Once Were Worriers: Ben Stiller and Janeane Garofalo in 1999 (via CNN)
Art and Commerce.
The truth about art and commerce is not unlike a certain movie title about cats and dogs: the two don’t always get along. In fact, they rarely ever do. And like animal lovers, sometimes you have to choose which you want in your life more: art or commerce. You can’t have both, unless you want your house torn apart and your life to become a dizzying mess of complications and compromises.
I was reminded of this fact this weekend while reading The New York Times‘ ‘Arts & Leisure’ section, particularly two stories that, while not linked editorially, were nonetheless inverted images of each other. One reflected art (more or less), the other commerce (pretty much intrinsically).
In They’re In on the Joke: Hollywood’s Funniest Clique, Sharon Waxman looks at the growing ‘smart-dumb’ comedy clique comprised (on screen) of Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, and Ben Stiller.
Waxman, fresh off chronicling another group of young Hollywood talents in her recent book Rebels on the Backlot, attempts to build a new mythology around the comic actors who, as she writes:
[A]ppear in one another’s movies, from “Dodgeball” to “Anchorman” to “Elf” to “Zoolander,” creating a wheel-of-comedy effect that can leave viewers wondering just whose movie they’re watching. What’s more, the stars and their representatives live, work and play in a continuum that has virtually shut the studios out of the development process. By coming up with their own concepts, finding screenwriters and then offering the whole package for production – script, director and cast, take it or leave it – this group is reshaping screen humor to their liking.
Clearly it’s paying off. Waxman tells us that the first of those films, Dodgeball, has so far made $114 million. Commerce.
The second article is And Don’t Even Get Her Started on the War, by Paula Span, which looks at the career afterlife of Janeane Garofalo, who just a few years ago was appearing in some of those ‘smart-dumb’ comedies, but lately makes her living as a radio personality on Air America Radio’s The Majority Report.
Far from being the lynchpin in high concept movie pitches, Garofalo, we’re told, was:
Frequently cast as “the sarcastic friend of the lead, someone world-weary and unlucky in love,” she noted dryly, Ms. Garofalo appeared in several dozen movies including “The Truth About Cats and Dogs” and “Reality Bites.” She was a regular on the Emmy-winning “Ben Stiller Show,” did six months on “Saturday Night Live” and several seasons as a sardonic booker on “The Larry Sanders Show.”
A decade or so later, “that started ebbing,” Ms. Garofalo said, sounding unsurprised. “As a female, how many roles are out there anyway? And for women over 40 who don’t go to the gym, like myself? C’mon.” Besides, she pointed out, “I was never a money-maker, as they say.”
Maybe not the path of capital-A ‘art,’ but Garofalo’s certainly blazing a truer trail—truer to herself, truer to her particular talents—than say, Ben Stiller, who’s lately made boatloads of money in films that feature cursing babies and dogs dyed blue by toilet water.
What’s interesting—and what goes completely unremarked upon in either article—is that this wasn’t always so. In fact, at one point Janeane Garofalo seemed to be easing on down the road of commerce while her friend and collaborator Ben Stiller, hard as it seems to believe now, was awkwardly stalking the periphery of something closer to art.
Don’t take my word for it. On December 27, 1997 The New York Times Magazine ran a story by David Handelman called The Ambivalent-About-Prime-Time Players that featured Garofalo, Stiller, and a batch of other un-Caberet an ‘alt-comedy’ types (Andy Dick, David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, Dana Gould, Margaret Cho, Kathy Griffin, and Mary Lynn Rajskub) who were loosely-aligned and, at the time, up-and-coming antidotes to the Friends– and Mad About You-comic sun around which the business revolved.
As the headline’s over-determined allusion to Saturday Night Live‘s early self-designation as ‘The Not Ready for Prime-Time Players’ might suggest, the piece tried to nail a certain comedic sensibility shared by the group, which half-mockingly, half-seriously called itself ‘The Posse.’
The Posse shared a hunger for fame combined with a bone-deep distrust of its trappings and the compromises a comic—at least one who prides him- or herself on not being a hack—has to avoid like so many evil ghosts in the Pacman maze of show business. As Handelman wrote:
Like the characters in [Stiller’s] “Reality Bites,” in which Winona Ryder chooses the poetic searcher (Ethan Hawke) over the yuppie stiff (Stiller), the Posse members obesess about the idea of selling out. Stiller says, “A lot of us got disillusioned with hackdom. I remember when Janeane was starting out, if something killed onstage at the Improv, she would intentionally not do it again. It’s almost like she was going to far the other way, because she didn’t want to be accepted.”
That was when she was “starting out.” As Handelman described Garofalo in 1997, she was trying to bring her sensibility—all that knowing, jaded, anti-charisma charisma she could carry on those slumped shoulders—into the mainstream, while Stiller, who was so burned by the critical and commercial failure of The Cable Guy, was deciding to retrench or retreat.
Reading the following paragraphs in 2005, I had the same sense of overweening dramatic irony I always experience looking at that photo of young Bill Clinton shaking hands with JFK: I know everything that’s gonna happen to these two and they have no idea. Here’s Handelman, doling out some unintentional foreshadowing to this week’s Waxman and Span pieces:
Garofalo’s leg is jittering, and she keeps looking at her watch. She will soon have to bolt to tape an episode of her friend Andy Kindler’s cable show, ‘Pet Shop,’ with her three dogs, and is then flying to Toronto to appear in ‘Dog Park,’ the first film by Bruce McCulloch, of the Canadian comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall. Next she’s off to San Francisco to serve as host for the taping of Comedy Central’s New Year’s Eve benefit (featuring, among others, Cho and Cross).
Stiller is even more overextended. He just finished playing a writer-turned-heroin-addict, Jerry Stahl in the low-budget drama ‘Permanent Midnight,’ in which Garofalo did a cameo… Then he’s appearing in the next movie by the Farrelly brothers, who made the willfully broad ‘Dumb and Dumber.’ It’s an eclectic, eccentric path, and one that he’s able to navigate more easily because he’s not a household name like Billy Crystal or Robin Williams. But he’s still scrounging; he got ‘Permanent Midnight’ only because David Duchovny dropped out.
I think we all know what happened next. That ‘willfully broad’ Farrelly brothers comedy became There’s Something About Mary, which became an international smash hit, netting $369,884,651. Stiller, in turn, became as the cover of last week’s New York Magazine called him, “The world’s most popular comedy dork,” and as it’s inside called him “Billion-Dollar Ben.”
So, what’s the lesson of the ballad of Janeane and Ben? Janeane fought hard against Bush’s reelection and received death threats for her efforts. It stands to be seen if she can regain her film and TV career—or if she even wants to. Ben, on the other hand, lowered his asking price to work in Dodgeball and was richly rewarded for it in both street cred and stacked bread.
Art or commerce. Cats or dogs. You can’t have both. Or can you?
According to The Times, the radio agitpropster “is taking two weeks off next month to shoot an NBC pilot called ‘All In,’ in which she’ll co-star as a professional poker player. If the network picks it up – always an iffy proposition – she’ll do the comedy series in New York while simultaneously being host of ‘The Majority Report.'” A pilot about poker is just the sort of pseudo of-the-moment high concept sitcom pitch that could easily wallow in hackdom. Commerce, writ embarrassingly large, from someone who fought so hard for her credibility that, as some believe, she may have wrecked her career.
While in the billion dollar corner, Stiller is appearing in a Neil LaBute play at The Public Theater and, according to New York, has “been unable to find funding for the film he’d most like to direct: Civilwarland in Bad Decline, a theme-park fantasy from short-fiction master George Saunders. ‘It’s not a mainstream movie, but it’s funny and moving,’ he says. ‘That’s really where I want to spend [my capital]. You have to balance things, and sometimes it’s gotten out of balance a little bit.'” Sounds like the kind of thing lazy critics and marketing people describe as “art-house.” Art, from the man who brought us cinema’s first zipper snagged scrotum. (The article also mentions the long aborning What Makes Sammy Run adaptation, something Stiller was talking to Handelman about eight years ago.)
And so the battle between art and commerce continues. Our hard-earned dollars the spoils. Whoever wins, the movie-going public will probably lose in $10 increments.