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Anthony Bourdain, Dave Attell and Marc Maron make me want to be a better person

March 12, 2010

Never be in a hurry, as it makes arses out of decent, law abiding citizens. Yeah, if only it was that easy.

Comedian Doug Stanhope often peppers his Bukowski-on-amyl-nitrate tales of rowdiness with pleas for civility. After powering through a sizable chunk of his catalog during a marathon driving session, I was left with a tinge of guilt. It must have been his ability to draw laughs from his green-light attitudes towards red-light districts, or advocacy of schoolyard revenge, right? Not exactly – after a gas transaction gone horribly wrong, I stupidly misdirected my frustration upon the poor dude behind the counter. With 35 minutes remaining of The Great White Stanhope, I felt that Doug was berating me with each successive joke (“…you think that guy wants to be there anymore than you do?…”). And Doug is not alone in this call to finally cast aside The New Cruelty.

I have noticed a theme throughout the work of several of my favorite entertainers. Dave Attell, Marc Maron and Anthony Bourdain have built dedicated fanbases by injecting a personal accountability and an acknowledgement of counterculture to their respective fields, which were largely the domain of the milquetoast (don’t look for Bourdain to mix focus-group-approved catchphrases into his animated series). However, the underlying message in all of their work is a not-so-subtle reminder that we should treat the people that provide our services with decency and respect – a message that is easily forgotten in our “no time for manners, I need to get there NOW” society.

Marc Maron, the former Air America host, has left the realm of politics for a project far more personal – a weekly podcast (all episodes are available on iTunes). Fear not – his entry into the world of downloadable audio, titled with the family-friendly acronym WTF, is no drift into comfortable old age. Listeners are treated to earnest, humorous anecdotes about his day-to-day existence, followed by informal chats with figures throughout the comedy rainbow. Maron, a veteran of the scene for over two decades, has many a story to tell. With his numerous guests, he will recount moments of impolitic, representing for his own past malfeasances. Chris Hardwick, known mostly for providing the bread and circus for MTV’s first step towards their eventual TV-hookup slide to the 9th Circle, but a damn fine comic in his own right, appeared on a mega-episode which featured about 10 comics from the Upright Citizens Brigade axis. Reflecting on their time in LA’s mid-90s comedy scene, Hardwick told Maron “I got the feeling that you didn’t like me!”, which led Maron to reply, “Was it that obvious?”

Hardwick’s honed his chops as a podcaster (The Nerdist), and is one-half of Hard ‘N Phirm (who gave us Rodeohead), so Singled Out should be viewed in the same light we view David Fincher’s “Director of videos for Michael Jackson’s ‘Dangerous'” phase.

“I was always a jerk to you, but you kept trying to be my friend, like a puppy!”, comments Maron about Hardwick’s unflappability. Answering for his prickly past is no one-time thing for Maron – during another episode with Margaret Cho, he declares:

“Everyone should go through the ‘Amends’ step of Alcoholics Anonymous, whether or not they’re even an alcoholic. Like a store needs to take inventory on a regular basis, it’s good to look back on your own past interactions, so you can see when and to whom you were an asshole.”

It is fitting that an episode of Maron’s WTF Podcast would feature a sit-down with Dave Attell, who entered this comedy fan’s Hall of Awesome with Skanks for the Memories, one of the most quotable and well-constructed stand-up records of my lifetime. (it is difficult to isolate a one-liner for an example, since each joke either leads into the next, or references a past joke – “Eat before you go, bwyaaaHH!!” for one – but here’s the closest he offers to a self-contained bit:

“If you don’t pay your electric bill within 4 to seven… months, they will turn your lights right out – don’t you think they should slowly dim them so you get the hint to pay the bill?”

Although Attell made a name for himself hosting Insomniac, which made us laugh with late-night escapades that often involved a drink or ten, anyone with an interpretive ability that exceeded “Grocery checkout-line magazine” would see what exactly Attell aimed at transmitting to all of us young party monsters. Every episode revolved around an observation, or damnit – an appreciation for the laborer, the jokester who pours your beer, the tattoo artist fresh from rehab, or the poor bastard that has to mop up your mess after Mardi Gras (or worse – see Faith No More’s Angel Dust track listing for possible antecedents for the worst professions). By placing the spotlight on the people who would rather be on the other side of the table, but need to make a living, Insomniac humanized a sector of society that is far too often (on a good day) ignored or (on a normal day) ridiculed.

As Insomniac rolled though a few seasons, Dave Attell became our generation’s Studs Terkel, which makes me wish they could have hosted a show together before Studs left us (the resulting bourbon consumption could revitalize Kentucky’s economy). And there’s a nobility in knowing that Attell is unafraid to air footage where his night of consumption ends with an ice-pack and a series of dry-heaves. Reality television doesn’t get any more real that that.

Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations continues the spirit(s) of Attell’s vision for Insomniac. The venerable chef and writer, like Stiv Bators[i], survived his early misadventures to emerge a hero to many of us food-cooking-types. Since he is on the Travel Channel (you’ll hear a good-natured shot at the Food Network every few episodes), Bourdain spends more time wondering the streets with locals than at the mise en place of a fine restaurant. If you’ve read (or listened to) Kitchen Confidential, you’ll know that Bourdain has an affinity for the workaday joes and josephinas that keep the industry alive. In The Nasty Bits, his equivalent to an odds ‘n sods compilation, he crystallizes the reasons why the health of our service industry depends upon a humane immigration policy.  Similar to Attell, Bourdain places the camera on the people who serve as the directors and producers for the film you call “a night out”. When asked to join their labors, he’ll risk public shame to provide an example of the difficulty faced by those we depend upon to harvest our vittles. In an episode profiling the food of Sicily, he takes a crack at the labor-intensive world of picking capers, offering a positive portrayal to a profession not often treated with respect in modern pop culture. It makes perfect sense that he’d be a fan of The Wire, which shares the same willingness to glorify the often-neglected segments of our society.

As an admitted picky eater, I can be counted on for a few exclamations of confusion when observing Bourdain’s food choices, although my continuous crusade to expand my palette has yielded results (as long as something is spicy, and low on onions, I’ll generally try it). Like a good college professor, Bourdain leaves us with more questions than answers. Here are a few:

“This guy partied with the Founding Fathers and Mothers of New York punk, challenged chemists to push buzz-creation technology to ever-greater heights, and dined on the best food we’ll find on this planet. How is he still able to get excited about a simple piece of slow-roasted pork?”

“Of Bunk, McNulty, Daniels, Lester, Greggs and Herc, which would be the Baltimore equivalent of Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee or Marky Ramone?”

“Alright, Tony, picture yourself in the Bowery in 1981. What of these scenarios is more likely to occur in 2010?

a) Sonic Youth still touring behind bad-ass records

b) Thurston, Kim and Co still using the moniker “Sonic Youth” as they hit their 50s

b) The site for CBGBs being taken over by yuppie developers

c) You are a TV star for multitudes who’ve never even seen an 8-ball, let alone drained one

“Why is Cleveland, who gave us Pere Ubu, Rocket from the Tombs, and the Dead Boys, forgotten as a rock city?”

So I offer thanks to these three arbiters of cool for remembering that our working stiffs deserve veneration, too. Can our pop culture make us want to be better people? You’re damn right it can.


[i] Stiv reinvented himself as a singer-songwriter in the 1980s with the Lords of the New Church

  1. March 12, 2010 8:36 pm

    I liked reading your post. I loved Insomniac, and I’m into No Reservations too. Poor Mark Maron. So articulate, passionate and so eternally marginalized. He’s the Brother Theodore of Progressive Radio. I like him too, if and when I can find a station he’s on.

    The difference between Attell/Maron and Bourdain is that Anthony is a real writer, and the other two are brilliant guys with charisma and big personalities. No Reservations is often poetic and deeply thoughtful, and it has a wider range of moods evident because it’s got scripts instead of just topics and destinations.

    (I posted two articles on shows about city folk moving to the sticks.)

  2. grimm permalink
    March 16, 2010 12:28 pm

    I liked this article a lot. I’m glad that I am not the only TV watcher who see’s the humanistic value of shows like No Reservation and Insomniac. Thanks for writing this


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