Any number of comedian influenced my sense of humor in childhoood, but more than any other individual, I was consumed by Lenny Bruce. His early recordings encouraged my emerging sensibility that one could combat social inequalities through sarcasm and satire. Some of his routines, now nearly fifty years old, still carry the sting of truth. Bruce’s critique of religious institutions in “Religions Inc.” drew upon what would happen if Christ returned to earth; I can chuckle just by thinking about how he has one cardinal announce, “Hide the rings!” Bruce also chipped away at the absurd trappings of the entertainment industry. His monologue about an American performer doing anything possible in order to win over the audience at London’s Palladium Theater is a devastating illustration of the rampant egotism endemic to the effort to “kill” a crowd at any cost.
There was another, more demanding side to Bruce’s career, which emerged after he was aggressively pursued by the police for his purported obscenity. As a result of a sequence of arrests and trials, the law consumed the comedian. He put aside straightforward jokes and routines and instead dissected the array of assumptions that govern our legal codes of conduct. The few occasions on which he has was able to perform in public became a platform for Bruce to take apart his court transcripts or analyze the statutes on obscenity. Some of the recordings of these appearances are riotously funny as well as cleverly reasoned examinations of legal ideology that could give Michel Foucault a run for his money.
One might designate this body of Bruce’s material the comic rant, for he found a means of combining his wit and his withering hatred of the courts and the police. For the most part, Bruce was able to keep the humor and the hostility in balance. There were other occasions when his anger outweighed his pursuit of punch lines, and the entire enterprise descends into an upappetizing stream of vitriol. A number of performers who have followed in the wake of Bruce’s career have attempted the comic rant with varying results. Dennis Miller has become the most visible practitioner of the genre at the present time through a series of books and regular appearances on HBO. At his best, Miller can unleash a rushing stream of astute jibes about the various idiocies of public life. At his worst, he descends into a hipper-than-thou exercise in self-regarding rhetoric that appears to be predicated upon the notion that the more obscure his references, the better.
Cintra Wilson’s volume of essays A Massive Swelling is a literary instance of the comic rant. As the collection’s subtitle indicates, the recurrent subject of these pieces is the appalling self-regard of popular entertainers and how the pursuit of fame is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Wilson observes that most of the public treats celebrities like “an untouchable royal family,” but she argues that the “slandering of iconage” is a necessary means of drawing attention to the abnormality of fame. For her, “Fame is a perverse deformity, an ego swelling as ludicrous as an extra sex organ, and the people that have it, for a huge part, are willfully and deliberately fucked-up past the point of ever having anything sweet or human or normal about themselves ever again.” She observes in the cosmetic self-mutilation of Michael Jackson, the paedophilia of child beauty pageants and the institutionalized egotism of awards events vivid examples of this deformity at its most unseemly and absurd. Fame, she states, has no allegiance to ethics. Celebrities emerge by virtue of their quantities of fame, not qualities. How else is one to explain Siegfried and Roy, Kato Kaelin or Monica Lewinsky?
While Wilson’s rejection of celebrity culture is undeniably preferable to the gushing rhetoric or media institutions like People magazine or Entertainment Tonight, the manner in which she demolishes her targets is consistent to the point of monotony. Each object of Wilson’s withering pen is dismissed with an almost interchangeable display of disdain. As a result, the essays in A Massive Swelling are hard to distinguish from one another. Some of Wilson’s work originally appeared on-line in Salon, and it might have achieved greater success in that context. Read sequentially, the essays tend to cancel out one another. The objects of Wilson’s scorn are wide-ranging, but nothing she says about them comes as a surprise or a challenge. This may be due to the fact the subjects themselves add up to an array of easy targets. Who is not appalled by excessive plastic surgery, the sexual objectification of women or the undeserved conceit of the untalented? Reading A Massive Swelling is like listening to a child who is a choosy eater complain about one dish after another. After a while, you almost wish they would just starve rather than hear another diatribe about vegetables.
That said, there are a few occasions in A Massive Swelling that rise above a display of the author’s antagonism and diligently address the lamentable consequences of unexamined egotism. For example, on a flight returning from Jakarta, Wilson encounters a self-possessed female advertising executive who holds her male colleagues enthralled with “the hyperanimated, entitled-to-your-attention way that spoiled little girls who get older always have.” The executive explains how she decided to leave behind her worn-out Nike shoes in Indonesia. Person after person offered to trade her goods for the footwear, and the woman to whom she gave them wept with joy. The exchange amuses both the executives and her listeners who extol the Nikes as “The Real McCoy” and “Best Shoes in the World”! Wilson is understandably appalled by the episode, but her response is more complex than the simply a display of undisguised disgust.
“The whole exchange turned me so emotionally sideways, I wanted to hit both of them with a nine-iron until they couldn’t move anymore. I really go crazy with hatred when the overprivileged act like they are the only three-dimensional entities in the world and everyone else is an amusing finger puppet, doing some crazy backwards nigger dance for their enjoyment.”
Wilson goes on to explain how Indonesians, who work fifty hours a week for two dollars an hour, manufacture thirty-six percent of all retail Nikes. It would take two months for an Indonesian to be able to buy a pair of the shoes they create. No wonder they welcomed the executive’s desire to trade. Unlike much of the writing in A Massive Swelling, on this occasion Wilson is not interested in simply admonishing an isolated individual for their obsession with triviality, but realizes the executive’s actions are part of a larger process of exploitation. If she acknowledged more often how the obsession with celebrity results from such systematic social inequities, A Massive Swelling would be something other than an occasionally amusing but ultimately unsatisfying exercise in attitude.