Posts Tagged ‘in memoriam’

A Tribute to Leslie Nielsen

One of the painful realizations of my adolescence was that I had my father’s sense of humor. A friend’s parent confirmed it for me when I was about 14, after I made an obvious play on words. I knew from that point on that, down the road, I would be unable to resist easy puns, constant references to hilarious television scenes, and fabricated ancestries for athletes with unusual names.

But if inheriting Dad’s sense of humor was the price for early access to some of his favorite comedies, well, it’s one I’d gladly pay again. Because let me tell you: There weren’t too many other fathers who didn’t balk when their seven-year-old son watched The Simpsons and made sure that by the time he was 11 or 12 had seen Airplane! and The Naked Gun and just about the entire Mel Brooks oeuvre.* Continue reading

A Tribute to Phil Hartman

It was 12 years ago today that Phil Hartman was killed. Even when I was only 11, I recognized the comic genius of Phil Hartman. I remember Hartman as the voice of several of my favorite Simpsons characters, the star of one of my favorite shows growing up in Newsradio, one of the first actors I loved on Saturday Night Live, and of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s neighborly nemesis (the non-Sinbad one) in Jingle All the Way.

Hartman possessed one of the finest voices I’ve ever heard–one that was simultaneously distinct and versatile. Sometimes, unfunny things became funny simply because Phil Hartman knew how to say them.

In memory of Hartman, here’s some of his best clips:

McClure’s Comeback

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The Catcher in the Rye, JD and Me

Long, long ago, when I was deeply enmeshed in the process of college applications, an interviewer from a certain school asked me which book that I had enjoyed the most in high school English. I thought about it for a second, trying to determine which answer would be the most impressive, and eventually just said The Catcher in the Rye. As soon as I said it, the interviewer spat out, “I hated that book.” I didn’t get in to the school.

J.D. Salinger’s classic novel is oddly polarizing. There is, quite famously, a large group of Holden Caulfield devotees. People relate to that character in a way that goes much deeper than most people usually relate to literature; the extent to which Caulfield’s alienation resonates with readers is almost frighteningly tragic.

And yet reactions like the one offered by my interviewer are not uncommon. Some people—a minority, but a surprisingly vocal one—simply do not understand the fuss over Salinger’s most famous work. They find the whole story to be solipsistic and self-indulgent. A high school history teacher of mine once felt the need to declare his hatred of the book without provocation. And his criticism was emblematic of what most of the book’s critics think: “I thought Holden Caulfield was whiny and self-centered. He didn’t remind me of me or anyone I knew.” Continue reading

In Memoriam: David Foster Wallace

DFW 1

 

One year ago today, David Foster Wallace killed himself.

I can remember where I was and how I found out, but not any real emotional impact. I was of course disappointed that a writer I had read and enjoyed was dead, but it was an abstract sense of disappointment; I mainly remember feeling surprised.

Now, however, it doesn’t seem weird or surprising at all: Reading Wallace’s fiction, pretty much any of it, is to become intimately acquainted with a mind that contemplates death and dread and depression on a fairly regular basis. This, of course, is in addition to the public knowledge that Wallace battled depression for twenty years. Wallace was, it turns out, a prime candidate for suicide.

Instead of surprise, I now feel intense and profound sadness about the death of David Foster Wallace, the kind of sadness that borders on anger. Almost every time I read or re-read one of his pieces now, I think about how terrible it is that the mind that wrote these words is no longer with us. I think about how many more years, and consequently how many more books, he should have had. I think about the things he might have written about the world as it has changed just in the last year, and would have written in the coming years. I think about the implications of a man that brilliant being so hopelessly depressed.

The only things that can make us feel so angry and upset, however, are the things that make us proportionally happy. And the truth is that these emotions make up only a small fraction of those I feel while reading Wallace: What I feel most of all is happy.

“Happy” is one of those prosaic and overused words that are hard to properly define, but it seems quintessentially appropriate here. The feeling I have while reading Wallace is akin to that of listening to the climax of your favorite song, or being in the company of a really good friend. It is the feeling of being completely and utterly at peace with the world.

Wallace’s writing is intelligent and complex, and engaging on an intellectual level in a unique way; it is funny and clever and insightful—but all of this was clear to me from reading his first book of essays. What his fiction showed me, though, was a narrative voice that is all of these things, but also transcends them. His writing is not just intended to be funny and smart and insightful, but also to make us happy (in a way that is also funny, smart and insightful). His writing is good because it inspires the morally good, nonhedonistic kind of pleasure (more on this to come).

At the time of his death, I called Wallace my “second favorite living writer.” In hindsight this feels absurd. Not only had I read far too little of his work to make that kind of judgment, but upon reading more I would realize that he is, for me, the best writer who has ever lived. Continue reading