Review: A Soul’s Calling, Scott Bishop

A Soul's Calling, by Scott BishopFTC Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in exchange for review. No money changed hands and all opinions presented here are my own.

When I was a boy, I used to go camping with my father. During one of these trips, my brother and I decided to take a little walk together. We didn’t think we walked very far, but trying to find our way back to the campsite was difficult. Everything looked the same and the return trip took at least five times as long as the journey out. Ultimately, though, we found our way back.

That which you have just read is true. But it is not, I absolutely hasten to add, a story. It might be an anecdote, but I doubt it’d be a very entertaining one. More likely it’s the sort of thing I might bring up with a group of friends, all of whom are exchanging brief, inconsequential narratives on the same theme (being lost, childhood memories, camping with kids…). But even in the right context, it doesn’t become a story. It’s just something that in some (but certainly not all) cases might be worth repeating.

I could drag it out, certainly. I could add reams of accurate detail that may well make the recitation more vivid for my listeners, but the compounding of unnecessary detail doesn’t turn it into a story either, and without a great deal of fictionalization, it never could be one.

There’s nothing wrong with fictionalization. At least, not within the context of fiction. (That’s kind of where the word comes from.) Fictionalization is a good thing for stories. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the single most important thing. Storytelling is an art, and art lives and dies by the talent of the artist. We might be fine listening to a close friend tell us about a personal experience, and in that case we might feel cheated if we later found out he was embellishing it excessively.

However when we pick up a novel, we don’t want to read a dry recitation of something that the author did. First of all, that’s not what a novel is. And secondly, the novelist needs to demonstrate, in some way, a mastery of his art. This can take many forms, of course; it can be the active and deliberate bafflement of Joyce or the intense simplicity of Hemingway. It can — even better — be one of numberless possibilities in between those two extremes.

But an artist has to do something, otherwise he isn’t creating art. He’s just saying things.

A Soul’s Calling, a novel based on author Scott Bishop’s experience of hiking to the base camp at Everest, just says things.

It’s admittedly difficult to issue this as a universal criticism, especially since the writing in A Soul’s Calling isn’t uniformly bad, but this is essentially a long, long first-draft that is in dire need of a more compelling rewrite. As it stands it reads no better than my camping anecdote, but takes around 1,700 times as long to finish saying nothing. And that’s the problem. Some of my favorite pieces of writing “say nothing,” but they say it in so moving, amusing, or thrilling a way that the act of saying nothing becomes a kind of art unto itself. It takes — or, rather, is sculpted into — a shape, a series of shapes, patterns within patterns that compose themselves into larger movements and statements. That’s what fiction is for.

A Soul’s Calling doesn’t do that. It presents copious details in the hopes that obsessive accuracy will eventually conjure up its own kind of interest in the reader. But it does not.

To be honest, I’m not even sure I should be judging this book as a novel. Its back cover refers to it as a novel, yes, but it also refers it as a memoir…and those two things are mutually exclusive. You can’t actually be both. You can be a Nabokov-esque memoir of a fictional character, or you can be a Vonnegut-like fictionalized memoir, but in each case you’re still writing a novel, and the format (or intention) of memoir becomes a utility…a filter through which that novel is read.

That is not what we have here, and though I’m making a bit of an executive decision by calling it a novel, I think the presence of spirits and talking mountains and a main character who receives visions of an apocalyptic future that he alone can avoid somehow by making this journey all seat the book firmly in the category of “fiction.”

If any of that seems to be out of place for a story about a journey to Everest, then you might be disappointed to learn that it’s also completely unnecessary, and — to be honest — nonsensically handled. When Kurt Vonnegut takes us away from the real-life horrors of World War II to make comical digressions to an extra-terrestrial zoo, or Thomas Pynchon sees it fit to insert a sentient mechanical duck into the surveying party of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, they do so in order to make colorful points about the things we think we’re familiar with…in order to slant our perspectives enough that we can view the familiar in a new and unexpected way.

However when Bishop employs these strange intrusions, they serve only to confuse his intentions. What’s more, they ring loudly as artificial and empty gestures. After all, when George Mallory was asked why he intended to climb Mount Everest, he famously (and maybe apocryphally) replied with three words that have been connected with the mountain ever since: “Because it’s there.”

Everest is, within our cultural landscape, a mountain whose conquering legendarily requires no justification. It is in itself a justification. If reaching its peak is understood universally as being entirely free from — and separate from — mere human reasoning, then I’m not sure why we need urgent entreaties from the Spirit Realm to justify the comparatively minor trek to its base camp.

The real problem, though, is that this unnecessary justification fails to even justify itself. There’s nothing inherently wrong with making the protagonist the “Chosen One” who alone can prevent massive calamity on a universal scale; this has been the backbone of everything from The Bible to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There are countless places you can go with the idea, which is what keeps it from feeling stale in the right hands. It may come across as somewhat trite, but it’s an acceptable triteness that we expect will pay off in some interesting flourishes along the way.

In A Soul’s Calling, however, the protagonist / narrator (who shares a name with the author) some emissaries from the spirit world turn up, tell “Scott” that he needs to journey to the base camp at Everest, and then essentially disappear from the novel entirely. We do hear from them again, but they never actually explain what the issue is, what exact function “Scott’s” journey will serve, or why “Scott” was chosen at all. In fact, every time the narrator describes these conversations or visions, he lapses into an evasive textual shrug, admitting that he can’t really explain what he saw or heard…so, I guess, we just have to trust him when he says that his ethereal Princess Leia assured him he was our only hope. Whether or not he was qualified to shoulder the burden of universal salvation I can’t say, but as a reader I’m absolutely positive he’s not qualified to narrate if he can’t tell us about the most interesting things in the book.

Part of me wants to see this as a deliberate evasion. It wants me to read these moments — and there are many of them — as evidence of unreliable narration. That would indeed go a long way toward turning A Soul’s Calling into a work of art, as opposed to a collection of pages. But that part of me easily loses the war against another part of me: the one that read the book. Bishop’s inexplicable and unexplained forays into a spiritual justification for the trip are simply a baffling obstacle lost in the midst of so many other baffling obstacles, and it becomes an unintentional running joke that the narrator preemptively defends himself against the logical faculties of his audience, assuring us openly that these spiritual visitations — which occur when he’s in bed with his eyes closed — are not dreams. Why are they not dreams? Because they’re not dreams. That’s why. Well, that’s me told I guess.

Even if I could accept that “Scott” were the only hope for both this world and the spiritual world, and that his trip to and back from the base camp at Everest would somehow avoid The Biggest Apocalypse Ever, I absolutely cannot accept that, as a writer, Bishop so eagerly buries the lede.

If you were personally visited by spirits who told you that you needed to perform some earthly task in order to prevent the Alleged Cosmic Implosion of All That Ever Was and Will Be, and you did that thing, you’d then be pretty eager to tell everyone about it. Right? I know I would. But I also know that I’d spend a lot of my time talking about the spirits and the apocalypse, and probably wouldn’t spend nearly all of 340 pages methodically documenting that earthly task instead. And I suspect your narration would have a similar bent. “Scott,” on the other hand, waives away interest in the spirits, and thinks we’re more interested in how many times he stops for Pringles along the way to base camp.

The story here is that “Scott” was visited by ambassadors from another realm — a realm most human beings don’t even know exist — and assigned an urgent task that alone can avoid total intergalactic destruction…but Bishop thinks the story is that he took a difficult walk through the Himalayas. And I simply cannot abide that oversight. After all, that’s what prevents this from being a story, and restricts it to being instead a sloppily-framed and long-winded anecdote.

There are lots of other issues at play here, as well, including a massively problematic relationship at the book’s core. “Scott” and his guide Tej feud constantly on their way to Everest. To his credit, the narrator understands that this relationship is strained. To his much larger debit, he never realizes that the reason it’s strained is that he keeps arguing with Tej, childishly overriding his experienced council, and insisting that they do things “Scott’s” way. After all, Tej has only spent a lifetime physically guiding people along this exact route…and “Scott” has done several nights’ worth of reading on the Internet, so clearly he should be stubbornly disregarding everything his guide is so emphatically trying to tell him.

I was absolutely astounded by the way this played out between the narrator and Tej. All along I was expecting “Scott” to learn his lesson, but no, A Soul’s Calling wants us to believe that the moody American was right all along, and Tej was out of line for questioning him.

I’ve never seen anything like this. I kept expecting “Scott” to receive his comeuppance in some way and realize that the rich and beautiful world he’s so desperately trying to make conform to his expectations is actually the world he should be opening himself to. I find it hard to imagine a version of The Darjeeling Limited in which the Whitman brothers learn that it was smart of them to cling to their possessions and petty grievances, and I find it impossible to imagine that that would work at all as a film. When you fight against accepting another’s culture, the audiences laugh at you because they know better. When you stop resisting, the audience is on your side because you learned your lesson. In A Soul’s Calling however the opposite happens, and the audience is meant to be glad that “Scott” had the willpower to resist the foolish guidance of his (ahem…) guide. And I’ve never seen anything like that before. It genuinely hurt to read.

There’s more I could talk about at this point — such as the narrator’s explanation that every person who’s ever disliked him in life was actually being manipulated by evil spirits (which must be pretty nice, as everyone who’s ever disliked me in my life has done so because I was a dick to them in some way…you know, something that I’m actually responsible for as a human being and therefore must learn a lesson from) — but I think I’ve said enough.

A Soul’s Calling could have had some value, at least potentially, as a dry yet meticulous travelogue, but it ultimately fails there as well because the travel comes across as dead and routine. The narrator arrives somewhere, Tej tells him to go one way, the narrator throws a tantrum and goes another, the narrator gets exhausted, the narrator leans on a rock, the narrator tells us about something he read on the internet, and the narrator goes to sleep in a lodge. It’s just a simple, cyclical repetition of the same few ideas, with no substance or character at all, making this magical and important journey feel more like a boring car ride during which nobody feels like looking out the windows.

I’d like to read a version of A Soul’s Calling that makes something of its own components. I want to know what the spirits are talking about, exactly, rather than getting a spill of vague gibberish about them every one hundred pages or so. I want to see the narrator grapple with the possibility that the spirits aren’t real, and that he might actually be losing his grip on reality, just as any human being would. And most importantly, I want to see the narrator face some consequences for his behavior toward other people, without simply being able to handwave their disgust as being due to the interference of some invisible boogey man.

Because what we have isn’t a story. It’s a recitation of things that happen, yes, but it’s not a story. And it’s not a novel, and it’s not a memoir, and it’s not a travelogue. It’s a numbered collection of pages, and it’s waiting for somebody to give it shape. I hope somebody does; it’ll undoubtedly be for the better.

FTC Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in exchange for review. No money changed hands and all opinions presented here are my own.

Day 11: Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

On the eleventh day of Christmas, Zach Kaplan gave to us…

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

Every nerd has something they collect. Some try to track down every issue of their favorite comic book, some relish rare video games, and others are simply satisfied with collecting themselves after a brutal de-pantsing. I collected the work of Dr. Seuss.

Growing up, my bookshelves were filled with all number of works by Seuss, both under his usual monicker and pseudonyms Theo LeSieg and Rosetta Stone. I had rare books like his risqué adult novel The Seven Lady Godivas, collections of his World War II-era comics and advertisements and a copy of his terrible movie, The 500 Fingers of Dr. T. My father would back-order out-of-print works for me, and my favorite place to visit was the book store. So, needless to say, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! was the only special that fully suited my youthful Christmas needs.

Like most of Seuss’s books, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! outlined an important message: Christmas doesn’t come from a store; it comes from the warm feelings of those we care about, and a sense of fun and togetherness. Christmas day is in our grasp, as long as we have hands to clasp (sorry, stump-o’s).

On its surface, it’s a sentiment that doesn’t look like much. Of course, with the wonderful rhyming patterns, made-up words like “chimbley” and winning illustrations, it wasn’t hard to make the message a more appealing one. But as a Seuss-o-phile, this resonated to me on a different level. Seuss’s stories were generally allegories for big, important things – Yertle the Turtle is Napoleon or Hitler, Horton Hears a Who is about the bombing and occupation of Japan (and dedicated to “My Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan”), The Butter Battle Book is about the Cold War. Why place the meaning of Christmas alongside such incisive analyses?

Religiously, I grew up in a household that none of my largely Christian schoolmates could fathom without a few questions. My mother was raised Episcopalian, but I don’t remember her ever being religious. My father is Jewish, but again, not very religious besides observing the high holy days and Hanukkah – though even the former practice began in my adolescence. Every year, we celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas. I have fond memories of decorating our Christmas tree and lighting our menorah, illuminated as it was by an array of Christmas lights.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

I called myself a “reform Jew”, but I think all along I knew I was atheist. No matter how hard I tried to convince myself, I did not believe in God. Even without going to church every Sunday, God was assumed to exist by everyone around me – and, thus, that I believed as well. I sat by while friends called other friends “stupid” for not believing in Him before I was out of the atheist closet myself.

I was surrounded by Christianity in my suburban Texas town. Churches were everywhere. A girl that I liked was baffled by my disbelief in the miracles of Jesus. I uncomfortably sat through an assembly that was described as a talent show for teachers, where one instructor gave a brief but passionate Evangelical sermon. The Daily Show came to my hometown to interview members of a group who, in reaction to the building of a mosque, held pig races on Friday nights. A barbecue restaurant I drove past every day was in the news a few years ago for its refusal to take down a graphic image of an Iranian man being lynched. It wasn’t hard for me to develop some mixed feelings about religion, and subsequently about Christmas. Doctors told me that my heart was dangerously close to shrinking three sizes.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, the TV special, brought the wonderful world of Dr. Seuss straight to America’s sets every year, and that was a special thing for me. Without having something like that, I may have become a much more bitter person than I did. It brought the story to life, and it didn’t need Jim Carrey’s signature jumping and screaming to get it done.

It only expanded on the kernel of goodness that was the original novel, along with the memorable voice acting of Boris Karloff and the chasm-deep tones of singer Thurl Ravenscroft, also known for his famous portrayal of Tony the Tiger. It also gave color to the world of the Whos, whose existence in the book was originally limited to Seuss’s stylistic choice of only including the color red. For the budding literary geek I was, turns of phrase like “you’ve got termites in your smile,” “your heart’s a dead tomato splotched with moldy, purple spots” and “your soul is an appalling dump-heap overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable, mangled-up in tangled-up knots,” stuck in my memory and inspired me to create fiction of my own.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

But let’s return to my original query – why would a Christmas special be written by Dr. Seuss, whose most accomplished pre-children’s work was his co-authorship of Design for Death, a 1947 Academy Award-winning documentary about World War II and the occupation of Japan? As a child, however, my reverence for Seuss assured me that I ought to trust him on this one, to enjoy Christmas in spite of my schoolmates’ bemused bafflement at what they considered a devastating personal flaw in me.

I was reminded to not get too annoyed by the constant barrage of carols every time I went to a store, and to remember that Christmas doesn’t have to be about religion – it can be about togetherness and love. And it reminded me that not everyone who had faith was the barbecue bigot down the street.

Today I fully identify as an atheist. And yet every year, my wife and I set up our Christmas tree, deck our halls and watch Christmas special after Christmas special. The Grinch may have tried to steal Christmas, but he gave me a very important gift – an understanding that even though the world isn’t perfect and that there will always be closed-minded people, Christmas should be a celebration of what we have in common, not a magnification of our differences.

Thank goodness I have hands to clasp.

Tomorrow: Spend Christmas Eve with Ebenezer. No, not that one.

The 10 Episodes of The Office That Aren’t Shit

The final season of The Office began last week, with the lowest-rated premiere the show’s ever had. Even lower than the premiere of the first season, which I’m pretty sure was only watched by people so that they could give it a voodoo curse. As far as season 9’s premiere? I think more people witnessed the birth of Christ. So I thought it would be fitting to look for the silver lining on the cloud of crap, and highlight each of the 10 times that the US version of the show succeeded in not being utter shit.

I know I’ll be accused of exaggerating here, but, honestly, I think I’m totally justified in saying that there were, in fact, ten distinct times that The Office rose above the level of “outright garbage” and succeeded in being “arguably watchable.” You may think I’m being too generous, but I think it’s quite fair.

So join me now as we look back at the ten times The Office managed to narrowly beat the odds, and become something that didn’t reflect poorly on viewers everywhere.

“The Fire,” Season 2, Episode 4

Why It’s Not Shit: Whenever anybody tells you Ryan is their favorite character, they’re unquestionably referring to the Ryan of the first few seasons. It didn’t take The Office long to undo what could have been their richest and most interesting character, reducing him to a generic hipster stereotype and robbing him of his complicated brilliance. This episode sees the Ryan and Michael dynamic at its best, with a truly well-handled and ever-shifting sense of power: first Michael attempts to mentor him, then ridicules him for the vast knowledge he already has, then humbly appeals for guidance himself, and finally, with irrelevant triumph, puts Ryan back in place by taunting him about a small fire he accidentally started. It’s a great, real, character-driven story that shows these two characters being the flawed — often awful — human beings they are, without resorting to caricature or cartooniness.

Why It’s Actually Still Kind of Shit: Jim leads the rest of the office in a few time-killing games during the evacuation. That’s fine, but one of them is the rather baldly intentional “Who Would You Do?” The rest of the desert-island exercises are fun, but openly asking “yo who do you want to stick your genitals in” to coworkers he barely knows comes off as perverse, and a bit revolting. Additionally, it’s odd that Kevin gets yelled at for saying “Pam” before Jim finishes telling everyone how the game is played. This makes it seem as though Kevin behaved inappropriately, which is funny, but ultimately, no, that pretty much is how the game is played…so it’s puzzling that his response was treated with disgust, as though anyone else’s later responses shouldn’t be.

Ending on a High Note: A great, early character study showing Ryan and Michael both behaving like actual people, and Dwight showing real — not overtly manufactured and instantly undone — weakness. Enjoy it while you can.

“Take Your Daughter To Work Day,” Season 2, Episode 18

Why It’s Not Shit: It’s not exactly an episode that weaves several plotlines together, but its central conceit of introducing children to the office gives nearly everyone at least one great moment, and it also provides a good example of how to sketch out the personal lives of these characters without OH I DONT KNOW SENDING THE WHOLE OFFICE TO THEIR HOUSE FOR SOME SOCIAL FUNCTION NONE OF THEM WOULD ACTUALLY GIVE A SHIT ABOUT. We also see Michael at his most vulnerable, Pam displaying a humanizing (as opposed to irritating) kind of neediness, and Stanley yelling at Ryan…which is indeed genuinely scary.

Why It’s Actually Still Kind of Shit: Everything about Michael’s appearance on the children’s show works fine, until the writers seem to think we need everyone in the room to decide for us what it means. The short moment between young Michael and the puppet should be an act of devastating restraint, but instead it’s followed up by variations on “Hey, that thing you wanted is something you never got, huh?” A little too on-the-nose, and it hurts the moment substantially. Also, it ends with Michael and Dwight singing “Teach Your Children,” which works within the episode but lays the groundwork for every future episode in which the employees sing and dance for no fucking reason whatsoever, and otherwise remind you that the show was never as good as you thought it was.

Ending on a High Note: The interactions between Michael and Toby’s daughter are a series highlight, and this is a great way to give so many characters a fun spotlight without it feeling like the isolated sketch comedy of season eight.

“Grief Counseling,” Season 3, Episode 4

Why It’s Not Shit: The death of Michael’s old boss is met by the rest of the office with a notable lack of emotion, but an opportunity to discuss, explore, and accept death comes in the form of an unfortunate bird who flies into the glass doors downstairs. “Grief Counseling” is a strange episode that manages to be sombre without losing sight of the comedy, and manages to be funny without sacrificing some genuine insight into the human condition. It’s certainly a chance to explore Michael, whose emotional responses drive the action of the entire episode, but it’s also a fine showcase for Pam, who plays into Michael’s depressive fantasies by designing a respectful casket for the bird, and delivering a monologue to her hurting boss under the guise of eulogy.

Why It’s Actually Still Kind of Shit: MEANWHILE JIM CALLS SOME PEOPLE TO FIND POTATO CHIPS IN THE LEAST RIVETING SUBPLOT THIS SIDE OF TOBY DANCES FOR COOKIES.

Ending on a High Note: The meeting in which Pam, Ryan and Kevin relay the plots of popular movies rather than share their own stories of death is an all-time great. Also, the conclusion of this episode has a great payoff in “The Return,” when Oscar asks about Dwight and Creed replies, “You didn’t hear? Decapitated. Whole big thing. We had a funeral for a bird.”

“Traveling Salesmen,” Season 3, Episode 13

Why It’s Not Shit: Episodes that pair up characters in interesting ways and give them each a chance to shine, in the case of pretty much any show, tend to be quite good. During season 3 of The Office, the writers still remembered how to do that in a way that was organic to the situation, and realistic in terms of the work environment. While the sales calls themselves are brief we learn a lot about how these people operate day to day, while the cameras are off. We see normally suave Ryan falter, learn that the obstinate Stanley has actually built up a valuable network of business relationships, and we see newcomer Andy scheme his way to success, despite demonstrating a complete lack of aptitude. This was back when Andy alternated between conniving and frightening…two very interesting modes for the character that the show has abandoned in favor of making him sing all the God damned time.

Why It’s Actually Still Kind of Shit: The Phyllis / Karen sales call is really just an excuse for a sight gag, and Angela’s glower during Andy’s final talking head is a bit obvious. But, to be honest, those are minor complaints, and this is a pretty great half hour of television.

Ending on a High Note: The entire thing is a high note, catching the office (and The Office) in a state of flux. New characters have been introduced, and the show is shaking up and developing existing relationships. These are both trends that would continue, but with conclusively diminishing returns. For now, the rewards are great.

“The Return,” Season 3, Episode 14

Why It’s Not Shit: “The Return” sees multiple plotlines — and ongoing dynamics — pay off in a single episode: Oscar’s “vacation,” Dwight’s resignation, Angela and Dwight’s relationship, Jim and Karen’s relationship, Jim and Pam’s flirtation, Andy’s angling for promotion, the dickishness of Jim’s pranks, and Andy’s anger issues. It’s a simple episode in which not much happens, but relationships are changed and characters are further defined. It’s a watershed episode in a show that at the time cared about what it meant when its characters said and did things, and Andy punching the wall is still as shocking a moment now as it was six years ago…only now it’s shocking because we’ve spent so much time with him as a defeated doormat that it no longer seems feasible.

Why It’s Actually Still Kind of Shit: The party for Oscar and Dwight is a collection of unnecessary visual gags (Meredith in a mustache, Phyllis shaking her breasts around), but the amount of wasted time in this episode can be measured in seconds, and that’s all we can really ask.

Ending on a High Note: It’s about time there was a consequence for Jim’s immaturity, even if he’s not the one facing that consequence. Andy would return, emasculated, but we do get one truly brilliant moment with him before he’s changed forever, as he intends to apply his upwardly-mobile aggressiveness to anger management training itself, intending to complete it in half the allotted time.

“Product Recall,” Season 3, Episode 21

Why It’s Not Shit: The list of Office characters that haven’t become overplayed through the years is a short one, certainly, but Creed manages somehow to be both a continuing highlight, and consistent in his characterization. “Product Recall” is the closest thing we’ve ever had to a Creed episode, and even here he’s used sparingly. His off-camera shirking of his job responsibilities drives the plot, and he only really pops up to descend — beautifully — rung by rung into the levels of despicability. It’s a great and fittingly dark episode from an era in which the writers didn’t feel the need to soften blows and humanize monstrous behavior. We also get a great Andy and Jim pairing, and probably the only genuinely funny prank on Dwight, with Jim imitating his nemesis…and then receiving some payback in kind at the end of the episode. “Product Recall” took a lot of things that The Office so frequently got wrong, and then did them right.

Why It’s Actually Still Kind of Shit: A Kelly subplot is never a good sign, but this one has a great moment of Oscar / Kevin bonding that more than redeems it. It’s disappointing that the cartoons look nothing like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, and Andy pining for a high school student is beyond creepy, but there’s enough great stuff here to warrant its inclusion, right down to the perfectly awful moment at the end, when Creed pockets the money he collected for the woman he got fired.

Ending on a High Note: Michael’s apology video may go literally nowhere, but it’s nice to see a crisis situation in this show that isn’t resolved by the staff hoisting him onto their shoulders and singing “We Shall Overcome.”

“Dinner Party,” Season 4, Episode 13

Why It’s Not Shit: It’s all kinds of not-shit up in here. If I were to single out just one episode of The Office to be spared from a nuclear blast, and I do look forward to that day that I am put in such a position, this would be the one. It’s brilliantly acted, terrifyingly raw, and unrelentingly dark. What’s more, it gives the audience credit. While some of the Jan / Michael bickering is a bit heavy handed, we’re left with a lot of blanks to fill in on our own, and even the talking-head moments don’t bother to hammer home the obvious…they’re legitimately funny, perhaps due to the genuinely unsettling atmosphere of Michael’s desperate dinner party. There’s a real feeling of entrapment and helplessness there, and none of the characters involved know quite how to act. It’s true to life and it’s human, even down to the surprisingly moving climax that silently follows each of the characters home for the night. Until this entry, we haven’t had any episodes on this list that feature the staff leaving the office for anything other than work-related (ie: understandable) reasons. Dinner with the boss, however, is a situation both rooted enough in reality to work, and rife enough with awkwardness to make horrifying. The cameras follow the staff for good reason here…not like when they decide to have a charity run for rabies, or Michael gets lost in his hometown (huh?). Like “Product Recall,” it’s an episode that takes a lot of the ingredients of the show at its worst, and reassembles them into a thing of beauty.

Why It’s Actually Still Kind of Shit: Michael ran through a sliding glass door because he thought he heard the ice cream man. For that tiny detail, he must have shifted from well-intentioned-but-a-bit-dumb to Benjy Compson levels of retardation. Also, Jan’s character change (competent executive to raving lunatic) lays the groundwork for all too many other characters to do the same thing…with severely diminishing returns.

Ending on a High Note: Almost nothing but great lines in this one, though the standout goes to asskissing Andy, when Michael half-heartedly asks him and Jim if they’d like to think about investing $10,000 in Jan’s home-made candle business. “Thought about it. I’m in.”

“Prince Family Paper,” Season 5, Episode 13

Why It’s Not Shit: As many of the episodes on this list are turning out to be, this one is a great character showcase: in this case, Dwight. The show doesn’t always know what to do with Dwight. He’s a psychotically-devoted businessman, an ignorant farmboy, a sensitive romantic, a violent maniac, a playful child, a sycophant and a flailing comic boob, cycling through those roles as any particular script dictates. In this case, he’s firmly in the first category, and that’s good, because that’s what should drive him as a character. In “Prince Family Paper” he pairs up with Michael for some reconnaissance work at a small rival firm. What they find there, though, is a small family running an honest business, more interested in securing their own futures than in taking down the competition. Michael, of course, goes soft when the family extends the sort of human kindness to him that he wishes he could always expect from others. Dwight, however, has a different view. “It’s not personal,” he says, and as callous as he is he has a point. “It’s business.” This is why Dwight is the most successful salesman. This is why Dwight is so devoted to his work. This is why Dwight is almost always capable of being a more interesting character than he usually gets to be. He will sink a family as long as it’s business, just as quickly as Michael would spare one in spite of it being business. It’s a great and appropriately heavy episode which more than earns its bittersweet resolution.

Why It’s Actually Still Kind of Shit: Unfortunately around a third of the episode is given over to a pointless and unfunny office debate about whether or not Hillary Swank is hot. It’s garbage. Fuckin’ trust me.

Ending on a High Note: While the episode would have been far better as a Dwight / Michael adventure with little or no input from the rest of the staff, the A plot is more than strong enough to carry the episode. Also, Michael’s “bittersweet” speech at the end of the episode is one of the only times the show truly nailed the mix of comedy and pathos that should end an episode like this.

“Dream Team,” Season 5, Episode 22

Why It’s Not Shit: The Michael Scott Paper Company arc is not only the last truly great thing the show ever did, it’s arguably the single best thing the show ever did. New boss Charles Miner lends such an air of uncomfortable change to the familiar surroundings that pretty much any arc that sprung from it would have been welcome. But Michael crashing hard against reality when he tries to start his own rival paper company is both a perfect fit for the character, and an excellent way to ground a show that was already becoming a bit cartoony. “Dream Team” may or may not be the best episode of the arc — it’s hard to say, because this particular storyline is more heavily serialized than anything else — but it’s a great distillation and exploration both of Michael’s tendency to dream too big, and why one needs to feel satisfied in his or her own life. Everything from Michael’s panicky overcooking of French toast for breakfast to Ryan stealing shoes from a bowling alley to Nana’s lucid refusal to invest in the company fills in the blanks in such a way the The Office really should have been doing since day one. And Pam’s emotional collapse toward the end of the episode leads to a genuinely moving conversation between herself and Michael. It’s a mixed moral — the fact that she quit her job is never quite presented as a good decision — but it feels like its own kind of happy ending. After all, if we have to go down, we might as well go down together.

Why It’s Actually Still Kind of Shit: Ryan popping up for this arc makes perfect sense. Ryan sticking around after this arc makes no motherfucking sense whatsoever.

Ending on a High Note: Charles Miner installing Dwight as his number two, making Kevin the receptionist and keeping Jim at arm’s length makes for some great character comedy, as our perspective is tweaked just enough to make familiar situations feel fresh. Also, the fact that Pam ultimately returns to the company as a salesperson leaves the reception desk wide open for the last great character the show ever created: the infectiously bubbly and adorably daft Erin.

“Counseling,” Season 7, Episode 2


Why It’s Not Shit: Toby’s role in the show as Michael’s foil so rarely got a chance to shine, as Michael was always fast to dismiss him cruelly and Toby — we see clearly — was fast to believe he deserved such dismissal. In this episode, however, Michael is forced to undergo a marathon six-hour counseling session with his nemesis, and it results in probably the last truly interesting character interaction this show’s had. Michael cycles through refusal, fabrication, anger, abuse, and finally acceptance in a script that feels like it could have been written for a two-man stage show. Toby never quite gets a handle on the situation the way he wishes he did, but he means well, and even has a genuine moment of breakthrough with Michael…though, of course, once Michael’s aware that he’s opening up to Toby, he shuts it down immediately, and storms out of the session. It’s a way for both characters to have a mutually-fulfilling experience, without sacrificing the inexplicable one-sided hatred that’s fueled the dynamic between these characters all along. In the end, they bond briefly over the uselessness of Gabe in a conversation that would seem at least slightly meta, if the writers could be counted on to realize that these two are right, and there’s really no reason for that guy’s continuing presence. Oh well, at least he dressed as Lady Gaga in the Halloween episode and oh boy was that fucking funny my God this show sucks.

Why It’s Actually Still Kind of Shit: Dwight’s Pretty Woman subplot genuinely feels like a rejected idea from Everybody Loves Raymond. It’s absolutely terrible, and probably a pretty good indicator of what a Dwight Schrute-centered sitcom would look like. THANK GOD NOBODY’S DOING THAT RIGHT. The better subplot revolves around Pam bluffing her way to Office Administrator. Why they felt they needed the Dwight garbage when they already had plenty of stuff going on in this episode is beyond me.

Ending on a High Note: Dwight’s idea for a daycare center in the building is kind of worthless, but I do like the sight-gag of an Insane Clown Posse poster on the wall, with “Insane” and “Posse” crossed out. It’d be a lot funnier if the camera didn’t obnoxiously zoom in the make sure we got the joke but what can you do.

Were there any other episodes that weren’t shit? If not, let me know in the comments below. And also you’re wrong.

Compare & Contrast: Funny Restaurants

It’s not uncommon for a television comedy to lose steam as the years go by. Sometimes it finds a second wind, and usually it does not. There’s nothing remarkable about the fact the The IT Crowd went from critical darling to such a mess that creator Graham Linehan chose to pull the plug rather than drag it on any further. What is remarkable is that it only took 24 episodes to get from that dizzying high to a show-killing low.

I rewatched the fourth and final series recently, and was struck all over again by how lifeless and dull it felt. It’s nothing to do with the performances as the cast makes the best of what they’re given, and any laughs that we do get come from an effective delivery rather than any particular cleverness in the line…there just seems to be a sloppier approach to the comedy, and perhaps an ultimately-destructive assumption — however correct — that the cast could be relied upon to make up for any shortcomings in the writing.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the series’ de-facto finale, “Reynholm vs Reynholm,” which takes ostensibly humorous detours into a silly restaurant. Series one’s “Fifty-Fifty” did the same thing, and I thought it might be interesting to focus only on those detours, and discuss their levels of success.

The Setup

In “Fifty-Fifty” the setup is simple, and completely organic to the plot. (Or, in this case, and in notable contrast to “Renholm vs Renholm,” the plots.) Specifically, a restaurant is recommended by Moss, separately, to both Jen and Roy.

Jen is looking for a nice restaurant in order to make amends for lying about having specialized knowledge of classical music — a lie which leads her romantic interest to use her as his Phone-A-Friend when he appears on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? — and which, of course, causes him to lose.

Roy is looking for an edgy restaurant with a tough atmosphere, because he has a date with a girl he met online, during an experiment he was conducting to see if women are actually more attracted to men that treat them poorly. He creates an antagonistic and disinterested persona, and is looking for a restaurant that will make him seem even tougher for hanging out there.

The restaurant Moss recommends to each is called Mesijos…or, at least, that’s how Moss pronounces it. Here, the visit to the comedy restaurant comes late in the episode, well into the third act, and it’s organic to the twin plots we’ve been following all along.

In “Renholm vs Renholm,” there is no plot by the time we get to the restaurant, because barring a brief introductory scene during which Douglas discusses his ex-wife and is then immediately accosted by his ex-wife, we’re dumped right into it.

This, in itself, is not a problem. There is no requirement, unspoken or otherwise, that every location the characters visit must be fully and completely justified by a logical progression of the script. That being said, there is some sense of satisfaction when that visit is justified, and arises naturally out of the story we are being told…especially when compared to “Renholm vs Renholm,” which has a character we’ve never seen before barging through a door, Matt Berry making a funny face, and then an immediate and unexplained teleportation to a new setting.

When we arrive at the restaurant in “Fifty-Fifty” it’s less abrupt. We know where these characters are going, we know why they’re going, and we know what they hope to accomplish by going. With such narrative groundwork laid, we get an immediate laugh when we see the restaurant for the first time, as in the screenshot above. It’s neither conducive to Jen’s apologetic dinner nor Roy’s attempt at passing himself off as a cold-hearted bastard.

But what’s more, it’s not an unfair subversion. What’s happening here to Jen and Roy is not just a comedy writer putting his characters through hell, it’s absolutely true to what we know about Moss, who recommended the restaurant…more on which later. Suffice it to say that this choice of restaurant — and therefore the episode’s reasons for taking us there — is a natural outgrowth of the story we’ve been following. It’s a bad decision for the characters, but a sound one for the writer.

“Renholm vs Renholm” dumps us into this comedy location for no narrative purpose whatsoever. It simply wants us to laugh.

What’s so bad about that in a comedy program? Nothing; it’s a great impulse. Where this scene falters (or these scenes falter, rather, as we pay not one but three visits to this restaurant) is the fact that it’s not really funny.

In “Fifty-Fifty” we cut from measured conversations about where to go for dinner to a loud, frantic, busy scene that’s immediately funny out of sheer contrast, and continually funny because the madness only ratchets up from there. In “Renholm vs Renholm” we cut from Douglas having one measured conversation about his ex-wife to…Douglas having another measured conversation about his ex-wife.

There’s no contrast. As you can tell from the screen grabs, there’s no shock here. One neutral colored room to another, one woman to another, with Douglas reacting in no particularly humorous way to either conversation, unless you count each of the times the script wants him to make bug eyes.

There’s no reason for Jen and Roy to go to that restaurant in “Fifty-Fifty,” so the script makes sure it creates a reason. There’s no reason for Douglas and Victoria to go to this restaurant in “Renholm vs Renholm,” so the script doesn’t bother discussing it and just hopes we won’t notice. There’s a huge gulf in writing quality there.

The Joke

The joke in “Fifty-Fifty” is evident from the first frame, seen above. Moss has mispronounced “Messy Joe’s,” and both Jen and Roy are stuck on their respective dates in a wholly inappropriate restaurant.

This steadfast mispronunciation is in-line with Moss’s character — he’s similarly misguided when it comes to pronouncing the word “tapas” — and the fact that he both enjoyed himself at this restaurant and doesn’t see that it wouldn’t be appropriate for his friends’ needs suits him as well. Moss is severely lacking in social skills, and his perception of the world around him occurs through psychological filters that the rest of humanity simply does not have.

The sign in itself makes for a great joke without need for comment, and the snap-cut to the madness inside reinforces just how ludicrous the scene is…and yet, it’s not an inherently funny place. There are families there enjoying themselves, after all. The restaurant in itself isn’t a joke…the situation is the joke. Many background characters are perfectly content with their visit to Messy Joe’s. What makes it funny is that the foreground characters are not, and that’s an important distinction to make. The comedy comes from the contrast, not from the fact that Messy Joe’s exists at all.

In “Reynholm vs Reynholm,” however, we find ourselves at the other end of the spectrum. Again, we find ourselves oriented by a still frame of the sign, but if anyone can tell me how “The Flappy Duck” works as anything other than a limp — ahem — dick joke, please do so.

Messy Joe’s manages to function as a series of jokes immediately. The name of the restaurant borne of a mispronunciation, the logo giving away the type of establishment it is, and then the immediate cut to the clowns and screaming children.

The Flappy Duck on the other hand doesn’t get a logo. Neither the sign nor the building have any character whatsoever. It’s a phrase that I guess somebody might chuckle at, somewhere, but The Flappy Duck as a name has nothing to do with the restaurant itself, which appears to be a riff upon trendy establishments with non-traditional dining experiences.

Perhaps, then, The Flappy Duck could use some more personality in its set construction, because the joke doesn’t land. The wine looks like milk, which could lead to some kind of joke, but instead we’re just meant to laugh at the fact that it doesn’t look like wine. That’s not effective comedy, that’s not something that says anything about the characters, and it’s not even a joke with a clear target. I suppose I could hand you a cracker and say “Please hold my shoe,” if I really wanted to, but I don’t suppose anybody would be singing the praises of my wit afterward.

In the first scene at The Flappy Duck, Douglas is eating what looks like a small radio and Victoria has a piece of somebody’s lawn on her plate. Only it’s just sitting there. The actors don’t engage with it, they don’t comment on it, and they don’t see anything strange about it. Whereas the Messy Joe’s debacle was a conflict borne entirely of — and heightened satisfyingly by — immense contrast, The Flappy Duck just has people talking quietly about not-particularly-funny topics while not-particularly-funny things sit baldly and blandly on their plates.

That might work in a Spot the Difference puzzle in the Sunday paper, but it doesn’t make for a particularly well-constructed scene in a sitcom.

“Fifty-Fifty” keeps the jokes coming by simply highlighting how uncomfortable the characters are. Most great comedy is on some level generated from somebody’s discomfort, and that’s why the visit to Messy Joe’s is funny. Having Douglas and Victoria — and later Jen and Victoria — sit comfortably at ease with whatever minor absurdities may be sitting on their plates isn’t funny. That’s a lesson that The Simpsons seems to have forgotten as well; when the family doesn’t fit in, it’s funny. When the family not only fits in but qualifies as global celebrities with people of great fame and power at their beck and call, it’s not.

Jen is here in order to apologize to the man whose chance at fortune she ruined with her lies. All around them balloons pop, children bleat and sparklers fizz. These two characters don’t need to tell jokes, because — all at once — they are the jokes. The world has turned and left them in a position of ridicule. They became, ironically, the most ridiculous thing in Messy Joe’s.

Ditto Roy. His ill-conceived bid at being taken for a tough guy may have been destined to fail, but by meeting his date in this environment it’s already unraveled before it even gets started. When a child next to him dances around with his shirt over his head, Roy needs to call a clown in to keep the peace. When a waitress hands him his milkshake, he too politely thanks her for it. These are jokes that come from characterization, and ones that rise organically from tight and skillfull writing. This scene didn’t need to be set at Messy Joe’s in particular, but what Linehan managed to do was graft one great and escalating joke onto a situation that was already funny in itself. In short, he took a good thing and made it better.

At The Flappy Duck, he’s making it worse. Bored, perhaps, of the aimlessness of this dinner, he has Victoria rise and address the camera like a character in a soap operas. Of course, the other diners wonder what she’s doing, and that in itself is a pretty good joke. It’s oversold here by having Victoria engage with the other customers and ask what they’re eating — drawing attention to an absurdity that she should probably not be aware of in order for the joke to work — but it’s something.

It’s also, however, not related to the setting at all. Whereas the Messy Joe’s stuff could have taken place elsewhere, it’s funnier because of where it’s set. The Flappy Duck material could still keep us in Douglas’ office, and work no less well for it. In fact, it might work better, as our presence at The Flappy Duck adds only confusion to the scene, as we keep waiting for a payoff that never comes.

Douglas does have one line — announcing the arrival of their invisible desserts — that makes a token stab at tying the action into the set they’re sitting on and probably wondering why anyone bothered to build, but true to the slapdash feel of the script nobody comments on this, and it lies there like a non-sequitur. It’s a singular attempt, at last, to find some comedy in The Flappy Duck, and nobody cares enough to see it through.

It’s not that the Flappy Duck sequence(s) couldn’t be funny, it’s that the writing isn’t working to make it funny. The attempted punchline here is that Douglas introduces the head chef to his wife while she jacks him off under the table with her foot. It’s a chance for Matt Berry to make yet another funny face but it would unquestionably be more interesting to watch if they gave that face something funny to say. Which leads us to the biggest issue…

The Writing

The distance between these two examples in terms of writing quality is staggering. Despite both episodes being penned by Linehan, “Fifty-Fifty” seems to have an innate understanding of why its ideas are funny, and it exploits that knowledge to mine the comedy more deeply, efficiently, and effectively. “Reynholm vs Reynholm” doesn’t seem to know why it’s supposed to be funny, and it relies on the actors to sell an idea that feels like it was never fully conceived before the episode was shot.

At Messy Joe’s, the jokes don’t stop after the initial reveal. Rather we move logically along the comedy scale, compounding the situation until it hits its breaking point. From the initial reveal to Jen sitting apologetically across from her date to a mariachi band attempting to serenade them to a clown pointing and laughing at the loser who blew his shot on Millionaire, every moment feels like a step forward for the plot, for the characters, and for the comedy.

“Reynholm vs Reynholm” spins its wheels without any clear destination in mind. Its singular plot is about the reappearance of Douglas’ ex-wife, whom he remarries and then wishes again to divorce. For no reason whatsoever, they discuss this at The Flappy Duck. For even less of a reason, Jen also meets Victoria there to deliver the news that Douglas wants a divorce. And then for no reason whatsoever, the four main characters gather at the end of the show to drink milky wine and celebrate the fact that they limped to the end of the episode and never have to film scenes for it again.

“Reynholm vs Reynholm” flails wildly for something to cling to, with references to past episodes being tossed out in the hopes that they’ll get a chuckle out of recognition and the long-overdue return of Richmond, but these last-ditch acrobatics are unsuccessful in distracting us from the fact that this is an episode about a character we’ve never met, which doesn’t seem to have any real stakes for the show nor any basis in reality, and which is resolved in a deliberately unsatisfying manner.

Far be it from me to suggest that we have to care about the characters in order for the jokes to land, but I do think that the show has to at least pretend that it thinks we care, and by this point Linehan no longer feels interested in that.

Nobody at home will ever be moved to tears by the plight of Moss and Roy — let alone Douglas — but the show needs to at least keep up the illusion that somebody might. That’s the only way it can successfully generate comedy from the awkward situations in which these characters find themselves. Admit that we shouldn’t care and disbelief is shattered: we suddenly don’t care about them, and we’re going to wonder why we’re watching.

“Fifty-Fifty” works because it maintains the illusion that these events mean something. When Roy is frustrated by women and attempts to demonstrate how shallow they are with his experiment, it means something. When he becomes sucked into that experiment himself and tries to date the woman who fell for him, that means something too. When Jen lies about having a knowledge of classical music because she wants to impress a handsome stranger, that means something. When she disappoints him and reveals the truth, that also means something.

It all builds toward a climactic clown beating that sees Roy’s date falling for Jen’s date, demonstrating that — in this case at least — Roy’s hypothesis was correct, and Jen’s paid the price for her falsehood.

This isn’t destiny that brought these plot strands together. This isn’t fate, isn’t luck, isn’t karma. It’s writing. And it’s the work of a writer in command of his craft.

By “Reynholm vs Reynholm,” that sort of command is no longer felt. Episodes feel like strings of set-pieces and unrelated moments. Some of them get laughs, some of them do not. That much is common in sitcoms. But that’s exactly why we need a thread to cling to…something to follow along. Some gesture on behalf of the show that says, “If you’d like to care about this, or even pretend to, for just half an hour, we’ll make it worth your time.”

When “Reynholm vs Reynholm” dumps us time and again into the humorless Flappy Duck, it’s an act of narrative desperation. There’s nothing Linehan can think to do with the main cast or setting, so we’re transported to this new location with a new character in the vague hope that, somehow, it will pay off.

But it never does. And when Victoria eats a knife even though they aren’t edible, it’s as though Linehan forgot that he already made that joke earlier with Douglas and the menu. It’s not a callback, it’s not a fulfillment of foreshadowing, it’s not thematic resonance. It’s desperation…or at least that’s what it feels like.

There’s something to be said for going out on top. With The IT Crowd, Linehan didn’t do that. But by choosing to end it before he dug too deeply into mediocrity, he did the next best thing.

It would have been nice to have a fourth (and fifth, and sixth) great series, but that wasn’t in the cards.

Oh well. We’ll always have Mesijos.

Reflections on Jerry Nelson’s Passing

When I was a little boy, I loved Jim Henson.

I didn’t just like him. I didn’t just enjoy his work. I loved the man.

He was probably the first person I knew as an artist behind the material he produced. Certainly I enjoyed other TV shows, and songs and films, but I always saw them in isolation. As products distinct from whatever anonymous forces breathed life into them.

Not so with Henson’s work. I don’t know why that is, but I knew his name. I knew what he looked like. I know not only that there was a human being out there bringing all of this wonderful stuff to life, but I knew who it was. He was the first artist I knew as an artist, and that’s either a cause or symptom of how important his work was to me.

He was also a less exciting first for me: his was the first death that hit me personally…and it hit me hard.

I guess I was fortunate that, by nine years old, I hadn’t had a family member die. Or a close friend. Or a beloved pet. But when Jim Henson died, it felt like I was losing all of those things at once.

I was devastated. If I choose to look back to that news, I find I’m still devastated.

Losing a friend is tragic because that friend isn’t there anymore. There is now a hole in your life where somebody you cared about used to be. It’s not easy, and shouldn’t be easy, to move forward from there. The world has changed, and one special person is no longer there.

When Henson died, though, the world didn’t just lose one special person; it lost an entire, powerful, selfless, incomparable creative force. A man who conjured up so much magic and wonder from nothing. A man who could make you laugh or cry with a piece of felt, and — what’s more — make you fall to your knees in sorrow when he’s no longer around to carry that felt.

Partway through The Crying of Lot 49, the protagonist takes out a notebook and writes to herself, “Shall I project a world?”

That’s a line I keep returning to in regards to Henson. From his lone, singular, gifted vantage point, he projected a world. In fact, he projected three worlds. Sesame Street. Fraggle Rock. The Muppet Theater. He seemed bottomless in his capacity for invention. He willed entire universes full of unique, rich and complex individuals to life. He treated them with love and respect by handing them off to great writers and even better performers. Henson’s vision was a serious one, even when it was silly. It was a life-affirming one, even when it was breaking your heart.

To this day I think it was Henson that inspired me to create. After all, what Henson did with cloth and plastic is what any artist should be doing all the time. Whether it’s words, or sounds, or colors, or anything else that brings you joy, an artist takes these small, insignificant things and assembles them into something life-changing. Henson and his team may have been constructing their characters from common materials, but when you look at Kermit the Frog you don’t see green felt and ping-pong ball eyes. You see Kermit the Frog. That’s because Henson was a success as an artist. He used small, insignificant things to build characters we not only believed in, but with whom we wanted to share our lives.

When I write, I try to do the same thing with words. If could ever be fortunate enough to create anything as rich or important as Kermit the Frog, I’d probably die of shock. Henson created characters that rich and important routinely. It really was some kind of magic, and it’s a magic that died with him, that the world lost, and that I lost at the age of nine.

By that point I was probably a bit too old for Sesame Street, and so I could have moved my affection over to reruns of The Muppet Show, or Fraggle Rock. But I found that I preferred Sesame Street in some way that I couldn’t understand then, even though I understand now: it was longer. Each episode was an hour compared to the half-hours of its sister programs. And that’s why I preferred it: it wasn’t that I wanted to watch these characters; I wanted to spend time with them.

I wanted to be part of that world of Henson’s. Be privy to that vision. Be able to touch, and feel, and interact.

I wanted the promise of his work to come true. I wanted to live in a world in which I could sit on a bench in the park and look over to see that I was sitting next to Kermit. A world in which I could look up into the sky and see Gonzo floating away with his balloons. A world in which I could see Fozzie’s act go poorly on stage, but then find him later and make his day by telling him I enjoyed it.

I don’t know. Maybe my particular childhood cried out for escapism more than others. Whatever it was, the Muppets helped me through some really difficult times, be sheer virtue of their existence. They taught me that magic was real, only it was called creativity. And with it, you really could change the world.

Jerry Nelson’s death isn’t like Jim Henson’s or Richard Hunt’s, because Jerry Nelson lived a long and full life. He was faced with an impossible legacy to carry on…and yet he carried it on anyway. (That’s another kind of magic.) I’m not sad because an old man has laid down to rest, but simply that one of the last threads connecting me to my childhood, to my early sense of wonder, to three distinct and safe places I was always allowed to visit when I needed an escape, has disappeared.

Up to the very end Jerry was an enormously talented man. He may not have had a Kermit or a Fozzie or a Gonzo or a Scooter…but he had a Gobo. And a Robin. And a Count von Count. And a blue businessman destined always to be disappointed by Grover. He had characters that could fill out these worlds, and make them more real. Everybody who worked on those shows did me — and countless other children, and adults — a service for which they can sincerely never be repaid.

The fact that my sadness at the passing of Jerry Nelson leads me to think about the larger universes Henson created isn’t meant to be a slight at Jerry…but rather a loving acknowledgement of what larger, unforgettable, culture-defining things he helped bring to life.

There’s no shame in being remembered as part of a team. And there’s probably no team more impressive to have been a part of.

Thank you Jerry. Sincerely, thank you.

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