Thursday, April 29, 2010

John Stanley's World, Pt. III: How Stanley's Comedic Sense is Still Relevant

I recently had a conversation with my graphic novel partner, David Lasky, about trends in mass-media comedy that have rewritten the rules, over the last decade or so.

We discussed TV series such as Curb Your Enthusiasm, Flight of the Conchords, The IT Crowd (which I have not yet seen) and The Sarah Silverman Program. These programs are driven by the richly detailed eccentricities and shortcomings of their mega-flawed protagonists. Add to this list the works of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, three mainstream American network programs, and the post-Dada assault to the senses that is Tim and Eric: Awesome Show! Great Job!

Most significantly, these shows refute the tradition of the sitcom--i.e., that comedy is manufactured from a series of escalating events that stock characters must react to, rather mechanically. This new wave of comedy, like John Stanley's, depends on viewer familiarity with characters, and with their quirks.

I'm going to assume that you, the reader, have seen these programs. They're mostly aired on pay channels, although they're also available on DVD (which is how I usually see them). is a convenient way to catch some of them online. I consider these programs a significant movement in mass-media comedy.

The so-called protagonists (anti-heroes, the lot of them) of these programs never pass up an opportunity to make themselves look horrible. Larry David, the focus character of Curb Your Enthusiasm, is the "Tubby Type" gone dangerously wrong, with the full abilities of a functioning adult. His character acts almost entirely on impulse, fueled by a boatload of cognitive biases, which justify his highly-disputable self-righteousness.

Larry, like Stanley's "Tubby types," sees himself as an affable fellow who's always in the know, and on the right track. In his own eyes, he does no wrong. He's a stubborn, argumentative figure, prone to instant conflicts with friends, family, his wife, hired help, and strangers on the street.

Sarah Silverman confronts awkward topics, usually associated with maudlin after-school specials, and basks in the toxic fallout of her epically bad decisions. Like Tubby, she's held in an uncertain regard by her peers, who chastise her for her mis-steps but ultimately support her, despite her pariah status.

Watching David, Silverman and Rhys Darby (of Flight of the Conchords) go through their rituals of debasement and humiliation is excruciating/amusing. (New word: excrusing?) The real comedic gold is that these highly, deeply flawed anti-heroes NEVER take responsibility--or even get--the impact of their own, socially aberrant behavior.

They're fascinating figures--I hesitate to use the word "likable," but they are. They're never quite victors or villains. They capture the most erratic aspects of human behavior, and provide a catharsis. We watch them make the worst, most reckless decisions imaginable, suffer the consequences of their choices, and emerge from the seeming trauma unscathed, no life lessons learned or morals wrought. Their taboo behavior offers us a release from the rigors and responsibilities of societal life.

The characters portrayed by Ricky Gervais in the UK version of The Office and Extras bring a dark layer of misanthropy to the table. His portrayals of David Brent and Andy Millman push viewer comfort levels well past the danger zone.

They are petty individuals--failed bullies who operate from a false belief that they are better than everyone else. They fall harder, and debase themselves more intensely, as a result. They, too, ritually fail to get the message.

In the case of Gervais' bleak creations, the effect is more akin to viewing a dreadful railway accident. A bad situation becomes exponentially worse, fueled by one errant decision after another. The passive spectator is left gaping as this brutalized figure picks himself up from the charred debris of his own doing and acts as if nothing's happened.

Steve Carell has tried hard to develop his own take on this genuinely unlikable character in the US version of The Office. While early episodes of this series have a lion's share of sphincter-tightening moments, Carell has turned his Michael Scott into a kinder, gentler Tubby-type--an out-of-control kid with no clue of the impact of his actions, which seem entirely just and apt in his own eyes.

To make the US Office work, over the course of six seasons, Carell's character has been made somewhat likable. He may make the viewer's intestines curdle, as he grabs the tarnished halo of humiliation with gusto. Scott is a harmless doofus, compared to Gervais' arrogant, selfish and narcissistic David Brent.

An Office spin-off, Parks and Recreation, features often-stunning turns of humiliation comedy from the likes of Amy Poehler, Aziz Ansari, Chris Pratt and Nick Offerman. Tina Fey's 30 Rock, though more of a meta-parody of sitcom cliches, often weaves debasement comedy into its scenarios. It manages to be a successful, far sharper live-action cousin to The Simpsons, which racked up its fair share of humiliation comedy in its earlier seasons.

This school of comedy is not new. One has to look no further than the works of W. C. Fields and Bob and Ray to see "classic" comedians who depended on misanthropy, inept decisions and social mis-steps to generate their highly effective humor. Woody Allen once trafficked in this desolate school of comedy, in his self-described "early, funny films."

John Stanley's comedy is rooted in this theater of societal humiliation. While I doubt that most (if any) of these modern comedians are familiar with Little Lulu and other Stanley works, there is an unmistakable correlation. This is especially true of Stanley's 1960s series, Thirteen Going On Eighteen, in which anti-heroine Val continually invites--and endures--one embarrassment and torment after another.

Consult this goldmine of comedy and you'll see that these edgy modern icons have a lot in common with John Stanley's self-deluded "Tubby types." Silverman, David, Gervais and Tim Heidecker (of Tim & Eric) seem particularly hep to this comedic jive. The worse they can make themselves look, and the bigger the stakes, the deeper the tragicomic rewards.

These comedians are taking humiliation far, far past Stanley's most extreme examples. But it's fascinating that this school of comedy draws from the same inexhaustible well of cognitive bias-enriched characters.

Since Tubby Tompkins is, arguably, Stanley's finest manifestation of this character, let's dial up a "Tubby" story for this post.

In fact, here's two stories. First up: the Tubby masterwork "Great Day," from Little Lulu #23, 1950. Apologies for the crap scans. I cleaned them up, but there wasn't much to work with.

Tub is dead-set on being accepted into the fraternity of truck drivers. That is his agenda for eating at the Sunset Diner. Unluckily for him (but great for us), these working-class heroes are a little mean-spirited. They torment Tubby with heapin' helpings of hearty chow--just to see how much this portly kid can pack away.

Tubby suffers mightily on his "great day." He's stuffed so full of food he can't walk. His fainting spell on a public street makes an embarrassing social scene that involves many onlookers--and an ambulance.

Yet Tubby ultimately feels his $1.50 has been well spent--and, in a beautiful coda, plans to save for his next visit to the Sunset Diner. Apparently he's able to forget his intense misfortune quickly.

Here's "Dinner at the Diner," a remake of the 1950 story, from the latest Stanley Lulu I've seen (#131, from 1959). This was four issues before Stanley's exit. Thousands of "Lulu" and "Tubby" pages had been created in those nine years. Small wonder that Stanley (like Barks, at the late stage of his comix career) returned to earlier work for story fodder.

"Dinner at the Diner," crammed into half the space of "Great Day," suffers from its conflation. The truck drivers aren't malicious here. They don't wager on how much Tub can pack away. They're awed bystanders, as Tubby choffs his way through a mountain of chow.

The story's twist ending is a liability. It allows Tubby to shrug off the consequences of his gluttony. He suffers no ritual humiliation. He, instead, leaves the Sunset Diner feeling he's pulled a fast one on Al, the long-suffering short-order cook. There are no stakes to "Dinner at the Diner."

It's fascinating to me that Stanley would avoid the opportunity to hurl Tub into the chasms of social embarrassment--especially given the pitfalls and indignities awaiting Thirteen's Val, Loo of Dunc 'n Loo and Melvin Monster.

These two stories demonstrate how Stanley's approach changed in nine years. The Stanley of 1950 is much more in love with a leisurely pace--of taking his sweet time to let things play out to their fullest extent. The '59 model chooses punctual, strident comedy and a far faster tempo--with a little tug of the carpet at story's end.

I might have made more persuasive selections from the later Thirteen Going on Eighteen here. As those are being handsomely reprinted by Drawn + Quarterly, readers can troll the pages of the first volume (as of this writing) at their leisure, and catalog their many moments of epic humiliation comedy.

This theater-of-cruelty humor, interwoven with genuine affection for his characters, is one of many elements that makes John Stanley's comedy still effective and relevant, 40 to 60 years after the first publication of his work. While he certainly didn't invent this style of humor, he brought a beautiful spin to it--one that changed over time. He has an indisputable link to modern practitioners of this dark, sublime branch of comedy.


Jeff Overturf said...

I couldn't agree more. Natural, organic, character driven...great analysis!

Myrrpage said...

Your "crap scans" are far superior to the teensy, black-and-white printed crap that today's Stanley fans are offered. Thanks for two great Tubby stories. By the way, the first time I saw Sarah Silverman on TV she delivered a line that for some reason stuck me as incredibly 'now': "I dont care if you think Im racist. I just want you to think Im thin." Sad but true - and funny.