Friday, September 27, 2013

Jay Lynch: "Hippies just didn't seem to grasp satire"

Jay Lynch, "Divorce Court," Midwest Magazine (~1970).
In '67, Skip Williamson and I started an underground humor mag called the Chicago Mirror. By the third issue of the Mirror, we were getting a little bit discouraged, though. It seemed that the hippies just didn't seem to grasp the concepts of satire. This was driven home to me one day when I was selling copies of the Mirror on the streets of Chicago's sixties hippie neighborhood known as Old Town. 
At this time, the press had been reporting that some hippies had been drying and curing banana skins to smoke for a legal high. In the Mirror we ran a piece satirically stating that smoking dog poop would provide an excellent psychedelic experience. We went on to say that the best variety of dog poop was something called "Lincoln Park Brown," and we gave tongue-in-cheek instructions for preparing the poop for smoking. We said that the new breed of dog-poop smokers were known as "shit heads." Get it? "Pot heads"? "Shit heads"? It's satire, right? But then when I was selling the mag on the street, this hippie came up to me and said, "Hey, man! Thanks for the tip on how to cure dog poop! We've been smoking it all week, and it's groovy!" I tried to explain to the kid that it was satire and that he shouldn't really be smoking dog poop, but he wouldn't listen. Apparently he was too blissed out of his mind on the nitrogen content of dog feces to grasp my explanation.
- Jay Lynch, "Introduction," eds. James Danky and Denis Kitchen, Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix (New York: Abrams ComicArts, 2009).

Saturday, September 14, 2013


The Simpsons enters its 25th season this month, putting it eight seasons ahead of Real World/Road Rules Challenge as the longest-running primetime television series in US history.  As that closest contender may suggest, genius is not necessarily coextensive with longevity, and yet when it comes to the endlessly lucrative brainchild of Matt Groening - to whom, along with Aaron Spelling and the NFL, the Fox Broadcasting Company owes its rise to the majors in the 90s - no critical approbation is spared.  Both Empire and Time ranked it the greatest TV show of all time, and it's so far roped in 27 Emmys, 13 in the last 13 years, during which consensus has observed an overall decline in quality.

It is, in other words, quite uncontroversially an essential component of any media nerd's viewing repertoire, and until now a glaring gap in mine.  Anyone with the misfortune of making small talk with me about over the past few months has probably heard at least twice that when I was a child, my parents, citing the wisdom of one or two cultural critics of note - Barbara Bush, perhaps? - no doubt, forbade me from watching The Simpsons, even as my peers watched and quoted it prodigiously.  It was primetime television, you see, and therefore under their jurisdiction as grand arbiters of our rayon tube Mitsubishi and the household more generally.  But they were early risers, and once they turned it at 9:30 sharp every Wednesday, I'd sneak out quietly a half hour later to taste the forbidden cable fruits of South Park, which was, all things considered, probably the more foul source of mental contamination in the pantheon of civilization-destroying animation.

What developed was a near religious devotion to the series.  I quoted it at length during lunchtime and my socializing favored other young men who found themselves doing the same.  As popular film and television criticism entered my reading diet and gave shape to emerging critical faculties, South Park became a favored object for defending a tenet I developed early and have held steadfastly ever since: the idea that absolutely anything can, and should, be funny.  I became a vocal champion of its particular mix of the sublime and the ridiculous, insisting that to dismiss the series for its bathroom humor and inevitable appeal to the Bugle Boy set would be to ignore searingly intelligent social satire.  According to this argument - one I'd happily advance today, with some qualifications - the farts weren't incidental to the parody, they were its strongest line of defense, warding the prudes away from the TV not unlike Tarkovsky claimed his slow beginnings scared the philistines out of the arthouse.

Part of this devotion was imagining my beloved show in competition with its closest kin, the way superhero universes are pitted against each other, and hence the undeservedly low regard in which I held The Simpsons.  Yes, it's funny and clever, I reasoned, but if it's tame enough for primetime, what's the point?  How fatally could it really mark its targets?  Mostly, it was a sort of contrarian move against my counterparts in The Simpsons camp, who charged South Park with riding the coattails of the former's innovations - a charge to which the latter pleas wholly guilty in sixth season classic "Simpsons Already Did It" (pictured below): as supervillain alter-ego Professor Chaos, Butters' would-be dastardly schemes are repeatedly revealed to have happened already on The Simpsons.  In all honesty, though, I was speaking in ignorance, as I had seen maybe a season's worth of The Simpsons in my entire life.  Now that I'm working to correct this egregious oversight, I can finally appreciate how ridiculous that dismissal really was.

More to come.