Finding humor and maintaining standards

The Globe and Mail, April 23, 1994   

Municipal Bondage

By Henry Alford

Random House, 231 pages, $28.95


If You’re Talking to Me, Your Career Must Be In Trouble

By Joe Queenan

Hyperion, 267 pages, $28.95


People seem somewhat uncertain about exactly what Henry Alford does for a living. Anyone who’s read The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Vogue or, especially, Spy will recognize his byline, and this is a collection of magazine pieces, so obviously he’s a writer. It’s the kinds of things Alford writes about and the way he conducts his research that baffle. And he gets right to that confusion at the start of Municipal Bondage: “People unfamiliar with my work have, in the past, asked me how my ‘skits’ are progressing. . . . Skits, as we all know, involve a funny doorbell, bad Southern accents, and actor Harvey Korman. Pranks, capers, monkeyshines — call the more activity-based portions of this book what you will, but do not call them skits. (And if you call me a jackanape, I will slap you.)” Alford prefers to call the his magazine pieces “investigations.”


Investigative journalism is usually the work of straight-shooters diligently lifting up rocks, flushing evil-doers into the light of public scrutiny and exposing malfeasance. But there’s no law that says investigations have to expose greed, cavalier disregard for human health and safety or law-breaking to be worthwhile. Instead of aiming to uncover grotesque malfeasance, Alford exposes the roots of much of the stupidity that manifests itself in the modern world.


For instance, he creates a snack called “Nubbins” after becoming obsessed with the word’s repeated appearance in New York Times restaurant reviews. After making a series of phone calls to people who makes and serve food for a living to discover what it means, Alford is no closer to discovering whether the word is legitimate. He ends up trying to sell his own snackable interpretation of the word to food companies as new product. None will touch it.


Measuring the scope, depth and extent of officials’ nonsense tolerance is a special talent of Alford’s. Many of those you’d suspect of being nonsense-mongers have a hilariously high tolerance for gibberish, even when Alford pushes the envelope, inventing and presenting ever more ridiculous and far-fetched chunks of it to his unwitting victims.


After reading a couple of pieces from Municipal Bondage, my brother wondered if Alford had ever worked as a writer on either incarnation of the Letterman show. He hasn’t, that I know of, but the question is a natural one. Alford’s work shares with Letterman’s a good ear and eye for what’s come to be known as “found humor.” It comprises terms, pronouncements and viewpoints that have languished unexamined for years; because nobody has challenged  them or questioned them, they’ve mutated, growing like comic orchids into very weird specimens indeed. A quicker rationale for terming this kind of material “found humor” is the fact that you can’t make the stuff up. But discovering it takes a special kind of brain.


What Alford and Letterman both do is present something so baffling or anxiety-producing that the only possible response is laughter. The other thing Alford understands and communicates perfectly is that failure is funny, and it is that humanity that saves his work from coming off as superior, self-important or snide. For example, in “You’ll Never Groom Dogs In This Town Again,” Alford takes tests for a variety of jobs and performs way below par. His earnest, guileless approach must have convinced examination proctors that he was determined to succeed at dog-grooming, scenic painting or hair styling.


On a grander scale, the book proves that while people are “media-wise” enough to crank up an act for visiting ladies and gentlemen of the media, most will drop their “acts” immediately if they think nobody who counts is present. At that point, Henry Alford is still there, recording it all and composing embryonic versions of his articles.


Joe Queenan causes less confusion than Henry Alford. Queenan’s approach and methodology are clearer and more straightforward, for one thing. He describes himself at the outset as a “mean-spirited turnip.” We need more mean-spirited turnips. There are too many people who cover the entertainment business — and particularly the motion-picture part of that business — who want to be good little turnips.


What is it about some entertainment reporters that makes them prostrate themselves and crank out dutifully slavish promotional copy instead of worthwhile reporting that tells its story without fear or favor? Are they so grateful for a couple of free passes to a wretched movie that they’ll voluntarily suspend even the most minimal esthetic standards? Perhaps some scribblers harbor ambitions to do more than review movies; they hope to direct one day, and don’t want to hack off corporations that might eventually employ them.


Joe Queenan, mercifully, in infected with no such confusion. This magazine writer knows he’s a movie consumer much more than a person who’s ever likely to make one of the damn things. His main criterion is not crafting lighter-than-air pull-quotes for ad copy (“busted my laugh-meter;” “run don’t walk”). Instead, he realizes that people who make movies are supposed to be doing a job, just like the rest of us. And putting the results of that work before the public means that if the work stinks, Queenan gets to say so.


One of the most surefire means of making movies and their makers look ridiculous is the same method Henry Alford uses: apply the basic tenets of common sense to a situation that is inimical to common sense. Queenan employs that tool in his movie genre comparisons. Among the best is his consideration of the lessons Woody Allen should have learned from the classic films he was familiar with, but which he failed to apply in his personal life.


And we’re all sick of the fawning movie-star profiles in publications as diverse as People and Vanity Fair (actually, those publications aren’t diverse at all, are they?). Queenan takes that form and twists its neck smartly, rendering profiles that are refreshing and inspiring for their jaundiced eye and mercilessly truthful attention to detailed reality (screwball actress Sean Young tackling algebra, for example).


These essays remind you that it’s perfectly all right to have some standards — no matter how minimal — for celluloid entertainment. But you also get the sense in reading the essays in If You’re Talking To Me, Your Career Must Be In Trouble (most of which have appeared in Movieline), that its author doesn’t expect anyone anywhere in Hollywood to take his advice on anything. Which is good, because blundering and wretched excess can be a lot more entertaining and enlightening than sensible, well-made, tasteful pictures. And how can you define or appreciate the truly worthwhile and laudable without having laughable swill to compare it to?