerry and George develop an NBC pilot for a show about nothing. And in 1996, pop’s ironizing self-consciousness cranked into high gear with Scream — a movie whose masked killer consciously employs tropes of teen slasher films in order to slash teens.

In New York City, meanwhile, on Monday nights at the Lower East Side’s Luna Lounge, cast members of Saturday Night Live, MADtv, and MTV’s short-lived but seminal sketch-comedy show The State — and such emerging comedians as Janeane Garofalo, Marc Maron, and Sarah Silverman — were performing stand-up and skits for audiences in semi-organized evenings that the New York Times called a reaction to “the tyranny of the punch line,” a kind of collective striving for honesty and originality in a profession glutted with mediocre cable-TV stand-up and ossified by jokes about airplane peanuts. There was one rule at the Luna Lounge: no previously performed material allowed. Nobody got paid. Sets were freer (obviously); their lack of form could lead to rambling and, often, to a kind of searching: Maron was described by Times reporter Neil Strauss as performing “ideas as much as jokes,” Silverman as attempting “to salvage a difficult night by delivering her neurotic monologue with her pants around her ankles.” One recent arrival was the now ubiquitous Zach Galifianakis, who’d performed for the first time at the Lounge just two weeks earlier; the young comedian was quoted as hoping to see a fusion between alternative and mainstream comedy.

“Anticomedy” was a term that got tossed around.

In anticomedy both comedian and audience implicitly acknowledge the traditional, tyrannical set-it-up/knock-it-down mechanics of a joke. Only now the joke’s punch line sabotages its setup, and this subversion ends up getting the laugh. The joke, again, is on the joke itself. Anticomedy often involves dramatic leaps of logic and can venture into unsettling territory. Forerunners include Andy Kaufman’s almost-performance-art pieces; David Letterman’s early, monkey-cam-loving, bowling-ball-off-a-building-tossing late-night years; the affectless stonerific one-liners of Steven Wright. You can consider This Is Spinal Tap as anticomedy.

Joke:

What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?
Finding half a worm.

Antijoke:

What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?
The Holocaust.

It occurred to me, as I sat there watching an interracial couple banging, that jacking off in a hotel room was not unlike the larger experience of campaign reporting. You watch two performers. You kind of like it when one of them gets humiliated. You know they’re professionals, so you don’t feel much sympathy for them. You wish you could participate, but instead you watch with a hidden envy and feel vaguely ashamed for watching. You think you could probably do as good a job or better. You sometimes get a glimpse, intentionally or not, of society’s hidden desires and fears. You watch the porn week after week, the scenes almost always the same, none of them too memorable. The best ones get sent around the Internet.

– Michael Hastings, writing for GQ, in a story about his time on the campaign trail leading up to the 2008 election, regarding some enlightening conclusions he came to on the nature of the political contest.

In a compelling and hypnotically well-written article in this month’s Esquire magazine, John Richardson valiantly argues against the artificial societal restraints put on sexual activity in modern, supposedly-“civilized” society, and in favor of true sexual liberation.

I want to suggest that sex, be it adulterous or premarital or deviant or polyamorous, is a good thing, not a bad thing, and that sex itself is the moment of grace. And that our sterile idea of perfection is the actual sin. To start with the subject on the table, adultery is a brave rebellion against the invisible prison we build for ourselves. When the sad little man Larry Craig widened his stance in that airport bathroom, it was probably the most honest and courageous act of his life. When Clinton got that blowjob in the White House, he wasn’t indulging a weakness (and an eager intern) but enacting the hero’s journey of reconciling inner and outer, risking all to break through the wall of hypocritical purity he had spent years building and projecting to the world in the effort to get elected. By risking martyrdom, in fact, he lifted himself up into an exaltation we still refuse to understand. He was the Martyred Jesus of Oral Sex with Interns and all we see is a mean little sin, as all the sexual deviates pretending to be puritans gathered around in an orgy of denunciation and scandal. In our condemnation, we focus on the supposedly broken vows and the supposed pain of his wife when in fact we know nothing of his wife’s true feelings or her knowledge and tolerance of his “frisky” side (frisky being one of the endless array of demeaning expressions we use as invisible prison bars, along with dog and pig and you only want one thing). We never consider that our reaction is the punishment and the meanness is all in our eyes. Every single time we play out this ritual, we replay the Old Testament rite in which the pious transferred their sins to goats, which were then driven into the wilderness, just as we drive David Petraeus and a parade of other scapegoats out the gates of our smug little village of lies in the hope that we can put the “sin” outside the gate — when it is, of course, always inside. That’s what happens when you put up gates.

In perhaps his most shrewd and astute passage – and one of the most sagacious passages I’ve ever read anywhere, on any subject – Richardson continues:

What we’re afraid of is the truth. We live in a world in which men and women are buried up to their necks and stoned to death for these same impulses. We recoil at such barbarism with smug assertions of our superior level of civilization while cheerfully meting out our own version of punishment for the same supposed crime — anything to avoid looking at the deeper questions of why adultery exists and what exactly all our endless sexual prohibitions and inhibitions are supposed to do for us. Because if they are there to stabilize the family or inhibit sexually compulsive perversions or avoid the conflicts attendant in jealousy, they’re failing spectacularly and they always have.

He does spend some column inches arguing in favor of adultery – not promoting it necessarily, but arguing for its acceptance as an inevitable corollary to the social strictures we’ve created in the institution of monogamous marriage, and that for a cheating husband we have only ourselves and human nature to blame – and that, I have to say, is a tough nut to crack. The presence of such an argument might make it difficult for some readers to get behind his treatise here, myself included. But in confronting us with the darker, animalistic side of our nature, particularly at a time when we are celebrating and relishing in our civilization and patriotic xeno-supremacy like never before, Richardson’s assertions are both challenging and helpful – even healthy, I think – to consider. With his writing, he lays out his argument with a beautiful intuitiveness that makes perfect and complete sense while being dissonant to what we thought we knew, and, at times, somewhat despicable. I dare you to read it.

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