Playing for laughs

… or, playing over the top, and in fact doing this knowingly while winking at the audience, so that you might want to say: camping it up. I refer to the Netflix version of A Series of Unfortunate Events, in which Neil Patrick Harris (NPH) plays the villain for laughs, while Patrick Warburton plays the author-narrator, Lemony Snicket, ditto, and a bunch of others — notably Joan Cusack, K. Todd Freeman, and Alfre Woodard — join them.

NPH in character:

(#1)

And Warburton in character, at the beach with the three Baudelaire children:

(#2)

(Those are bathing machines and a rickety trolley in the background.)

From Wikipedia on the series:

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, or simply A Series of Unfortunate Events, is an American black comedy dramedy television series from Netflix, and developed by Mark Hudis and Barry Sonnenfeld, based on the children’s novel series of the same name by Lemony Snicket. It stars Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Warburton, Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, K. Todd Freeman and Presley Smith, and premiered on January 13, 2017.

and on the author:

Lemony Snicket is the pen name of American novelist Daniel Handler (born February 28, 1970). Snicket is the author of several children’s books, also serving as the narrator of A Series of Unfortunate Events (his best-known work) and a character within it and All the Wrong Questions. Because of this, the name “Lemony Snicket” may refer to either the fictional character or the real person.

Now, the genre of the series and the books on which it’s based: they are firmly in the genre I’ll call fantasy comedy, manifested in performances of many types: Punch and Judy shows, animated cartoons like Rocky and Bullwinkle (squirrel and moose beset by comically incompetent villains Boris and Natasha), Joan Aiken’s alternative-history comedy-adventure novels for children (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, etc.), James Thurber’s book The Thirteen Clocks, the movie The Princess Bride. The protagonists tend to be absurdly innocent, the villains thoroughly wicked, the settings fantastical rather than realistic, the plot lines full of bizarre twists and turns (like Zippy the Pinhead comic strips, but with villains). Many of these performances wink at the audience, and characters often address the audience.

Series has a fantastical setting; look back at #2. The characters are cardboard figures played for laughs: the Baudelaire children are preposterously earnest, good, and plucky; the other characters are absurdly good (Cusack’s judge character), sweet but deranged (Woodard’s character, the children’s Aunt Jusephine, who’s a nut about grammatical correctness, by which she mostly means spelling and word choice), bizarrely clueless (for example, failing to recognize the NPH character, Count Olaf, in his ridiculously transparent disguises), thoroughly evil, or deeply corrupt. And Warburton’s character does nothing but address the audience, owlishly warning us about the dire events about to unfold and telling us that we should avert our eyes, look away, thus pulling us into the guilty pleasures of the show. (I’d like to point out that there’s a lot you can do with adverbs.)

Digression on comedy genres. Fantasy comedy contrasts with two other comedy genres (though, as always, the lines between genres are not crisp): what I’ll call light comedy and black comedy. These are relevant because NPH is also celebrated for his work in a sitcom (a subtype of light comedy), How I Met Your Mother, and so is Warburton (in Rules of Engagement), while Cusack is celebrated for her work in a black comedy (Shameless). (Warburton and Cusack are both specialists in comic acting, of several types — they do almost nothing else — while Freeman and Woodard are acting generalists.)

Light comedy includes sitcoms (on tv) and romantic comedy (in the movies) as well as comic novels and short stories that are realistic in both setting and character; black comedy, the comedy counterpart to dramas like Breaking Bad, manages to be both funny and horrifying at once, again in realistic settings and with characters that have identifiably human characteristics the audience can sympathize with, but also with disastrous flaws.

The black comedy Shameless has a realistic setting, a white working-class neighborhood of South Chicago, complete with the El. Its preposterous characters are nevertheless played straight, and with no winking at the audience. All the characters are seriously flawed, but all have some redeeming qualities that allow you to sometimes identify with them: even the frighteningly narcissistic, irresponsible, alcoholic and drug-addled central character Frank (William H. Macy in an extraordinary performance) has a sweet love affair – with a woman close to dying from cancer, who then commits suicide. Fantasy comedy, either meant for children or affecting a child-like view of the world, steers clear of sexual connections, while Shameless is dramatically high in carnality: the characters fuck like bonobos, almost reflexively, out of ungovernable desire and, apparently, as a way to relieve tension; there’s also plenty of same-sex butt-fucking and muff-diving; and even the baby Liam compusively masturbates.

In Series, Warburton’s character and the theme song keep telling us to look away, look away, knowing that that will make us watch. But watching Shameless, you often do want to avert your eyes, because, out of sympathy with the characters, you wish you could pull them away from the disastrous things they are about to do.

The five featured actors. NPH, Warburton, Cusack, Freeman, and Woodard.

NPH (appearing as Count Olaf in #1) is an old acquaintance on this blog, seen most recently in the posting “Annals of adorable” (with his husband, David Burtka) on the 10th. Earlier, onstage in his underwear (and nothing else), in the 2/23/15 posting “From the Oscar watch”.

On the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, from Wikipedia:

How I Met Your Mother … is an American sitcom that originally aired on CBS from September 19, 2005 to March 31, 2014. The series follows the main character, Ted Mosby, and his group of friends in Manhattan. As a framing device, Ted, in the year 2030, recounts to his son and daughter the events that led him to meeting their mother.

… Neil Patrick Harris as Barney Stinson is a serial playboy, using his relative wealth and an array of outrageous strategies to seduce women for sex with no intention of engaging in a relationship. His catchphrases include ‘Suit Up’ and ‘Legend-wait-for-it-Dary’. He is Ted’s “bro,” often jealous of Marshall for having known Ted since college. Due to his father leaving him as a young child, Barney has abandonment issues and clings to his friends. He marries Robin in the series finale but they divorce after 3 years. In 2020, after a failed one night stand, he has a daughter named Ellie.

On Warburton, from Wikipedia:

Patrick John Warburton (born November 14, 1964) is an American actor and voice actor. In television, he is known for playing David Puddy on Seinfeld, the title role on The Tick [a superhero parody], Jeb Denton on Less Than Perfect, Jeff Bingham on Rules of Engagement and Lemony Snicket on A Series of Unfortunate Events.

And on the plot of the sitcom Rules of Engagement:

Two couples and their single friend deal with the complications of dating, commitment and marriage. It looks at different relationships in various stages, starring Patrick Warburton and Megyn Price as a long-married couple, Oliver Hudson and Bianca Kajlich as newly engaged sweethearts, and David Spade and Adhir Kalyan (the latter added in season 3) as their still-single friends. They often gather to enjoy a meal and discuss their issues at “The Island Diner”. (Wikipedia link)

The Warburton and Price characters are constantly negotiating having sex, which brings us many shots of a shirtless Warburton, as here:

(#3)

Warburton is a solid, beefy bear of a man, with a “natural”, rather than gym-boy, physique (note the hint of love handles). In Series, he always appears fully clothed, almost always in a dark business suit (as in #2). And in that show (and in some others) his tone is always wry, and even if you can’t see it, one eyebrow is raised.

Digression on camping it up. In a 12/3/16 posting “Camping it up”, I wrote about a Steam Room Stories episode, the expression camping it up (in the episode, camping it up is used as an in-group marker, for use by gay men with gay men, as a kind of bonding ritual), and the British actor Julian Clary (who camps it up a lot, rather sweetly, in public).

Series plays it for laughs, plays it over the top, to the point of camping it up, thus casting a gay lavender light over everything and disposing you to think that the male characters might be gay.

On the idiom play for laughs, from the TV Tropes website:

If something is played for laughs, it means it is being used with the intention to be comedic. It is often a parody of the instances where said device or trope is used seriously.

On the idiom over the top from NOAD2:

informal to an excessive or exaggerated degree, in particular so as to go beyond reasonable or acceptable limits: his reactions had been a bit over the top.

And then some relevant entries from GDoS:

noun camp: (also campery, campiness, camping) flamboyance, overt exhibitionism; usu. but not invariably applied to homosexuals [first cite 1932, from Scarlet Pansy]

verb camp to act ostentatiously and outrageously in a homosexual manner, although by no means restricted – verbally or physcally – to the gay world [first cite 1910]

verb camp about (also camp around, camp it up): of a man, to act in a deliberate and exaggeratedly effeminate manner; used of effeminate male homosexuals and those who, maliciously or otherwise, are attempting to mimic them [first cite 1962]

adjective campy: ostentatious, affected, effeminate [first cite 1932, Scarlet Pansy again]

All of this vocabulary can be used to refer to merely extravagant, exhibitionistic, or outrageous behavior, but a connotation of effeminacy, or merely gayness, persists. That connotation colors our view of all the male characters in the campy Series, even Warburton’s character, thanks to his slyness.

More to come on this theme in a little while. Meanwhile, back to the featured actors.

On Cusack, from Wikipedia:

Joan Cusack (… born October 11, 1962), is an American actress. She received Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress for her roles in the romantic comedy-drama Working Girl (1988) and the romantic comedy In & Out (1997)

… Cusack was a cast member on the sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live from 1985 to 1986. She starred on the Showtime hit drama/comedy Shameless as Sheila Gallagher (née Jackson), a role for which she has received five consecutive Emmy Award nominations, winning for the first time in 2015. She is the sister of actors Ann and John Cusack.

(#4)

Cusack’s characters are almost always highly strung (as in Series). In Shameless, her character Sheila is beyond highly strung, into out-of-control, even deranged, territory: she’s cripplingly agoraphobic, compulsively orderly, hypersexual, and sexually kinky.

On Freeman, from Wikipedia:

Kenneth Todd Freeman (born July 9, 1965) is an American actor in theatre, television, and film.

… Freeman has been an ensemble member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, Illinois since 1993 [and has appeared on stage in Wicked and Airline Highway].

… He has also had supporting roles in various films such as Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), The Cider House Rules (1999), and The Dark Knight (2008). On television, he is perhaps best known for his recurring role on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as “Mr. Trick”.

The character’s Buffyverse Wiki identifies him as a young vampire and the leading minion of Kakistos and, later, Sunnydale’s Mayor Richard Wilkins, adding that:

Unlike his ancient master [Kakistos], Mr. Trick was a modernist technophile at heart. He considered time-honored customs like hunting outdated, enjoying the amenities of modern occidental life, such as fast food employees, [and] pizza delivery boys

A definitely campy character.

The actor in a nice p.r. photo:

(#4)

In Series, Freeman plays Arthur Poe, the Baudelaire parents’ family banker, in charge of placing the children in the care of a suitable guardian; he’s generally venal, but sometimes merely deluded.

On the amazing (and astonishingly hard-working) Woodard, from Wikipedia:

Alfre Woodard (born November 8, 1952) is an American film, stage, and television actress, producer, and political activist. Woodard has been named one of the most versatile and accomplished actors of her generation.

Woodard began her acting career in theater. After her breakthrough role in the Off-Broadway play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf (1977), she made her film debut in Remember My Name (1978). In 1983, she won major critical praise … for her role in Cross Creek. In the same year, Woodard won her first Primetime Emmy Award for her performance in the NBC drama series Hill Street Blues. Later in the 1980s, Woodard had leading Emmy Award-nominated performances in a number of made for television movies, and another Emmy-winning role as a woman dying of leukemia in the pilot episode of L.A. Law. She also starred as Dr. Roxanne Turner in the NBC medical drama St. Elsewhere

And that just gets her up to 1990; there’s a lot more. A nice p.r. photo of her:

(#5)

In Series, her Aunt Josephine is deranged (but sweet) and generally over the top.

Back to campiness. As I said above, the decidedly campy tone of Series tends to cast a lavender light on all the male characters. And then, by extension, on the actors who play those characters. On every evidence, Warburton is uncomplicatedly straight, while NPH is openly, even celebratorily, gay — but his natural presentation of self is as normatively masculine, not at all campy. (He can of course do campy; he’s a versatile, accomplished actor. And in Series, he does one episode in drag.)

That leaves Freeman, who’s an intriguing cipher. Freeman has taken several gay parts (not especially common for black actors), he’s never been married, and none of the sources about him say a word about his private life — indicators which, taken together, would suggest that he’s a closeted gay man. Staying in the closet wouldn’t be at all surprising for a black male actor: being out would risk career suicide for a black man, so the the number of out black male actors is ridiculously small.

Another, simpler case: the hard-working black actor Ron Glass, who had two standout roles in his long life in acting, until he died at age 71 late last year. From Wikipedia:

Ronald Earle “Ron” Glass (July 10, 1945 – November 25, 2016) was an American actor. He was known for his roles as literary Det. Ron Harris in the television sitcom Barney Miller (1975–1982), and as the spiritual Shepherd Derrial Book in the 2002 science fiction series Firefly and its sequel film Serenity.

His character Harris was impeccably dressed, intellectual, precise, even prissy — one “type” of gay man —  and he pinged my gaydar 40 years ago in Barney Miller (and then again much more recently in Firefly). Glass as Harris:

(#6)

The actor was, by all accounts, charming and funny, and his homosexuality was an open secret in Hollywood for many decades (though he never came out). He frequented gay places in West Hollywood and apparently had an affair with actor Tony Geary from General Hospital, during which they often appeared together in public as a couple. He’s also said to have been rather effeminate and sometimes sweetly campy. Most of the people he worked with must have known he was gay, but still he seems to have thought that his career would have been threatened by his coming out. And maybe he was right.

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