I keep a mental list called “See Them Before One of Us Dies.” Fats Domino was on it, and I saw the shy performer at the Jazz Fest in ’97. He’s still alive (and kickin’). Christopher Plummer, “Barrymore” in Chicago, ’97. Bob Dylan, Jazz Fest, ‘06. Tim Conway and Harvey Korman, Bass Concert Hall, Austin, ’07. RIP, Harvey.
And last night, Carol Burnett. She’s currently touring a one-woman show called “Laughter and Reflections with Carol Burnett.” (I can’t find a link to a tour schedule that seems official.) Her two performances at the Paramount Theater were the hottest ticket in Austin this weekend. The performance interweaves video clips from the show with questions from the audience. The format puts Burnett at her improvisational best – she can make a question seem funny merely by repeating it.
“I grew up watching your show” – many of the questions last night began with some variant of the phrase. This is my cohort: I grew up watching her show. These audience members gushed a bit, stumbling to explain the show’s place in their life. I did not ask a question at the performance, but I will stumble into one aspect of this topic here. Last night, I realized that Carol Burnett, for better or worse, was my initiation into parody.
Like many of the questioners, I went far down the backwards of time last night. Always the questioner had a companion: I watched you with my mother, I watched you with my sister. I watched The Carol Burnett Show with my brother, often with a babysitter in the house because the Parental Units were out. (A little anachronism there: we wouldn’t call them Parental Units until the advent of SNL’s Coneheads in the late ’70.) We hated the musical numbers, loved the sketches.
I don’t know what it is about Burnett, Korman, Conway, and Lawrence. I remember how we would re-perform the sketches, improvising on the cast’s improvisation. We talked in Mr. Tudball’s voice. We yelled “Whuuut?” like Eunice. We would greet each other with a loud “Hi PAAAAAAT-sy,” from a sketch in which Burnett plays a lonely, loopy girl who thinks a lighthouse is talking to her. We didn’t know that it was a spoof of the Bette Davis film A Stolen Life.
Merely recalling some of the visual or auditory images makes me tear up with incipient laughter: Ms. Hwiggins’ walk; Mr. Tudball’s voice; Korman’s face, a parody in itself, at the moment before he kisses Burnett in some overwrought state; Lawrence’s absurdly on-point voice as Mama; deep philosophical questions such as “In Monopoly, can you buy a house when it’s not your turn?” Burnett as Scarlett in “Went With the Wind,” entering grandly with a drape rod across her shoulders.
I giggle to think of it now; last night, I was laughing to tears most of the time. One of the video clips was a medley of their film parodies – of the films my parents’ generation grew up watching. There I was cracking up, when suddenly I remembered a common diss the Boomers used to lob at my Gen X cohort back in the ‘90s: all we could do was parody.
This seemed unfair. Every Gen-Xer I know is capable of deep seriousness. In fact, to me, Boomers always seemed unable to be serious about anything other than their own self-images. The stuff we’re serious about didn’t even turn up on the Boomer map of Reality, but we did and still do have a habit of parodying their sacred cows, and much else.
In fact, as I watched the film-spoof-medley clip last night, I recognized all of the films. When I was a kid, I didn’t know these movies. I saw the Burnett spoofs first. Come to think of it, in every case, I also saw Mel Brooks’ spoofs before I saw the things themselves. At first, I thought that ignorance of the originals impaired my childhood appreciation. Then again, maybe not.
What does it do when one’s viewing of anything – whole genres of film, say – occurs through the lens of the parody? It’s one aesthetic trajectory to take the original seriously, and then have a parody change your perspective on it. It’s quite another to experience the parody first. Then, on first viewing, the originals don’t seem original at all. Their conventions come glaring into the foreground, and a naïve identification with the characters short-circuited.
About twelve years ago, an old movie house on Canal Street in New Orleans showed the newly-restored Gone with the Wind. I attended with my mother, sister, and sister’s girlfriend. I don’t recall if we schlepped all the grandmothers along. Now Mom had seen GWTW a million times before; I had seen it several times, countable on one hand; and my sister had never seen it. After the show, Mom complained to me that she could hear my sister and her friend giggling. Not that they were disturbing her own viewing. Mom was offended at their emotion, not at their noise. GWTW was serious stuff, not to be laughed at.
I told Mom that I had been counting the number of times Scarlett slapped somebody. Four. Now I knew. In the drape-dress scene – how could I not? – I saw Scarlett with the rod across her shoulders.
Does this mean that the parodic mind renders me, and my cohort, incapable of seriousness?
No. When I watch GWTW, I don’t see the world through the eyes of those characters. So it is not their world I fail to take seriously. Instead, I see them posturing themselves and everything else into a particular kind of existence. I also see a set of film conventions trying to foist a morally irresponsible nostalgia on me. Slavery isn’t funny. The Civil War isn’t funny. The depictions of Mammy and Prissy aren’t funny. But that’s not what I’m laughing at. That a lot of people in the mid-20th Century would take all this so seriously isn’t funny.
The drape rod is funny. The Burnett gang’s unrelenting send-ups of pretense were funny. Still are.
Those of us who literally went through childhood with Burnett’s show (and then through early adolescence with the first five years of SNL) received a great boon of temporal redux and parody. Burnett comes from the generation just after WWII and just before the Boomers. Like hers, my Gen-X is a tiny demographic slice between the huge bulges of the Boomers and their kids. We live in cultural worlds that these larger generations dominate, and we see their blind spots. It’s a commonplace that a given age can’t see its own convention, while a later age does. Thus do forgeries succeed in their own time and succumb to discovery later. Someone in a cultural interstitial generation experiences the present as if it were another time. After all, it’s never my time. Spoof goes with our temporal territory.
Parody and spoof raise the legitimate and quite serious question whether a given self or understanding of the world is grounded in reality. Or not. “Those who inflate themselves are cursed, when pricked with a small pin, to burst,” wrote Nietzsche (Walter Kaufmann’s translation). It would be an impoverished mind that could take nothing seriously. But my refusal to take you as seriously as you take yourself does not imply that I take nothing seriously. (Unless you are everything.) Nor are seriousness and authenticity identical.
Burnett closed the show with another video medley, of her final washer-woman performance of her farewell song, as a frame for herself with so many co-stars and friends. Today, one notices how many of them are gone.
So bless the small pins of the world. Bless Carol Burnett, one of the best of them in our lifetimes. I’m so glad we had this time together.