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The Doomed Sex Geckos Make Me Celebrate Life and Here’s Why

September 4, 2014

For the rest of our lives, we will all remember where we were on September 2, 2014, when we heard that the Russian Sex Geckos had died in space. These randy reptiles, who sacrificed their lives to make the vast emptiness of the cosmos safe for Astral Coitus, will forever be in our hearts, alongside other non-human pioneers who climbed the ladder to heaven for the sake of ethereal exploration: Laika the Canine Cosmonaut, Bek and Lek the Lunar Orbiting Tortoises, and ill-fated Gordo the Squirrel Monkey, launched by our very own country into the skies in December, 1958, only to drown without mercy when the capsule parachute failed to open.

This is Gordo. He is about to die for science.

(Sans pitié, I tell you, sans pitié! Wishing only for a warm nut and a cool patch of Florida grass to scamper upon, poor Gordo was sacrificed to the cruel, cold waters of the Atlantic.)

The brevity of the brave lives of the Sex Geckos and all the other dogs, rodents, chimps, and turtles who died for science has made me consider what a luminous, brief, and rare gift life is. Inspired by the lives these skybound creatures led, scraping the heavens to gaze with hopeful and tiny animal eyes at the face of God, I have decided to honor their sacrifice and the brief moments of joy, heroism, and lizard horniness they must have felt before the Space Reaper collected his pennies. To honor the extraordinary gift of sentient birth, full of the dust of destitution and the silver of desire, the glitter of cities and the sun-rich, loamy earth of the country, the prize of solitude and the sweet grasp of company, here is my list of things I am thankful for:

Fribbles. During the unsightly, bullying, hirsute, bloated, screeching, neon decade of the 1970s, I lived in the weak-Tudor suburbs of Long Island, that land of car dealerships, mod synagogues, and over-designed duck ponds; I screamed majorly, minorly, and hourly for the scratch and sass of Manhattan, dreaming every day of escape from the eternal wet November of the well-meaning Freeway Land. In the midst of this doomscape of blousy hair and teenage Porsches, the succulent succor of the Fribble, that delectable Delorean of ice cream treats, was like Mothers’ milk to the teen soul abused by the encroachment of conformity and mediocrity. Likewise, I am thankful for…

The Kinks. Before Punk saved our souls and turned all us Sauls into Pauls spreading the gospel of Bowery and Kings Road to a world dulled by Kansas and ELP, us wet-lipped outsiders who wandered in the cruel American desert bowed low before the golden calf of The Kinks, those delicious, British, bashing, effeminate, tender, terrorizing masters of songs most subtle and riffs most outrageous. They had a legend full of gorgeous back-story and self-destructive misery, making music for every mood and a song for every season, and they provided an immediate way to identify allies before the armies of the outsiders all cut their hair. Oh my Kinks, you were my first love. I am thankful for…

The Mighty Boosh. A century and a quarter after Weber & Fields discovered it was wildly funny (and equally lucrative) to go on stage portraying two men abusing each other with props and wordplay, you would have thought that the whole concept of the two-man comedy team could not appear vital, fresh, and ferociously funny. But the Mighty Boosh took all the clichés, pumped them full of hipster air and sealed it with dada staples, and produced one of the five funniest TV shows of all time. Like The Honeymooners, Fawlty Towers, and (most of) Blackadder, you can watch the Mighty Boosh’s three series of television shows again and again and be awed, over and over, by the creativity, the stunning scripted and visual invention, the startling and unexpected wit, and the ability of two amazing actors – Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding – to make the most absurd characters and situations appear utterly real, compelling, and draw-dropping funny. I am thankful for…

Two devastatingly perfect pure pop songs that you may not be familiar with, but which you will listen to right now: “Strolling on Air” by Kimberly Rew and the Waves and “Monsters and Angels” by Voice of the Beehive. The most exceptional pop music is like mirror-filled sugar icicle castles with butterscotch-granite foundations: exotic and unachievable, firm and monumental, but reflecting some undeniable truth about ourselves.

There are some great achievements in the last forty years of post-Ramones power pop, but I honestly think nothing, not even the mod thrill-rides of the Barracudas, nor the balsa-light studious frippery of XTC or even the sibilant Mersey-heaven of the La’s, can compare to the these two songs. When asked to preserve the best pure pop of this generation, I hope these two songs go up in the Viking spaceship. I am thankful for…

The only known photograph of Buddy Bolden. He stands behind the guitarist, sneering forward at the Pop Century he is about to invent

Buddy Bolden, because what could be more beautiful than the fact that the man who is the lodestone for 20th Century music, and who is the blueprint for every tragic and self-destructive star of the American pop era, was never recorded and only photographed once? How exquisite, how truly and purely magical it is that the Pop Century begins with sparks exploding in the hands and mind of someone so mysterious that he might as well have never existed? I am thankful for…

The fact that as I write this Kate Bush has EIGHT albums in the UK top 40 album charts; only Elvis and the Beatles have had more albums in the British top 40. Even those who don’t love Bush’s almost hyper-real gifts and skills have to honor this: this almost unprecedented success proves that if you do something different from everyone else AND DO IT WITH ALL YOUR HEART AND ALL YOUR MUSCLE, the world will open it’s doors. I have always, always, always said that the surest path to success is to a) make a record that someone doesn’t already own and b) make a record that you can’t find in your record collection but really, really want to hear, and clearly, Kate Bush has done both these things, with brilliant execution and studious commitment, over and over again, and anyone and everyone who ever desires to create music can learn something – everything – from her.

This short list is only the beginning. It omits The Undertones, Benny Tudino’s Pizza, Bruno Ganz, Oskar Matzerath, Henry Pulling, Evelyn Waugh, Richard Farina, Huey Long, Thich Nhat Hanh, Jennifer, Emily, Bo, and Maddy Brout, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, the incredible Prettiots, the Aurora Borealis, and a billion other things. Life is full of small and large miracles and brilliant and staggering and gorgeous things to see and hear, from the mesmerizing tic-tic of a signal indicator on an automobile to the transcendentally evocative howl of train whistle in the distance, to the shadows of Caligari to the monumental dreamscapes of Brazil, to the golden bridges over the Danube in Budapest to the warm, old, unmoving stones of Avebury Henge.

And it took the death of a Sex Gecko to remind me what a miracle this strange incarnation is.

Oh, and Neu!

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All Hail Dada Sitcoms like Luxury Comedy

August 25, 2014

Bizarrely, live-action television has rarely been a particularly fertile venue for surrealism.

This is very odd indeed, for the very premise of most historical (and many contemporary) sitcoms could not be more surreal:  people pretend to act like a “real” family or “real” friends, except they do it in front of an audience in a three wall format, and everything is neatly sewn up in 22 minutes.  The standard sitcom modus operandi has, literally, zero to do with reality, and only its greatest masters (like Jackie Gleason and The Honeymooners) can eke any true realism out of such an impossibly unrealistic format.  Think, for a moment:  does a minute of any episode of I Love Lucy or The Brady Bunch actually resembles even a chalk-outline of real life?

So why not take it further? Why do sitcoms insist on building the same old imitation reality over and over again?  Why not try something genuinely different?

For generations, television comedy has been locked into two fairly unyielding formats:  the “domestic” or workplace sitcom where actors perform situational set-ups and jokes in three-walled setting, and the “review” format, where limited-time sketches are performed in the same three-wall setting (although Saturday Night Live has long boasted that there’s a big difference between them and the sketches of The Carol Burnett Show, it’s essentially all the same stuff, just with a few risqué concepts added).  Admittedly, there has been a little bit of healthy re-orientation in the last two decades, thanks to the introduction of the single-camera/no-live audience (or laugh-track) sitcoms pioneered by Ricky Gervais and Gary Shandling.

I am sure there are a few others, but only Green Acres stands out as a sitcom that utilized the absurdity inherent in the traditional sitcom format to explore completely non-realistic premises for comic effect (and, of course, I will note the insertion of the alien Mork into Happy Days, one of the world’s most unrealistic sitcoms).   I also think the often wonderful Scrubs got very close to finding a workable method for injecting surrealism into sitcoms (by the way, I am isolating the consistent use of absurd elements – like Green Acres’ sentient pig – from the bizarre trend in the ‘60s to take absurd premises and treat them as ordinary, like in The Flying Nun, My Mother The Car, Mr. Ed). 

All of this is to underline what a startling, original delight Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy is.  Luxury Comedy has recently started its’ second season on British television (it had a six-episode debut season in 2012; it would be largely pointless and almost certainly confusing to attempt to explain how the British model of television seasons and series renewals has virtually nothing to do with the American concept, so let’s just not go there, okay?).   One barely knows where to start in attempting to explain what Luxury Comedy is; it would be effective to say that what Fielding does in a live-action show is closer – far­ closer – to animated shows like Sponge Bob Square Pants, Superjail, or the marvelous Adventure Time.  There is a relatively steady “situation” – in series 2, it involves Fielding (using his real name) and his gang operating a coffee shop situated on the rim of a Hawaiian Volcano.  Oh, I should mention that Fielding’s cohorts include Andy Warhol, a human/anteater hybrid, and a mod, snarky German woman.  Other regular characters and visitors include a New York cop who drives a cardboard car and whose partner is embedded in his shoulder, a talking Hammerhead Shark who is an experienced recording engineer, Don Quixote, and Joey Ramone (who is just a silent, armless clay figure).

Fielding, of course, was one-half of The Mighty Boosh, the utterly brilliant comedy team whose television show (2004 – 2007) is quite literally one of the ten funniest television shows ever made. Luxury Comedy takes as a starting point the Boosh’s more psychedelic visual elements and more bizarre character factors; Fielding then spins these off into their own self-dependent world.  LuxCom is like an un-tethered balloon released by the Boosh, where the Dada/Dali/Duchamp Happy-Acid-Trip implied by much of the Boosh’s work is left to simmer into a surrealistic gumbo of nonsense that utterly refuses to walk the fine-line between the intellectual and the childish; rather, Fielding’s new show has one foot firmly in both, which is why watching even two minutes of LuxCom will make you think of Antonin Artaud, James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, William Burroughs, and Samuel Beckett getting together to rewrite a four-year old’s story of the dinosaur living in their closet.  Seriously, it’s a lot like that. 

In its ability to channel surrealism via live action and its’ attempt (only sometime successful, but always riveting) to make live-action comedy that is completely detached from reality (even as it makes a bare effort to adhere to a consistent premise), Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy is the successor to The Goon Show, the British radio show which literally invented modern British humor.  The Goons, who were on the air from 1951 to 1960, abandoned traditional storytelling and replaced it with illogical absurdity that took advantage of the idea that in one-dimensional radio-land, nonsense made as much sense as bad imitations of reality; the Goons also pretty much invented the idea that a non-sequitur could replace a punchline.  I’ll write about the Goons at greater depth in the near future (they are one of the most important cultural forces of the 20th Century), but very, very rarely has their innovations been utilized in setting-based live action comedy, which is what makes Luxury Comedy so very, very exciting.

Recently, drama on television has taken enormous leaps; following the pioneering lead of Six Feet Under, shows like House of Cards, Hannibal, Breaking Bad, American Horror Story, and many others are, for the very first time, consistently bringing cinema-quality events into the living rooms of America.  It’s now time for live-action comedy to play catch-up, to move on from the done-to-death innovations of Office-type mock-docs and realize the rather stunning potential the medium has for capturing, exploring, and exploiting entertaining surrealism. Go ahead; stop putting a bunch of people in an apartment or an office and writing jokes about their relationships and their jobs and what’s in their refrigerator.  Instead, I challenge you to go all Duchamp and do the equivalent of sticking a urinal on the wall (or as Luxury Comedy does, have a regular character who Wikipedia, in it’s best dry fashion, describes as “an anthropomorphic chocolate finger biscuit who works as a PE teacher and once served in the army. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and often talks about how depressed he is because his wife passed away”).  I hope Luxury Comedy is a harbinger of the future; in the meantime, it’s just a gorgeous, original, psychedelic delight, a brave attempt to bring the beautiful non-logic of animation to the world of live-action.


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