Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Heckler In The Peanut Gallery

Take an hour or so out out of your day or your night or sometime in between and check out "Heckler," a Jamie Kennedy documentary which focuses on the role of the heckler and the critic within the realm of pop culture. Jamie Kennedy is a comedian who starred in "Malibu's Most Wanted," which was a relatively bad film, and has since been filleted by hecklers at his appearances in comedy clubs and critics, bloggers and pop-culture reviewers on the Internet.

Half of the documentary involves snippets of interviews and discussion with comics and personalities from all walks of life; Andrew "Dice" Clay, Jon Lovitz, Bill Maher, Perez Hilton, Paris Hilton...the personalities within the project are as varied as it gets. As far as the comics involved herein, they span two or three generations and the documentary reminded me of "The Dirtiest Joke Ever Told," another comedy documentary spanning a number of comics focusing on one minute aspect of the world of stand-up comedy.

This project, however, was somewhat self-indulgent but mostly -- and genuinely -- a way for Jamie Kennedy to let people know that people in the spotlight feel pain when we -- the public -- take anonymous shots at them, whether as masthead-shielded critics or as members of the increasing number of keyboard commandoes, ie people who attack others from behind the anonymous comfort of a keyboard attached to an Internet-connected computer.

Personally, I never considered myself a fan of Jamie Kennedy's. What I've seen of his work doesn't do much for me, and, more or less, I find most of what I've seen of his work to be fairly low-end. However, it says a lot that I found this particular project to be interesting and worth watching.

What I found most interesting about this entire documentary wasn't what I expected it would be; when I first saw this in the digital channel guide on my cable system, I presumed this was simply an analysis of the interplay between stage comedians and the people who find it appropriate to give them shit while they perform. While this is not something that many "civilians" need to think about, I wasn't surprised to find that, essentially, all of the comedians that were interviewed for this project admitted that they had all, at one time or another, been the victim of some random, quasi-faceless heckler in a crowd, and, according to Arsenio Hall, one of the myriad comics interviewed here, all of them, at one time or another, lost his or her temper in dealing with these people.

You might recall Michael Richards, aka Seinfeld's "Kramer," and his meltdown at the Laugh Factory in LA when he repeatedly called a black man heckling him during a performance a "nigger." If you do a YouTube search, you'll be in a position to squirm through the entire incident. I'm not sure why you'd want to; most of the audience in attendance that night promptly walked out of the club once the disgusting, vitriolic diatribe commenced, and the bulk of them, aside from, likely, the people involved, followed soon after.

Considering the fallout at the time, it's not surprising that Michael Richards hasn't done much, if anything, since the incident (November, 2006).

But this project goes far beyond that ugly, unfortunate incident. It also dissects the symbiotic relationship between celebrities -- from the top to the bottom of the ladder -- and the online- and offline critics, from magazine reporters to newspaper reporters to TV news critics to those in the land of The Blog.

In addition to the more respectable critics -- the late Joel Seigel, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel (and Richard Roeper), Gene Shalit -- there are an infinite list of unofficial, faceless, nameless critics that populate the Net each and every day, and the number -- without a doubt -- is growing daily. The thing is, and this was addressed in the documentary, everyone has an opinion. Whether I thought a movie was incredible or the worst piece of shit ever committed to film, digital or otherwise, is inherently my opinion. Unless I'm being paid with tax-funded dollars, my opinion is and should be mine to express. However, with the advent of the faceless, nameless critic, the population of people critiquing another's work -- film or something similar -- has suddenly, overnight, been given credibility.

The problem is this: this space, as well as any other blog hastily assembled by some half-witted shitbird -- some might suggest these are one and the same, incidentally -- occupies the same screen real estate as Rotten Tomatoes, The New York Times, and any other number of sites whose legitimacy is recognized by degrees by the reader. Some out there might agree with my take on a particular film or performance -- or album, or book, or band, or politician -- and if my opinion differs from that of a particular institution -- the New York Times, the Washington Post, Roger Ebert, et al -- then my opinion suddenly, somehow, is given credence.

The problem is that thirty years ago -- and all the way back to silent movies leading to thirty years ago -- the critic was generally regarded with some measure of respect, and as such, treated those whose work he critiqued with similar respect. If you want a better, cleaner expression of this, check out the "Ego" monologue at the tail end (no pun intended) of the movie Ratatouille, wherein a feared, vaunted, vitriolic restaurant critic describes his job and how, after eating at a particular restaurant in Paris, he saw the proverbial light.

The point is -- after all is said and done -- there is a difference between those who express their opinions with some measure of respect and those who simply exist to make themselves appear better by shitting all over someone else and/or his/her/their work. A good example of this, for you Top Chef fans, is the newest of the Top Chef judges, Toby Young, a London food critic known for his especially acerbic, sharpened wit. Top Chef is one of our favorite shows, but it seems to me -- especially while watching Toby Young savagely shred the participants of the show -- he spends more time considering how to rip someone's efforts than actually critiquing -- constructively or otherwise -- them. Put another way, while his judging is memorable in its savagery, he goes well above the call of duty and he takes every opportunity not out to describe what was good or bad about something one of the participants prepared but solely his intention to appear clever and creative in his attack on someone's work.

In retrospect, especially given the nature of the latter half of Heckler, anyone who uses their creativity to be in a spotlight presents him- or herself for criticism. Whether or not that criticism is fair or warranted or legitimate, once an individual presents something which requires another's opinion, it's a virtual guarantee that there will be vitriol, whether it's a comic on a stage in the middle of nowhere or LA, or an artist whose life's greatest achievement is hanging on a wall in a gallery somewhere, or an actor seeing his work in a suburban movie theater. The concept is that we as a society tend to build people up only to want to knock them down. Our society -- and perhaps humans in general -- seem to exhibit this behavior whether they are connected to the Internet or, simply, each other. The most recent example of this is Barack Obama. Prior to his victory, he was the very embodiment of progress and hope; now and another half-dozen "legit" sites question his progress and note that his approval isn't as high as it was earlier. I'm no Obama fan, but I think he's doing well, all things considered. I'm a Republican and I'm not salivating over the issues and problems he's facing within his cabinet or his administration; I want him to do well and to succeed. It says a lot about us as a culture how, despite the economic turbulence of our world, we still -- as a society -- seem to angle for ways to knock him to, inexplicably, make ourselves feel better.

Essentially, Jamie Kennedy's "Heckler" project had only one real shortfall: when he attempted to meet his more vocal critics in person, part of his argument with their words -- even if their opinions were warranted -- was questioning why their critiques appeared to be personal. Many of same, incidentally, appear targeted at him rather than his work. After asking that question, he would ask his critic(s) whether they cared about the fact that their attack(s) hurt his feelings. Personally, while I sympathize with him and many other celebrities who get roasted for little or no reason, I reacted to his request for some restraint in considering that many of us would happily and without hesitation forfeit our day jobs and careers to be celebrities. To many people, celebrity is the end-all, be-all of existence -- why then do so many people spend their time, energy and their lives in pursuit of people like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian and their ilk? The fact is that people in the spotlight will always be put on a pedestal and be remunerated for their position in society, whether deserved or not, and will also be targeted by those people who need to make themselves feel better by knocking and/or deriding others, the work of others, and the achievements -- legitimate or otherwise -- of others.

Incidentally, as I explained to Kaia, what I found most interesting about this project, in retrospect, was that I was less interested in the fact that Jamie Kennedy was spearheading this particular project and more interested in what I perceived it to be about. Having watched it and having been, admittedly, surprised by the fact that it was far more intruiging than I expected it to be, I confessed to her that I hadn't been able -- or interested -- to watch Jamie Kennedy's movies or appearances prior to this watching documentary for more than a few minutes, as I found his work to be less-than-enthralling. With respect to this project, I didn't change the channel, nor did I consider doing something else -- aside from using the bathroom. Not even once.

And, given the nature of this project and its focus, that -- I believe, anyway -- is saying a lot.

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