[this post first appeared in Medium.]
A friend told me about seeing a freshman on a university campus in the UK. The kid was clearly in agony. And it was easy to see why. He had made a terrible fashion choice for his first day.
Over the course of his first hour on campus, this truth began to dawn. His choice was appallingly bad. Everybody thought so. He could tell.
The kid was now trying to keep his composure until he could get back to his room. He wanted to run, but a gentleman never bows before the ridicule of others. He holds his sangfroid. Otherwise, everything is lost.
It was, my friend said, going to be a close call. Would this young man make it back to his room before his nerve failed? Or would he break into a run?
Fred Armisen, the musician and satirist famous for his work on SNL and Portlandia, would love this dilemma, this struggle for aplomb in the face of self-reproach. But then Fred Armisen is, like, so mean. He helps himself to the human comedy with no trace of empathy or compassion. Our discomfort is his opportunity.
Take Globesmen, the mockumentary about door to door salesmen that Armisen did for his IFC series Documentary Now. Globesmen is about guys trudging suburban streets trying to sell something no one much cares about on the dubious claim that a good globe (or even one from Amalgamated Globe) will make your kids as cosmopolitan as a jetsetter and your living room glow with sophistication.
Globesmen is a world of cheap suits, crummy motels, bald faced lies, and an endless stream of indignities inflicted by indifferent heads of household, rock-throwing kids, and fire-breathing managers, the last actually threatening physical violence. Being a door-to-door salesman in this period was better the bagging groceries…but not by much. You got to wear a suit and carry a briefcase. Just about everything else about this job was designed as if to humiliate you.
Armisen loves these humiliations. He documents and savors them in Globesmen. You have to be cold hearted to watch this kind of thing. But to make it? You can’t have any heart at all.
But his heartlessness is also fearlessness. Armisen can take on anyone. He even takes on cool people. This is unheard of. Everyone knows that cool kids are above reproach. We learned this lesson in high school and we have lived its truth every day since. The cool kids stand above us in the social scheme of things. It is for them to judge us. It is not for us to judge them.
Which brings us to Portlandia, Armisen’s long running series on IFC. Portlandia looks at bike messengers, locavore chefs, book store owners, and other “hipsters” sworn to keep Portland weird.
For satirists like Armisen and his comrade in arms, Carrie Brownstein, Portland is what you might call a “target-rich environment.” Over 6 seasons, Armisen and Brownstein set to work. It’s not a pretty portrait. Take their running treatment of two women who run a bookstore charmingly named Women and Women First. The sketches open with Candace and Toni chatting behind the cash register. Candace (Fred’s character) usually says something that is vertiginously untrue. (“All of your nerve endings are in your fingertips.”) But the skits don’t really get going until Candace and Toni take umbrage. Eventually we understand that this is what the store is for. It brings them things to loathe.
In one sketch, Steve Buscemi plays a man who enters the bookstore not to buy a book but to use the bathroom. And this is so very wrong. The bathroom is clearly reserved for customers only. Candace and Toni now have him. He must pay for his error with a purchase. But he may not make a purchase because he is not worthy of any book or pamphlet in the store. So he can’t stay, but he can’t actually leave.
There are many other wonderful moments here. Candace asks an air conditioner repair man to make a contribution to the store “tip jar” so that there will be enough money there to pay him for the work he is doing. This makes perfect sense to Candace and Toni. And one of the targets of this satire is the hermetically sealed logic of Women and Women First. This is a world with its own cultural properties, so to speak. Language and logic work differently here. Candace and Toni have seen to that.
Surely, it’s not for us, craven members of the bourgeoisie, to take issue with any of this. Candace and Toni are way out there on the diffusion curve. They are the first to pull away from the gravitation of the moment. They are the first to see the future. We don’t have any standing here, as the courts like to say. We don’t have any credibility. We are creatures of the mainstream, the middle class and the moment, thoughtlessly captive of the conventions Candace and Toni fight at Women and Women First.
Armisen does take issue. He holds this up for ridicule. He dares to examine the absurdities and contractions lurking at Women and Women First. He reveals Portlandia to be a place that practices a vigilance that beggars NSA snooping, and wields powers of reproach of which the colonial Protestant church would heartily approve. (It turns out we want a guy like Fred on that wall. We need a guy like Fred on that wall.) Armisen protects us from zealots.
But there is still a problem here. Armisen doesn’t show any more compassion or empathy for Candace and Toni than he did for the globesmen. And empathy is clearly called for. It’s not much fun being Candace and Toni. Being hyper vigilant is intellectually difficult and emotionally taxing. It complicates both your personal life and your social life. It is demonstrably true (by which I mean, anthropologically verifiable) that sexism is deeply, often imperceptibly, embedded in our culture. Only acts of real determination can dig it out. So we need people like Candace and Toni. They are not shock troops at all but social reformers of the Jane Addams order, people who exert themselves to create the world without which we would, most of us, be miserable.
What Armisen’s ridicule misses are the unavoidable costs borne by some of the people rebuilding American culture. Self-righteousness is the secret of self-protection.
Armisen doesn’t care. No one is safe around this guy. He takes advantage of pathetic and the sad. He ridicules the keepers of our ridicule. Cool or cruelly put upon, Fred holds us all up for derision. No one can avoid this dark satiric mill.
Photo credit: “Fred Armisen at 2014 Imagen Foundation Award” by (and with thanks to) Richard Sandoval. Used according to CC BY-SA 2.0. https://www.flickr.com/photos/hispaniclifestyle/14810641332/
Post script: Thanks to Hargurchet Bhabra for sharing the story with which this post opens.