Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Cool is to Funny as Oil is to Water

Over the weekend, I attended this Street & Studio exhibition at Tate Modern with some friends. I thought it was great fun, though I did get in free thanks to said friends having membership so I suppose that helped. However a curious thing occurred upon our exit - everyone else in my little group mentioned that, while an enjoyable exhibit, it was striking how little connection there seemed to be between any of the photos on display. There was no central motif here and this a bit of a flaw for a major exhibition. I was then hit with a freight train of depressing reality when I realized that in my simple, and clearly un-cultured mind, I was content with the theme simply being a bunch of cool photos from over the years taken in streets and studios. Essentially, the theme was “cool” itself, and that was just fine by me. Perhaps I’ve suffered through so many “cool” exhibitions/installations/openings/performances in hipster heaven Hoxton that I simply expect the theme to always be “cool”, even though few ever achieve this.

Amongst all the black and white cool, I came across the work of this woman, Laurie Anderson:

She’s better known as a performance artist and sometime-singer, though for this event she was in photographer mode. Back in 1973 she took a selection of photos of all the men who 'harrassed' her on the street over the course of a given day. Every time a male made a sexually suggestive remark to her (which was unbelievably frequent), she snapped their picture. It's supposed to be about empowerment, taking control back from the oppressive man, assaulting men with her camera just as they had collectively assaulted her with their lascivious words. Or whatever. Feminists loved this, she was a hero helping to take back the streets. Even now there’s a whole new generation of activist women who’ve taken this work to heart and have given it a modern twist it with the help of camera phones. They surreptitiously prowl construction sites, until finally some bored, under-paid builder half-heartedly bellows, “Hey baby, how 'bout it?” or something to that effect, whereupon they can whip out their Razr and snap infinite pictures of the offender while screaming about no meaning no and the implied patriarchy and offense of such degrading remarks. Then they probably upload these photos to a Flickr stream of similar “creeps” and feel great pride when a fellow power-taker-backer comments under the photo that by taking and posting this picture they’ve effectively, “taken one more much-needed step in the fight against male tyranny the world over. Perhaps a woman won’t get raped tonight because of this picture.”.
It’s these women that destroy feminism for the rest of us, by the way.

ANYWAYS, turns out this woman, Laurie Anderson, is married to Lou Reed. At first I figured they’d been together for decades; I imagined them having met in the wild bacchanalia of the 70’s at some underground club in deepest Manhattan - her, nude and painting herself the colours of female empowerment, him, strumming one note on his guitar behind a droning Nico. But no. They married last year. From what I can gather (and granted, I could be wrong) they’ve only been together, in some capacity, since the early 90’s. By that point these crazy cats were in their late 40’s, when they should’ve been heading towards crisis city in Mid-Life town. This is when Lou should’ve been banging some Spanish chanteuse under the guise of producing her debut gypsy-punk album. But instead, he was still lusting after the same old performance-artist-Factory-type he did in his 20’s. It’s almost impressive how little his tastes have changed. He still wants the overtly serious girl who spends her days quoting Da-da artists and constructing installation pieces out of cellophane and used tampons. Leopards never change their spots I suppose. He just wants the theme of his life, much like that of the photography exhibition, to be “cool” - and I guess he’s succeeding.

This got me wondering about the theme of my life, and whatever it is, I don’t think it’s cool. It can’t be cool, because I’m too concerned with being funny and this reminded me of a theory of mine I’ve been meaning to discuss - that one can’t be genuinely cool and genuinely funny simultaneously. You can be one or the other, but cool and funny do not go hand in hand.

Now before everyone goes ape-shit about how cool AND funny all the people they know are, bear in mind that in this case I’m dealing in rather strict definitions of cool and funny. When I say “cool” I don’t mean how your friends are all totally cool or how the new jeans you got yesterday are cool or how the Olympics were cool. Nor am I talking about ironic cool such as, “Phil Collins was cool man!” *. I’m talking about the basic and strongest, yet perhaps most abstract, meaning of cool. And also the most mainstream meaning. Jack Nicholson is cool. Vincent Gallo is cool. Fight Club is cool. The Strokes are cool. You may hate all these things, but that’s beside the point. The theme unifying all of them is an undeniable and over-lying impression of cool. Whatever you may think about Bret Easton Ellis, there’s something achingly cool about his books. Though he may be perhaps over-rated, one would be hard-pressed to deny that Andy Warhol was cool. Some of these things/people are somewhat contrived cool, I’ll admit. Wearing too-small blazers and tight jeans with converse, for instance, was bound to look cool on The Strokes you might say; but The Vines did that as well, and they were most certainly not cool.
Cool at this level is unexplainable, indefinable. Some might say its a carefree reckless attitude, others could contend it’s a level of confidence, and it could easily be argued that it’s purely aesthetic. Which, in the case of several bands, might actually be the case.
But one aspect all these havens of coolness have in common, is that none of them are really very funny. Nicholson may make lewd asides in interviews, raise his eyebrows, grin and get a chuckle. Vincent Gallo will project obtusely Republican and outwardly racist viewpoints and hip kids will knowingly laugh. But these people/bands/books/movements etc. are not exactly barrels of laughter.

Conversely, truly funny people are never cool on that level. Yet again, when I say funny I mean people who are actively making an effort to be very funny and are succeeding in doing so. I don’t mean how Arnie is funny in Batman and Robin, or how the Miss Teen USA girl can barely string a sentence together or that time your friend fell out of a tree and it was HILARIOUS. I mean epic funny, people whose careers are based almost entirely on being defiantly funny. Unusual and quirky, yet mainstream enough to attract millions. Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Woody Allen, Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, Billy Connelly, et al. – not a cool one among ‘em. Love them or hate them, they ain’t cool. Of course you may personally find a funny person cool - but in the general societal terms of cool as previously defined, none of these guys have it. And interestingly, the closer someone gets to cool, the less truly funny they become.
Consider Bill Hicks – one of history’s greatest stand-ups, a true rebel and probably as close as a comedian has ever come to being considered genuinely cool. Yet, he’s not in the same funny league as the aforementioned comedians. Audiences of his didn’t spend their time in uproarious laughter, it was more a smug, knowing chuckle. He wasn’t going for the big laughs, he was challenging people, making them think a little harder than usual; sure it was all said with great humour, but it wasn’t gut-bustingly funny. He was more cool by making cutting observations and criticising The Man, but it wasn’t about being hilarious; it was almost depressingly funny. Some might argue this was better, he was making a real point. And he was cool while doing it. Dennis Leary then came along, took the same routines and made them more laugh-out-loud funny, and as a result, became less cool. It all adds up, people.

Also, it’s worth nothing that people can lose their cool far easier then they can lose their funny. Richard Pryor was funny ‘til the day he died, even multiple sclerosis and setting himself alight didn't stop him cracking jokes; meanwhile, John Cusack couldn’t hold on to his cool status for more than about 3 years in the late 90’s. It seems clear which virtue has more lasting benefits. That is the nature of cool, it’s very much of it’s time, hence why it seems such a feat when someone or something manages to retain coolness for any sustained period.
Lou Reed, however, has personified an untouchable aura of cool for 40 years. He even survived this. But he knows that things are getting testy now. He doesn’t do much press these days, his albums are produced and released to the public without much fanfare. He figures if he just keeps his head down and doesn’t fuck up he can ride out these last 20 years or so without compromising his cool. Then he can die with his coolness intact, something not many people have achieved. He hasn’t much competition at this point either – Keith Richards was cool, until he started falling out of coconut trees and hanging around Johnny Depp. John Lydon lost every ounce of cool when he got involved with reality TV. Even Bowie’s been involved in way too many sub-par films, and released too many turgid albums, not to mention his Parkinson appearances, to still be considered cool. Lou Reed can really make it. He’s even married this performance artist idiot** to complete the package, you can’t find a chink in his armour of cool.

Of course, the downside of being so innately cool is that one inevitably has to be a bit of a dick. You may have noticed this – most truly cool people are kind of assholes. One has to be; it’s time-consuming being that effortless all the time; one must prioritise one’s time, sacrifices must be made and common courtesy is often the first to the gauntlet. Small price to pay for a lifetime of getting away with wearing sunglasses indoors.
Likewise, don’t think the truly funny are getting away scot-free in this equation either, this too is a life wrought with sacrifice. The most common issue with these guys is the Sad Clown Syndrome, suffered by several truly funny people. This usually manifests itself in a recurring midnight frenzy of crippling self-doubt and harrowing re-assessment of one’s ever-dwindling worth, all of which is more often than not accompanied by copious amounts of drugs and/or alcohol in the vain hope that a narcotic haze will have formed by the morning, thus erasing all memory of the anguishing self-realization. This is why truly funny people are often single, and maintain an essentially nihilistic and bitter view of the world.

Of course, you needn’t worry too much about the thorns of either of these personality roses. The vast majority of people are neither cool nor funny, so it rarely bears any meaning to most people’s lives, including yours. But for those in these upper echelons of humour and hipness, life can be an uphill battle living up to expectations.
So when Eddie Murphy releases Norbit 2 or Harmony Korine makes a movie for Fox, don’t be so quick to say how they’ve lost their edge or sold out, just feel pity for them - they just couldn't keep it up. And take comfort in the fact that you are neither cool, nor funny – it’s an easy life being average! Meanwhile, let’s all keep a collective eye on Lou Reed, he’s got a long road ahead…

*Though Sussudio is, in fact, cool.

**I am being a little cruel about this woman to be honest, yes she does come across as a pretentious moron who hasn’t laughed at anything (except George Bush, ironically) since 1978, but she also helped construct this Talking Stick mechanism which does seem pretty nifty. So maybe I can cut her a break.

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