Friday, November 30, 2012

Goodbye, Kurt Vonnegut

My friend Jay Black gave me a copy of We Are What We Pretend to Be: First and Last Words by the late Kurt Vonnegut.  The book was released just last month, but Jay is such a Vonnegut fan that he read it immediately.

The volume contains an unpublished early (if not necessarily the first) short novella by Vonnegut, and the uncompleted book he was working on at the time of his death in 2007.

No one has much to say about the novella.  It's workmanlike.  There are some clunky turns of phrase.  It stretches credulity at several places.  The Vonnegut magic wasn't there yet.  The consensus seems to be that it went unpublished because the work's antagonist is a foolish General, a veteran of the First World War, who thinks he can command his family and run his farm the same way he ordered his troops about.  He even thinks he can bully his horses into submission!  Since this was written in the late 1940s or early 1950s, magazines weren't in the market for anything that poked fun at the military.  And it's an inconvenient length: too long for most magazines which published short stories.

The controversial work is the unfinished novel (which is listed in the book as a novella).  It is called If God Were Alive Today, and its protagonist is a stand-up comic named Gil Berman.

And here is the problem: Vonnegut writes comedy material for Gil Berman.  The material is supposed to be both thought-provoking and funny.  It sometimes succeeds at the former, but rarely at the latter.

Which is to say: it's not funny.  Not for stand-up comedy, which is designed to elicit an out-loud laugh from an audience approximately every fifteen seconds.

Oh, an extraordinarily charismatic performer might be able to deliver this material.  And it might get a few laughs.  But the character of Berman is already independently wealthy AND a genius.  For him to be charismatic as well would beggar belief.

Now, my friend Jay Black happens to be a stand-up comic.  One of the best comics in the business, in fact.  He and I met in through the comedy business.  And when someone, even someone as august as Kurt Vonnegut, writes stand-up comedy, Jay and I have a very high standard.

And Kurt Vonnegut didn't meet our standard this time.  Too bad.

By the way, if you happen to be in South New Jersey on Saturday 15 December, Jay Black will be performing at the Marlton Comedy Cabaret He's worth seeing.  He can even make you forget about Kurt Vonnegut, at least for awhile.

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