Posts Tagged Movies
Phyllis Diller died a few weeks ago, and in memorandum, a tweet was sent out linking her to a Muppets performance, where she played a saxophone to upbeat version of a familiar ragtime diddy:
Let’s be honest here. Diller isn’t good with her mini-saxophone. From a musical standpoint, she pretty much messes up every time she plays, and it’s very, very noticeable.
But watch Diller’s face and expression. She doesn’t care. She KNOWS she’s not doing well. I especially love how much she gets into playing poorly towards the end, mugging for the camera with the classic showmanship that a talented stage presence can muster. It gets the crowd going, and it gets her going. She messes up, but she messes up with class.
The old adage, “if you mess up, mess up big” doesn’t seem to apply here. In the 70s, if you messed up, you messed up with grace and charm. Diller doesn’t mug harder or begin to overdo her musical prowess. She lets the moment speak for itself. She lets the audience enjoy it for what it is. Messing up and playing through it is truly a real skill, and Diller does not disappoint.
Watch an old episode of Match Game. Watch this awesome interview with Tom Waits. Watch any episode of The Carol Burnett Show. The charisma of the actors simply playing the moment is all that’s needed to entertain the audience. Match Game is particularly interesting, since it almost seems like the celebrities have little to no interest in actually help the contestants win, nor do they have any real desire to play up certain gags and moments to get a rise out of the audience – unlike Hollywood Squares, which reeks of pre-written, hammy gags for the celebrities to perform. Comparing the two, it’s almost sad.
Why is this? Partly, it’s stylistic. “Raw and gritty,” staples of 70s hard-boiled entertainment, wasn’t just regulated to dramas. Humor and comedy also benefited from that raw and gritty aesthetic that the audience, frankly, expected. It’s a style that only the best performers and hosts can walk sans flop-sweat or jitters, especially in trying to power through the actual meat-and-potatoes of an actual skit. Compare that Muppets video to pretty much any Saturday Night Live skit starring Jimmy Fallon. While he may have found his niche in hosting late night, his inability to hold in his laughter essentially ruined skits, but as a greater affront, he had no stage presence to control the ruined skit without his stammering reflecting his fucking up – unlike Diller, who poorly plays that saxophone with the discipline of a master. I’d rather watch her screw up at a thousand things then watch Fallon struggle through another mediocre SNL bit. (SNL, in fact, seemed to have issues with its players powering through non-winning skits, but that’s a write-up for another day.)
It’s rare these days to find an entertainer that can work with ease and comfort in front of an audience, whether a routine goes swimmingly or erupts in flames. It takes a real skill to screw up and make it look wonderful – to be high, or drunk, or on drugs, or just not very good at all, and still win over the crowd with sheer charisma.
If you’re the main character of a TV show, of any genre, you better have some balls. Why sensitive male leads are difficult to come by.
When preparing for my “Prepubescent Girls that Can Kick Your Ass” inventory, a friend of mine mentioned thinking about, essentially, the opposite version: the sensitive male. She was curious about where the low-key, poetry-loving, caring, affectionate, “not-afraid-to-talk-about-his-feelings” men were in our entertainment. I began thinking about this too, and, well, it’s a pretty good question.
I’m currently watching Recess, the Paul Germain/Joe Ansolabehere animated show that appeared on One Saturday Morning, an ABC/Disney block of cartoons that included The Brand-Spanking New Doug, Pepper Ann, and The Weekenders. Recess was pretty much the winner, nailing a full six seasons and two movies. And of the six main characters, Mikey represented exactly what my friend and I were looking for – the sensitive male as a main character (or at least one of many).
It shouldn’t really surprise me, then, to see most Youtube comment expressing their hate of Mikey. It’s disappointing to see that much vitriol – Mikey does nothing narratively wrong or unlikeable – but it is somewhat difficult to muster a lot of support for his emotional outbursts and poetic diatribes on competition, justice, and Santa Claus. Part of the issue is that it’s hard to understand why exactly Mikey is the way he is. We don’t get too much on his childhood or parents, unlike the rest of the cast, and seeing him struggle with standing up for himself, even for simple things, is a bit hard to swallow, even for kids. And then it hit me: sensitive male leads are, narratively, dead-weight.
Well, not all of them. (I point one out later in the piece that may be an exception.) But for the most part, sensitive males, being more introverted, quiet, and non-confrontational, push against the narrative necessity for conflict to brew. If the character can’t, or is unwilling, to engage in conflict, then it’s hard to create a plot using that archetype. Conflicts that do involve them often involve “growing a backbone,” becoming more confident and standing up to bullies. But few pieces of entertainment touch upon the nature of sensitivity as a positive development towards a goal, unless it’s involves romancing the opposite sex.
(Keep in mind, a lot of what I mentioned can be applied to sensitive female characters too; it’s unfortunate but true that social constructs allow sensitive female characters to be more prevalent, yet we see more or them as progenitors of their own development – see Fluttershy from My Little Pony or Kaylee from Firefly. It also helps that Josh Whedon and Lauren Faust are very talented. In other words, we’re used to, and comfortable with, sensitive female characters. Not so much with males.)
There is a unique exception to this: Private, from The Penguins of Madagascar TV show on Nickelodeon, a surprisingly excellent show in its own right. Private, the “newest” recruit in the penguins underground, paramilitary organization, is indeed a sensitive soul, enjoying The Lunicorns, being a neat-freak, and not afraid to showcase his feelings, to the chagrin of his team. But quite often, Private is shown to be smart, pragmatic, and a hell of a soldier, both in cunning, speed, and ability to fight. It’s a rare sight – not even the highest-rated TV shows have male characters that can exhibit both sensitivity and bravado. And, consequently, he’s become one of my favorite characters on TV right now.
But even in the case of Penguins or Recess, the sensitive male is not the SOLE lead, but part of a group dynamic. I’d be hard pressed to find any show that really had or has a soft-ball character leading a narrative charge. There’s Lazlo from Camp Lazlo, I suppose, although his sense of adventure may overshadow his sensitive nature. The brief encounter I had with the show Scaredy Squirrel had a character similar to Private, sans fighting ability, so maybe he is the true exception – yet no one watched the show, which doubles down on my “lack of popularity” theory.
Are there any male lead characters out there that are relatively well-know? I’m thinking no, but I’m definitely willing to hear people out in the comments below.
In the past few weeks, I’ve received a number of hits and views due to some wonderful connections I’ve made through Twitter and emails. To which I say: welcome! Thanks for the wonderful comments and observations.
The purpose of this blog is to essentially give equal weight and thought to all forms of entertainment and attempt to delve into the pop culture lens across the board. Here, I discuss movies, TV, comics, books, video games, music, and cartoons in equal fashion, exploring how all those forms of entertainment are approach today and how they may or may not relate to each other. Many critics will explore, let’s say, feminism with either one character for a distinct genre, or several characters from one genre. I prefer to look at Ripley, Peggy Olsen, Wonder Woman, Lara Croft, Gladys Knight, and Korra with the same perspective and ponder, what exactly, is feminism today. No format or genre is outside my consideration. Everything is fair game, and I will try to discuss these forms of entertainment in a fun, informal, approachable manner, while indeed putting some thought into it all. Or at least try.
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