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Michael J. Arlen’s “A Crack in the Greasepaint”

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From The New Yorker’s archive: an essay, from 1975, about a new comic variety show called “Saturday Night Live.”
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Michael J. Arlen’s “A Crack in the Greasepaint

The novelist Geoffrey Wolff once characterized Michael J. Arlen’s literary style as both strange and eloquent. Between 1958 and 1992, Arlen contributed more than a hundred and forty pieces to The New Yorker. He was one of the magazine’s first television critics, and he wrote a regular column on the medium from 1966 to 1981. He has written about a variety of figures and subjects, including the role of propaganda on television, the work of Norman Lear, Walter Cronkite’s career, and a popular show called “Charlie’s Angels.” He has also published nine books, including “Passage to Ararat” and “The Camera Age.” In the late nineteen-sixties, Arlen wrote a series of pieces about the impact of popular broadcasting on the public’s perception of the Vietnam War. (“Vietnam is often referred to as ‘television’s war,’ in the sense that this is the first war that has been brought to the people preponderantly by television.”) These articles, along with others, were later collected in his 1969 anthology, “Living-Room War.” One of my favorite pieces by Arlen is an essay he published in 1975, about a new comic variety show called “Saturday Night Live,” which had premièred that year to some acclaim. “What is attractive and unusual about the program is that it is an attempt, finally, to provide entertainment on television in a recognizable, human, non-celebrity voice—and in a voice, too, that tries to deal with the morass of media-induced show-business culture that increasingly pervades American life,” Arlen writes. In his essay, Arlen compares the show to a lively cabaret and singles out a young comedian named Andy Kaufman for extra praise. On a recent episode, he writes, there was a skit presenting an interview with “a couple of demented kiwi trappers,” and a sketch featuring President Ford “bumping his head on the lectern, spilling his drinking water, and repeatedly falling down.” As the piece progresses, Arlen skillfully explores the unconventional forms of comedy innovated by the likes of Lenny Bruce and Monty Python. Arlen contrasts these edgy newer styles with the démodé showmanship of mainstream comedians such as Bob Hope. “Saturday Night Live,” with its free-spirited tone and informal sketches, marked a radical transition from the old-school formality exhibited by established humorists. The best kinds of humor connect us on a human level. As we turn away from the “language of bored artifice,” as Arlen puts it, we’re able to expand our concept of what comedy, with its ever-changing insights into the human condition, can achieve.

—Erin Overbey, archive editor

The Air

A Crack in the Greasepaint

On “Saturday Night Live.”

By Michael J. Arlen

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