You remember the two look-alike protagonists in A Tale of Two Cities, right? There's Sydney Carton, the misanthropic, dissipated, cynical drunk and nihilist who eventually transmutes his world-hating self-destructiveness into a final fatal act of nobility by substituting himself on the guillotine for his healthy hail-fellow look-alike with those unforgettable words, "It's a far, far better thing that I do. ..."
But who was that other guy, the superbland fellow whose place Sydney Carton takes on the chopping block? Quick, remember his name?
It took me six hours or so to remember. I asked several friends, and they also came up blank. In part it's because, shamefully, soi-disant literary sophisticates rarely read the quite amazing Tale of Two Cities anymore, probably because they had it ruined for them by high-school teachers, or perhaps because, having seen it first through immature high-school eyes, they look down on it, thereby leaving a terrible gap in their literary experience.
In any case, his name, the name of the fellow forgotten in favor of Sydney Carton, is Charles Darnay. Described by Dickens as someone who prospered due to "great perseverance and untiring industry." What a bore!
No wonder we prefer the literary company—and remember the name—of doomed Sydney Carton, the depressive, despondent, romantic road-to-ruin guy who asks the boring Darnay what he thinks of "this terrestrial scheme" and then explains that "the greatest desire I have is to forget that I belong to it." The whole "terrestrial scheme"!
I was thinking about the two Dickens characters as I was preparing to see Jerry Seinfeld's massively hyped new animated film, Bee Movie, and comparing my loathing for everything Seinfeldian—Seinfeld the show, Seinfeld the world's worst stand-up comic, Seinfeldian "observational humor" in general, the Seinfeldian blanding-out of American comedy and culture, even the ridiculous Seinfeld Porsche collection—with the experience of seeing a far, far better comedian a few weeks ago.
A far, far lesser-known comic, the corruscatingly obscene, vicious, bitter, self-loathing, world-hating Rick Shapiro. While Seinfeld spends his billions buying up Porsches and producing insipid children's movies that are childish rather than childlike (more on Bee Movie anon), Rick Shapiro was killing (as they say) in a half-filled comedy club called the Cutting Room in Manhattan before heading off to a prestigious series of gigs in, yes, Alaska. Frozen out of the big-money, big-time, big-name recognition game.
Shapiro's an underground legend among comedy aficionados, a man who's never—except as a minor character in a failed HBO sitcom (Lucky Louie)—made it onto national TV. And probably never will. He's just far, far too obscene and extreme.
Well, you say, there's a lot of obscene stuff on HBO and the like these days. True, and I'm someone who isn't easily shocked by that kind of thing, but when I first saw Shapiro back in 2001 or 2002 in a club on the Lower East Side, he had me reeling with shock, awe, and convulsive laughter.
I thought, Oh my God, this guy has reinvented obscenity. He'd taken it to new heights (or depths), broken through to a new dimension of filthiness, where it was suddenly, searingly, snarlingly fresh again. I can't hope to reproduce it verbatim. So, I suggest you go now to his MySpace page and sample some of the clips.
Are you back? Are you OK? Do you see what I mean? Part of what gives Shapiro his obscene authenticity is that it's not just coming out of his head, it's coming out of his hide. It's coming out of his uniquely obscene background, the years he put in as a junkie who traded sex for heroin on the streets of the pre-yuppified Manhattan's hooker 'hoods.
(Jerry Seinfeld grew up on the mean streets of suburban Massapequa, Long Island, and—I say this as a Long Islander myself—it shows. Even his fake Upper West Side was second-rate suburbia. Shapiro started out in suburbia, too, but he left the hive, you might say, in a way Seinfeld never did. And wherever you start from, if you end up "sucking cocks for smack," as Shapiro likes to put it, you really can't go home again.)
Although Shapiro has occasionally seemed on the verge of breaking out of the comedy club ghetto, something always went wrong in a Sydney Cartonish way. He's become a cult figure on YouTube, but it's unlikely he'll get the grail of most comics, the sitcom—and if he did, he wouldn't be Rick Shapiro anymore. Though being Rick Shapiro seems like a tough gig. The guy is angry at everything. Really, really angry. Contemptuous, disgusted, with all of us, in a Swiftian scatological way. (Maybe it's the ex-junkie moralist in him.)
So, maybe I should issue a disclaimer about those MySpace clips: I'm not endorsing or identifying with the politically, sexually, morally incorrect, and offensive sentiments you might find there. I'm angry, at times, yeah. But not that angry.
Shapiro's riffs are not only NSFW, they're NSFL—Not Safe For Life. They're unhealthy and often deeply disturbing. They're not about Seinfeld's quotidian "nothing," they're about a profound, nihilistic Nothingness. Hilarious, yes, exhilarating to hear someone say such uncompromisingly ugly truths, but it's a bitter brew: He makes the legendary Lenny Bruce sound as bland as Seinfeld the billionaire bore.