Mr. Show: The Tragedy

So for my first “real” post, I’m taking a cue from my friend Marty… but before I go on, I must acknowledge that Marty is one of the funniest people I know.  Years ago, back when they made that Fantastic Four sequel that promised to right the wrongs of the first movie by introducing a beloved and iconic character (only to shit the bed by having the big bad of the movie be a goddamn storm cloud), Marty made some particularly hilarious videos of himself as the Silver Surfer in Venice Beach (such as this one).  He’s recently been doing some standup in LA, and while I haven’t had the chance to get out to see him, I can assure you it’s good stuff.  (In LA?  See him on the 24th at Malo Cantina!).  End friend gush.  

So Marty suggested I write about Mr. Show–and specifically, the polarizing skit “The Story of Everest.”  Why polarizing?  Well, watch it (in its entirety), and then let’s chat, shall we? 

Did you like it?  Did you find it grating?  Did you find it only mildly amusing?  If you chose the latter, watch it again.  It’s funnier that way.  “The Story of Everest” is perhaps my favorite of the Mr. Show sketches, next to “The Audition.”  (Actually, don’t get me started on my favorite sketches, unless you have a couple hours to burn).  But I know people who love Mr. Show, but can’t stand this skit.  I get it.  It’s got that sort of “it’s funny at first, then it’s not funny any more, then after a while it gets funny again” tactic that Family Guy loves to use (particularly with the “Peter hurt his leg” routine), which, admittedly, works.  Sometimes.  Bob Odenkirk says of the skit:  

Everest is a magical, mystical marvel.  It really turns some people off.  But this kind of indefatigably dumb, persistent joke is rare and done well by Jay here.  I think it’s really funny.  I feel it’s one of those things, the more you do it the funnier it gets.  It passes the baton between annoying and funny.  Some people probably just find it annoying.  But the most fun is when people find it mixed between the two.  (Mr. Show: What Happened?, 221)

I could dwell on the comic style here, the toeing of the line between annoying and hilarious, but I see something a bit different going on with this skit.  “The Story of Everest” isn’t just an extended bit of slapstick or some single-premise sketch–it’s a tragedy.  

Bear with me.

My undergraduate acting professor and advisor once told me during rehearsals for Neil Simon’s Rumors, “Comedy is just tragedy without dignity” (the same advice made it into his book on acting–an essential read for any of you even remotely interested in acting).  I was playing it too broad, playing it too overtly comic.  He reminded me to be aware that my character doesn’t think any of this is funny.  When we as an audience see a character pouring their soul into something that we recognize as trivial, mundane, or simply untrue, there’s always the potential for humor.  But you have to get rid of the dignity first.  Charlie Chaplin knew this well.  His comedies are all tragedy, no dignity (I’m going to do one of these entries on Chaplin’s The Kid, when I have a couple boxes of kleenex handy and a copy of The Notebook to watch after, you know, to cheer me up).  But this is part of the human experience.  Our tragedies are often mundane, and rarely dignified.  But that doesn’t stop us from referring to them as tragedies.  Aristotle would be mortified.    

So back to “The Story of Everest,” which might be called Mr. Show’s big experiment in tragedy (According to Johnston, the skit came about from a true story [Mr. Show: What Happened?, 219-21], which may or may not change how you view it.  It is, of course, exaggerated for comic effect here).  I won’t dissect what happens–you’ve seen it by now, of course.  But what I find so fascinating is that we are watching poor Thomas (Jay Johnston, displaying his talent for physical humor) quite literally fall further and further into ruin.  Meanwhile, his family’s myopic obsession with his clumsiness gives them all some great comic moments, as they move from amused to downright devastated as Thomas keeps falling into the thimbles.  

Finally… a glimmer of hope: Thomas finishes his story, moving deftly across the house, sure-footed and balanced (as you would hope an experienced Everest climber would be).  Lo and behold, he doesn’t slip!  His brother enters to announce that Hollywood is making a moving picture of his story.  Things are starting to look up for our hero, until the film is revealed to be “The Story of the Story of Everest”: “A Laugh Riot” about his inability to tell the story without slipping into his mother’s thimble collection.  Bereft, Thomas leaves the theatre, bemoaning, “I, who conquered Everest, am portrayed as a bumbling fool.”  He then slips off the curb, and has his hands flattened by a passing truck.  So ends The Story of The Story of The Story of Everest. 

This is the Tragedy of Thomas, who could climb Mount Everest but whose accomplishments were overshadowed by him being a boob.   There is no dignity in his fall from grace.  You may remember reading Oedipus the King in high school, and your English teacher telling you that it was Oedipus’ pride and hubris that led to his downfall.  This pride, your teacher probably said, was his hamartia, his “fatal flaw.”  Not quite.  Hamartia is an archery term that literally means “missing the mark.”  Oedipus’ intentions were good, he was aiming for the bullseye, but he just couldn’t quite hit it.  It wasn’t a flaw in character, but a flaw in execution.  The same thing is happening here, but Thomas lacks Oedipus’ regal presence.  He just wants to tell the story of Everest, but he keeps sitting on that damned tea tray and falling into his Mother’s thimble collection.  Tragedy, just without dignity.  

We do it all the time.  The Tragical Story of the Stubbed Toe.  The Three-Hour Layover in Phoenix: A Tragedy.  Ye Most Tragical Tragedie of Ye Accidental Wette Farte.  Our tragedies are often small and undignified.  And so even as we try to elevate our daily occurrences to tragic status, we must recognize that we can laugh at them.  Our lives are inherently comic. 

So next time you’re watching a comedy, or you get a paper cut, ask yourself, Whose tragedy is it anyway? 

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