The Beauty and Art of Screwing Up


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.

 

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