at Urbus Orbis, through July 31
By Justin Hayford
Satire, said C.P. Snow, is the last resort of the powerless. So it's no surprise that in the years since World War II, when America planted itself atop the international heap (at least in its own collective consciousness), the satiric spirit in this country has atrophied. The impulse to savage the self-satisfaction and hypocrisy of those in power has dwindled since the days H.L. Mencken and company ruled the roost. Now the best we have to offer are the soporific musings of people like Mark Russell and Bill Maher, both so dependent on major media exposure that they can't fire anything larger than a popgun at the humorless suits setting our cultural agendas from the control room. Our native wit--which, in the words of Lewis Lapham, once "favored the least fortunate members of society at the expense of their self-important overlords"--has reversed its course, to the point that we now imagine that wealthy people should always be taken very seriously indeed.
Lapham, with his monthly column in Harper's, is one of the few writers with a national platform attempting to keep Mencken's spirit alive. With access to the toniest of society luncheons and penthouse cocktail parties, Lapham gives America an invaluable window onto the otherwise well-cloaked world of cultural power brokers. And Chicago's Michael Martin seems to have been raised at Lapham's literary knee: like him, Martin is an unrelenting skeptic, his satire so charged with sharp-edged images that it's like a cluster bomb going off. For both writers, satire is, in Lapham's words, "humor on a moral errand."
But Martin sets himself apart from Lapham in two important ways. First, he's the product of poverty rather than privilege, as he made clear last year in his debut monologue, Pattern Recognition. Second, instead of mucking about in the hidden halls of power, Martin splashes away in the public pool of pop culture, diving into a seemingly shallow pond and resurfacing with a profound dread of the political menace hiding in the saccharine depths of prime-time sitcoms.
In his newest monologue, "Justine Bateman," Martin sinks his teeth into a single low-wattage, C-list television star and hangs on for dear life. Cramming anything, anything about Justine Bateman into this rapid-fire piece, he dissects the celebrity-crazed, youth-obsessed, money-mad world of network programming. We learn of Bateman's romantic ties (or lack thereof), her varying hair length, her stint as a performance artist, even her appearance on Politically Incorrect, debating abortion and the O.J. verdict with Gary Shandling. "The USA must be on the intellectual mend," Martin opines early in the piece, "when supercilious Canadian Bill Maher, a nattily dressed harassment suit waiting to be filed, can cash in by reviving the art of meaningful conversation amongst people whose opinions are meaningless."
Like a giddy archaeologist stumbling upon a virgin site, Martin spends a good deal of time sifting the rubble of the landslide of celebrity culture, discovering an intricate web of nobodies: overpaid, overhyped bit players in the prime-time wasteland who'd be nothing if not for television's unique ability to turn even meteorologists into celebrities. At times the effect of Martin's minutiae avalanche is hysterical; it's hard to believe that anyone so intelligent knows so much about a field so trivial. At other times the effect is suffocating, even enervating--but Martin's exhausting taxonomy viscerally reflects the underside of TV culture. Without the multimillion-dollar coercion campaigns designed to convince us that what happens on Home Improvement matters, television--and, more important, writing about television--would be as mind-numbing as certain stretches of this show.
But they're few and far between. For the most part Martin peels layer after layer from Celebrityland's shiny facade. With its relentless exaltation of youth, wealth, and beauty, television propagates dissatisfaction; few of us will ever have apartments or wardrobes half as nice as those of even the incidental characters on Melrose Place, and the most momentous moments of our lives are not one-tenth as interesting as Roseanne's taste in summer reading. As Martin says, "It only matters when it happens to a celebrity." Thus domestic violence is nationally debated only after Farrah Fawcett gets knocked around in a TV movie of the week. AIDS doesn't threaten until ersatz heterosexual Rock Hudson dies from it.
Martin sees in television a disturbing penchant to sanitize and domesticate celebrities' personal tragedies, turning them into publicity stunts--in "Justine Bateman" he cites Michael Landon's struggle with cancer. "Johnny Carson so admired Landon as a kindred spirit," Martin says, "nearly as untouchable as Johnny himself, the renowned master of the remote--what we celebrate as 'dignity' is, sad to say, often just a dearth of human feeling--that one of his final gestures of Tonight Show power...was to elevate Landon's death-by-cancer to media event." But Landon "failed to express recognizable emotions, including icky ones like being scared shitless. Persons with AIDS will tell you how we adore bravery from the dying."
As may be apparent from these brief snippets, Martin fills his piece with digressions, tangents, asides, and parentheticals, which makes for a dizzying evening. It also makes for a text deadly difficult to memorize, and on opening night Martin didn't yet have the piece under his belt. He read off and on from his script, twisting an occasional sentence into a Gordian knot, apologizing once or twice along the way. He seemed a bit ill at ease onstage, fidgeting through unnecessary musical interludes, standing or sitting to no particular effect. Even his tech threw him for a loop; he spent the first half of the evening speaking into a microphone then put it aside, perhaps realizing that he didn't need amplification to speak to a dozen well-behaved people in a theater no larger than a rich man's living room. If Martin can hone his performance skills to a level commensurate with his writing, "Justine Bateman" will be even more engaging.
Unlike Lapham, who expresses unbridled contempt for the circles in which he travels, Martin nearly squeals with adolescent delight when talking about bad television. It is precisely his love/contempt for the medium that gives "Justine Bateman" such rich, human ambivalence. And in the end, the show delivers a sobering punch. The real danger that Martin discovers in prime-time programming is its ability to turn cultural criminals cute and entertaining.
Describing the covert political agenda of Family Ties, the show that made Bateman a semicelebrity, Martin says, "During the Reagan 80s, when it was essential that we cease treating self-centered yuppies with contempt...there was Alex P. Keaton, making them harmless and endearing." In fact, he says, the term "yuppies" was "retired from the national conversation because it made the people so identified feel uncomfortable, and they happen to dominate the conversation. I see no comparable campaign to rid us of, say, the expression 'welfare queens,' just their literal existence." These days, of course, Michael J. Fox--who played Keaton--takes on the role of a particularly reprehensible American type--the political spin doctor--each week on Spin City. And Martin predicts that "by the year 2002 or 2003, Michael J. Fox will be cast as a short, raspy arms dealer whom we in the viewing audience will just have to love for it."
America, Martin tells us, is the leading exporter of military weapons and pop culture. And by the time he's through with the TV world, it's hard to know which is deadlier.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Kristen Sorton.