Erich Kuersten's unhinged film criticism. Constantly in flux, tuned in, a day late and a dollars short ('where it counts')

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Exit the Navel: MARON, DICE








It's a swell time to be an older, white, straight male with a giant ego, a trunk full of dues-paying and/or top-of-the-world VH1 reveries... because chances are you have your own show either on IFC, Showtime, FX, or at the very least, "the Youtubes." No matter what level of fame, micro-success, or just delusional 'web fame' the rest of us Aging SWMs may have garnered, we can all relate to these 1-2 syllable single name titles. Yo, that's us! We're detached. The Generation X kids grown grey, we've been watching as our golden age of cocksmanship, fame, and rock swagger circles down the drain into the sunset. Whether we packed stadiums or just half-filled a small local bar with our relatives once in 1985, we're glad we're not still hoisting amps in and out of bars, fighting off stage fright and anxiety no one will show, fending off a constant onslaught of angry press, slavering fans, grabby jonesers and wannabes and lapel-grabbers and bossy exes. To be still doing it would be a constant reminder none of that shit is as golden as we remember. Since it's all safely behind us now, though, man, it stays ever-golden!

What most of my generation really wants now is simply an outlet, some medium to express ourselves and some kind of audience on which to leave our mark, our initials carved into the bark of the tree, so to speak. Whether on the brains of our bored children, the pages of our blogs, or whatever, or--if you're still in the game--your own self-titled show on cable TV, a single cam autobiographical riff collection aimed into the river of critical acclaim garnered by LOUIE.

Two of them are currently fresh in the airwaves and, man, even more than Louie, they get at the heart of... well, guys like me, the vain ex-womanizer dating younger women types with no idea how to get beyond the mentality of a 27 year-old. My dad told me that once, I had perfected the art of being 28 at last, and decided to stay there. The new season of MARON (on IFC), and the premiere of DICE (Showtime) tell my story--and god help me I'm not proud of it.

I normally don't write about comedy (30s Paramount aside) but having lived six years with a comedy journalist, who told me I reminded her of Marc Maron even before the show came out, I have to wrote about him, because like him I'm hopelessly myopic: I too am 16 years sober, bedraggled, bearded, bespectacled, misanthropic, reclusive, dress all in black and dark clothes; have no kids, date girls half my age, and think the real world is going to hell and I'm better than everyone else, and hate myself for thinking so. I let fame go to my head so fast I'd almost rather not have it again. The small amount of fame I've had for small amounts of time always turned me into a raving narcissistic womanizer, so needy for the next wave of adulation I could barely sleep or stand to be alone for more than a few minutes at a time, and apt to throw a tantrum if I ever had to pay a cover charge. Don't you know who I am??

Like me, Maron's irritable and needy, like a cranky child determined to keep his tantrum going even if it takes decades to cull a heavenly mommy royalty check. As viewers we're supposed to somehow either sympathize with all his luxury problems, the kind of privileged bourgeois UWS shit only Eric Schaffer, Ed Burns, Woody Allen, Larry David, and Albert Brooks would think they could get away with. But I don't like to be reminded that my grandiose schtick isn't that easy to live with day-to-day. I'd never be able to tolerate being in a room five minutes with myself... or Maron for that matter. Just as I've never been able to watch more than five minutes of any Albert Brooks movie without wincing, and wanting to find and throw rocks at his mother. My hostile response to Maron should maybe be considered with that disclaimer.

 good taste in music, but you think Iggy ever whines about
needing to quit nicotine lozenges? (great photo though)
The IFC show MARON itself centers around our curmudgeon, Marc, and involves a mix of him doing his podcast, fly-on-the-wall Grey Gardens-style messy house puttering, and show biz angst (including his allegedly naughty insults like to his fey male assistant: "do you have a pussy, a little boy pussy?"), cliche'd money man suck-up producers with on-the-nose lines like "I'm here just to lend a little corporate support," and "I'm gong to be personally shepherding the process" and bringing in a overly-nerdy writer, an overly fussy PR maven and Andy Richter. In his downtime he's been dealing with visits from out-of-town comics he knew on the way up, donating his semen to a lesbian comedian having a child, etc. (PS - never use the sperm of an alcoholic/addict, that shit is hereditary). All slathered over with his alt-rock self-loathing and girly ("am I too fat?) narcissism (as they say in AA, he's "the piece of shit at the center of the universe.")

Sure he's on camera a lot, lives in LA, and has his own successful podcast but even so, for a straight middle-aged white dude with scraggly facial hair, Marc Maron spends an awful amount of time worrying he's getting fat, or addicted to nicotine lozenges; constantly blaming his surly exhaustion on how he's poisoning himself with "too much caffeine too much nicotine" blah blah. Sure, we've all been there, but no straight man over the age of 45 who's not actually fat should worry about this shit anymore, weight comes and goes when you pass the halfway mark of life (your body has it all down to a science and if you're on nicotine and caffeine it's a shitty type science) or at any rate he should know himself well enough by that age to not think buying a bunch of running gear and deciding to quit caffeine and nicotine and junk food all at once right before launching a big talk show is a good idea. No way anyone stays sober 16 years not knowing basic sobriety 101 shit like that, not unless they were never alcoholics to being with.

By which I mean, as an addict myself, I'd have liked to see his relapse done right. It would be a great opportunity to see Maron the actor NOT be a dick for five minutes. Imagine if getting back on the drugs made him relaxed, intelligent, confident, witty and ready to host his show with the focused charm of a Johnny Carson, but only for like, say, a couple of hours before getting all sloppy and nodding off. The next night, the time for being witty and erudite shrinking to a few minutes, and then totally gone. He could have watched, say, the "never seen a man go through a day so fast" scene where Lee Marvin first guzzles downs the whiskey in CAT BALLOU (1965). In it, Marvin arrives on the scene a shaky mess, bums a pint of whiskey, downs half, his shakes stop and for like a hot second he's a crack shot super erudite gunslinger but then a swig later and he's a boisterous mess; another swig and he's passed out again.

Fucking Lee Marvin was a drinker; you can fucking tell in his eyes. I can see it in other ex-alcoholic/ long-time sober comic's eyes, like Craig Ferguson, but I don't see it in Maron's. I admit he does his nodding off super mess shit pretty well, and he's got the self-pitying atheist mopiness down, but to not have even a single scene of focused peace and calm before complete mess relapse, I mean just enough to we see WHY he drank and did drugs in the first place, so we can think for a hot second, "hey, he's finally not an asshole, maybe drugs/booze are/is the answer" which makes his turn to asshole five minutes later all the more heartbreaking --that's the stuff Emmys are made of, and Oscars (ala Marvin's, Cage's, Coburn's, Milland's, etc.) and reality -- and he'd only have to do it once.


Third, if you were really "cross-addicted" as the saying goes--but haven't done any of it for 16 years, sorry but you won't relapse on just pain pills if your back is bad enough to deserve them (presuming you don't have, like 200 pills prescribed by a dangerously incompetent doctor). I went through that shit when I busted my knee and my natural urge to horde the 20 pills I got was enough that I only took them when I needed them, and wound up needing them all. But if you take pills the way Maron does in this show, son you would be dead. Tolerance shrinks to normal schlub levels. Oxycontin tabs are NOT nicotine lozenges - you can't just guzzle them in the bathroom like M&Ms, not unless you want to die, and besides it's a huge waste of a good stash. They don't give automatic refills on Oxy anymore, and a real addict wouldn't waste them. He clearly never went to AA or he'd have realized trying to juggle pain medication with nicotine withdrawal has never worked once in all of human history. And sorry but if believing in God makes you happier, and you're currently miserable, then you're an idiot to not believe in God (think about it). It will be interesting to see him in rehab in future episodes (ONLY on IFC) and if he actually exits his navel long enough to help another alcoholic, to become selfless, and grows enough to be a worker among workers, to genuinely open up to a sponsor, do the 12 steps sans smarminess to learn to be nice to one other person, the way say Don Draper finally learned to do in the final episode of MAD MEN. (See 'Chop wood, carry sponsors.' 

But I bet he won't. Because I don't think he really is an addict as opposed to being one of those jerks (and AA is full of them) who has no will power, and who overdoes everything and rather than trying to practice moderation, decides to quit just to prove he's got it together. And then he blames the jerkiness on not being able to do the drugs. In other words, he blames drugs for his prickly jerkiness, and then blames the lack of drugs for his prickly jerkiness. And in short, he is a prickly jerk either way and it's always the drugs' fault never his. Rather than learn from his mistakes, his weaknesses, he blames everyone/thing else. Sure, it's his character --the show invites us to view him with a certain amount of derision, to profit perhaps by his example. But it also expects us to identify with him to the point we share his Terry Zwigoff-esque alienation from the banal absurdities around him and think, yeah Marc - these people really are fucked up, the social order really is a mess.

Even so... I'm rooting for him to get his head out of his own ass. Maybe even praying for it... but if Maron himself has no higher power, how will that work? Spiritual awakenings are a tough thing to fake.


And then there was DICE!

Back when I was a wobbly little feminist in the 80s-90s I used to hate Andrew Dice Clay the way I hated Adam Sandler, frat boys, sports, snarky teen sex comedies, and half the kids at my very working class Italian-American Jersey High school. Badda Bing! By senior year I'd figured out they were actually cool, it was my sensitive Swedish senses were overwhelmed by their boisterousness--that was the issue. Still, I didn't want to be like them, and hated the perceived misogyny and monosyllabic shop kid goomba-ish Dice and Sandler represented. I became a punk, then I realized all my punk friends were gay or losers and didn't tell me and I became a hippie. Then I thought the hippies were naive and that the Dead sucked and it was the 90s and there I was, amidst the ecstasy and cocktails crowd before they were subsumed by swing dancing and cocaine and Sex in the City.

In short, I've wandered through many camps and hated them all, sooner or later. And now more than all combined do I hate the smarmy bearded hipster co-op 20-somethings of Williamsburg and car commercials; I feel like they're my fault - that wobbly pre-PC feminism I had has come home to roost like a prodigal nightmare. Now I miss the boisterous blue collar energy of my high school. Those kids had balls, earthy joie de vivre. And the kids today do not. Looking back on high school I realize I was the asshole, masking my snobbishness in nerdy introversion. Maron is like that too, and I'd avoid him if I saw him at a party, like he'd cancel me out, like two wrongs making a zero.

But DICE, the Tangiers Las Vegas lion, the Bickle in repose, living with girlfriend Natasha Leggero? Yeah I'll hang out with him. He reminds me of my old pal Johnny. That's a case of a wrong and another kind of a wrong making two rights. Unlike ego-paralyzed Maron, Dice throws himself forward and doesn't back down or overthink things - it's a kind of hangin'-brain style confidence that most guys who get their own 'this is my sadsack life at 40+' shows fail to deliver.

And lord we need it.

I never heard Dice's "hickory dickory dock" era cock-related bro humor, I avoided it as you know now, but I can't imagine it's any more offensive or frat boy-catering than anything else on cable. Sure he's from Brooklyn, but like Robert De Niro in Scorsese movies, he's really a Jew doing an impersonation. To say he is that thing is like saying De Niro actually still has the Lufthansa heist money. I've realized over the years that the loud Italian-American working class kids I didn't like in HS weren't inordinately bad or mean (3) to me; I'd seen way too many movies about kids like me being bullied by kids like them not to be constantly defensive. But now that the whole of American masculinity (4) is all non-smoking gym-going beard-growing, soft effeminate voiced little bitches buying Mitsubishi Gallants on their iPads, their high little voices so geeky and soft like they're fuckin' Mr. Rogers on estrogen, they're what's wrong with this country! The bullies were RIGHT to push them in the mud back in the 80s, man. Badda Bing!

In short, a blight has fallen upon American masculine identity, and the no bullshit laid-back badda badass bing of Dice is needed like King Arthur needs a slug from a grail of 121 proof Booker's before the final battle in EXCALIBUR. Iron John Wild Man-deep, Dice brings a no-toupee faux macho to the table that's way less misogynist-- if you just look under the hood--than the MARON type. Dice grants Leggero as much power and respect as he grants himself; he's never surly with her or trying to hide something except in a kind of roundabout playful rapport. He falls asleep going down on her, obsesses about table cloth fabric for his gay brother-in-law's wedding, and then interrupts the ceremony, not for some homophobe reason, but because the Elvis impersonator conducting the service is a jinx. The couple believe him because everything's been going wrong --they get a Liza impersonator and it all flows smooth from then on. He parties with some group of affluent bachelor party hipsters and gets in a brawl with them when they dis Joan Rivers! He fights for the honor of Joan Rivers! That is so badass. In an effort to be more tender in bed he introduces his Jewish side into his and Leggero's love making (wearing a yarmulke and shyly introducing himself to her by his real name of 'Andrew'). She's frustrated at times with his manly man stuff, but never caries it farther than a scene or two, never bothering with trite cliches like left-up toilet seats and oh I guess work is more important than Jimmy's soccer game and I asked you to do one thing, wear a tie for church, or zzzz. None of that shit, or if it is it's casual bickering stuff rather than the big WASPy life and death squabbles we're used to. "I'm just bustin' your onions," she says giving him shit about his theory of why he's giving cash on her brother-in-law's gay wedding.

Dice just rolls along with it. This is a couple who can bicker and cajole in an easy rhythm, without damaging their relationships or nervous systems or our eardrums. It's refreshing, it fills a real need in the comedy landscape. Did all that negative controversy he generated from shocked women in the 80s-90s soften him up? Is this show his chance to show us 'Andrew?' Or is it me who's hardened? When I was a squeamish feminist in the 1980s the PC movement was still young and vulnerable, but since then it's became all-powerful, dogmatic, I'm still a feminist but I've come to hate academic-PC thug overreach more than I used to hate the other way around. In fact, I've come to believe that Joe McCarthy was right! Commies have been undermining America's educational system since the Cold War! But I know the me of 20 years ago would think I'm just a right wing paranoid nutcase.

I accept the charges, you time machine-travelin' bastard!

Dice tries on a chair

Unlike Maron, Dice doesn't have a drug or depression issue (at least on the show), but he's in the less narcissistic and more good time-oriented Las Vegas. He's not a great fighter, which is fine- you can lose all the fights you want as long as you have courage to throw down! Dice either does drugs or doesn't but never apologizes whines or frets or tries to quit and can't. Courage.

Dice in the end is a MAN. Strutting through Vegas like he's king of the forest; he's what made the hottentots so hot, even if now, eh, they've been hotter. It doesn't matter if the man he is or is playing is "Dice" or not. Courage. He knows everyone by name, from parking attendants to waiters to casino owners, treats them all with first name respect and vice versa. Courage. Sure he leans on his past glory like a crutch, but as he says many times, he was once packing stadiums for tens of thousands at a crack, but is he bitter and kvetching about not being at that level anymore? Not really. The women are safe from him, he's got a lady and his eye doesn't wander. The dudes around him are cool until proven clingy or shady (rather than vice versa). His local legend status is enough for him. Dice is content.

Meanwhile Tin Man Maron is still trying to feed his squeaky wheel ego through that teensy oil can beak, out in the Hungry Ghost "I me Mine I me mine I me mine" L.A. The Woodsman forgot to carve him a heart. That hollow-chested Maron would be considered the liberal cool one and lionhearted Dice the intolerant bully instead of the opposite is endemic of the shallowness of America's post-PC masculinity. And I should know, since I was one of them.

What's Dice got that Maron ain't got?

Tolerance. 

NOTES:
1. And everyone is as famous as they want to imagine (we never know who's reading us or watching us online at any time-- with the cumulative result no one actually needs to for us to feel like we're getting through.
2. . Who was the idiot creative writing teacher who first thought we should always put pet names front and center in short stories? They were an idiot. They always get a big laugh in New Yorker lit readings, but I think it's way too cheap.
3. see my rant against one of them in my Remote in Reach: The WALL
4. remember I'm only talking about trends in masculinity at least on TV and the movies; not real life except as a dim reflection. 

3 comments:

  1. Anonymous14 May, 2016

    This helped me understand Dice a little more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rQugLUPi1ZU

    ReplyDelete
  2. I agree completely. I like Maron's stand up, his memoir, his interviews, but his acting on his own show went to hell when he started trying to play a recovering addict losing his grip. I have always had a soft spot for Dice. His peak was during my divorce, so even though I knew it was an act, it was nice having him as a Sin Eater in my corner. I especially liked the episode with the plaster caster of the phallus, and Wayne Newton teasing Andrew with an empty box, and thinking, "If only Andrew had watched The Lacan Hour, he would know that the phallus is an absence to begin with..."

    ReplyDelete
  3. Amen, Thanks Johnny. That plaster ep was the second ep I saw, kinda accidentally after the one with the Cosmo questionare and glomming of Adrian Brody. I admired that Dice handled himself with such unruffled aplomb no matter what embarrassing indignity or frustration came his way. That you quoted The Lacan Hour made my night. That Wayne Newton empty box was when I knew I liked DICE.

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