Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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[Note: This article originally appeared in an earlier version on Noise to Signal.]

With the looming release of Moonrise Kingdom, it’s a given that we’ll soon find ourselves awash in reviews that, predictably, betray their authors’ confusion at what it is Wes Anderson — in a word — does.

Not so much what Wes Anderson does with a particular film itself, but what Wes Anderson does as a film maker working today. Reviews often seem to want to discuss all of his films at once, and make grand dismissive statements about wooden characterization, a complete lack of emotion, and the impossibility of any human being relating to the feelings or motivations of his characters.

In response I issue this…a list of what I feel are ten thoroughly, genuinely, painfully affecting moments in his films. Anderson might not handle emotion the way most American filmmakers handle emotion (read: tears, strings and rain), but the films of Wes Anderson provide a clued-in audience with some of the most sincerely (and strangely) moving moments, which haunt and linger far longer than those of his contemporaries. So read on, share, and enjoy.

Oh, and before anyone asks…no. I did not forget about Bottle Rocket or Fantastic Mr. Fox.

10) “That’s a hell of a damn grave. I wish it were mine.”
The Royal Tenenbaums


The Royal Tenenbaums is segmented into chapters, like a novel, or possibly a biography. But one scene stands outside of the film’s literary organization: between Chapter Three and Chapter Four, we have a lengthy installment entitled Maddox Hill Cemetery. It’s here that various characters pair off — and re-pair off — for the sake, yes, of plot development, but also for some of the film’s most truly painful Tenenbaum interaction.

From Royal shaking a few flowers free of his own bouquet for the grave of Chas’ wife to Richie giving his signature silent greeting to a passerby who recognizes him from his glory days, Neither Anderson nor his actors nor his original score composer, stumble at all. Everything is here, either spoken or unspoken. We see exactly why the Tenenbaums, on some level, yearn to operate together as a family, and also — more apparently — why they never can.

It’s appropriate that Maddox Hill Cemetery stands without a chapter number…it exists, moreso than any other sequence in the film, during several time periods, with each of the Tenenbaum children having a flashback that explains at least partly the gap between their glorious childhood and their tormented adult lives.

Composer Mark Mothersbaugh understands this scene on some level far beyond the structural and even the emotional. He understands what fuels the world in which The Royal Tenenbaums exists, and his score for this scene ranks high among his absolutely strongest work. His score here is beautiful, bashful, and aware of its own limitations. This is the music you would hear if you dropped a phonograph needle onto Richie Tenenbaum’s heart, and it stirs that rare, perfect emotion that can only be felt when a brilliant director, a brilliant cast and a brilliant composer work off of each other in profound harmony.

9) “You’re a real jerk to me, you know that?”
Rushmore


One of Max Fischer’s crimes against himself — perhaps his cardinal offense — is his habit of fixing his gaze on objects beyond his reach, and missing out on everything that’s right by his side, just waiting for him to come back around.

He seems to come to this realization himself toward the end of Rushmore, when classmate Margaret Yang stumbles upon him flying a kite. Margaret forces him to face the fact that his self-important social climb has emotional consequences as well. “You’re a real jerk to me,” she says. “You know that?” And we know that her words have taken root, because he actually apologizes — a defining moment for a very-much-changed Max.

He is sorry, because by this point in the film it’s clear his pursuit of Miss Cross has come to nothing…and a young woman who’s given him sympathy and support has been actively hurt by his callous inattention.

There’s more than a little caution — however unintentional — present in the little story she tells him as well: her science fair project was a lie. She faked the results. Max understands the gravity of what she has said here, and it stings. In fact, it’s why, immediately afterward, he decides to atone for his own falsified data by introducing Mr. Blume to his father…the barber.

8) “The battery’s dead, too.”
The Darjeeling Limited


One very interesting thing about The Darjeeling Limited is that its two most affecting scenes are intertwined with one another (structurally, this one is sandwiched between two halves of the other), so that all of the film’s most brutal emotion comes in one continuous hit. Typically Anderson spreads it thin, leaving lines and gestures stranded in places sometimes very far removed from the previous or next display of emotion…not so here.

But that’s not to say he does it any less adequately in Darjeeling. In fact, this particular scene, in which the three Whitman brothers attempt without success to drive their father’s car to his funeral, is among Anderson’s finest achievements, hands down. (In fact, I’d venture to say that it would work better as a short film than Hotel Chevalier did.)

The entire scene is a display of thoroughly misplaced attention, as it’s more important to the Whitmans to drive to their father’s funeral in a symbolic vehicle than it is for them to make it on time, and they end up, it’s suggested, missing the event entirely for all their fussing. It’s symptomatic of the problems they must have faced as a family all along: it’s not that they can’t work together, it’s that when they do work together, they’re pulling in the wrong direction.

But it’s still touching, and more than a little painful, when they try their best to do what they feel must be done, and this manic several minutes, deliberately plucked from a very different place and time in their lives, is highlighted by the most impressive display of brotherhood we ever see from the Whitmans when they threaten and stare down a tow-truck driver who nearly crashes into them. Was the tow-truck driver in the wrong? Of course he wasn’t. But even when the Whitmans manage to pull together, they’re pulling in the wrong direction.

7) “I’m a little bit lonely these days.”
Rushmore


Dr. Guggenheim’s stroke brings Max Fischer and Herman Blume together again for a brief ride in an elevator that somehow, without really saying anything, says absolutely everything anyone needs to know about these characters.

There’s not so much an obvious awkwardness between the two as there is an unspoken yearning to reconnect. They miss each other. Serious topics are touched upon (Blume’s divorce, Miss Cross’ whereabouts) but neither man is able to say anything much of substance. They bat a few banalities back, and forth and ultimately refuse eye contact.

But there is a love there…that love that rides a mutual respect, and can never quite be killed. Blume’s initial “Hey, amigo,” is a clear linguistic nod to the fact that he would still love to consider Max a friend, but cannot actually bring himself to use the word. And Max’s final line upon Blume’s departure (“Hey, is everything okay?”) is helplessly genuine. Blume’s confession of loneliness is made all the more painful by the logistical fact that, as he says it, he only allows Max a few of the back of his head. As much as they need each other, and even as they reach, they can’t yet let each other in.

6) “I’ve had a rough year, dad.”
The Royal Tenenbaums


When I first put together this list, five long years ago, this was one moment that I considered, and ultimately put aside. Today, I can’t account for that decision, as it’s sincerely one of the most touching things in a movie bursting with emotional merit.

As Royal Tenenbaum attempts to reconnect with his family, he meets with varying degrees of success from each of them. Without any question, however, the most difficult obstacle he has to face is Chas. Chas has been both robbed and shot by his father during the course of his childhood, but what stings most for him is the fact that his dad let the family fail. When his parents separated the children were never the same, and Chas’ channeled his frustration at his parents into shaping his own family unit, providing for them a secure and stable environment that was ultimately ripped away from him by the plane crash that took his wife.

Chas did indeed have a rough year, but that’s not what makes the moment so important. It’s not the confession, but who he’s confessing it to. As much as Chas kept his emotions to himself, it’s ultimately the father who hurt hum so much that gives him the comfort he needs. The tears he cries when Royal buys his boys a new dog to replace the recently departed Buckley are real, and he sees a sincere selflessness in the gesture…one that’s superficially small, but relatively enormous.

Chas lets his father back in, but Royal is not long for this world, and he himself dies not much later. In a twist neither man could have seen coming, Chas is the one who spends Royal’s dying moments with him. It’s a profoundly emotional coda to the most openly antagonistic relationship in a film rife with them, and it’s all elevated by the genuinely moving portrayal of Chas by Ben Stiller. Proof positive that Wes Anderson can work wonders with just about anyone, and a moment as deserving of a spot on this list as any other.

5) “All hands bury the dead.”
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou


We know very little of Ned’s life before he joined up with Team Zissou, and, as far as the interests of the film are concerned, that’s a good thing. It makes his last moments on board the Belafonte that much more significant.

Had we been granted a more comprehensive view of his life, Team Zissou would represent only a small portion of all those he came to know. With our much narrower perspective, the ship’s crew represents everybody we’ve seen him interact with, and their turnout to wave farewell before his final flight is almost overpowering in its significance. None of these characters suspects that they will never see him alive again, and yet they’re all there…seeing him off. It’s just one of those many morbid coincidences that none of these characters would really understand.

Most touching is Klaus’ farewell, which includes, importantly, an olive-branch by way of salute. He wants Ned to know how much it means to him that he worked a K — for Klaus — onto the redesigned Team Zissou insignia, but more importantly he wants him to know that he’s at last ready to accept him as a fellow member of the crew. (And, in terms of the de-facto Zissou family, a brother.)

Steve is the only one who does not get the chance to say goodbye to Ned, though he is present for his final moments, and it is he who pulls his body to shore. It’s more than a little telling, as well, that the sharp cuts in Steve’s “death vision” sequence are so similar in style to those of Richie Tenenbaum. The difference, of course, is that Richie lived a full emotional life with much to reflect upon…while Steve’s visions are nothing more than flat colors, bubbles rushing to the surface, and one fleeting, final glimpse of Ned, who financed the voyage monetarily, and then, with more than a little symbolism, paid for it with his life. Steve falling to his knees on shore with the body of the man who was — for all intents and purposes — his son is a beautifully framed, hauntingly understated moment of silent, unforgettable sorrow. But Ned’s not the only one to come to an early, watery end…

4) “I didn’t save mine.”
The Darjeeling Limited


The turning-point for Peter Whitman (and arguably for the film itself) comes when the three brothers see three young Indian boys fall helplessly into a dangerous river. That’s one boy for each brother, right? And because they’re well-to-do Americans they get to play automatic heroes. There’s nothing at all at stake when the Whitmans dive in after the boys. Mathematically, everything is going to be just fine.

Imagine, then, the shock to Peter Whitman when he fails to save one of the children. He emerges from the river bloodied and bruised, carrying a lifeless body, and he’s so far beyond emotion that he can’t do anything but mutter flat, impotent confessions. “I didn’t save mine.” “He’s dead.” “The rocks killed him.” The audience might believe, initially, that Peter’s blow to the head left him stammering, but it’s clear before long that the real damage was wrought more deeply. His entire sense of life and possibility has been thrown for a loop–he was not the hero he expected himself to be. In fact, he was a failure. He ends up carrying a dead child to a grieving father, in a land he does not know or understand, and though Peter does not cry, it’s not because he feels nothing; it’s because he feels a sorrow too large to convey.

The Whitman brothers spend a good deal of time in this village, and Peter may never be able to atone for what’s happened, but he does come out of the experience with a much matured view of his own impending fatherhood, which now holds an unexpected meaning for him. He may not be a completely changed man but, after this incident, he is no longer the man he was just a few days earlier, when he openly considered leaving his wife before his child was born.

Adrien Brody, as of this film, is a newcomer to Anderson’s menagerie of reliable actors, and as of this precise moment, when he emerges from the river stuttering helplessly about the child whose life he could not save, he establishes himself as a perfect fit. (Also, for the record, Brody wins the Saddest Eyes award for The Darjeeling Limited, which is always a serious achievement in a Wes Anderson film.)

3) “Mr. Blume…this is my father, Burt Fischer.”
Rushmore


There’s no greater change wrought in Max throughout the course of Rushmore than the one so clearly on display when he humbly introduces Mr. Blume to his father. He is letting Blume see a side of him that very few people have been invited to see, but also he is showing it to himself, letting himself, for once, be reflected in his own eyes.

One great thing about this scene that can easily go unnoticed is that the two adults are each aware of more than they’re actually saying. Mr. Blume had earlier been led to believe that Max’s father was a neurosurgeon, and it’s safe to assume that Mr. Fischer is aware that his meager occupation has probably been kept a careful secret by his enterprising son…and yet neither of them speak of it. Blume’s heart breaks, and you can see it in Bill Murray’s supremely expressive eyes, not just because he’s been allowed a glimpse behind Max’s carefully constructed shell, but also because he feels acutely the distance between father and son, preventing both parties from connecting the way they’d each like to — and need to — connect.

“I don’t know, Burt,” says Blume, apropos of nothing, and it’s one of the most honest lines in the film. Something real is being revealed to him here, and he’s incapable of coping with it. Some silent lesson is being preached, and he’s aware that its moral will be at least somewhat lost to him. He envies the simplicity of the barber’s life, and at the same time understands precisely, guiltily, the reason Max aches to rise above it.

2) “I wonder if it remembers me.”
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou


When Steve Zissou finally comes face to face with the Jaguar Shark, there’s very little he can do but ponder the wisdom of his journey, and reflect — wordlessly — upon everything his crew has had to endure in pursuit of his purely selfish, short-sighted revenge.

The submarine (aptly named Deep Search) contains what remains of his crew and his family…along with a business partner, a reporter, an intern, and a representative of the bond company, all of whom have suffered in some tangible way for the advancement of Steve’s goal. And yet, when he finally reaches that goal, he breaks down. He cries openly, for the first and only time in the film. He gains — a long, long way into his life and career — some perspective of the greater world around him, and he sees, at last, how little right he had to so carelessly jeopardize other people’s lives.

The real weight in the scene is the non-presence of Ned, who died in pursuit of the beast, and we suspect that the death of his previous crewmate Esteban sits heavy on Steve’s conscience as well. His emotion is coming from the fact that it took him too long to realize the price of his revenge, and that what’s lost is really lost forever. There’s no way to go back and undo the very real damage he’s done along the way.

He is forgiven, however, in the midst of his wordless reflection, by those along for the ride on Deep Search. One by one, his remaining companions each lay a comforting hand on him. There are no accusations, and there is no anger. They find themselves in a submarine with a captain who has at last become fragile and human, and, one hand at a time, they do their part to hold him together.

1) “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow.”
The Royal Tenenbaums


There’s very little that can be said of a scene that says everything itself so well. Relied upon — and used — by so many others as the most level-headed and caring of the Tenenbaum family, the viewer is more aware than any of the characters how much suffering he internalizes. And so, when at last he learns more about his adopted sister than he was ever prepared to know, and he walks slowly and quietly out the door without saying a word, we know that something is about to happen, and it’s not going to be good.

Elliott Smith’s terrifying “Needle in the Hay” starts up, and Anderson does something very clever by starting it over an unrelated scene, in which Royal converses hopefully with a hotel manager about a job. A first-time viewer would never catch it, but upon each subsequent viewing those dark, razor-sharp chords bring a very vivid image to mind, and throughout a comic scene we are inescapably aware of a parallel tragedy.

The entire sequence with Richie in the bathroom is cut brutally, hastily…it doesn’t flow; it’s been hacked to pieces. This serves to echo not only the immediate content of the scene, but also the end to which it builds. His cutting away at hair, his beard, and then, desparately, his wrists.

It’s Anderson at his most fearless; he’s triggering emotions, but not allowing anyone to get caught up in them. There is no moment during which any characters take pause to weep. The score is not touching — it’s tough and tightly-squared. It’s played blue and emotionless, which is, of course, why it works so well. We are not asked to align ourselves with anybody else’s emotions…we are supposed to view what is happening from the perspective of an outsider. We are meant to feel growing concern as Richie removes his headband, his hair, his beard, his glasses…as he exposes himself at last to the world he sought so strongly to shut out. Layer by layer he is shaving himself down, becoming more vulnerable. And when he sees what’s beneath — that young man who, at one point, could have had absolutely anything — he attempts to destroy it.

We are allowed brief dips into his thought process by means of abrupt, almost subliminal flashes of film we’ve already seen, and it’s not so much meant to represent a dying man’s last glance backward as it is meant to highlight the agony of a man who can no longer stand to be alive.

Richie Tenenbaum still stands as Anderson’s most tragic character, and certainly the least deserving of his own pain. And that’s precisely what makes him so real.


Maybe I will do a list of this kind every month. Or maybe I won’t. I probably won’t. I hope you didn’t like that introductory paragraph very much, because I’m going to write another one:

Comedy is difficult. Making people laugh is the easy part…making people laugh for the right reasons, at the right times, satisfyingly and consistently, is practically a science. For that reason, we come to expect that not every comedian will make it big, and that not every joke they tell will make us laugh. We know that an impressive hit rate is difficult to maintain, and we adjust our expectations accordingly, striking a balance between how much we’d like to be entertained, and how much we can reasonably expect of a fellow flawed human being.

But, sometimes, a particular comedian is doomed from the start. He is not only incapable of making us laugh, but he’s without control over his material, his audience, or even his demeanor. It’s tragic when this happens, and painfully awkward. The floundering comedian is an effective and offputting archetype, and that’s why writers have dipped into this well repeatedly, crafting characters fated to bomb every time, doomed to botch every punchline, making us laugh not warmly, but defensively, and with discomfort.

In the interesting cases of these comedians, laughing at their material means you missed the joke. Here are 10 examples of that irony personified.

1) Fozzie Bear (The Muppet Show)

There’s perhaps no better cultural touchpoint for the ill-equipped comedian than Fozzie Bear, and his signature “wocka wocka” has wormed its way into our vernacular as well, becoming rightfully associated with sub-par material and limp gags. Fozzie’s routine was dated before he was born, relying on simple puns and vaudeville showmanship to generate rapturous laughter and applause that never comes. He’s also, however, eminently sympathetic, which is not only why we like him, but why Kermit keeps him around, and gives him another chance every week to die on stage. With two old curmudgeons heckling him from the balcony above, we are free from the desire to criticize his act, and can instead turn our attention to the uplifting fact that no matter how poorly he’s received, Fozzie’s always devoted enough to his craft to throw away what doesn’t work — in his case, everything — and write a whole new act from scratch. We’d love to see Dane Cook follow his lead.

2) Jimmy Valmer (South Park)

Jimmy Valmer is a special case, in several senses of the word. For one, he’s an 8-year-old boy, which means — unlike Fozzie and everyone else on this list — he isn’t disappointed that he hasn’t made it further in his comedy career. After all, that’s still to come! But he also suffers from several obvious physical handicaps. No matter; Jimmy wants only to make the world laugh, an ambition that’s downright touching by South Park standards, and one made all the more unfortunate by his chronic stutter, which causes him to step on his own punchlines and prevents him from honing his delivery…or even intelligibility. His jokes are about what you would expect from an 8-year-old boy — meaning his material is about as mature as could reasonably be expected and therefore, again, elevates him above the other entries on this list — but they actually seem to work. Stan, Kyle, Cartman, Kenny and the rest of the boys accept him relatively happily for who he is, functioning just fine within their social circle, and he’s not defined in their eyes by his handicaps. No, instead Jimmy is treated exactly as poorly as they treat anyone else. That’s the healing power of humor.

3) Randy (Funny People)

Aziz Ansari is a genuinely gifted comic, and as Parks and Recreation demonstrates weekly, he’s also a talented actor. Both of those things allowed him to bring to life Randy, a pitch-perfect exaggeration — though only just — of a comedian so manic and animated that it completely masks the dire quality of the material he’s delivering. The greatest stand-up comics raised their volume for emphasis. Those from Randy’s school of performing, on the other hand, do it to drown out audience thought, keeping them cheaply engaged and laughing hollowly so that they won’t realize there isn’t any substance. Funny People is just one of many movies that Ansari steals wholesale from their ostensible stars, and the character of Randy has gone on to a have a full life outside the film: Ansari deploys him during his actual stand-up routines now, perhaps as a point of comparison to his normal material, but more likely as a cathartic blow against more popular, more profitable contemporaries of his, who cash larger paychecks but don’t have anything worth saying. Randy may be a popular draw within the world of the film, but all he really does is pull audiences away from more deserving performers.

4) Kenny Bania (Seinfeld)

In contrast to Randy, Kenny Bania is a hack we actually tend to like. Like Fozzie Bear before him, we feel protective of Kenny Bania, as though we don’t trust that he’ll survive the cruel world of stand-up comedy. Even the typically staid Jerry breaks down his personal barriers and takes Bania under his wing — however temporarily. Bania is overjoyed by the simplest, laziest pieces of observational humor, often interrupting his mentor with a sincere and irony-free exclamation of “That’s gold, Jerry! Gold!” His perpetual enthusiasm and sunniness is a rare thing for the Seinfeld gang, and it’s no wonder that he made several appearances during the show’s run, becoming more successful as a comic, but never getting any better or any wiser. Bania was given the ultimate compliment long after Seinfeld ended, by being one of very few recurring characters resurrected for that show’s “reunion” episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Unlike the profoundly irritating Randy, whose success seems to grow as your faith in humanity diminishes, Bania is more of an infectiously adorable nuisance, and it’s nice to know that he’s still out there somewhere, as ecstatic as ever over jokes that aren’t as clever as he thinks they are.

5) Krusty the Clown (The Simpsons)

Krusty the Clown has provided us with much cause for laughter over the years…just not where he wanted us to find it. His Krusty the Clown Show sketches are the stuff of huge mustaches and pie fights, something that might be written by somebody who grew up watching classic comedians, but could never figure out why they were supposed to be funny. In fact, his comedy routines are so poor that they drove at least one of his previous sidekicks to criminal insanity. The humor behind Krusty comes from the incongruity of his situation: he’s a children’s entertainer who openly dislikes children, even when the cameras are rolling. His drug and booze fueled lifestyle allow him to coast lazily through whatever appearances he’s contractually obligated to make, but beyond that he’s a comedian who doesn’t particularly care whether or not you find him funny…he gets paid either way. In fact, in one episode (“The Last Temptation of Krust”) Krusty does become inspired to develop as a stand-up comedian, and achieves a new peak of notability with his more mature, insightful material. And then, of course, somebody offers him money, and he realizes that that’s his real passion. Krusty isn’t a hack because he doesn’t have the talent; he’s a hack because he’d rather make easy money than work hard. It’s an ethos so powerful and seductive that it eventually infected the writing of The Simpsons itself.

6) Dee Reynolds (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia)

You’d be hard pressed to describe any of the main characters in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia as sympathetic, but you’d probably have the easiest time with Dee, if only because she seems to be aware that she’s missing out on something greater in the world. For all their grumbling and groaning, Mac, Dennis, Charlie and Frank are all actually pretty content where they are, and with who they are. They don’t have much of a desire to achieve even a measure of self-awareness, let alone anything bigger for themselves. Dee, on the other hand, does have aspirations: she wants to be an actress. With so little experience and talent behind her, though, she isn’t even sure where to begin, which is why she regularly subjects herself to delivering dire stand-up comedy at The Laff House. She explains this to Charlie — the only one in whom she’s confided about her performances — by saying she’s paying her dues. After all, if she wants to be an actress, she has to learn how to hold an audience. Fair enough, but when her set degenerates immediately into a series of painful and repulsive dry heaves, it’s clear that this is a gesture of self-mutilation, rather than any experience she’s likely to benefit from. Charlie, meanwhile, eats cat food. He’s the happier one.

7) Geoff Tipps (The League of Gentlemen)

The brilliant third series of The League of Gentlemen found many of its characters being thrust well outside of their comfort zones, an evolutionary direction for the show that resulted in much of its best — if not necessarily funniest — material. For Geoff Tips, this meant leaving the small town of Royston Vasey to pursue a stand-up comedy career in London. This is not a career change that’s destined to go well, particularly as we’ve already seen him botch jokes so badly that he’s threatened to shoot people for not laughing, and play practical jokes on his friends that involve him staging a gory suicide in a restaurant bathroom. Comedy is not Geoff’s forte, but it is his passion, and so, when he loses his job in “Turn Again, Geoff Tipps”, the comedy club is the first place he turns. Of course he bombs in more ways than one, not only allowing his act to dissolve into a shouting match with dissatisfied audience members, but also by serving as the unwitting chauffeur for a terrorist car bomb on behalf of the IRA. Still, you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you?

8) GOB and Franklin Bluth (Arrested Development)

Comedy is not GOB Bluth’s strong point. Nor is puppeteering. Nor music. Nor ventriloquism nor respecting the delicacy of race relations. It’s pretty clear then that his act with Franklin is going to go about as well as anything else he’s done. That won’t stop GOB, however, because GOB is one of those people who believes that everything he does is being done well, simply by virtue of the fact that it’s he who is doing it. He sees himself as preternaturally gifted in all areas he attempts to explore, and often this premature self-satisfaction is so seductive that others get sucked in as well. In the case of Franklin Delano Bluth — the puppet who reminds us that it’s not easy being brown — however there’s not much to get on board with. His racially-charged banter with the dead-eyed Franklin is stymied by the fact GOB can’t keep his lips from moving, ultimately resulting in his desperately hiding a tape recorder inside the puppet as a substitute for using his own voice. Unfortunately, GOB’s lips still move, even though he’s not saying anything, and the act is just as doomed as it ever was. As a character, GOB rarely says or does anything genuinely clever; rather, he works so well as a comic figure because of just how artfully he gets everything wrong. And speaking of puppets…

9) Joe Beazley and Cheeky Monkey (Knowing Me, Knowing You… With Alan Partridge)

Of all the characters on this list, Joe Beazley and Cheeky Monkey are the only ones who have just a single appearance to their credit. Even Randy continued to exist outside of the film that gave him life. Joe Beazley and Cheeky Monkey, however, so thoroughly squandered their chance at fame that they were never heard from again, in any form, ever. Just one of many, many, many things to go wrong for Alan Partridge on his ABBA-inspired chat show, Joe Beazley — suffering obvious and debilitating stage fright — bungles his performance so badly than Alan is forced to shut it down almost immediately…much to Joe’s chagrin. Joe starts out by bungling a joke that he improvised just minutes before in the green room, and it only gets worse from there. This comedy misfire wasn’t quite as damaging to Alan’s television career as the fact that he later shot another guest through the heart with a dueling pistol on live television, but the bitter taste of Joe Beazley’s routine with Cheeky Monkey lingers on to this day; he was one of the performers Alan saw fit to call out and specifically berate in his recent memoir, I, Partridge. Alan’s not one to let go of disappointment easily, and this laugh-free puppet fiasco affected him so profoundly that he used it as justification for never again giving up-and-coming performers a break. Ooh, you cheeky monkey.

10) Steve Martin

Why are we ending on an actual comedian? Well, because Steve Martin, in terms of his stand-up anyway, was always a very deliberate creation. What you saw on stage wasn’t Steve Martin the man, but Steve Martin the character. His arrow through the head, his balloon animals, his belabored “Well ex-cuu-uu-uuse me!” were all meant as clever pieces of anti-comedy. When he took to the stage, he did so as a walking caricature of the worst that stand-up comedy had to offer. Needless to say, audiences loved it, and Martin was given higher profile gigs, such as a record-breaking number of appearances on Saturday Night Live, and also more classic films than we can remember. The public initially decided they loved Steve Martin because he shined a spotlight on things that weren’t funny, but he did so in such an endearingly committed way that they just had to laugh. And then, once he had everybody’s attention, he showed the world that he knew comedy so well that he’s since stood as an important cultural fixture, spanning decades while lesser comedians — including many who unintentionally resembled the act that made him famous — came and went. And the moral of Steve Martin’s story is the most important lesson to keep in mind here: anyone can write a bad joke, but it takes a sincerely gifted people to craft these characters that are so perfectly bad in all the best ways.

It should be clear to readers of this blog that music is extremely important to me — what with the fact that a whole two previous posts were tagged as having to do with music and they both consist entirely of context-free YouTube clips — and so nothing bothers me more than seeing it disrespected.

Of course, being human beings (and, more to the point, being Americans), disrespecting something is the first thing we do when money is involved, and compromising artistic integrity is a close second. Hence the use — or misuse, or abuse — of excellent songs in commercials that seem to be suspiciously engineered to retroactively drain respectability from anyone who ever enjoyed the songs therein.

Here are ten of the worst offenders that come to mind. Please feel free to leave more in the comments, so that I can become even more upset, and have another reason to stomp loudly in small circles around my house.

1) “Boom Boom,” John Lee Hooker, 1962. Ruined by Chili’s.


I won’t pretend to know what “Boom Boom” is about, if, of course, it’s about anything. But I will absolutely guarantee that it’s not about the mediocre defrosted dinner platters they serve at Chili’s for the scarily inexpensive price of $20 for two. To say that John Lee Hooker helped shape rock and roll is to sell him short. To say that John Lee Hooker was a blues guitar god is closer to the truth, but still not enough. “Boom Boom” has a lot of Hooker’s great musicianship on display, so much so that it’s really just an excuse to jam, but that doesn’t stop Chili’s from appropriating his signature “a-haw haw haw haw” to make it sound less like he’s lusting after the irresistible sexiness of a woman strutting past him in the bar and more like he’s craving some artless slab of heat-lamp meat. Cue inappropriately excitable solo, I guess.

2) “Bargain,” The Who, 1971. Ruined by Nissan.


I couldn’t find a video for this one, but you can reconstruct it in your mind: a 2000 Nissan Pathfinder drives through puddles and around a mountain while a great but irrelevant song plays behind it. Absolutely worth the money, Nissan, as you mean to assure us, I guess, that the sticker price of your forgettable SUV is “a bargain.” And not just any bargain, but the best bargain I’ve ever had! Well, I have no idea how much this particular gas guzzler sold for so I’m not sure it was cheap, but what they did to this song sure was. Pete Townshend has probably single-handedly written a larger number of truly brilliant spiritual rock songs than any other human being on the planet, and that’s due in part to the fact that he knows how to write them without tipping anyone off that they’re spiritual. That includes a huge number of his most popular songs, including “Baba O’Riley,” “Join Together,” “The Seeker,” and, yes, “Bargain.” What, you thought it was about love? Well, it was. It was about God’s love. And now it’s about the love of the warm engine of a sports utility vehicle. Looks like you lost that enlightenment before you ever knew you had it.

3) “Use Me,” Bill Withers, 1972. Ruined by Pringles.


This is actually the usage that inspired this article, as “Use Me” pleasantly surprised me on my iPod and I started wishing I could hear this song again without imagining a sentient pipe of Pringles singing it to me. Was this one really worth co-opting to advertise your pressed potato dust, guys? It’s a song sung by a guy who enjoys fucking his girlfriend so much that he doesn’t really care that she’s sapping the life out of him. Its porno thump adds an erotic emphasis to a tragic situation, and it’s eminently grooveable. So why did we need to stage a pool party where Mr. Pringles is the guest of honor, serenading his fans as they reach into his greasy hole for another helping? Bill Withers was an accomplished lyricist and a truly blessed musician. He crafted pop songs that revealed themselves layer by layer, and that easily hold up through the best that any subsequent generation has to offer. He married complex but engaging arrangements to unforgettable lyrical hooks, and tapped into emotions so simple that only the truly gifted songwriters could serviceably explore them. Also, a Pringles can is singing it in a pool. Because of course it fucking is.

4) “Revolution,” The Beatles, 1968. Ruined by Nike.


Okay, so “Use Me” might have been the first example of a great song ruined by commercial usage to come to mind for me, but for nearly everybody else who was alive to see it, this would be the headliner. I was too young to really understand The Beatles when this happened, and even I remember feeling dirty having watched it. “Revolution” is nowhere near the best that music’s most important band had to offer, but it was a pretty clear and concise statement on the part of John Lennon, a snarky and already fed-up “fuck you” to the still-burgeoning Woodstock generation. You want a revolution? Start one. Don’t talk about it, don’t fuck around, don’t sit in your mother’s basement all day smoking up. Get off your ass — or I guess he’d say arse — and do something. “Do something like buy some shoes?” Nike asked. Lennon, being long dead, hesitated to reply and that was confirmation enough for them. Yes, “Revolution” stands in stark contrast to his later love-in anthems “Give Peace a Chance” and “Imagine,” so I can understand that some listeners might come away from Lennon’s output with a muddled view of what the man actually wanted. Was he peacemaker or revolutionary? You’ll get a different answer depending upon which decade of his music you consult, but I think it’s safe to conclude that “shoe salesman” was never on his list.

5) “Like a Rock,” Bob Seger, 1986. Ruined by Chevrolet.


I could fill this article easily with automobile commercials alone, but there’s probably no more deserving representation than what Chevy did to Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock.” The song has been the theme song for Chevy’s truck commercials for more than a decade, and the title has become their slogan. In other words, this isn’t just the irrelevant score to some rolling footage…this is theirs now, so much so that you’re far more likely to encounter it on television than you are the radio. Which is a shame, because “Like a Rock” is actually a pretty great song, which I’m embarrassed to say because it’s difficult to disassociate it from its marketing purposes. Bob Seger built an entire career out of these nostalgic, looking-backward songs, including “Against the Wind,” “Night Moves,” “Still the Same,” and even the maddeningly shitty “Old Time Rock and Roll.” And they all seem to get used (and overused) in television shows, films, commercials, and anything else that seeks to tap into our nostalgic impulses for better days long gone. Bob Seger was making songs that felt old fashioned even when they were new. The problem was that he was good at it, and you can’t be good at anything for long without somebody stepping in for a cut. Bob Seger’s songs feel like quaint punchlines now, when they were once evocative of real memories, real feelings, and real emotion. Perhaps they should have been confined to classic rock radio, where they really belonged.

6) “I Melt With You,” Modern English, 1982. Ruined by Hershey’s.


This one might be a bit of a cheat as I don’t think I can call “I Melt With You” a great song and keep a straight face, but it’s certainly some sturdy, serviceable pop, and it has its charm and its appeal. It’s effortlessly fluffy and utterly hollow, but its “to hell with everything, we’ve got each other and we can do anything” moral is wish-fulfillment on a pretty universal scale, and I mean that as a compliment. Enter Hershey’s, who crafts the creepiest damn characters since Duracell’s Putterman family and asks these dripping humanoid chocolate monstrosities to sing “I Melt With You” as though that might be something even remotely pleasant for a creature made of candy to consider. Embedded above is the holiday variation of this commercial, with overdubbed sleighbells, in which the family is singing it together as a carol, just in case there was anyone out there who wasn’t totally convinced already that Hershey didn’t give a fuck what things it was cramming together in order to sell chocolate bars.

7) “Brown Sugar,” The Rolling Stones, 1971. Ruined by Pepsi.


The Rolling Stones are no strangers to having their songs reappropriated for marketing purposes, what with Microsoft Windows all too happy to suggest that their operating system is capable of making a dead man cum, but they’ve actually been pretty lucky overall. If I were making a list of good uses of great songs in commercials, for instance, I’d absolutely have to include Apple’s “She’s a Rainbow” ads, showcasing the amount of colors in which you could buy their products. It’s every bit as shallow in theory as anything else on this list, but in practice it was the perfect marriage of visual concept and aural emphasis. It was short, it was cute, it was bubbly, and it was fun. It was also, obviously, memorable. Unfortunately, so is this Pepsi commercial, in which a mosquito drinks some flat pop off a filthy counter and immediately starts singing about giving enthusiastic oral sex to a slutty black chick. “Wait,” says a voice from 1990-something. “Were we supposed to listen to these songs before or after we bought the rights to them?” But there is no reply, and he will never know.

8) “Lust For Life,” Iggy Pop, 1977. Ruined by Royal Caribbean.


Speaking of not listening to these songs, does Royal Caribbean really want people to associate it with “liquor and drugs” as a lifestyle choice? The commercial emphasizes the enormous variety of experiences you can have aboard their luxury liners, which is probably not something that will benefit passengers who spend the entire trip on the floor of their cabin with needles in their arms. In all seriousness, why would any company in their right mind, particularly one advertising family vacations, want to align themselves professionally with an overt paean to heroin addiction? The image of Iggy Pop shuffling shirtlessly across the shuffleboard deck and gyrating all up on grandma is likely to make people give up on cruises as vacation options altogether. Which, hey, isn’t actually such a bad thing. Gyrate on, Iggy Pop. Gyrate on.

9) “Gimme Some Money,” Spinal Tap, 1984. Ruined by American Express.


To this day I’m not sure that American Express is aware that this isn’t a real song. Or maybe I should say that Spinal Tap isn’t a real band. It’s possible that somebody in their marketing department thought that this could work as a knowing nod to the comedy-savvy consumers in the audience (who also, hopefully, needed credit cards with terrifying terms and conditions), but even if I was supremely generous and willing to grant that, what point does this make? “Gimme Some Money” is, like all of the songs in that film, a genre pastiche at best. It’s not particularly funny on its own…it was meant to be representative of a type of music that a type of band was writing in a particular cultural climate. It’s not even representative of the present-day band in the film…so what is it doing here? I keep thinking about the great featurette Mark Mothersbaugh provided for The Life Aquatic. He talks about how nice it is — or, sadly, was — working with Wes Anderson, because the score was always an organic part of the creative process and not something slapped on after the fact. He lamented the fact that there is computer software available to film makers that allows them to input whatever situations they like (his example was “he’s putting on a red bow-tie”) and have it generate a list of pop songs with similar things happening in their lyrics, so that nobody involved in the production would have to give the soundtrack much thought at all. I think that’s what happened here. The song has “money” in the title and “money” in the lyrics, and AmEx had their mind on that money and that money on their mind. Dog.

10) “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Marvin Gaye, 1968. Ruined by The California Raisin Advisory Board.


Yes, I know Marvin Gaye didn’t write this one, but it’s his version most of us remember. Or, it would be, if it weren’t for the claymation racial caricatures that caused this song to become forever associated with raisins. As much as I claimed “Like a Rock” was actually a good song stripped of its reputation by a truck commercial, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is a certified masterpiece. It’s a disarming dirge about a man who finds out that he’s been cuckolded, but he doesn’t even find this out first-hand: he hears it from everybody else first. His life has come crashing down, and he was the last to know. How long could this have continued? How long has he been living a lie? And what does he do now? The singer seems to be fixated on the fact that he wasn’t told first-hand, and he pretends to be getting upset about that, but that’s a psychological sleight of hand that prevents him from having to address the core truth: he doesn’t have her anymore. It’s a great song and one of the true classics of popular music, so of course we had to put it in the mouths of these purple Al Jolson heads as they perform their little minstrel show. The obvious blackface caricatures that were the California Raisins make this reappropriation an only slightly less racist marketing move than if the Board had additionally adopted the slogan “Raisins! Like watermelon seeds you can eat!” Some might say that Marvin Gaye’s greatest misfortune was when he was murdered in cold blood by his own father. But we know better, dear reader. Yes, we do.

Oh, and also, here’s an 11th and I don’t care. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” It’s a genuinely brilliant song. Stop putting it in every fucking commercial that can’t come up with its own music. THANKS.

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