Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Many-Splendored Thing: the late-night jousts of D.A. Harvey Pekar

I only have two collections of American Splendor comics. I found Harvey Pekar’s writing to be absolutely beyond-authentic, and perhaps that is what has kept me at a distance from becoming addicted to his work over the years: for the past two decades I have had both feet planted firmly in the tedious-office sphere which he depicted brilliantly, so reading his work always seemed too familiar and genuine an experience to me.

That said, he remains a very singular figure in the comic book pantheon: a writer who didn’t draw and who, unlike arguably the greatest modern genius of comics, Alan Moore, chose to explore his inner landscape and immediate surroundings rather than imagined alternate worlds. In terms of his non-comic persona, he was of course wonderfully depicted by Paul Giamatti in the American Splendor movie, and made eight extremely memorable appearances on the David Letterman show, which I link to below.

What interested me the most in rewatching these appearances is that, in the most confrontational appearance, Harvey accuses Letterman of being a “sell-out.” I find this interesting, as it betrays the same disappointment Bill Hicks felt in Letterman when his monologue was pulled from the show. Hicks and Pekar both somehow seemed to think Letterman was a hip nonconformist, rather than a jovial, sarcastic standup whose snarky attitude seemed to define Eighties TV comedy, but didn’t indicate any sort of rebellion whatsoever, from anything, at any time. Letterman followed in the wake of Carson and Steve Allen in having some incredibly gifted comedians on his show, but unlike those gentlemen (and Dick Cavett), he was never willing to be a cooperative straight man for those performers (I remember the word “jerk” being used when Pee-Wee, Jerry Lewis, and I think Bobcat Goldthwait came on). Unless the standup was one of Dave’s old cronies from the circuit (like the non-filmmaker George Miller — remember him?), Dave seemed to want to endlessly needle comic characters who came on his show (with Chris Elliott, it was part of the bit; with Brother Theodore, Andy Kaufman, and many others, it seemed like Dave wanted to show that he was “tolerating” what was transpiring in the guest chair).

So on came Harvey Pekar, a truly independent comic creator who needled Dave right back (in fact, the single best moments of the Letterman show at that time consisted of comedians who dished it right back at Letterman after he’d been particularly obnoxious to them). The contentious appearance that found Dave telling Harvey he’d never appear on the show again also finds Letterman calling American Splendor your “Mickey Mouse newsletter,” which is as genuine a moment as you will find on the Letterman show from that time. Letterman is an older, mellower soul these days, but his sarcasm and extreme crankiness (I’m always fascinated when people perceive him as homespun and friendly) has always seemingly been boiling just below the surface. Back in the Eighties, it appeared a number of times, and Pekar seemed determined to draw it out of him.

Here is Pekar’s first appearance on the show:

And a later bizarre appearance where Harvey joins wacky Dave doin’ a wacky stunt, wherein he visits the set of Live at Five (then hosted by current cranky cable host Jack Cafferty, who actually could’ve matched Letterman’s snotty barbs if he’d been genuinely pissed):

Here Harvey is allowed to do a full segment, but there is still tension in the air:

And here is the confrontational, truncated segment I mentioned above, where Harvey won’t let up on General Electric, and Letterman mocks his comic:

This has been billed as Pekar’s final appearance, so evidently he was allowed back one final time on the Letterman program, but he wasn’t on in the final 15-plus years of his life. I guess he didn’t fit into the hyper-slick plug-and-you’re-out guest segments that have been the bulwark of the CBS late-night show:

And, just so I don’t link entirely to agitated interviews with Pekar, here is a quieter, more considered chat, done for PBS:

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