Rage Against the Machine: Does The Sarah Connor Chronicles Have a Future?
Heather Hendershot / Queens College/CUNY Graduate Center

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Promotional image for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

When James Cameron’s Terminator—a scrappy, medium budget sci-fi-action movie—appeared in 1984, its novelties were twofold: it ended with a time travel paradox handcrafted for sci-fi nerds, and it starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as a killer robot from the future. The future Governator was hotly pursuing a movie career after mildly successful turns in Conan: The Barbarian, Pumping Iron, and (a cameo, in his underpants) The Long Goodbye. By the end of The Terminator, Sarah Connor has crushed the Terminator, been impregnated with John Connor (the very warrior from the future who sent his own father back in time to impregnate his mother), and gone off into the desert to prepare for the apocalypse, when the Cyberdyne System’s Skynet computer defense system will annihilate most of the human race.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day picks up in 1991, with Sarah in a mental institution. Her apparently loony predictions about robots from the future are, of course, correct, but that doesn’t mean she’s not crazy. The seeming inevitability of global apocalypse has driven her off her nut. Still, she’s been working out pretty hard, and if she’s not mentally equipped to fight for the future of the human race, she’s got the biceps for it. Schwarzenegger appears again, this time reprogrammed as a good guy determined to fight off a liquid metal bad guy out to kill John Connor, now a wisecracking juvenile delinquent.

One quickly has the feeling of watching two movies unfold. First, a tense psychological drama about Sarah, who wonders if there is “no fate,” if the future is open to change, and how one human can possibly make a difference. Second, a special effects movie, with Pepsi product placement, cool catch phrases, and a primary mission more pressing than saving the world from apocalypse: making Arnold into a family values action hero. As John bonds with the terminator, Sarah observes: “Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine, was the only one who measured up.” The movie ends on a note of hope. Cyberdyne’s headquarters have been destroyed; maybe the apocalypse won’t come.

Linda Hamilton

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in T2

By the time Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines appeared in 2003, Sarah had died of leukemia. The special effects thrust that dominated T2 survived, and the other submerged film, the psychological drama, was kaput, notwithstanding a few token gestures. Arnold was back, along with a new evil, chesty terminator. Ticket sales were solid, although almost everyone seemed to find the film a terrific bore. But it was unstoppable, programmed to promote video games and the next sequel, Terminator Salvation, which will be released this summer. It’s sure to be a blockbuster, but no serious science fiction lover would expect anything interesting from the franchise at this point.

Not in movie theatres, anyway. On TV, that embedded film about crazy Sarah Connor has been rebooted. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is now in the middle of its second season on Fox, and it is a show with big ambitions, if little budget. The premise is that another reprogrammed terminator has been sent from the future to make sure John Connor survives to lead the human resistance against the machines after Judgment Day. This terminator—named Cameron, after the franchise’s creator—is an attractive teenage girl. Or she looks like one, at least. Sarah is still alive, but Cameron informs her that she will die of cancer in a few years. The series takes place after the events of T2 and draws upon plot points from that film whenever it’s handy, but the driving force of the show exists wholly apart from the rest of the franchise. The program’s central concern is to ask, faced with inevitable failure—because of fate, the apocalypse, or simply the death that awaits us all—what does it mean to be human? What are our obligations? How do we live, knowing that it’s all going to end?

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Cameron, not quite human

It is Cameron who best helps sort out these issues. Cameron learns to imitate humans, not because she yearns to be human but because it makes her more effective in her mission. If Schwarzenegger had “Hasta la vista, baby!” Cameron’s tagline is simply factual: “I don’t sleep.” This explains a lot. It’s not unusual for her to appear in the morning with a badly needed piece of information or machinery. In early episodes, this is simply a handy way to push the plot forward, but “Self Made Man” reveals what Cameron actually does while everyone else is asleep. Has she been cooking up plastique, hacking into the FBI’s computer systems, or plotting assassinations?

Much cooler: she spends her nights in the library listening to radio broadcasts preserved on old LPs, speed reading microfiche, and projecting silver nitrate newsreels. Google is out of the question: Cameron is only interested in analogue sources of information. She arrives with a bag of donuts, and the library’s night clerk lets her in and acts as research assistant. Having only simulated emotions (her smile could crack a mirror), Cameron’s manner is a bit off putting to the young man, but he gathers that she’s just got “issues.” (Indeed, a psychologist has already declared that Cameron suffers from “borderline Asperger’s.”) The night clerk thinks his cancer is in remission, but Cameron discerns he is sick again and tells him as much. She thinks she’s helping, but her manner is brusque, and he rejects her. He’s gone the next day, and the new clerk is dubious when Cameron knocks at the back door, but empty gestures of friendship and a bag of donuts gain her admittance, and she’s back in the stacks in a flash. “Self Made Man” does have a puzzle to solve—the reason for Cameron’s research—and it ends with a quick fight scene to wrap everything up. But the heart of this episode lies in Cameron’s lack of heart, in watching her get what she wants by feigning friendship, in seeing her gauge what works and what doesn’t in conversation. She’s got no instincts for how human interaction works, so she has to simply memorize the mechanics. The Asperger’s diagnosis was not far off the mark.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DCZWqx_AG58[/youtube]

Cameron detects cancer

The common science fiction trope that a robot’s dearest wish would be to become human is reassuring. It confirms that being human is better than being a machine. In the first Terminator, there was no question of humanizing the robot, but Sarah concludes T2 with a hopeful voice-over: “If a machine, a terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.” This carries over to Schwarzenegger in T3. Cameron may be the same model as the Schwarzenegger terminator, but she’s no Pinocchio—or Tin Man, as Sarah sometimes calls her. Instructed not to kill humans who might help bring about Judgment Day, she asks “why not?” She refuses to “learn the value of human life,” not because she is willful, but because it’s not in her programming. Sarah and John want to stop the apocalypse but are unwilling to kill people who might be innocent. John and Sarah cling to human compassion, and this makes them good, but probably less well equipped than Cameron to save the world. Their compatriot Derek Reese, on the other hand, a human warrior from the future, has no compunction about murdering anyone whose actions might lead to Judgment Day. Derek hates Cameron and mistrusts machines, yet he lies and kills as much as Cameron. She’s a killing machine, but it is he who is the unethical one, as he has free will.

This is what the show is about. But what actually happens? A lot, and also not much. Every week our would-be heroes do something that might prevent the apocalypse, but they can never be sure they have really accomplished anything. In Ray Bradbury’s famous “A Sound of Thunder” (1952), a time traveler is cautioned that even the smallest change in the past may influence the future; the traveler accidentally crushes a butterfly beneath his boot, and he returns to find the present changed for the worse. That time travelers should not risk changing history has become an axiom of science fiction, but Sarah Connor protagonists desperately stomp at every butterfly in sight, struggling to change things—the future can’t possibly be any worse, they reason. At one point, a visitor from the future has different memories from Derek Reese, who arrived in the show’s present at an earlier point in time. Derek speculates that all of the butterfly stomping must have changed something; the later visitor remembers different things because she is from a different future. But it’s still an apocalyptic future.

Sarah Connor is depressing, lacking the liberal optimism and faith in human evolution that fuels much sci-fi, especially the Star Trek franchise. Season One, for example, ends with a terminator annihilating an entire FBI team, as Johnny Cash’s “When the Man Comes Around” plays, emphasizing the inevitability of the Grim Reaper. (In another episode we learn that John Connor loves The Smiths—no upbeat pop tunes in this universe!) In tone, the series evokes Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a series rejected by many Trek fans for its deep interest in religion and politics, its post-apocalyptic tone, and its picture of a fractured, non-logical universe full of traumatized POWs, guerilla warriors, and drug-addicted military conscripts. Sarah Connor, to put it in terms that will be appreciated by DS9 fans, is more likely to draw Odo lovers than Data lovers.

It’s difficult to reconcile the action movie side of the Terminator franchise with this cheap, clever little TV series spin-off. Maybe once a franchise gets big enough all of its parts don’t have to cohere. Interviewed by Robert Trate at the 2008 San Diego Comic Con, one of the show’s executive producers, Josh Friedman, said he had been in touch with Salvation director McG, but that he wasn’t really concerned about the show’s relationship to the movie: “McG and I decided that I would do my thing and he would do his. It’s a $200 million movie. Their trailers cost as much as our shows do. What TV does best is character. At the end of the day that is what we do best.” Friedman added, “The movie franchise post T3 was perceived as not that healthy. Maybe they need us as much as we need them.” This might sound like wishful thinking, as Sarah Connor simply isn’t going to survive if its ratings don’t improve, but it’s an interesting notion. Sarah Connor supplies the franchise a bit of intellectual credibility, and its character driven nature will draw a subset of viewers less interested in the action side of the franchise.

Ultimately, it’s hard to predict Sarah Connor’s fate. On the one hand, termination seems inevitable. It has previously aired on Monday nights, but on February 13 it returned on Fridays as a lead-in to Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. Friday night scheduling is widely considered to be the kiss of death. On the other hand, Whedon’s cult following should bring new viewers to Sarah Connor. Indeed, both shows are sci-fi dramas about what it means to be human. Anyway, how much longer can scheduling make or break a show, as fewer and fewer Americans watch shows live, or even on their TVs? Last summer Whedon had a hit with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which never actually aired on TV and could be watched any time at all. Whedon fans will TiVo Dollhouse and watch it whenever the hell they want, and why not check out the show’s lead-in too? Maybe Sarah Connor will die in the Friday night dead zone, but maybe not. I like to think that Dollhouse will offer its hand to the show and say, “Come with me if you want to live.”

Image Credits:

1. Promotional image for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
2. Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in T2
3. Cameron, not quite human

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Don Knotts: Reluctant Sex Object

Don Knotts


Editor’s Note: This piece, originally published here in Volume 4, Issue 9, is reprinted here as part of our “Flow Favorites” issue, in which the coordinating editors (past and present) select an article for republication. While new images and video clips have been added, the original text remains the same. We have also included the original comments at the conclusion, as well as a new postscript by the author and an introduction by the co-coordinating editor of volume 7 and the upcoming volume 8, Peter Alilunas.


Introduction: One of the great pleasures of co-editing Flow has been going back through our archive of more than 500 columns and discovering the enormous body of work on such a variety of unexpected and often unusual topics. One of my fondest excursions into the journal’s past resulted in the good fortune of coming across Heather Hendershot’s analysis of Don Knotts’ status as a sex object.

Yes, Don Knotts.

The coordinating editors of Flow have always taken a great deal of pride in our ongoing mission to provide a space for immediate, relevant, and ultra-contemporary content (this issue of some our favorites has some remarkable examples of this) but we also believe in this journal as a place for the insightful and provocative exploration of unusual mediated culture not often discussed. Hendershot’s analysis of Knotts represents the perfect example: from her description of Knotts’ head as a “stand-in for the below-the-waste mechanics that he seemed unable to activate” to the final, delightful anecdote detailing John Waters’ lust for Knotts, this piece epitomizes exactly the sort of material I look forward to publishing and reading in Flow.

Of course, as with any journal, these unexpected discoveries often relate to and inspire our own work — and as someone who studies vulnerable and “wounded” male masculinity in contemporary film, I must confess the sheer delight I had the first time I read the opening words to this piece: “Sexual inadequacy is the default setting of many male comedians.” Her new postscript, which pushes the argument into new territory, inspires that same delight. I chose this piece as my “Flow Favorite” for that exact reason: it really is my favorite piece in the enormous archive of great work we’ve assembled.

— Peter Alilunas, 2008


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Sexual inadequacy is the default setting of many male comedians. ((“When comedian comedy mocks the heroic masculinity affirmed in serious drama, it often does so by creating a feminized, antiheroic male hero who appropriates the positive, anarchic, ‘feminine’ principles comedy affirms.” Kathleen Rowe, “Comedy, Melodrama and Gender: Theorizing the Genres of Laughter,” in Henry Jenkins and Kristine Brunovska Karnick, eds. Clasical Hollywood Comedy (New York: Routledge, 1995) 39-59. Quotation from p.45-46.)) Of course, there have always been the swaggering, abrasive jokers, but the truly winning comics are more often the pathetic losers who just can’t seem to get it on. Why do these types appeal? In the very prurient post-Code comedies of the 1950s and 60s, like That Touch of Mink (1962) and The Moon is Blue (1953), “seduction” is often a thinly coded euphemism for rape. In this context, the desexualized, man-child comics come as quite a relief; they seem to be the only ones not trying to force their way into their leading ladies’ pants. Indeed, as a child watching Martin-Lewis movies on TV, it was Jerry who appealed more to me, not simply because he was goofy and infantile but because Dean seemed to be “only after one thing,” as they used to say, while Jerry, in addition to being funny, was not a sexual predator.

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The Love God? (1969)

In the film version of The Celluloid Closet (1995), a writer from the post-Code era calls films of the Doris Day ilk “DF pictures.” The “happy ending” of such romantic comedies wasn’t really the ringing of wedding bells that closed the films. It was the Delayed Fuck. It’s hardly a secret that many movies of this era were about having or not having sex, but it is wonderful and startling to hear the creators of such pictures lay it all on the line so explicitly. For some comedians, though, the delay was endless. In his numerous film and television roles, Don Knotts simply never made it to the “F.” ((I must confess that I have not seen every Don Knotts performance. If I’ve missed the key film or TV moment when Knotts finally lost his virginity, I hope that someone can correct me.)) Even as a pornographer in The Love God? (1969), he remains a virgin, though, in the end, he is tricked into thinking he has been deflowered.

Knotts referred to his comic persona as “the nervous man,” a character who was, as The New York Times wrote shortly after his death in February 2006, “absolutely flappable.” At first glance, Knotts might seem to be a one-trick pony–a pair of scared, googly, bug-eyes attached to a pipe cleaner body. While it is true that Knotts did his eye-popping routine over and over again (and, I might add, it was funny each and every time), there was much more to Knotts’ performance than simply nervous energy in response to frightening situations. In fact, Knotts’ act was often based around his sexuality, the joke being that he had none, mainly because of his slight frame. As he stutters–shortly before fainting–to a buxom seductress in The Shakiest Gun in the West (1967), “I always thought I was too thin for marriage.” Knotts was, I believe, a walking repressive hypothesis, his skinny body a constant reminder that sex was not an option for him. In not being sexual, of course, Knotts was really about sex much of the time.

[youtube]http://youtube.com/watch?v=kMozp01yfXs[/youtube]

From: The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968)

To fully understand the nature of Knotts as reluctant sex object, it is helpful to turn to the history of his development as a performer. Knotts’ mother was a born-again Christian; the fundamentalists of the Depression years were adamantly opposed to gambling, liquor, make-up, cigarettes, and, of course, Hollywood films. Luckily for Knotts, as he explains in his autobiography, his mother thought that the prohibition on films was a bunch of “hogwash,” and she often took her son to the movies. ((Don Knotts with Robert Metz, Barney Fife and Other Characters I Have Known (New York: Berkley Boulevard Books,
1999).)) Though he found Laurel and Hardy films inspirational, he was also drawn to Edgar Bergen and Jack Benny on the radio, and as he trained himself in performance he soon turned to ventriloquism, using a dummy, “Danny,” handcrafted by a neighbor. (Danny looked much like Don, but with a stronger hairline.) Since he was underweight, to join the service during World War II Knotts had to sign a waiver in case basic training killed him. Having officially listed his profession as “ventriloquist,” he was soon reassigned to the U.S.O., where he and Danny performed in a show called “Stars and Gripes.” After the war, Knotts moved to New York City, where he couldn’t afford to attend Broadway shows, but he was able to get free tickets to radio shows, where he carefully studied and took notes on performance strategies. Eventually, he landed a role as a secondary character on a boy’s adventure radio show, which was a mild success for several years.

The films he attended with his mother may have inspired him to become an actor, but it was mastery of sound, not image, that initially kicked off Knotts’ career as a performer. Knotts’ formative years working with his voice, rather than his body, were crucial, for he never really learned to use his body fully as a comic tool. He was the most oral and facial comedian imaginable, though he did master a swagger, which I will discuss shortly, as well as a fake karate shtick.

The typical desexualized man-child comedian–Harry Langdon, Jerry Lewis, even SpongeBob SquarePants–has a dynamic or, at least, an interesting body. ((Heather Hendershot, “Nickelodeon’s Nautical Nonsense: The Intergenerational Appeal of SpongeBob SquarePants,” in Hendershot, ed. Nickelodeon Nation: The History, Politics and Economics of America’s Only TV Channel for Kids (New York: New York University Press, 2004) 182-208.)) It is flabby or pliable or, more broadly, polymorphously perverse. Such excessive bodies are funny. But Knotts’ body was rarely pushed, pulled, prodded, or palpated. For the most part, his head was his only expressive bodily part; with his bulging eyes, pursed mouth, and popping neck veins, in fact, one might read Knotts’ head as a stand-in for the below-the-waste mechanics that he seemed unable to activate. Even when his body is “in action,” it does not fulfill comic expectations. When he finally makes it into space in The Reluctant Astronaut, for example, his zero gravity performance is more than a little underwhelming: He squirts some peanut butter out from a tube and floats about a bit.

reluctant astronaut

The Reluctant Astronaut (1967)

The closest Knotts comes to a bravura physical feat is in The Shakiest Gun in the West, in which he plays a nervous Old West dentist “forced to switch from gums to guns.” In a sequence that is both an homage to and a departure from the W.C. Field classic, The Dentist, Knotts attempts to treat a female patient who refuses to open her mouth. Knotts finally notes, casually, “I’d like very much to see you socially sometime.” A pleased Miss Stephenson opens her mouth to answer, and Knotts inserts his fingers. In a textbook Freudian moment, the castrating Miss Stephenson immediately clamps down on Knott’s fingers. He yanks his fingers out, and the two get in a punching match, she striking the first blow. Somehow, the patient ends up standing, Knotts’ legs wrapped around her pelvis as she swings him about wildly. Her back against the wall, at one point, this resembles nothing so much as a reverse coitus, with Knotts as receptive vehicle and the patient as penetrator. Suddenly, oddly, the camera cuts away, a loud thud is heard, and, cut, Knotts is leaning over the knocked out patient performing his dental procedure. Though Knotts wins the scuffle, we don’t see the winning move. Did he really suddenly turn phallic and knock her cold? Or did she simply bump her own head? The Fields version of this encounter is, of course, quite different insofar as Fields acts as sadistic aggressor, pounding away at his resistant patient, whereas Knotts, though technically positioned as the one who wants to penetrate the mouth of Miss Stephenson, is visually presented as the penetrated party. ((Technically it is Knotts’ stunt-double who is positioned as sexual object here. More on this anon.))

The gender reversal ante is upped in the climactic scenes of Gun. Knotts has married a comely gunfighter who has no sexual interest in him, and his honeymoon has been infinitely deferred. After she is kidnapped by “injuns” (undeniably racist caricatures), Knotts infiltrates the camp and ends up dressed up like a “squaw,” in full redface. When a smitten Indian will not be deterred from pursuing Knotts, he retaliates by flirting with another Indian, placing the Indian’s hand on his knee. When the two enamored fellows get in a fight over him, Knotts slips away. He ends up in a shoot-out (still in drag), but the camera cuts away at the last minute. Knotts wins, but we don’t see it, and the anticlimactic effect is rather like the sequence with the cold-cocked dental patient. Knotts rides into town with the Indians in the end, still in drag (for no narrative reason), and is almost carried away by his would-be Indian lover. When he can’t get out of the man’s arms, he looks at his wife, shrugs, and nuzzles into the Indian’s neck. She punches out her rival, however, and drags Knotts off-camera, in a final, light-hearted, oddly Sapphic moment.

Figg

How to Frame a Figg (1971)

Knotts’ Emmy-winning performance in The Andy Griffith Show landed him the lead in The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), in which he is turned into an animated, Nazi U-boat fighting fish. This film, in turn, won him a contract with Universal, with whom he made The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1965), The Reluctant Astronaut(1967), The Shakiest Gun in the West, The Love God?, and How to Frame a Figg (1971). Knotts claims that Figg bombed because by the early 70s the market for family films had bottomed out. On the other hand, The Love God? was doomed because Knotts had already made his name as a “clean” actor whose persistent problem was emasculation and (implicitly or explicitly) the inability to succeed with women–a scenario, of course, which was both clean and dirty at the same time. In The Love God? (rated M, for “mature audiences”) Knotts is tricked into becoming a pornographer. His backers set him up in a fancy penthouse, with tons of girls, studly capes and caps, and an enormous bed with scoreboard headboard. Though Knotts has no luck with his live-in ladies (and does not even try to score), the sexual content here was clearly over the top for viewers who expected a pseudo-desexualized Knotts. A few years later, Knotts would retaliate with a popular CBS TV special called The Don Knotts Nice Clean Decent Wholesome Hour.

Interestingly, Knotts may have actually been least desexualized on The Andy Griffith Show. It was only after he moved onto his film career, after five years on Andy Griffith, that he was suddenly denied sexual success across the board. Thus, at exactly the moment when films were getting more risqué and TV was supposedly clean, it was on TV that Knotts was allowed a degree of sexual proficiency. As Barney Fife on Andy Griffith, between break-ups and make-ups with girlfriend Thelma Lou, Knotts ended up in a number of make-out sessions (”smoochin’ parties,” as Andy says in “The Rivals” episode). Most shockingly–for a squeaky clean show in which “sugar on the jaw” (a kiss on the cheek) was construed as heavy-duty romance–in the “Barney on the Rebound” episode Andy walks in on Barney and Thelma Lou in the dark on a love seat. Barney makes a beeline for the couch while Thelma Lou flees the room, and then Andy turns on the light to find Barney, nonchalant, sipping a cup of coffee with his legs crossed (!), his hair wild, and his face covered with lipstick. Barney, for once, is extremely relaxed, as he casually explains that he and Thelma Lou have been “talking.” Leaving behind his nervous man routine, we see Knotts’ range here, and, implicitly, that it took a sexual release to drain him of his usual hopped-up style. The joke here is that while, on the one hand, the supposedly sexually unattractive Barney has actually seen some action he has, on the other hand, clearly been more ravaged than ravager. Even as he has succeeded he has failed, in masculinist terms, as he is sexual object, not subject.

Though Knotts relied mostly on his voice and facial expressions for comic effect, he did make some use of his body. In particular, he swaggered when he was feeling confident. On Andy Griffith he used the swagger when he felt (falsely) self-assured, and this swagger would carry over to his film performances, as well as, of course, his role as Mr. Furley, the would-be swinger of Three’s Company. In The Love God?, he gets pimped out in a variety of flashy outfits and flaunts his swagger, walking in place in a montage sequence, with pretty girls in matching outfits at his side, all against a variety of rear-screen projection backgrounds. (It is moments like these that make one question the need for films like Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997). When the kitschy 1960s originals are so outrageous, why bother with parody?)

[youtube]http://youtube.com/watch?v=O81mnYTlRec[/youtube]

From: The Love God? (1969)

But Knotts more frequently signaled rare moments of confidence not with his whole body but only, more economically, with a smile and a back-and-forth swing of his head. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a more “neck up” performer. Consider the scene in The Reluctant Astronaut when Knotts walks into a fancy NASA control room, a large floor waxer in hand. Buster Keaton would end up riding the device like a horse. Lucille Ball would end up hanging off the drapes, after they got sucked into the waxer. Jerry Lewis would end up using the irregular thump and whir of the waxer as a backbeat for one of his brilliant jazz pantomime sequences. And Don Knotts ends up…waxing the floor! There’s simply no room for physical pratfalls or prop comedy in the Knotts universe.

In fact, outside of the leg-wrapping sequence in Gun, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is the only film in which Knotts engages his body from the neck down in any serious fashion, in three separate scenes: he falls down a coal shoot, flips into an elevator, and, having already pretended to know karate and having explained that his “whole body is a weapon,” hurls himself like a projectile at a villain. Unfortunately, these three physical moments are disappointing, as they are clearly performed by doubles. These are athletic stunts, not comic performances. Clearly, Knotts could not meet the challenge of physical comedy. But the point here is not that Knotts was a poor comedian–though there is certainly no doubt that he was a lesser talent than Ball, Keaton, or Lewis. Rather, I would argue that Knotts, so voice and face centered, so consistently presented as non-sexual in his film roles, simply could not be represented as an active body. Knotts the ventriloquist must himself be ventriloquized by a stuntman to be represented as a physical force.

When I mentioned to a friend that I was “busy watching Don Knotts” films, he quickly corrected me: “There are Jerry Lewis films; Don Knotts made movies.” There is something to this. Lewis, of course, was an “auteur,” his films “metacinematic in that they are heavily interspersed with quotations from other films, parodies of film genres, gags lifted from other films [and] self-quotation…” ((Marcia Landy, “Jerry Agonistes: An Obscure Object of Critical Desire,” in Murray Pomerance, ed. Enfant Terrible! Jerry Lewis in American Film (New York: New York University Press, 2002) 59-73. Quotation from p.63.)) There is “a systematic deconstruction of comedy itself in Lewis’ films.” ((Dana Polan, “Being and Nuttiness: Jerry Lewis and the French” Journal of Popular Film and Television 12.1: 42-46. Quotation from p.46.)) This level of sophistication is clearly lacking from the Knotts oeuvre. Knotts never directed films, and, given a shot at producing his own TV variety show, he failed miserably because he simply couldn’t crank out the comedy fast enough, and he couldn’t manage the writing staff at maximum efficiency. If this was no Jerry Lewis, this was also no Sid Caesar. Still, Knotts should be of interest to us on several counts, even if he wasn’t “the best” comedian of his time.

First, comedy of the Cold War years was clearly strongest on television and in live performance with figures like Lenny Bruce. Tony Randall, Lewis, and Knotts were among the few performers of this era to successfully make the transition to film. The dominant film comedy of this era was romantic, featuring actors who could do comedy, like Jack Lemmon or Jimmy Stewart, rather than comedians per se. Though TV performers such as Ernie Kovacs, Jack Benny, and Milton Berle all took a swing at film, none ever forged a real career in the medium. Knotts not only pulled in reasonable box office from his Universal efforts but also went on to have a career in Disney films–sometimes in a major role, as in The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975) and, at other times, tragically underused, as in Gus (1976), in which he plays the coach of an ailing football team rescued by a field-goal kicking mule.

Second, Knotts reveals the potential of bodiless comedy. He was all face and voice, but he was always funny. Honestly, could you make it through a single episode of Andy Griffith without Barney Fife? The only contemporary performer who I think comes close to this level of non-corporeal facial performance is Steve Buscemi. In fact, in the Coen Brothers’ segment of the omnibus film Paris je t’aime (2006), Buscemi seems to be channeling Knotts in his short comic vignette. The world is waiting for Buscemi-as-Knotts in a made-for-TV biopic!

Buscemi

Buscemi in Paris je t’aime (2006)

And, finally, as I have tried to show, Knotts’ nervous man was a consistently sexually derailed persona. We might go so far as to label him “queer,” insofar as his sexuality was “abnormal,” seeming to endlessly swerve around the closure of intercourse. And he was queer in a rather unique way compared to other comedians of his generation. Man-child Jerry Lewis could transform into Buddy Love in The Nutty Professor (1963), whereas Knotts is unimaginable as sexual conqueror. Uncle Miltie was sometimes in drag, but was not a consistently queer persona, on or off stage. ((Berle asserted his heterosexuality via “masculine” traits such as frequent cigar chomping, and, off camera, boasting (reportedly with reason) about the size of his manhood. See Jeff Kisseloff, The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1929-1961 (New York: Penguin, 1997).)) Tony Randall, Paul Lynde, and Jack Benny are in the running as queer comedians, but, were, arguably, more overtly gay in their representations. Knotts’ performance was queer, but not specifically gay. He didn’t seem to “really” desire men underneath it all. Instead, he seemed heterosexual yet also virtually incapable of sexuality, and it is in this very putative impossibility that I discern queerness. It was only funny for Knotts not to be sexy if he was linked to sex over and over again. On trial for obscenity in The Love God?, for example, Knotts (playing birdwatcher Abner Peacock) does a classic “slow burn” routine, as he is attacked by the Attorney General: “Look at his face! It is the face of a smut-monger. Look at his body, THIN, wasted away by the sin and debauchery of a life of unspeakable orgies and depravity…He does look innocent, until you look into his eyes. They’re the eyes of a man obsessed by sex… a man whose lust knows no bounds… The Marquis de Sade would have regarded Abner Peacock as a peer in his search for lechery.” As the Attorney General makes his case, the camera cuts between the apoplectic Knotts and the increasingly turned on middle-aged ladies in the courtroom. Between the lascivious female extras (many recognizable from Disney films) and the reference to the Marquis de Sade, it’s clear why this film went too far for 1969 viewers who came to theaters expecting a “family film.”

At least some viewers, though, might have thought the lecherous extras were right on track. As John Waters notes, “Don Knotts has always been a holy man in my life… When he was young, he was really my type.” In his recent one-man show, “This Filthy World,” Waters confessed that he regularly called Knotts’ agents about getting Knotts in his films, though, he warned them, Knotts would have to audition, and he fully intended to “use the casting couch.” Waters also regularly invited Knotts to be his date for movie premieres. Waters admitted that he suspected Knotts never received his messages, and it’s hard to believe that Knotts had even heard of Waters. Knotts was finally the true object of sexual desire, but did he even know it? One imagines a poignant moment–a screwball version of Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)–when one of his managers finally tells Knotts, “This John Waters keeps calling you for dates.” Don, in a Mr. Furley polyester pantsuit and cravat, springs to attention, widens his eyes, and asks, “Who the heck is Joan Waters?”

Young Knotts

A young Knotts


description goes here

Thoughts on Vincent Price, Inspired by Don Knotts

In his groundbreaking book on the horror film business, “Ghouls, Gimmicks and Gold,” Kevin Heffernan cites reviewers who describe Vincent Price as “a sissified Bela Lugosi” spouting “the fruitiest dialogue heard on the screen in a couple of decades.” Heffernan himself notes that in The Pit and the Pendulum Price performs an “almost swooning caricature of grief and distraction,” his acting style reaching “new heights of delirium.”

Asked to write a postscript to the piece I wrote on Don Knotts several years ago, my thoughts drift to this “sissified Bela Lugosi.” Like Knotts, Price is an over-the-top actor whom people laugh at…or with. If Knotts was “the nervous man,” Price had his own “hysterical man” persona. I also find Price to be sexually indeterminate. He’s an effusive actor, with a campy queer following, in large part because of his late Dr. Phibes films. But I’ve never felt like anyone has really gotten Price right. Critics make fun of him for “bad acting” when really they mean that he acts like a woman. No man screams, shudders, or recoils quite like Price—but lots of women do, even if they can’t quite compete with Price’s Mr. Spock-like eyebrow action. But no one—man or woman—can match Price’s signature delirious-laughter-morphing-into-delirious-sobbing (The Last Man on Earth) or delirious-sobbing-morphing-into-delirious-laughter (The Pit and the Pendulum). This evokes neither Karloff nor Lugosi, though it has elements of Lon Chaney, whom no one would dare to call sissified.

What is perhaps most frustrating about discussions of Price is the insistence that he “over-acts.” One wonders how a classic method performer would better and “more realistically” tackle the typical Price scenario. Imagine the thought process of the actor in a Lee Strasberg workshop: “I thought my wife was dead, but now I think that I buried her alive, but she hypnotized me before she died, and I made a wax copy of her that I’ve been visiting every night, unbeknownst to myself, and now I find that I can’t perform the sex act with my living wife anymore—though our honeymoon at Stonehenge was SO romantic! Let’s see…what’s my motivation?” Price’s delirious responses to these kinds of situations seem spot-on to me. In other words, the critics are right, he’s not a good actor. He’s a great actor.

As intriguing to me as Price’s mesmerizing performances is his sexually ambiguous persona. Parker Tyler refers to Price playing “schmaltzy…high-toned sissy types” and groups him with “professional sissies” like Clifton Webb. But to me “sissy” connotes a certain poofy effeminacy that I do not perceive in Price. For one thing, he was a strapping man who looked rather dashing in a suit in Laura and The Tingler. Even when cringing and moaning in red-hot tights in Roger Corman’s Poe films, he never seemed a total ponce, though I realize this is debatable. In The Tomb of Ligeia, Price is stricken with “a morbid aversion to sunlight” that forces him to wear cool little John Lennon sunglasses that make him downright hot, in a Mr. Rochester kind of way. He and his leading lady believably yearn for one another, and she all but pounces upon him in the kitchen. An angry pussycat interrupts their tryst, clawing the lovely Lady Rowena across the face. As Price ministers to her she purrs, “it seems you’re always looking after my wounds.” Later confessing the encounter, Price exclaims, “not ten minutes ago I tried to kill a stray cat with a cabbage and all but made love to the Lady Rowena… If only I could lay open my own brain as easily as I did that vegetable, what rot would be freed from its grey leaves?!” This strikes me as neither sissy nor macho dialogue (courtesy of scribe Robert Towne). But its sexually indeterminate excess certainly suggests a “secret kinkiness,” as Harry Benshoff aptly puts it in “Monsters in the Closet.”

Of course, Price did have genuine gay appeal. Not only were his performances often campy, but in real life he was a gourmet and an art collector. He even teamed up with Sears Roebuck to promote an art line for the common man, produced a 45rpm record to narrate a tasteful 1960 “color slide tour of The Louvre” offered by the Columbia Record Club, and started his own mail-order mystery and detective book club in the 1970s. I would never consider making chocolate mousse using any recipe but Price’s from his “Treasury of Great Recipes.” From mousse to Matisse, Price seemed all-knowing. Friends often described him as a “renaissance man.” In light of all these highbrow interests, the question “was he or wasn’t he?” inevitably arises.

Of course, we now know about actors like Tab Hunter and Rock Hudson who led double-lives, and others like Clifton Webb, who proclaimed himself a “devout” homosexual. Neither closeted nor out, Price was more like the queer character that Webb played in Sitting Pretty. As Leonard Leff describes the character in a wonderful essay (Cinema Journal 47.3), “Belvedere’s a nanny and a boxer, an artist and an orthopedist, a vegetarian and an expert in appliance repair… He shows that queer means not other but others, who may include effeminate men, straight-acting men, heterosexual men who engage in occasional homosexual acts, homosexual men who engage in occasional heterosexual acts, and, uppermost, permutations of each of these and more, from any one moment to the next. Beyond the neighborhood movie house, these men were part of the fabric of daily life, and in Sitting Pretty, Webb had shown that they could be at once queer and not easy to define as such.” Whether Price “was” or “wasn’t,” he was, by all reports, happy being whatever he was. When his daughter Victoria came out to him, he told her, “I know just what you mean. All three of my wives were jealous of my close friendships with men. But those friendships have always been very important to me. There can be a wonderful connection between two men or two women.” And then he held her hand. It’s enough to make any sappy cinephile tear up and reach for a Kleenex.

Price once said, “I sometimes feel that I’m impersonating the dark unconscious of the whole human race. I know this sounds sick, but I love it.” I love the idea of an unconscious besieged by morbid aversions to sunlight, feline phobias, and thoughts of rotting cabbages. It’s sick, but I love it.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NYi1wLEwOo[/youtube]

— Heather Hendershot, 2008


Reprint Image Credits:

1. Don Knotts. Graphic by Peter Alilunas.

2. The Love God?.

3. The Reluctant Astronaut.

4. How to Frame a Figg.

5. Steve Buscemi.

6. Young Don Knotts.


Original comments

1. Buscemi in ‘Fargo’

The Steve Buscemi parallel is an interesting one, especially in he and Knotts being so face-centric in their performances. One might chart his character’s downfall in ‘Fargo’ according to the condition of his face which, in the film’s latter third, endures a both a gunshot wound and axe-chop. Like Knotts in ‘The Love God?’ it’s the insinuation of sexuality from such a homely creature that creates comedy–Buscemi’s suggestion to find some girls upon arrival to Minneapolis is shot down by his associate’s insistence on finding a pancake house instead. The (black) comedic tone shifts abruptly when Buscemi’s sexual impotence is made explicit later on with a prostitute, the act interrupted by Shep’s intruding and beating his naked, curled-up body. That scene, tragi-comic and pathetic like so many others in the film, is a great reminder that while actors like Buscemi are best framed from the neck up, there’s meaning to be made in manipulating everything below the neck as well.

Posted by Nick Marx | August 11, 2006, 1:58 pm | edit


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Don Knotts: Reluctant Sex Object


Don Knotts

Don Knotts

Sexual inadequacy is the default setting of many male comedians. ((“When comedian comedy mocks the heroic masculinity affirmed in serious drama, it often does so by creating a feminized, antiheroic male hero who appropriates the positive, anarchic, ‘feminine’ principles comedy affirms.” Kathleen Rowe, “Comedy, Melodrama and Gender: Theorizing the Genres of Laughter,” in Henry Jenkins and Kristine Brunovska Karnick, eds. Clasical Hollywood Comedy (New York: Routledge, 1995) 39-59. Quotation from p.45-46.)) Of course, there have always been the swaggering, abrasive jokers, but the truly winning comics are more often the pathetic losers who just can’t seem to get it on. Why do these types appeal? In the very prurient post-Code comedies of the 1950s and 60s, like That Touch of Mink (1962) and The Moon is Blue (1953), “seduction” is often a thinly coded euphemism for rape. In this context, the desexualized, man-child comics come as quite a relief; they seem to be the only ones not trying to force their way into their leading ladies’ pants. Indeed, as a child watching Martin-Lewis movies on TV, it was Jerry who appealed more to me, not simply because he was goofy and infantile but because Dean seemed to be “only after one thing,” as they used to say, while Jerry, in addition to being funny, was not a sexual predator.

In the film version of The Celluloid Closet (1995), a writer from the post-Code era calls films of the Doris Day ilk “DF pictures.” The “happy ending” of such romantic comedies wasn’t really the ringing of wedding bells that closed the films. It was the Delayed Fuck. It’s hardly a secret that many movies of this era were about having or not having sex, but it is wonderful and startling to hear the creators of such pictures lay it all on the line so explicitly. For some comedians, though, the delay was endless. In his numerous film and television roles, Don Knotts simply never made it to the “F.” ((I must confess that I have not seen every Don Knotts performance. If I’ve missed the key film or TV moment when Knotts finally lost his virginity, I hope that someone can correct me.)) Even as a pornographer in The Love God? (1969), he remains a virgin, though, in the end, he is tricked into thinking he has been deflowered.

Knotts referred to his comic persona as “the nervous man,” a character who was, as the New York Times wrote shortly after his death in February 2006, “absolutely flappable.” At first glance, Knotts might seem to be a one-trick pony–a pair of scared, googly, bug-eyes attached to a pipe cleaner body. While it is true that Knotts did his eye-popping routine over and over again (and, I might add, it was funny each and every time), there was much more to Knotts’ performance than simply nervous energy in response to frightening situations. In fact, Knotts’ act was often based around his sexuality, the joke being that he had none, mainly because of his slight frame. As he stutters–shortly before fainting–to a buxom seductress in The Shakiest Gun in the West (1967), “I always thought I was too thin for marriage.” Knotts was, I believe, a walking repressive hypothesis, his skinny body a constant reminder that sex was not an option for him. In not being sexual, of course, Knotts was really about sex much of the time.

Don Knotts as Barney Fife

Don Knotts as Barney Fife

To fully understand the nature of Knotts as reluctant sex object, it is helpful to turn to the history of his development as a performer. Knotts’ mother was a born-again Christian; the fundamentalists of the Depression years were adamantly opposed to gambling, liquor, make-up, cigarettes, and, of course, Hollywood films. Luckily for Knotts, as he explains in his autobiography, his mother thought that the prohibition on films was a bunch of “hogwash,” and she often took her son to the movies. ((Don Knotts with Robert Metz, Barney Fife and Other Characters I Have Known. New York: Berkley Boulevard Books, 1999.)) Though he found Laurel and Hardy films inspirational, he was also drawn to Edgar Bergen and Jack Benny on the radio, and as he trained himself in performance he soon turned to ventriloquism, using a dummy, “Danny,” handcrafted by a neighbor. (Danny looked much like Don, but with a stronger hairline.) Since he was underweight, to join the service during World War II Knotts had to sign a waiver in case basic training killed him. Having officially listed his profession as “ventriloquist,” he was soon reassigned to the U.S.O., where he and Danny performed in a show called “Stars and Gripes.” After the war, Knotts moved to New York City, where he couldn’t afford to attend Broadway shows, but he was able to get free tickets to radio shows, where he carefully studied and took notes on performance strategies. Eventually, he landed a role as a secondary character on a boy’s adventure radio show, which was a mild success for several years.

The films he attended with his mother may have inspired him to become an actor, but it was mastery of sound, not image, that initially kicked off Knotts’ career as a performer. Knotts’ formative years working with his voice, rather than his body, were crucial, for he never really learned to use his body fully as a comic tool. He was the most oral and facial comedian imaginable, though he did master a swagger, which I will discuss shortly, as well as a fake karate shtick.

The typical desexualized man-child comedian–Harry Langdon, Jerry Lewis, even SpongeBob SquarePants–has a dynamic or, at least, an interesting body. ((Heather Hendershot, “Nickelodeon’s Nautical Nonsense: The Intergenerational Appeal of SpongeBob SquarePants,” in Hendershot, ed. Nickelodeon Nation: The History, Politics and Economics of America’s Only TV Channel for Kids. New York: New York University Press, 2004. 182-208.)) It is flabby or pliable or, more broadly, polymorphously perverse. Such excessive bodies are funny. But Knotts’ body was rarely pushed, pulled, prodded, or palpated. For the most part, his head was his only expressive bodily part; with his bulging eyes, pursed mouth, and popping neck veins, in fact, one might read Knotts’ head as a stand-in for the below-the-waste mechanics that he seemed unable to activate. Even when his body is “in action,” it does not fulfill comic expectations. When he finally makes it into space in The Reluctant Astronaut, for example, his zero gravity performance is more than a little underwhelming: He squirts some peanut butter out from a tube and floats about a bit.

The closest Knotts comes to a bravura physical feat is in The Shakiest Gun in the West, in which he plays a nervous Old West dentist “forced to switch from gums to guns.” In a sequence that is both an homage to and a departure from the W.C. Field classic, The Dentist, Knotts attempts to treat a female patient who refuses to open her mouth. Knotts finally notes, casually, “I’d like very much to see you socially sometime.” A pleased Miss Stephenson opens her mouth to answer, and Knotts inserts his fingers. In a textbook Freudian moment, the castrating Miss Stephenson immediately clamps down on Knott’s fingers. He yanks his fingers out, and the two get in a punching match, she striking the first blow. Somehow, the patient ends up standing, Knotts’ legs wrapped around her pelvis as she swings him about wildly. Her back against the wall, at one point, this resembles nothing so much as a reverse coitus, with Knotts as receptive vehicle and the patient as penetrator. Suddenly, oddly, the camera cuts away, a loud thud is heard, and, cut, Knotts is leaning over the knocked out patient performing his dental procedure. Though Knotts wins the scuffle, we don’t see the winning move. Did he really suddenly turn phallic and knock her cold? Or did she simply bump her own head? The Fields version of this encounter is, of course, quite different insofar as Fields acts as sadistic aggressor, pounding away at his resistant patient, whereas Knotts, though technically positioned as the one who wants to penetrate the mouth of Miss Stephenson, is visually presented as the penetrated party. ((Technically it is Knotts’ stunt-double who is positioned as sexual object here. More on this anon.))

The gender reversal ante is upped in the climactic scenes of Gun. Knotts has married a comely gunfighter who has no sexual interest in him, and his honeymoon has been infinitely deferred. After she is kidnapped by “injuns” (undeniably racist caricatures), Knotts infiltrates the camp and ends up dressed up like a “squaw,” in full redface. When a smitten Indian will not be deterred from pursuing Knotts, he retaliates by flirting with another Indian, placing the Indian’s hand on his knee. When the two enamored fellows get in a fight over him, Knotts slips away. He ends up in a shoot-out (still in drag), but the camera cuts away at the last minute. Knotts wins, but we don’t see it, and the anticlimactic effect is rather like the sequence with the cold-cocked dental patient. Knotts rides into town with the Indians in the end, still in drag (for no narrative reason), and is almost carried away by his would-be Indian lover. When he can’t get out of the man’s arms, he looks at his wife, shrugs, and nuzzles into the Indian’s neck. She punches out her rival, however, and drags Knotts off-camera, in a final, light-hearted, oddly Sapphic moment.

Knotts’ Emmy-winning performance in The Andy Griffith Show landed him the lead in The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), in which he is turned into an animated, Nazi U-boat fighting fish. This film, in turn, won him a contract with Universal, with whom he made The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1965), The Reluctant Astronaut (1967), The Shakiest Gun in the West, The Love God?, and How to Frame a Figg (1971). Knotts claims that Figg bombed because by the early 70s the market for family films had bottomed out. On the other hand, The Love God? was doomed because Knotts had already made his name as a “clean” actor whose persistent problem was emasculation and (implicitly or explicitly) the inability to succeed with women–a scenario, of course, which was both clean and dirty at the same time. In The Love God? (rated M, for “mature audiences”) Knotts is tricked into becoming a pornographer. His backers set him up in a fancy penthouse, with tons of girls, studly capes and caps, and an enormous bed with scoreboard headboard. Though Knotts has no luck with his live-in ladies (and does not even try to score), the sexual content here was clearly over the top for viewers who expected a pseudo-desexualized Knotts. A few years later, Knotts would retaliate with a popular CBS TV special called The Don Knotts Nice Clean Decent Wholesome Hour.

Interestingly, Knotts may have actually been least desexualized on The Andy Griffith Show. It was only after he moved onto his film career, after five years on Andy Griffith, that he was suddenly denied sexual success across the board. Thus, at exactly the moment when films were getting more risqué and TV was supposedly clean, it was on TV that Knotts was allowed a degree of sexual proficiency. As Barney Fife on Andy Griffith, between break-ups and make-ups with girlfriend Thelma Lou, Knotts ended up in a number of make-out sessions (“smoochin’; parties,” as Andy says in “The Rivals” episode). Most shockingly–for a squeaky clean show in which “sugar on the jaw” (a kiss on the cheek) was construed as heavy-duty romance–in the “Barney on the Rebound” episode Andy walks in on Barney and Thelma Lou in the dark on a love seat. Barney makes a beeline for the couch while Thelma Lou flees the room, and then Andy turns on the light to find Barney, nonchalant, sipping a cup of coffee with his legs crossed (!), his hair wild, and his face covered with lipstick. Barney, for once, is extremely relaxed, as he casually explains that he and Thelma Lou have been “talking.” Leaving behind his nervous man routine, we see Knotts’; range here, and, implicitly, that it took a sexual release to drain him of his usual hopped-up style. The joke here is that while, on the one hand, the supposedly sexually unattractive Barney has actually seen some action he has, on the other hand, clearly been more ravaged than ravager. Even as he has succeeded he has failed, in masculinist terms, as he is sexual object, not subject.

Though Knotts relied mostly on his voice and facial expressions for comic effect, he did make some use of his body. In particular, he swaggered when he was feeling confident. On Andy Griffith he used the swagger when he felt (falsely) self-assured, and this swagger would carry over to his film performances, as well as, of course, his role as Mr. Furley, the would-be swinger of Three’s Company. In The Love God?, he gets pimped out in a variety of flashy outfits and flaunts his swagger, walking in place in a montage sequence, with pretty girls in matching outfits at his side, all against a variety of rear-screen projection backgrounds. (It is moments like these that make one question the need for films like Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997). When the kitschy 1960s originals are so outrageous, why bother with parody?)

But Knotts more frequently signaled rare moments of confidence not with his whole body but only, more economically, with a smile and a back-and-forth swing of his head. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a more “neck up” performer. Consider the scene in The Reluctant Astronaut when Knotts walks into a fancy NASA control room, a large floor waxer in hand. Buster Keaton would end up riding the device like a horse. Lucille Ball would end up hanging off the drapes, after they got sucked into the waxer. Jerry Lewis would end up using the irregular thump and whir of the waxer as a backbeat for one of his brilliant jazz pantomime sequences. And Don Knotts ends up…waxing the floor! There’s simply no room for physical pratfalls or prop comedy in the Knotts universe.

Don Knotts in Shakiest Gun in the West

Don Knotts in Shakiest Gun in the West

In fact, outside of the leg-wrapping sequence in Gun, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is the only film in which Knotts engages his body from the neck down in any serious fashion, in three separate scenes: he falls down a coal shoot, flips into an elevator, and, having already pretended to know karate and having explained that his “whole body is a weapon,” hurls himself like a projectile at a villain. Unfortunately, these three physical moments are disappointing, as they are clearly performed by doubles. These are athletic stunts, not comic performances. Clearly, Knotts could not meet the challenge of physical comedy. But the point here is not that Knotts was a poor comedian–though there is certainly no doubt that he was a lesser talent than Ball, Keaton, or Lewis. Rather, I would argue that Knotts, so voice and face centered, so consistently presented as non-sexual in his film roles, simply could not be represented as an active body. Knotts the ventriloquist must himself be ventriloquized by a stuntman to be represented as a physical force.

When I mentioned to a friend that I was “busy watching Don Knotts” films, he quickly corrected me: “There are Jerry Lewis films; Don Knotts made movies.” There is something to this. Lewis, of course, was an “auteur,” his films “metacinematic in that they are heavily interspersed with quotations from other films, parodies of film genres, gags lifted from other films [and] self-quotation…” ((Marcia Landy, “Jerry Agonistes: An Obscure Object of Critical Desire,” in Murray Pomerance, ed. Enfant Terrible! Jerry Lewis in American Film (New York: New York University Press, 2002) 59-73. Quotation from p.63.)) There is “a systematic deconstruction of comedy itself in Lewis' films.” ((Dana Polan, “Being and Nuttiness: Jerry Lewis and the French” Journal of Popular Film and Television 12.1: 42-46. Quotation from p.46.)) This level of sophistication is clearly lacking from the Knotts oeuvre. Knotts never directed films, and, given a shot at producing his own TV variety show, he failed miserably because he simply couldn’t crank out the comedy fast enough, and he couldn’t manage the writing staff at maximum efficiency. If this was no Jerry Lewis, this was also no Sid Caesar. Still, Knotts should be of interest to us on several counts, even if he wasn’t “the best” comedian of his time.

First, comedy of the Cold War years was clearly strongest on television and in live performance with figures like Lenny Bruce. Tony Randall, Lewis, and Knotts were among the few performers of this era to successfully make the transition to film. The dominant film comedy of this era was romantic, featuring actors who could do comedy, like Jack Lemmon or Jimmy Stewart, rather than comedians per se. Though TV performers such as Ernie Kovacs, Jack Benny, and Milton Berle all took a swing at film, none ever forged a real career in the medium. Knotts not only pulled in reasonable box office from his Universal efforts but also went on to have a career in Disney films–sometimes in a major role, as in The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975) and, at other times, tragically underused, as in Gus (1976), in which he plays the coach of an ailing football team rescued by a field-goal kicking mule.

Second, Knotts reveals the potential of bodiless comedy. He was all face and voice, but he was always funny. Honestly, could you make it through a single episode of Andy Griffith without Barney Fife? The only contemporary performer who I think comes close to this level of non-corporeal facial performance is Steve Buscemi. In fact, in the Coen Brothers' segment of the omnibus film Paris je t’aime (2006), Buscemi seems to be channeling Knotts in his short comic vignette. The world is waiting for Buscemi-as-Knotts in a made-for-TV biopic!

And, finally, as I have tried to show, Knotts’; nervous man was a consistently sexually derailed persona. We might go so far as to label him “queer,” insofar as his sexuality was “abnormal,” seeming to endlessly swerve around the closure of intercourse. And he was queer in a rather unique way compared to other comedians of his generation. Man-child Jerry Lewis could transform into Buddy Love in The Nutty Professor (1963), whereas Knotts is unimaginable as sexual conqueror. Uncle Miltie was sometimes in drag, but was not a consistently queer persona, on or off stage. ((Berle asserted his heterosexuality via “masculine” traits such as frequent cigar chomping, and, off camera, boasting (reportedly with reason) about the size of his manhood. See Jeff Kisseloff, The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1929-1961. New York: Penguin, 1997.)) Tony Randall, Paul Lynde, and Jack Benny are in the running as queer comedians, but, were, arguably, more overtly gay in their representations. Knotts’ performance was queer, but not specifically gay. He didn’t seem to “really” desire men underneath it all. Instead, he seemed heterosexual yet also virtually incapable of sexuality, and it is in this very putative impossibility that I discern queerness. It was only funny for Knotts not to be sexy if he was linked to sex over and over again. On trial for obscenity in The Love God?, for example, Knotts (playing birdwatcher Abner Peacock) does a classic “slow burn” routine, as he is attacked by the Attorney General: “Look at his face! It is the face of a smut-monger. Look at his body, THIN, wasted away by the sin and debauchery of a life of unspeakable orgies and depravity…He does look innocent, until you look into his eyes. They’re the eyes of a man obsessed by sex… a man whose lust knows no bounds… The Marquis de Sade would have regarded Abner Peacock as a peer in his search for lechery.” As the Attorney General makes his case, the camera cuts between the apoplectic Knotts and the increasingly turned on middle-aged ladies in the courtroom. Between the lascivious female extras (many recognizable from Disney films) and the reference to the Marquis de Sade, it’s clear why this film went too far for 1969 viewers who came to theaters expecting a “family film.”

At least some viewers, though, might have thought the lecherous extras were right on track. As John Waters notes, “Don Knotts has always been a holy man in my life… When he was young, he was really my type.” In his recent one-man show, “This Filthy World,” Waters confessed that he regularly called Knotts’ agents about getting Knotts in his films, though, he warned them, Knotts would have to audition, and he fully intended to “use the casting couch.” Waters also regularly invited Knotts to be his date for movie premieres. Waters admitted that he suspected Knotts never received his messages, and it's hard to believe that Knotts had even heard of Waters. Knotts was finally the true object of sexual desire, but did he even know it? One imagines a poignant moment–a screwball version of Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)–when one of his managers finally tells Knotts, “This John Waters keeps calling you for dates.” Don, in a Mr. Furley polyester pantsuit and cravat, springs to attention, widens his eyes, and asks, “Who the heck is Joan Waters?”

Image Credits:

1.
Don Knotts

2. Barney Fife

3. Shakiest Gun in the West

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Lessons from the Undead: How Film and TV Zombies Teach Us About War

Uncle Sam (Lustig, 1996)

Uncle Sam (Lustig, 1996)

I am the Marine, on the border of Kuwait.
I am the soldier, only God knows my fate.
I am the sailor, on the sea, where I might die.
I am the pilot, breathing hell from the sky…

The soldiers of Iraq are waiting there to die.
Both sides are still screaming the same warrior’s cry:
Why, why, why?

— Excerpt from poem written and performed by B-movie actor William Smith in Uncle Sam (Lustig, 1996).

All genres contain room for political allegory, but some have more room than others. Romantic comedies are not necessarily incapable of making statements about ecological destruction, over-population, the dangers of nuclear weapons, or militarism, but they rarely, if ever, venture into such terrain. It’s not that melodrama and other “female” genres are apolitical; rather, they tend to reveal the political dimensions of the private realm rather than the broader political actions and struggles of the public realm. Further, genres such as melodrama and romantic comedy strive to create characters who demand intense, personal identification; allegorical films, by contrast, more often create broader character types representing big issues. Men in musicals are not always exactly what they seem — they may sometimes, for example, be rather gay — but they are generally not explicitly used as didactic symbols. It is in horror and science fiction that men function as symbols of the military-industrial complex. Or cities represent typographies of postmodern consciousness. Or monsters represent the Id, Communism, or post-Fordist capitalism.

Unfortunately, most contemporary American science fiction and horror films focus more on sexed-up action than interesting ideas. So it was big news when Showtime premiered its “Masters of Horror” series, which seemed to be an homage to old-style horror. There were no flashy stars or fancy locations, just high-concept stories. This series would, in theory, take the genre back to its 1970s glory days, when horror could be scary on a low-budget without car chases or epileptic seizure-inducing editing. Showtime marketed the thirteen-part series for its scariness and invited a number of the great horror auteurs of the 1970s to participate. But the strength of ’70s horror did not lie simply in its goose-bump-inducing power. The best horror films of the 1970s were stunning not only because they were terrifying but also because they were full of ideas: about the family (The Hills Have Eyes), Catholicism (The Exorcist), Vietnam (Deathdream), consumerism (Dawn of the Dead), and even perception itself (Suspiria). Furthermore, many of the most interesting horror films, before and after the 70s, contained strong allegorical elements, using monsters as metaphors to convey big ideas about sexual difference, capitalism, or, generally, the cruelty of human nature.

Zombies are particularly apt monsters for allegorical manipulation. Depending on writer and director, they are imbued with varying levels of consciousness and desire, and unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, they don’t require heavy back stories, they can’t be sexy or develop a boring love interest, and they have no hope of achieving any kind of happiness. These undead, decaying bodies are potent ciphers by virtue of their uncanniness. They are monsters, yet so much like us. They wander about wearing clothes we might have in our own closets: business suits, wedding dresses, nurse’s uniforms, pajamas, or combat fatigues. Film and TV zombies have been particularly well used as anti-war figures, beginning during World War I and continuing right up to the current war in Iraq.

If we define “zombie” broadly to include any non-vampiric walking corpse, the first use of zombies as anti-war symbols was in Abel Gance’s J’accuse in 1919. The film ends with the dead of the Great War returning to ask why they have been sacrificed. In 1938 Gance made the film again, this time with an even stronger indictment of the politicians and industrialists who lead citizens blindly to the slaughter. The first film had used soldiers on leave, many of whom were killed afterwards in battle. The second film used veterans of the war, many missing arms, legs, and faces. No need for special effects here. The dead march straight toward the viewer, demanding to know how the world could possibly go to war again. Had they died for nothing? By 1939 the answer was clear: yes.

Unfortunately, zombies would appear in American films of the 1930s and 1940s primarily as symbols of racist and xenophobic social anxieties. These black monsters conjured by voodoo lacked agency and humanity; they functioned as symbols of “natural” white power and black inferiority. It would take George A. Romero to reinvent the zombie as a more progressive symbolic figure. In Night of the Living Dead (1968) the putative bad guys are hungry zombies, but the real villains are the living: clueless government officials, abusive middle-class patriarchs, and hicks picking off zombies like they were at a turkey shoot. The film contains imagery obviously referencing African American oppression — mobs of whites hunting zombies with dogs and guns, a funeral pyre evocative of the final stage of a lynching, a montage of news photos showing whites roughly handling a dead black body with grappling hooks. In addition, as Sumiko Higashi has argued, through its representation of television news the film subtly references Vietnam TV coverage; the news in Night includes estimates of body counts, discussion of “search and destroy operations,” and shots of Pentagon strategists feigning being in control.

Night‘s discourse on Vietnam was subtle, but Bob Clark’s Deathdream (1974, a.k.a. Dead of Night) explicitly critiqued the war, as well as taking a few jabs at the “typical” American family. In this film, a soldier dies in Vietnam, but he comes home anyway. Like so many vets of the era, he is distant, withdrawn, strange, and addicted to drugs — or in this case, human blood, which he mainlines to defer his own decomposition. Lynn Carlin and John Marley star as the vet’s dysfunctional parents — more or less reprising the role of unhappy couple they had played in John Cassavetes Faces six years earlier. It is soon apparent that a rotting son is the least of this unhappy family’s problems. Nixon’s silent majority might not have been loudly protesting in the streets, but in the privacy of their suburban homes they were screaming bloody murder.

Uncle Sam similarly aimed its sights at the mythology of the American family, but now in the context of the Gulf War. Written by Larry Cohen of It’s Alive fame, the film tells the story of an American soldier killed by friendly fire in Kuwait. Discovered in the desert sand three years later, he is sent home to his family. His nephew worships his Uncle Sam as a hero, but his wife and sister know that the real Sam was no hero; he was a horrible, abusive, violent man who joined the Army because he liked killing people. Importantly, he is not represented as an atypical psychopath. The film emphasizes that most men are dishonest, over-sexed, and potentially violent; Sam is just at the far end of the spectrum. The military needs patriarchal violence and bogus heroic myths to perpetuate itself. What is particularly striking about the film — a low-budget, earnest, poorly acted, extremely didactic production — is that it does not embrace what has become the standard line on war protest: hate the war but love and honor the soldiers. Rather, this film asks, what kind of man chooses to join the Army, knowing that he will win medals for killing complete strangers? It dares to contend that soldiers are not inherently innocent.

Needless to say, Sam does not stay dead. His first undead act is to shoot the American soldiers who discover his body, telling them, “don’t be afraid, it’s friendly fire.” Back home, he kills a Vietnam draft dodger played by George Bush look-alike Timothy Bottoms (who would star a few years later in Comedy Central’s short-lived That’s My Bush). Dressed in an Uncle Sam costume on July 4th, our hero buries alive one flag burner, runs a second one up a flag pole by his neck, and decapitates a third and barbecues his head. He takes revenge for a kid who became psychic after being horribly maimed by fireworks, he explodes a dishonest politician with fireworks, he shoots down a dishonest lawyer dressed up like “Honest Abe” Lincoln, and he impales a pot-smoking cop on a flag pole. Finally, a Korean vet (Isaac Hayes) with a wooden leg, who has explained that heroes are just crazy killers who survive to get medals, obliterates Uncle Sam with a revolutionary war cannon. And did I mention that P.J. Soles has a cameo as the mother
of the psychic burn victim? (Though octogenarian exploitation impresario Herschell Gordon Lewis is still alive, I like to imagine him rising from the grave to make this crazy film!) In J’accuse the innocent dead returned to ask “why?” In Uncle Sam the guilty dead return to tell us exactly why. War exists, in part, because men do not recoil in horror at the idea of killing others to get what they want. It takes a psychotically patriotic corpse to show us the error of our ways.

The first narrative film to critique the current Iraq war was George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005). Throughout his zombie oeuvre, Romero has encouraged us to feel for his corpses. “They ain’t doin’ nothin’! They’re like sharks,” he explains. They kill, in other words, not because they are malicious but because it is their nature to do so. It is those who enjoy killing who are most dangerous. The innovation of Land lies in further increasing our sympathy for the zombies, and in picturing them as a disenfranchised underclass. In the film’s dystopic world, a military underclass of non-zombies works for the upper-class, killing zombies and foraging for food and booze. To mesmerize zombies while they pilfer goods, the military underclass launches fireworks, which have lost all connotations of patriotism and are now called “sky flowers.” The rich live in a luxurious skyscraper, Fiddler’s Green, far removed from the zombies and poverty in the streets.

If Dawn was a critique of consumerism, Land is a critique of capitalism (and the militarism that supports it) tout court. Dennis Hopper plays the wealthy entrepreneur who owns Fiddler’s Green; he’s an obvious Bush stand-in. Unlike Uncle Sam, the film does not overtly declare itself to be about America’s wars in the Middle East, but the allegorical message is clear. Oil and greed are the name of the game. Hopper ends up trapped in his limo as a zombie who used to be a service station attendant fills the car with gasoline. Hopper escapes, only to be attacked by a former minion (John Leguizamo) who had dared to aspire to upward mobility — impossible, since he was a “spic.” Before he can be eaten alive, though, Hopper is blown up by gasoline. Iraq is never mentioned, but the gasoline inferno says it all: the greedy bastard who, earlier in the film, said he would not “negotiate with terrorists” has been hoist on his own petard.

Dennis Hopper in Land of the Dead

Dennis Hopper in Land of the Dead

Joe Dante’s Masters of Horror installment, Homecoming, offers an even more direct attack on the president and the war. Dante explains that “this is a horror story because most of the characters are Republicans.” In the one hour TV film, American soldiers killed in Iraq are reanimated because they cannot be at peace until someone who will end the war is elected president. They have no malicious intent, and they don’t want to eat people; they just want to vote. They can’t be killed, but after they vote they drop dead. At first, the panicked Republican spinmeisters salute the power of American troops: nothing can kill our heroes! A Jerry Falwell clone says these zombies are a gift from God. But once the zombies start bad-mouthing the president, they are put in orange jumpsuits and trundled off to detention camps. Now the Falwell stand-in explains that Satan sent these disloyal soldiers. A skanky Ann Coulter type calls the reanimated soldiers “a bunch of crippled, stinking, maggot-infested, brain dead, zombie dissidents.” Locking up the “formerly deceased” ends up not really fixing the problem, and since there aren’t really all that many of them, the Republicans allow them to vote (and die permanently). Many non-zombie citizens have been moved by the sight of the dead to vote against the president, but the Republicans fix the count so that the president is re-elected. At this point, Arlington cemetery explodes as the dead of World War II, Vietnam, and Korea rise to take over Washington. Dante blew it by including only veterans from the past 60 years, it seems to me, but he successfully made his points: 1) It was seeing and empathizing with the dead of the war that enabled people to vote against Bush; 2) Right-wing politicians and their machinations-“Lies and the lying liars who tell them,” as Al Franken puts it-are much scarier than zombies.

Lustig, Romero and Dante all worked with low-budgets and bargain basement actors. (Notably, Hopper and Leguizamo, huge stars for a Romero film, play important but secondary roles to keep their salaries down.) Thanks to 28 Days Later and the Resident Evil franchise, zombies have recently made a pop-culture comeback, and it was only because of this that Romero was able to get his fourth zombie movie green-lit. Political zombie movies do not guarantee big box office, and, in general, no one is going to fund a would-be blockbuster, with A-list actors and a bloated budget, that is “too political.” Speaking highly of Showtime, which offered him total artistic freedom, Dante explains, “I can’t conceive of any other venue where we would have been able to tell this story. You can’t do theatrical political movies; people don’t go to them. You can’t do them on [broadcast and non-premium cable] television, because you’ve got sponsors.” It is not in spite of such practical and budgetary constraints but rather because of them that these films were able to make potent anti-war statements.

Moreover, it was precisely because Lustig, Romero, and Dante were working within the zombie sub-genre of horror that they were able to create such terrifying political statements. Horror is the best genre for literalizing our anxieties and fears, and zombies up the ante by virtue of their very mundanity. Dracula is a fancy monster, a top-shelf creature who will look soulfully into your eyes before passionately sucking the life out of you. Zombies are rot gut, the old lady in the house coat from next door who just wants to eat your brains out. Zombies scare us because, to use Romero’s refrain, they are us. At a literal narrative level, this means that in most zombie movies anyone can become a zombie, instantly making a switch from “normal” to “abnormal” (and Romero insistently asks, which is which?). But at a more metaphorical level we are all zombies because we wander numbly through life, riding the bus to work, shopping at the mall, going through the motions of normality. And not unlike the undead of Land, we are distracted by sky flowers, pretty art films and vapid Julia Roberts movies that illustrate “the triumph of the human spirit.”

Sullivan\'s Travels

Sullivan’s Travels

Like the convicts in Sullivan’s Travels (Sturges, 1942), though, we need escapist genres. Such sky flowers make daily life tolerable. We are not stupid victims of false consciousness because Arrested Development (Fox, 2003- ) makes us laugh our asses off and Now, Voyager (Rapper, 1942) makes us bawl our eyes out. (And, further, these kinds of entertainments are not as neatly apolitical as they might initially appear.) Not all sky flowers are bad, but we also need films and TV shows about rotting, bloody corpses. The Bush administration won’t even allow photos to be taken of sealed coffins of dead veterans, much less photos of the putrescence within. Viewing the dead makes war a visceral reality. It makes our stomachs turn. In the wake of a war fought over non-existent weapons of mass destruction, it is perhaps only the dead who can function as weapons of mass instruction.

Notes:
Obviously, a film like John Greyson’s Zero Patience (1993) illustrates the capacity of the musical to be overtly political. I’m not arguing that science fiction and horror are inherently more political than other genres, simply that historically they are the genres that have most directly sought political engagement.
This is not to deny the significance of a film like I Walked with a Zombie (Tourner, 1943), a compelling examination of female disempowerment and self-sacrifice within the white patriarchal family.
Sumiko Higashi, “Night of the Living Dead: A Horror Film about the Horrors of the Vietnam War,” in Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud, eds. From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990. 175-188.
Cited in Denis Lim, “Dante’s Inferno: A Horror Movie Brings Out the Zombie Vote to Protest Bush’s War.” Village Voice, November 29, 2005.

Image Credits:

1. Uncle Sam (Lustig, 1996)

2. Dennis Hopper in Land of the Dead

3. Sullivan’s Travels

Please feel free to comment.




Comedy is a Woman in Trouble

Bea Arthur

Bea Arthur

Jerry Lewis famously stated that comedy is a man in trouble. Any fan of Jerry — not to mention Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Rowan Atkinson, Jim Carrey, or even Gromit, in “The Wrong Trousers” would be hard-pressed to disagree. Many of the funniest comic performances center around men losing their pants, falling down staircases, and lacking control of their excretory functions. Unfortunately, if that’s what constitutes the best comedy, it doesn’t leave much room for women, who have (with some exceptions) found more success not in physical comedy but in sophisticated screwball comedies or dialogue-driven sit-coms like Roseanne. Roseanne shows us that women can succeed when they use their comedy deliberately to offend, but the general perception remains that clean humor is the most appropriate venue for women.

Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock meant the title of their famous book on female artists, Old Mistresses, to be a saucy retort to traditional art historians’ focus on the “old masters.” The title was meant to disturb and offend by showing how completely women had been marginalized from the history of art: there was no proper language available even to describe them. Comedy is a woman in trouble may likewise sound strange to many. Jerry Lewis himself has stated that women can’t really be funny since they symbolize maternity so centrally: to laugh at a woman would, somehow, be to laugh at motherhood itself. For Lewis, a man in trouble may have slipped on a banana peel, but a woman in trouble is, well, knocked up.

Outside of the domestic sitcom, what role might there be for women in trouble on TV? Would female viewers be drawn to such comedy? And can programmers even conceive of female viewers as having a sense of humor that is not satisfied by reruns of Designing Women on Lifetime? In hopes of scratching at the surface of these big questions, I’d like devote the rest of this column to discussing Comedy Central and the channel’s operating premise that its demographic is male. I’m specifically interested not in what men and women actually find to be funny on TV but in industrial perceptions of what kind of humor is for men and what kind of humor is for women. If Comedy Central is really for men, does that mean that the smart political commentary of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (and sometimes South Park) offers nothing to female viewers? And since much Comedy Central humor is of the gross-out variety, is it possible that the channel’s programming is not so much “for men” as it is not for ladies? Women may vary somewhat in their tastes, but ladies are ostensibly immune to the appeal of a good fart joke.

It is common, of course, for TV to acknowledge openly its gendered address. In a Thanksgiving episode of The Gilmore Girls, Sookie allows her husband Jackson to take charge of making the turkey. He procures an enormous deep-fryer, and by the end of the night he and his drunken buddies have fried to a crisp not only a turkey but also everything else they can get their hands on. As the men-folk cheer, and Jackson drops shoes into the cooker, Sookie drowns her sorrows in margaritas, moaning that Jackson is shamelessly catering to his demographic. The Gilmore Girls is relentlessly character-driven and organized around romance and family melodramas. It is itself, in other words, a program that caters shamelessly to its own female demographic. The program is often quite funny, mostly when the caffeinated dialogue spins out of control. (The machine-gun banter often recalls Preston Sturges. Think of Mary Astor in The Palm Beach Story chirping, “What’s knittin’, kittens?”) What strikes me in particular about the deep-fryer scene is the open acknowledgment that stupid drunk guys don’t really belong on this show. For that stuff, go to Spike TV or Comedy Central.

There’s no doubt that Spike TV is all-male, all-the-time. Comedy Central’s contention that it serves a male demographic is more problematic, though not wholly untrue. Certainly, Too Late with Adam Carolla is designed exclusively for men-or, to be more accurate, for anyone who hates women. It is also one of the least funny shows ever on television, and it has the ratings to prove it. This hardly means, though, that Comedy Channel viewers don’t like anti-woman humor. Indeed, Carolla only has a career because of the success of The Man Show, which embodied what I like to call the new misogyny: it’s OK to be a misogynist, as long as you are simultaneously ironic, with your sexism always in quotation marks, as if to ask, Aren’t I a terrible jerk? Do you think I really mean it? On his own show, Carolla’s smarminess is unfettered by irony; given his pitiful performance thus far, one can only assume that his cancellation is imminent.

Of course, the hottest show on Comedy Central right now — since Dave Chappelle has left his program floating in limbo — is The Daily Show, which features the smartest political commentary on TV. Nobody socks it to Bush, Cheney, Halliburton, Pat Robertson, or the war (Mess-o-potamia) like The Daily Show. How disturbing it is, though, to watch Lewis Black mercilessly skewer the Christian Right, and then to cut to a commercial for Girls Gone Wild: Spring Break. It is galling to hear repeatedly that Comedy Central’s primary demographic is young men-and to often see the ads confirm this — when the Channel’s single most popular program largely lacks machismo.

Though The Daily Show avoids the sexism one commonly finds on Comedy Central, all of its writers and producers are male, and its only female correspondent, Samantha Bee, has taken some time to grow into her role. (She may have finally arrived, with her hilarious story on attempts to pass laws against truck drivers tossing bottles full of urine out their windows.) Still, pretty much everyone with power in America is a rich white guy, and these are the corrupt bastards that the show attacks. The Daily Show is eager to lampoon anyone in American politics who is a stupid jerk. Can they help it if three-out-of-four such people happen to be male? Though this hardly makes the show feminist, per se, feminists cannot help but applaud the program’s assault on America’s power elite.

While other shows for men on Comedy Central take sex as their focus, The Daily Show is relatively sex-free. (Notwithstanding the undisputable fact that correspondent Stephen Colbert is hot. Oops, the cat’s out of the bag: I’m a geek.1) Disturbingly, Comedy Central has started to refer to the programming block of The Daily Show and its Colbert Report spin-off as a network within the network.” These shows, which do not quite match the channel’s masculinist profile, are thus marked as different, and perhaps more high-class than the rest of the schedule. To recognize that women enjoy some Comedy Central programming as much as men would imperil the network’s whole identity, thus imperiling its advertising profile. Instead, Comedy Central simply pretends that its highest rated shows somehow stand above the low-brow fray of programs like South Park. That way, they can sell ads for a few high-end products, but still hang on to the Girls Gone Wild account.

Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart

Comedy Central first made its reputation on South Park, and the show does seem to wallow in its own boy humor. The episode in which little Jimmy takes a fat, slobby hooker to a Ho-Tel to fix his persistent boner problem represents the show at its most immature and grotesque extreme. But if South Park is sometimes misogynist, it is more often simply misanthropic. And despite its frequent retreat to stupid and nihilistic cynicism, when the show is smart, it is on a par with The Daily Show, its address not exclusively male. To say that the show’s address is purely masculine is insulting to women, as if they could not appreciate the program’s satirical insights because of a natural aversion to poo jokes. Is there a TV show that did a better job attacking The Passion of the Christ? And what about its send up of Paris Hilton, who comes to South Park to open a new store, Stupid Spoiled Whore, for 8-year-old girls who want to look like tramps? South Park not only attacks the trend of little girls dressing like porn stars but also puts Paris Hilton in her place, because compared to Mr. Slave, she is not really much of a whore at all. There is no reason to believe that only a male audience could properly appreciate this satirical attack on Hilton and the “whorification” of girl culture.

Of course, the very use of the word whore might make the episode seem geared to male viewers. Women are supposed to be offended by dirty words, which is probably why female comedians are less likely to use them. Since comedy is at its best when it challenges cultural taboos, this puts female comedians at a clear disadvantage, though clearly not all are intimidated. In The Aristocrats (Jillette and Provenza, 2005), raunchy stand-up comedian Lisa Lampanelli explains that, if comedy is a guy thing, fine, I’ll strap it on. To be really funny, Lampanelli’s statement would seem to imply, is to be like a man, since women are inherently unfunny. (How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? ONE and that’s not funny!) If Sarah Silverman is any indication, women who work blue are not only as funny as men, they are often funnier. But there is only one Sarah Silverman, and even her presence was not enough to counter-balance the creepy tone of Comedy Central’s Pamela Anderson Roast, one of their highest rated shows ever. Most jokes centered on how huge and stretched out Pam’s vagina was, which was not only dispiriting but also rather dull.

Sarah Silverman

Sarah Silverman

Oddly enough, hearing Pam Anderson witlessly called a slut over andover and over again, I could not help but recall an episode of the Gilmore Girls in which Lorelei and Rory make fun of Donna Reed for being an impossibly perfect housewife. Rory’s boyfriend Dean, whose mom is a housewife, takes offense at the girls attack on Donna Reed, which prompts Rory (who is much too smart to be in love with this dull boy) to do some research. It turns out that Reed was actually producer of her own show; she was an astute and accomplished businesswoman. For better or for worse, Pam Anderson is the Donna Reed of our time, as much the stereotypical bimbo as Donna was the stereotypical mom. Pam’s great at playing her top-heavy, dumb-blonde role, but she owns and produces her own programs and is the undisputed mistress of syndication. This dumb blonde is no dummy.

The Comedy Central boys had a good time making cheap jokes about Pam’s sex video with Tommy Lee, confirming that, notwithstanding The Daily Show, boy humor is Comedy Central’s home-base. It’s tough for female viewers; even gals who like crude jokes can only take so many feeble attacks on the female anatomy. Thank god the Roast included a break from the testosterone when Bea Arthur gave an interpretive reading of selected passages about anal sex from Pam’s roman a clef. Right on, Maude! In any case, if you’ve seen Pam’s new Fox sitcom, Stacked, you probably agree with me that Pam is not much of a comedienne. But she does know how to cater shamelessly to her demographic, and she’s got the global syndication rights to prove it. This woman in trouble is laughing all the way to the bank.

Note
But as The Man himself notes on the premiere of The Colbert Report, “The geeks will inherit the earth!”

See Also:
Henry Jenkins – “Awkward Conversations about Uncomfortable Laughter”

Image Credits:

1. Bea Arthur

2. Jon Stewart

3. Sarah Silverman

Please feel free to comment.




I Love Lucy in the Sixties

The Lucy Show

The Lucy Show

My grandmother had made it clear that she wanted the items on her shopping list soon, as in the next day. It was 10:00 at night, in Biddeford, Maine, and where the hell was I going to find Jarlsberg cheese, a small watering can, skirt hangers, Danish butter cookies, Miracle Grow, peanut butter, Stayfree maxipads (extra-long, with “wings”), and bedroom slippers? I boarded Grandma’s boat-sized 1991 Lincoln Town Car and headed towards my inevitable, unenviable destination: Wal-Mart.

Entering the frigid belly of the consumerist beast, I meekly wondered, as long as I’m here, maybe I could pick up a copy of the South Park anti-Wal-Mart episode? So after getting my assigned shopping done, I decided to check out the DVD department. It turns out that DVDs are a loss-leader at Wal-Mart, and soon I was up to my elbows in the $4.99 bargain bin, sifting through crappy transfers of Glenn Ford World War II movies, miscellaneous Brat Pack flicks, and the entire Tom Arnold oeuvre. Then, jackpot! Creepshow, Frogs (Ray Milland, 1972, killer amphibians, why not?), and numerous episodes of The Lucy Show (CBS, 1962-1968).

Lucille Ball’s 1960s TV show ran in the afternoons when I was a kid, and I found it infinitely superior to I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951-1957), which was too stressful for me. On her 50s program it seemed that Lucy was always afraid that she would get caught for doing something she had been cruelly forbidden to do, and that Ricky would punish her. Though Ricky’s actual spankings were infrequent, the threat of domestic violence loomed large for this young viewer. On the post-Ricky series, Lucy was a widow, and her blustery boss Mr. Mooney did not seem to represent a true threat. Mooney hollered a lot, but Lucy remained insouciant about taking two hour lunch breaks. The Lucy Show was friendlier than I Love Lucy. And guest stars were frequent. Luminaries included Ethel Merman, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglas, Dean Martin, Don Rickles, and Sid Caesar. Already well past being “une femme d’un certain age,” Lucy wore smashing outfits and had dates with Dan Rowan, Robert Goulet, and, to her great dismay (in the show’s later incarnation as Here’s Lucy), Don Knotts. It’s hard to imagine a sitcom about such a cool, sexy old lady making it onto TV today.

Milton Berle on Here\'s Lucy

Milton Berle on Here’s Lucy

Mary Richards gets a lot of credit as a pioneering working woman, but Lucy was a plucky career gal some years before Mary, and she faced a number of workplace crises, though these were always played for laughs. Lucy had constant money problems, and Mr. Mooney frequently made her work overtime and on weekends without compensation. For Lucy, there was no union to turn to, no solidarity with other “girls” in the office, and no possibility of a raise, or of raised consciousness. Gloria Steinem’s influence clearly did not extend to this particular television universe. Helen Gurley Brown’s impact, conversely, could certainly be felt. Though Lucy would never use sex to get ahead at work, the flirty substitute hired when Lucy goes on vacation wraps Mr. Mooney around her little finger, almost stealing Lucy’s job. Lucy uses elaborate and decidedly unglamorous disguises to sabotage the sexpot. In another episode, Lucy explains how other secretaries in the office get raises, but she “is not the type of girl to wear sweaters two sizes too small.” Lucy may not think she’s a feminist, but she knows that she is being exploited, and that Sex and the Single Girl would not provide palatable solutions to her problems. So she remained broke.

In one episode, the penurious Lucy meets her friend Dottie for lunch and, to the great irritation of the cranky waitress, orders nothing but a bowl of hot water. Lucy adds free condiments-ketchup, steak sauce, lemon wedges, and a handful of sugar cubes-and then tucks into her bowl of free soup. Dottie exclaims, “Congratulations, you’re winning the War on Poverty!” and Lucy replies, “We all have to do our part.” Viewing this episode again for the first time in over 30 years, I remembered the hot water shtick very clearly, but not the quip about the War on Poverty, which would not have meant much to a five year old middle-class suburban kid. Certainly, no one who has read Aniko Bodroghozy’s Groove Tube will be shocked by my insight that The Lucy Show was, like most 1960s TV shows, more political than it appeared at first glance.

Allison McCracken has recently argued convincingly for the cultural and political significance of The Partridge Family. While The Brady Bunch stuck to the confines of the suburban home, the Partridges dealt with the outside world, encountering hippies, feminists, and other countercultural character types. In fact, the Partridges were themselves, in some limited ways, countercultural character types. Reading McCracken’s essay, it would be hard not to admit that The Partridge Family was “better” than The Brady Bunch. Be that as it may, I’ll admit to being a hard-core Brady booster. I always thought the Partridges were dullsville. Maybe it was just the submerged incestuous tension, but The Brady Bunch was always more compelling to me. Watching the Bradys and the Partridges today, I still prefer the former. My current viewing self matches my image of my past viewing self, and this is somehow reassuring.

But thawing out frozen TV memories by revisiting the shows of one’s youth can also be quite disconcerting. I fancied myself quite the feminist at age nine, which was why I wore a Farrah Fawcett t-shirt. Since I had never seen a woman solve crimes on TV, I thought Farrah was liberated. At age twelve, I carried a Ms. bookbag. (If anyone else in Alabama had actually heard of Ms., I might have gotten quite an ass-whipping.) These memories make me feel pretty good about myself and my past media tastes, but, of course, they have been frozen into consciousness at the expense of other memories less flattering to my grown-up self. Me, a huge fan of Family Ties? Impossible! The danger of being a TV studies scholar is that one is forced, eventually, to revisit the fetish shows of one’s youth, only to find that the affection one felt for a show was a screen memory covering up for a less-than-spectacular primal scene: Bob and Carol Brady, in bed, trading incredibly feeble quips about the impossibility of Sam the Butcher ever proposing to Alice. The writing just doesn’t seem as clever as it used to. So, did the 1960s Lucy live up to my high expectations? Yes and no.

There are a couple of things that are really great about Lucy in the 60s. First of all, she knows when to steal the show and when to sit back and let her brilliant guest stars do their thing. She is the center of attention when she dumps a bowl of Caesar salad on Milton Berle’s head, but afterwards he takes over, mugging it up while the audience virtually ignores Lucy. There is likewise an exceptional give and take when Carole Burnett guests as Lucy’s roommate. These winsome natural redheads (ahem!) do song and dance numbers at the drop of a hat, but it is Burnett, playing an introverted librarian, who steals the show when, after downing a few glasses of Chianti she shakes her booty through a spirited performance of “Hard Hearted Hannah.”

Carol Burnett on The Lucy Show

Carol Burnett on The Lucy Show

The Lucy Show is most compelling when all pretense of the fourth wall is dropped and performers (many of them with roots in vaudeville or other live theatrical forms) put on a show for the audience. Narrative is just a pesky intrusion: no one really cares why Ethel Merman is in Lucy’s living room-we just want to hear Lucy sing badly and Merman belt out a trademark tune. Likewise, the climax of Lucy’s trip to Palm Springs is not her successful explanation to Mr. Mooney of why she is there, when she was supposedly at home with the flu, but rather Lucy’s terrific “Up A Lazy River” song-and-dance routine. It turns out that Lucy was almost as good at singing and dancing as she was at pretending she could do neither.

When pure spectacle takes over-Lucy pretends to be a high-falutin’ interior decorator, Lucy babysits baby chimps, Lucy thinks she is hallucinating that Mr. Mooney is a monkey-these shows are everything I remember them being. When hippies, politics, the draft, and other ’60s realities appear, the show takes an unexpected turn towards the dispiriting. When Lucy and Viv go to the Sunset Strip dressed up like hippie chicks, they are repulsed by the longhaired weirdoes. After some crazy dancing, I guessed they might realize that there are some fun things about being a hippie, but they remained disgusted by the whole scene. When Lucy gets drafted, having received a letter meant for “Lew C. Carmichael,” it is oddly poignant to see her fight the draft board, the military doctor, and finally her drill sergeant, all of whom agree that she should be disqualified for being a woman, but none of whom have the authority to let her off the hook. The show’s critique of the military is tepid at best-the military’s not bad, just too bureaucratic-yet the “comic” spectacle of someone trying to get out of the Marines (and implicitly out of going to Vietnam) is more than a little disconcerting.

Ultimately, it is striking how much The Lucy Show is like the Wal-Mart bargain bin, mixing together big, medium, and little stars, some at their peak, some past their prime-like Joan Crawford, who got in trouble on the set for dipping into her hip flask. To older viewers in the ’60s, Lucy’s guest stars were not cultural detritus-Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, and Kirk Douglas were still “major stars.” Yet to many younger viewers at the time, these were hopelessly square old-timers who already belonged in a bargain bin, if not a trash bin. You couldn’t get much more counter-counter-cultural, after all, than the George Wallace and John Birch Society booster John Wayne, whom Lucy worshiped like a god when he appeared on the show.

A showbiz pro, Lucy tried to come up with a wide variety of guests so that there was something for everybody, but that didn’t mean that she was going to host the kind of “radicals” that would show up on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour! Here’s Lucy (CBS, 1968-1974), unfortunately, could not maintain the energy and pace of the earlier Lucy Show. How reassuring, though, to see that Eve Plumb (Jan Brady) was a guest, with Donny Osmond, on Here’s Lucy in 1972. The great Jan Brady was not exactly countercultural, but she wore braces and glasses, had a fake secret admirer, and was fed up with “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!” She was cool. Alas, the Biddeford Wal-Mart doesn’t sell Brady Bunch DVDs. Or the anti-Wal-Mart South Park episode. Or Jarslberg cheese, for that matter. They do, however, have computer stations set up for creating personalized shopping wish lists and sending letters to the troops in Iraq. John Wayne would have been proud.

Image Credits:
1. The Lucy Show

2. Milton Berle on Here’s Lucy

3. Carol Burnett on The Lucy Show

Links:
The Lucy Show episode guide

Please feel free to comment.




Belaboring Reality

by: Heather Hendershot / Queens College CUNY

In season one of The Simple Life, the apparently soulless Nicole Ritchie and Paris Hilton spend a month in rural Arkansas disappointing the Ledings, the humble, hard-working farm family that has agreed to take them in. Each day the girls French kiss the local boys, ignore their chores, assemble slutty outfits, and make a half-assed attempt to work a blue-collar job. They don’t even feel gratitude for the freshly slaughtered chickens offered to them by good ‘ol grandma Curly, the only person in town who sees goodness in them despite the depths of bitchdom they sink to. The Simple Life seems to offer a Simple Moral: rich people are stupid assholes (but sexy), while working class people are saints (but fat).

A Marxist parable? Not exactly. The “working class” Ledings have a big house, an above-ground pool, and at least one nice car. They aren’t poor, they just have working class tastes. The show is really about Nicole and Paris, so it is hard to glean many details about the Ledings, but one has to wonder how Fox found these farmers who seem to have no giant machinery, let their chickens breathe fresh air in outdoor coops, and manage a large farm without any hired laborers. Didn’t agribusiness wipe out this Little House on the Prairie lifestyle some years ago? Altus, Arkansas, it seems, is a Southern working class Stars Hollow, the fantasy New England town of The Gilmore Girls. Both towns feature quaint pie contests and sack races, but in Altus the locals are likely to sport mullets and beer bellies.

As on The Gilmore Girls, the little private dramas of The Simple Life are wedged in between public dramas at work. Though TV has pictured the workplace for years, reality TV is the first genre to emerge that is obsessively focused on labor. Indeed, it seems that there is no human activity that cannot be turned into labor on a reality show. On The Apprentice, participants construct business strategies, and the effort displayed is often mental. On the other hand, their labor also has a physical dimension, as contestants are often asked to pound the pavement and do grunt work. (Also, one cannot fail to notice the labor of self-production on the program. Contestants put together special outfits to catch Trump’s eye, and the taut female participants have bodies that are the visible result of labor in the gym.) Notwithstanding The Apprentice, on most programs the “work” demanded is not the kind of thing one would normally be paid for. Often, the labor is emotional: participants on The Bachelor are working really hard to make someone love them.

In real life, your job involves stacking things on shelves, balancing ledgers, plugging information into a database, or cleaning people’s teeth. But on TV your job is to cheat on your girlfriend, pretend to be a millionaire, eat slimy bugs, pretend to marry a jerk, lose a ton of weight, or live with fellow washed up celebrities. If you do your job well, you can win a million bucks, or a Chapstick contract, or the chance to be on other reality TV shows. In regular jobs, the people who work the hardest don’t necessarily advance, but if you do your job on TV, your effort is often rewarded. Moreover, in an information economy where manufacturing has been sent overseas and where minimum wage service jobs are among the few remaining jobs that require rigorous physical activity, reality TV is one of the few places where you can do hard physical labor for big bucks—if you win, that is.

The roots of genres such as the sitcom, soap opera, and drama date back to radio, but reality TV is a bit of generic puzzle. It may contain moments indebted to soap opera, and offer a sprinkling of cinema vérité pastiche, but it is really a new genre. Though reality programming might seem to have some kinship with game shows, game shows have never been so labor-intensive. In fact, before the money pots increased in the 1980s, shows like What’s My Line? and Match Game were more about clever banter than actually winning prizes. The sly quips of Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly are sorely lacking from the gotta-get-things-done (or die) work ethic that drives the competitive reality programs.

The heroines of The Simple Life lack this ethic, of course. The saddest illustration of this occurs at the Sonic fast-food restaurant, where a young manager desperately tries to get the girls to do their work. In other episodes, the older, self-employed male bosses have the option of firing the girls (after telling one of them “you’re a real screw-up!”), but the fast-food manager knows that these nubile, lazy screw-ups are jeopardizing her own job, and there’s nothing she can do about it. She works hard but has no money; Nicole and Paris do no work, are rich, and enjoy wasting money. Can anyone hear Thorstein Veblen shouting, “see, I told you so!” from the grave?

The Simple Life

The Simple Life baldly reveals the shaky foundations of the American myth of class mobility. Unlike on the competitive shows, where merit is rewarded, here doing a bad job brings no real punishment, and people who work hard do not necessarily advance. It seemed to me as I watched it that the show’s underlying moral message was that hard work was better than slacking off. After all, it ends with the sympathetic Ledings saying that they hope the girls have benefited from the values the family has tried to teach them. But I cannot help but fear that many viewers find this about as convincing as Jerry Springer’s “Final Thought,” a tacked on moral that does little to mitigate the rich-and-lazy-and-proud-of-it ethos that has preceded it.

Given reality TV’s relentless focus on work, one might naively imagine a behind-the-scenes team of empathic laborers creating the shows. The BBC’s scripted faux-reality show The Office, for example, obviously springs from an impulse of proletarian solidarity: only writers who have endured the proverbial boss-from-hell could create the monstrous David Brent. Alas, American reality programs do not spring from a similar impulse. For, in theory, reality TV has no writers. Instead, videographers shoot endlessly, and editors then step in and collaborate with “story producers” or “story editors” (actually writers) to attempt to create dramatic tension, a Herculean feat that often requires the addition of goofy sound effects, voice-overs, or music (a recently heard ditty on Strange Love: “He’s a jester, she’s a fox. She likes smoking, he likes clocks.”). According to a Washington Post article, the story editors “use the expression ‘frankenbites’ to describe the art of switching around contestant sound bites recorded at different times and patched together to create what appears to be a seamless narrative.”

The premise that the people on reality shows are real translates into one thing as far as producers are concerned: free labor. These are regular people, not actors with SAG cards. And once you’ve gotten rid of unionized actors, why not get rid of the unionized writers? In fact, it is rare for any of the workers creating reality TV to be unionized — not the directors, not the carpenters, not the camera operators. The Screen Writers Guild has made reality TV central to its contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers but has had no success in attempts to get reality writers unionized. These young workers have lower salaries than Guild members, no health care, no pension, and, of course, they don’t get a writing credit for their work, since no producer wants his show tainted by a credit acknowledging that stories are managed and banter is often scripted. The shows have much shorter shooting schedules than regular programs, so writers typically work 12 to 18 hours a day, but they tolerate such conditions because reality TV is seen as a steppingstone to better gigs for young writers. Willingly overworked, and desperate for a permanent job with benefits, these kids would be perfect candidates for The Apprentice!

In fact, I have a great idea: how about a reality show about workers on a reality show? I can imagine how the networks would respond to my brilliant pitch: “You’re fired!”

Image Credits:

The Simple Life

Please feel free to comment.




The Boob Tube

by: Heather Hendershot / Queens College CUNY

“It’s like Jell-O on springs!” Jack Lemmon declares as he ogles Marilyn Monroe’s fleshy derriere in Some Like It Hot (1959). Lemmon himself is in drag, and watching this film recently for the umpteenth time, I am struck again by its strange combination of heterosexual prurience and queer exuberance. I am also struck by Monroe’s plumpness. She is roughly the size that Renee Zellweger beefs up to to play the “fat” Bridget Jones. A few days later I watch John Boorman’s science fiction bizarre-athon Zardoz (1974), in which Charlotte Rampling’s A-cup breasts frequently escape the confines of their futuristic macramé top. Amazing, I think, that thirty years ago a woman with small breasts could be represented in the media as sexually attractive.

One could come up with countless other examples to illustrate a rather obvious fact: cultural standards of the ideal female body are historically variable. No big news here. Like the 19th century woman in her bone-and-viscera-crunching corset, today’s idealized female body can only be attained through technological mediation. While one could point to Pamela Anderson and numerous other TV stars as representative of today’s technologically mediated female body, I would like to hone in on one particular television program, the E! channel’s Dr. 90210, which graphically illustrates the possibility of achieving the impossible body.

Women of the 1950s wore girdles, and women of the 1960s dieted like crazy to attain their Twiggy shapes. Today’s actresses and models (and a handful of the rich and less famous) have the bottom halves of the 1960s and the top half of the 1950s. They are, in other words, slim and stacked, a virtual biological impossibility. This body shape requires rigorous diet and exercise regimes, but it also requires the surgeon’s knife and liposuction pump to suck out the bottom and inflate the top. This is exactly what plastic surgeon Dr. Rey does to white, affluent female bodies on the reality show Dr. 90210.

Dr. Rey’s specialty is inserting breast implants through the patient’s navel, and on most shows women get implants, though Rey also performs nose jobs and other procedures. The thin dramatic tension underpinning the show hinges on the fact that Dr. Rey spends all day in the office using his knives to “empower” women by making them more self-confident about their looks, while at home he is insensitive towards his pregnant wife Haley and overly invested in his Tae Kwon Do practice. Forced to join his wife in shopping for baby supplies, Rey is side-tracked by a beautiful bra in a store window, which he admires for being both fashionable and (unlike him!) “very supportive.” Haley exclaims that not only does she own the very same bra, but she happens to be wearing it that very minute. As she repeatedly gestures to her own chest (itself notably larger than what viewers have seen in the home video footage taken of her several years earlier), Dr. Rey remains fixated on the dummy on the other side of the glass.

Dr. 90210 obviously functions as an advertisement for Rey, and the E! website provides a link to Rey’s practice. Here, dozens of before and after shots are available, mostly of boob jobs. Most shots are straight-forward, with a clinical, mug shot kind of aesthetic. We see small breasts transformed into big boobs. [Fig. 1] (Note: Figures 1, 2, and 3 contain nudity) A much smaller number of images show reconstructed breasts: women with Poland syndrome (two very differently sized breasts) are given symmetrical breasts. And saline implants then transform these breasts into porn star sized jugs. [Fig. 2] The third kind of representation of breasts pictures the models whom Rey has operated on, their after shots showing them in magazine images. Here, we see the only person of color on the website, an African-American woman. Her after shot reveals her in a pornographic posture on the cover of Black Men magazine. [Fig. 3]

Unlike on Rey’s website, on the show nipples are digitally scrambled. This seems a bit silly, since the program regularly shows the body on the operating table, about as naked as it could be. What’s more naked than having your clothes off? Having your skin off! Perhaps inspired by the CSI franchise, with its persistent visual penetration of the body, plastic surgery shows (a growing genre, of which Dr. 90210 is only one example) are not shy about showing bleeding, penetrated bodies. Notwithstanding the coyly scrambled nipples, there is a pornographic show-all dimension to Dr. 90210‘s representation of the body. What is lacking, however, is pornography’s sense of humor and giddy transgression of societal norms. Dr. 90210 shows everything: the naked body, then the naked body with surgical Magic Marker maps drawn on it, then the surgically invaded body, and then the post-operative, quivering and vomiting body. Instead of offering voyeuristic pleasure, though, the show’s images of nude and penetrated bodies are stunningly unerotic. Who knew that naked bodies could be so damn boring?

One episode, however, breaks from the boring pattern and ups the dramatic ante. This show reveals that Dr. Rey is from Brazil, and that his mother worked as a janitor to help him pay for medical school. Charity plastic surgery is Rey’s big chance to give something back to the poor; someday, he tearfully confesses, he will leave Beverly Hills behind and return to his people. (Knowing that Dr. Rey has a SAG card, as per his website, one cannot help but wonder how carefully rehearsed this scene was.) The doctor’s volunteer work is at a clinic in a Latino neighborhood, and in this episode he helps a poor Latina with a unique problem: she has four breasts. He instructs her to quit smoking to prepare for the removal operation, but she doesn’t, and suffers for it on the operating table, as her breathing becomes labored and increasingly desperate. Rey explains how dangerous it is when patients do not obey their doctors. Not allowed to stay in the hospital, the post-op patient is carted to a “recovery center” (which looks suspiciously like a motel) and then returned to her trailer home. This poor Latina has served her function, which was to show Dr. Rey’s largesse, while also portraying a rare moment of surgical imperilment, a rarity on a program that consistently ignores the dangers of plastic surgery. It appears that the only time things go wrong is when patients misbehave. Notably, this charity patient is the only woman on the show with truly “wrong” breasts. The other women want to have their “normal” breasts augmented (or, in one unique instance, reduced).

Of course, the idea of any body being normal or natural becomes increasingly fraught the more one views Dr. 90210. While it may be tempting to wax nostalgic about Jayne Mansfield’s decidedly non-anorexic chest, or Emma Peel’s more modest cleavage, mediated breasts were no more “natural” before the recent explosion of televisual plastic surgery. What is unique today is not the cultural regulation of what constitutes the desirable breast but rather the fact that the increasing number of TV representations of enhanced breasts reveals the process behind the cultural construction. We didn’t watch sitcom girls throw up and take diet pills on 1960s TV, whereas today the process of bodily construction is played out before our very eyes. And since — with the exception of an occasional mole removal from a supermodel — the plastic surgeons of reality TV work their magic on “normal” women, not real stars, the patients can only afford so much plastic surgery. Though the uplifting, therapeutic message offered is that any woman can achieve her bodily dreams, Dr. 90210 stops short of the full body Frankenstein-like reconstruction of The Swan. The result is women with big boobs but bodies that otherwise look fairly average, marked with cellulite, dimples, and wrinkles.

We are completely missing the point if we condemn Dr. 90210 for offering women unrealistic, oppressive body images that will give them low self-esteem, the standard liberal feminist argument. All any female viewer has to do is look down a few inches to realize the distance between TV’s surgical cantaloupes and her own comparatively modest rack. Even the amply endowed woman will not find a televisual mirror, for TV’s completely round, enormous, man-made breast held upright at sternum level has nothing in common with the large breasts provided by genetics. (Consider Chesty Morgan’s 73 inch endowments in Doris Wishman’s Deadly Weapons.) What Dr. 90210‘s images of surgical breast enhancement actually offer viewers, contrary to the show’s intentions, are not fantasies of self-improvement but representations for which there is no original. How appropriate, then, that E! Online offers Dr. 90210 fans a videogame called Ka-boob!, which requires moving a character back and forth to catch falling implants [Fig. 4], with California iconography – palm trees and a Beverly Hills sign – in the stylized background. The tongue-in-check introduction invites us to “meet the docs who put the boob back in the boob tube.” The Dr. 90210 boob is ultimately a lot like California, as per Gertrude Stein. In spite of its abundant excess, there is no there there.

Links
Dr. 90210
Dr. Robert Rey

Please feel free to comment.




Super Freaks

by: Heather Hendershot / Queens College

I am a film snob. There are a few TV programs that I feel truly passionate about, but when push comes to shove, I just plain prefer movies. Part of their appeal is aesthetic. Most TV is visually dull as dust.

With the exception of some splashy music videos and a few remarkable showcase episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“Hush” and “The Body”), TV doesn’t look or sound very interesting. It is at its aesthetic best when it sticks to close-ups, focusing on faces and feelings.

Whatever TV lacks in form, though, it sometimes makes up for in content. TV may not look good, but it feels good. And I don’t mean this in some plug-in-drug, opium-of-the-masses kind of way. What I mean is that in recent years more and more smart, well-written shows focusing on women and relationships have emerged. They feature the complex female characters and psychological realism absent from so much contemporary cinema. Shaun of the Dead is a sharp zombie movie, Infernal Affairs is a brilliant thriller, and Elephant is a beautiful study in anomie (and tracking shots), but none of these recent films include compelling, fully elaborated female characters. For this we must turn to Gilmore Girls, Alias, Buffy, and Freaks and Geeks.

Aren’t there any contemporary films that can compete with these programs? Though chick flicks tend to lay on the Prince Charming happy endings a bit too heavily, at least they are interested in women as more than buxom side-kicks. So when Mean Girls came along, I thought I’d be in for a treat. If the critics were to be believed, this was the Heathers of our age, a thoughtful examination of the sociology of high school…with some cool outfits too. If not as incisive as Heathers, it would at least measure up to Legally Blonde and Clueless on the girl power scale. I’ll admit, though, I was a little nervous, as I had seen Lindsay Lohan on Ellen explaining that the film’s message is “just be yourself.” Great advice from a teenager who just got a boob job.

The film opens with the socially adrift “new girl” trying to figure out which crowd of high school girls she wants to hang out with. She’s good at math and is immediately invited to join the Mathletes. Hey, wait a minute, this sounds a little like Freaks and Geeks! In fact, the more I watched the film, the more it disappointed me because it couldn’t match the brutal honesty of Freaks and Geeks. The nadir of Mean Girls is the scene where each girl gets on a platform with a microphone, apologizes to all the girls she has been cruel to, then plunges backwards into a “trust fall” and is caught by the other girls. This is exactly the kind of bullshit that the geeky guidance counselor on Freaks and Geeks would propose, and the kids would be forced to do it, and they would hate it and know it was stupid.

Freaks and Geeks showed teenagers rebelling against both adult authority and the expectations of their peers. Such a program should not have had a problem finding a huge adolescent audience. But it did. Though the show developed a core audience of devoted fans (and earned a number of Emmy awards for writing), it never became a hit. Eighteen episodes of Freaks and Geeks were produced, though only thirteen aired before it was cancelled. The show’s creators were allowed to make the show exactly the way they wanted to, ignoring NBC’s advice that the characters should have “less depressing lives” and that there should be “one decent-sized victory per episode.” Though plenty of male adolescent hysteria is expressed (garage band traumas, first kisses, disco outfits, and a curious obsession with ventriloquism), the show also highlights two very compelling female characters. Lindsay is the mathlete who leaves her geek identity behind and joins the freaks and burn-outs who cut class and smoke grass. Kim is a freak, with a depressing home life and a relentlessly bitchy demeanor. In fact, NBC at first would not even air a Kim-centered episode because they thought its darkness would scare away viewers.

At the end of Freaks and Geeks‘ one and only season, Kim is still a bitch (irresistibly so), and Lindsay has not rejoined her mathlete compatriots. The lead burn-out has discovered he is actually good at one thing: Dungeons and Dragons. The boy who Lindsay dumped has a girlfriend he’s not crazy about and has taken up disco to make her happy. The sarcastic freak has a girlfriend, though she was born with a penis, so he has had to work through a few anxieties. As for the geeks, one got the girl of his dreams, but broke up with her because she turned out to be boring, materialistic, and Republican. Another is suffering through the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, and a third had a pretty good make-out session in a closet, but, on the down side, his mom is dating the school’s gym coach.

Freaks and Geeks was poignant, smart, and hilarious. Anyone who was ever humiliated by a gym coach, chosen last for a team, or teased for athletic inability will be elated by the episode that climaxes when the geeks are made team captains and immediately choose the short kids, fat kids, and smart kids for their teams instead of the dumb, insensitive jocks. At the same time, viewers will realize that in this non-Brady Bunch universe, the punishment for insulting the jocks will surely be some ass-kicking in the showers later. Perhaps Nielsen households are dominated by jocks, because, ultimately, the ratings weren’t high enough, and the show was axed. Busy Philipps (Kim) surmises, “Television is run by rich white men who are told what to do by rich white men, who want a formula to sell the most soap.” Philipps’s soap reference is apt, because it is the precedent of the soap opera, with its characters that develop over long periods of time, complex extended story arcs, and a dedication to examining emotional realities and psychological motivations, that enabled a show like Freaks and Geeks to exist in the first place. One season of Freaks and Geeks is twelve hours of viewing. It’s not enough, but it adds up to about ten more hours of character development than one finds in most films. There are, it turns out, a few things that TV does better than movies.

Links
Freaks and Geeks
Women in film and television bibliography
Buffy‘s website
Media representations of gender
Mean Girls website

Please feel free to comment.