Two obits in a row? Seems like bad programming, but this time it was someone I knew. And if less related to musical theatre per se, you know I’ll figure out some way of tying it in.
Winner of the 2011 Thurber Prize for American Humor, David Rakoff (a Canadian) was the first contemporary of mine to get cancer. He was about 20 years old; it was Hodgkin’s. And now he’s the first of my contemporaries to die from cancer. God, that sounded spooky, like I’m expressing some psychic premonition of upcoming tragedies. I need a joke here to deflate the tension. Which is exactly what David would come up with in this situation.
The revue we worked on together was credited to four writers, not him, but he co-wrote two sketches he had a major role in. One was called The Laurie Anderson Christmas Special and indeed David played Laurie. I wouldn’t call this drag: David didn’t put on women’s clothing because Anderson didn’t put on women’s clothing. Martian attire, sure, but no women’s clothing.
This sketch was, by some stretch, the strangest thing ever to appear in any of the shows I’ve written songs for. David sat in yoga position in a high chair. Beneath him were his two androgynous children: of vastly different heights, they nevertheless spoke in unison. Then, as if he were Merv Griffin, he introduced a series of famous Barnard alumnae: Erica Jong, Joan Rivers, Reagan bulldog Jeane Kirkpatrick, etc. Towards the end, he looked like a wind-up doll at the end of its wind, slumped over, and then slowly began Anderson’s signature rhythmic panting. This was so weird, you could hear a pin drop – until the audience recognized they were hearing an exquisitely odd rendition of Jingle Bells and laughter peeled. As I’m describing this, I realize it sounds more outré than humorous, but David’s blithe precision made it sublimely weird, hysterical.
The script that I have of this show is a transcription of an audio cassette. Before the sketch, there’s a “transcriber’s note” –
It is as difficult to describe David Rakoff’s impersonation of Laurie Anderson as it is to describe the performance artist herself. Every line is delivered with a wild and seemingly inappropriate arm gesture. The voice changes pitches quite often, and unexpectedly. The posture of sitting in a chair is varied and abnormal. The manic smile is fairly constant.
In the other sketch, David was an entrepreneur, effusively describing his invention, MTV Cliff Notes. While more conventional than Laurie Anderson’s Christmas Special, in a huge scene with tons of characters, you wouldn’t expect someone who’s essentially a narrator to steal the scene. But that’s what happened. David donned the enthusiasm of a Project Runway contestant, long before there were “reality” competitions on TV.
We lost touch after college, but “what happened with David” as narrated by the man himself became his calling, his brilliant career. Like David Sedaris, to whom he bore certain similarities and crossed paths with many times, he was a master of the autobiographical essay. He only lived to age 47, and there was much time spent fighting cancer, but reading him you find yourself envying the notion that he lived in such a funny world.
But I come not to bury David Rakoff, nor to praise him, but to puzzle out what of his life and work might apply to this business of musical comedy creation.
- Embrace the insane. Once, a collaborator of mine told me he was going to have all the characters free from our titular locale by having someone yell “The marshmallow fluff machine has gone kerflooey. It’s spilling out everywhere. Run for your lives!” To which I could have said “That’s utterly crazy. We can’t do that!” Instead, in a moment of confidence that be termed Rakoffian, I said it sounded pretty funny. Our audience agreed.
- Nothing is more natural than amusing others by describing things that actually happened to you. Cavemen did it. Also, your chatty aunt. It might be said David was a professional raconteur. His pieces on NPR’s This American Life had listeners rolling around on the floor, laughing. (Just realized that everything I know about working on a kibbutz, I know from David’s memoir of his experience. And I hear his voice in my head.) In Our Wedding, the Musical, I packed tons of personal history into the songs, There Ought To Be a Song and There. I must admit I’ve heard plenty of dull autobiographical numbers by singer-songwriters who are too focused on recalling their feelings, rather than depicting events. It’s more important to be amusing than accurate.
- Ironic detachment must be handled carefully. When you listen to Rakoff read, there’s a sense of rueful melancholy, as if he really didn’t enjoy the experiences he’s detailing. Somehow, you never tire of listening to him, because he’s invested in the telling of the tale. It’s as if he’s asserting “This awful thing I went through will definitely be interesting to hear about.” This was a comedian who could be very funny about his battles with cancer.
Finding the right tone is key. One musical a lot of people love but I can barely abide is Urinetown. It spoofs Brecht – a sardonic polemicist who loved American musicals – by adopting the attitude that musicals are stupid. While some of its songs impress as sophisticated Brecht & Weill or Eisler pastiche, there’s something self-defeating about writing a musical that continually derides the genre. Contrast The Drowsy Chaperone, which literally says, time and time again, that 1920s musicals were wonderful in many ways. It accentuates the positive, which is appealing. The show-within-the-show is entirely awful. Intentionally, none of the songs are any good. We listen, a little appalled, very much looking forward to what the fey fan-of-old-musicals will say about them. He comes to praise.
Sometimes, I suspect I’ve readers out there who think I’m a bit like Drowsy‘s lonely aficionado. But I don’t just love old musicals. I enjoy a really funny essay every now and then, like the outrageous output of David Rakoff. (Phew. Didn’t think I’d be able to tie this back to him for a moment there.)
Perhaps he’ll make a duct-tape wallet for God.