Puroresu Love

May 9, 2010

I don’t believe anyone is naïve enough to count professional wrestling as a sport anymore—sports entertainment is the word for it in the U.S. these days, as if the purpose of every sport isn’t already to entertain—but things have definitely gotten to the point where pro wrestling has taken the next step beyond “sports entertainment” and now features wrestlers and matches that play with the very conventions of the medium. Of course, I can’t pinpoint exactly when this began, but I can define when it reached its pinnacle. Well, I can’t define it precisely because I don’t have the specifics of where or when the match took place, but I can tell you it was a best of three falls title match between Ebessan and Kuishinbo Kamen of Osaka Pro Wrestling.

There are a number of story elements to this match, but I will only be looking at elements contained in the match itself, not necessarily the backstory leading up to the bout. The match begins with a flash finish as Kuishinbo reverses Ebessan’s bodyslam and covers him with a lateral press. Ebessan sits up in disbelief immediately after the three count, and even though he wears a mask that entirely covers his face he is able to convey the emotion through his posture and his body language. At the start of the second fall, Kuishinbo reverses Ebessan’s bodyslam again but Ebessan manages to kick out. This is not really a running gag because the result is different, but it’s still part of the story. This kick-out builds off the first fall and shows that Ebessan has learned from his mistake and the same trick won’t work again.

This is an immediate payoff as far as the story is concerned, but sometimes you have to pay attention and remember prior events in the match to appreciate what is happening. Near the end of the match, the referee counts slowly when Ebessan covers Kuishinbo, and Ebessan is upset. This is actually payback from a prior moment when the referee stole some thunder from the wrestlers and Ebessan kicked and berated him, and it is further paid off when Kuishinbo covers Ebessan and the referee counts quickly.

After this gag the action builds to the finish and the wrestlers show off their amazing athleticism. Even though they’re comedy wrestlers, they are as competent and technically sound as any straight wrestler. Kuishinbo showcases his aerial repertoire with a quebrada to the outside and a couple top-rope hurricanranas and then scores a good near-fall with a Cancun tornado, which involves leaping backwards off the top rope and spinning twice in the air before landing on your opponent. Because Kuishinbo is the champion and this is his finishing move, the crowd expects him to win—but Ebessan survives. Ebessan doesn’t look like he’s athletically built, but he still executes a beautiful moonsault and actually wins with a Cancun tornado of his own. To defeat Kuishinbo with his own finishing move is an impressive feat on Ebessan’s part, and it provides a poetic ending to the match.

Despite the poetic ending, however, the match as a whole is more like farcical satire. Ebessan and Kuishinbo are masters of playing with and making fun of the conventions of pro wrestling. Conventionally, when a wrestler whips his opponent to the ropes and then drops to his stomach, his opponent will leap over him and bounce off the opposite ropes. However, when Ebessan whips Kuishinbo to the ropes and drops to his stomach, Kuishinbo drops a headbutt on him instead of leaping over. Honestly, it doesn’t make much sense why the wrestler who was whipped to the ropes would leap over his prone opponent instead of attacking him, but it takes a comedy match to actually get the viewer to think about this nonsensical convention.

Kuishinbo and Ebessan even draw attention to the fictionality of their match by refusing to participate in it at various points. The most famous example of this comes when they try to leave the ring because they don’t want to wrestle anymore and the referee forces them to fight. The wrestlers begrudgingly go through the motions in slow motion with half-hearted strikes and slow shuffling rather than running against the ropes. The sequence culminates in a slow motion Shining Wizard by Ebessan, complete with Mutoh-kissing-Wolfpac-sign performance at the end. Such a move is completely out of character for Ebessan, but it draws attention to just how silly and contrived a move the Shining Wizard is, even though it is the finishing move of an immensely popular “serious” wrestler in Keiji Mutoh. Pro wrestling absolutely depends on contrivance, but contrivance can be comedy gold in the hands of two masters like Kuishinbo and Ebessan.

The story, the gags, and the athleticism of the wrestlers all combine to make this match one of the funniest and most entertaining of all time. Being able to tell a story solely through actions is an art that is lost on ninety-nine percent of the pro wrestlers of today, but that ability is alive and well in the ranks of Osaka Pro Wrestling. Calling Ebessan and Kuishinbo Kamen competitors is not entirely correct, and even calling them athletes is not enough—they are indeed nothing less than artists.


Tickling the Twine

April 13, 2010

My discussion of art has spanned a number of different media, but art need not be solely restricted to media. Sometimes one may find art in a sporting arena, and not only on a team’s jerseys or playing surface. Athletes often are, in a way, also artists. Last week I had the opportunity to attend a local NHL game, and while absorbing the experience of my first NHL contest I paid special attention to any potential artists skating around the ice.

The game in question is the final regular season meeting of the year between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals held on April 6th, 2010 at the Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh (the penultimate regular season game ever at the Mellon Arena, in fact). I considered analyzing the entire event as a whole as a work of art, but I will instead stick to the game itself and the possibility of the players as the artists. For the sake of discussion, I will take a close look at one of the most exciting aspects of the game: the goals.

The first goal was scored by the Capitals’ Alexander Semin as he skated around a hapless Alex Goligoski and easily put the puck past netminder Marc-Andre Fleury. This play is an example of how being inartistic can hurt: Goligoski actually fell down as he was skating backwards to defend Semin, leaving the Caps’ right winger with an easy opportunity on the Penguins’ goalie, who should have been receiving better support from his defenseman. That’s not to say it excuses Fleury from missing the save, but one can’t help but feel that Goligoski’s gaffe cost the Penguins the goal. Had he maintained his balance and stayed on his man, Goligoski probably could have prevented the play.

The next goal was a precision shot by Mike Knuble that trickled into the net behind the Penguins’ Fleury. This shot was all skill on Knuble’s part, and Fleury simply couldn’t match him in this instance. The following goal is another example of one player making a better play than the other: Sidney Crosby simply took the puck and did what he does. Hockey is unique because the pace of the game forces the players to rely on instinct perhaps even more than practiced skills, and Crosby is the player he is because he possesses more natural instinct than practically any other player in the league today. There are some who believe that artists are born, not made, and in this instance one could almost point to Pittsburgh’s number 87 as case in point.

The fourth goal of the game is yet another instance of one player showing a lack of artistry. Marc-Andre Fleury put himself out of position by coming too far off the net and then couldn’t recover quickly enough to make the save. In most media, the artist will get a chance to revise and edit her works, but in sports—as in other live media—the artist only gets one chance. If he makes a mistake, he must suffer the consequences; in Flower’s case, that means he gets pulled from the game.

The next goal is a bit of a redeemer for the Penguins, coming yet again with the help of one Sidney Crosby. Sid makes a beautiful pass to defenseman Jordan Leopold, who is able to capitalize by putting the proverbial biscuit in the basket. This is an excellent artistic moment in the game, with both the pass and the shot working together to make a pretty picture of what teamwork in sports is all about. Matt Bradley’s subsequent backhand shot for a goal was equally pretty, but it was a shot that by all rights ought to have been saved.

The Pens’ final goal was a tremendous individual effort from Jordan Leopold, who shot the puck over a diving defenseman and past the stick of the Capitals’ netminder Semyon Varlamov. Seeing Leopold driving down the middle of the enemy zone and besting two opponents was pretty thrilling, though his excellent performance was not enough to keep the Pens afloat—especially not with Alex Ovechkin prowling the ice that night. The final two goals of the game were his, with his first coming right off a power play draw in Penguins’ territory. Ovechkin simply did what he does; taking the puck off the draw and slapping a screamer past relief goalie Brent Johnson. Ovechkin’s other goal was nothing of note, however, because it doesn’t take much skill to put the puck in an open net once the goalie has left the ice.

If we’re sticking with the notion that art equals beauty, then there is no denying that hockey qualifies because there are certainly a great number of beautiful moments that occur on the ice at any given time—from the goals to the saves to the passes to the hits. There are also plenty of cases in which a player’s lack of focus may cost him, and these are a certain artistic failure in that should the player have done what he was supposed to do, the result of his play would have been more in his favor. Ultimately, sports belong in the discussion of art because one may appreciate an individual’s talent and relish in his work, even if—or maybe even because—that work is, in reality, play.

Clockwork Oranges

March 26, 2010

It often goes without saying that a film based on a novel is not going to be as good as the novel itself. This usually occurs because people don’t realize that said film is not (and ought not to be) the novel in movie form but rather a different work entirely. Nevertheless, I almost always find myself preferring the original work over the film when I happen to be familiar with both, with only one notable exception. Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film, A Clockwork Orange, is in my estimation a better work than Anthony Burgess’s 1962 original novel of the same title.

In the 1986 Norton edition of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, the author laments the success of a story of which he seems to think very little and voices his displeasure of the original American publication of the book which omits the final chapter as well as Kubrick’s film which uses the American publication as its source. On page xii of the Introduction, Burgess writes:

The twenty-first chapter gives the novel the quality of genuine fiction…There is, in fact, not much point in writing a novel unless you can show the possibility of moral transformation, or an increase in wisdom, operating in your chief character or characters. […] When a fictional work fails to show change…then you are out of the field of the novel and into that of the fable or the allegory. The American or Kubrickian Orange is a fable; the British or world one is a novel.

I mostly agree with Burgess in that a novel usually shows some sort of change in the protagonist, though I do prefer to regard it as a descriptive rather than a prescriptive characteristic. The main problem I have with his assessment, however, is his contempt for Kubrick bastardizing his work and removing from it the “quality of genuine fiction.” After all, Burgess chooses not to include this quality until the very last chapter; on page xii of the Introduction, he even admits that “There is no hint of this change of intention in the twentieth chapter.” I will add that there is never a hint of it in the preceding nineteen chapters, either. His attempt to make his work “genuine fiction” is merely tacked on in the final few pages, and the original American publisher was right to disregard it—as was director Stanley Kubrick.

The film version is actually incredibly faithful to the original work in terms of plot and dialogue—in fact, many lines in the film are indeed word for word from Burgess’s text. Kubrick managed to keep nearly every important plot element of the novel while at the same time masterfully adding in the elements that separate the two media: namely, visuals and music. Kubrick’s film is pornography at its best; he uses music and images to shock, arouse, and excite the viewer, and he succeeds on every level. Music plays an integral role in the book, but the film actually allows the viewer to experience the music, which exponentially increases the desired effect. In short, the film is not only pure art, but pure pointless art. As Burgess laments, the viewer gains nothing from the film except for the experience of having watched it and enjoyed it.

That is not to say that it is impossible to gain anything from the film; it does indeed address moral and ethical and political issues, and watching the film will at least potentially cause the viewer to think about how the events of A Clockwork Orange relate to society and human nature. What the film does not do, however, is tell you what to think about these events. It opens the conversation, but it does not dominate it. The same cannot be said of the book, or at least the final chapter of the book. On page xiv of the Introduction, Burgess writes:

It seems priggish or pollyannaish to deny that my intention in writing the work was to titillate the nastier propensities of my readers. […] But the book does also have a moral lesson, and it is the weary traditional one of the fundamental importance of moral choice. It is because this lesson sticks out like a sore thumb that I tend to disparage A Clockwork Orange as a work too didactic to be artistic.

The very author of the work does not consider his novel to be artistic, and yet I’m still compelled to disagree with him anyway. Burgess apparently focuses on content in his evaluation of art, but my tendency is to lean toward form instead. For some reason, Burgess doesn’t think very highly of his accomplishment in writing an entire novel in what he calls nadsat, the language of A Clockwork Orange’s teens (also called nadsats); on page xiv of the Introduction, he even indicates that his lingo gets in the way of the story, but I would contend that the language is more important than the story.

Kubrick took A Clockwork Orange and utilized everything that defines a film as a media to provide an experience for his audience. He combined raw visuals, supernal music, and a compelling narrative and created an absolute masterpiece. Despite his griping in retrospect, Burgess utilized what makes a novel unique—the interaction of the reader with words on the printed page—and created something wonderful, as well. It is the language of A Clockwork Orange that separates it from other works, and reading it provides an experience one can’t possibly get anywhere else. For that reason, I must disagree with Burgess that his work is not artistic, and I will add that, for whatever it’s worth, watching the film invariably makes me want to read the book, but reading the book does not leave me wanting to watch the film—I’d just as soon read it again.

My previous analyses of Family Guy’s “Road to Rhode Island” and The Simpsons’s “Mother Simpson” focused primarily on narrative structure, conflict, and resolution, and I came to the conclusion that the Simpsons episode is a work of art based on its emotional content and ability to work on multiple levels but the Family Guy episode is not because it is little more than twenty-three minutes of loosely connected gags. There is more to these shows than narrative structure, however, and I believe some further analysis will help provide additional support for my conclusion.

The animated format of these shows allows the writers a lot of freedom to use large numbers of settings and scenes and quick cuts to non sequitur gags. Both programs use this to great extent, but Family Guy seems to rely on it more than The Simpsons. Typically, a character will talk about an amusing situation and then a cut is made to the situation itself, thus both telling and then showing the joke. For example, in “Road to Rhode Island,” Lois tells Peter they have communication problems, and then they immediately cut to a new scene which illustrates Lois and Peter having communication problems. Usually, the illustration scenes last a matter of seconds and then they return to the original scene. This tactic allows Family Guy to provide visuals to any joke they want, thus doubling the potential of every gag; the viewer gets to hear the joke and react, and then also see the joke and react.

These quick cuts are trademark Family Guy, and they work well for its random style of humor. The Simpsons is also known to be random, but an episode like “Mother Simpson” is a much tighter and more focused affair. Whereas Family Guy relies on non sequitur show and tell, The Simpsons relies more on running gags for their humor. One example from “Mother Simpson” is the tombstone. Homer’s tombstone first appears at Marge’s doorstep in a wagon towed by Patti and Selma, thus revealing the initial gag of the engraving (“We are better for having lost him”). The tombstone is next seen by Homer in the graveyard, causing him to shriek and fall into his own grave. Finally, it appears in a beautiful reveal at the end of the episode, as everyone’s coffee mugs are raised and we see the reactions of Mr. Burns and his posse from the tombstone’s perspective as they learn whose tombstone Patti and Selma had purchased. An argument can be made that running gags require the viewer to be more engaged in the episode in order to appreciate them whereas non sequiturs need only be seen, appreciated, and forgotten, but both styles certainly have their merits.

This is not to say that these styles of gags are exclusive to each series, nor is it to say that their styles are completely different. One type of gag employed to good effect in both episodes in question is the defial of expectations reveal. In “Rhode Island,” Brian and Stewie agree that they need to disappear fast, and then a passing bus fills the frame. When the bus is gone, so are Brian and Stewie—until the camera pans to the right, and they state that they probably should have jumped on that bus. Naturally, the cartoon convention is for characters to disappear when blocked by passing obstructions, but here the expectation is defied and mocked. In “Mother Simpson,” Homer grandly announces that he and Bart shall make the most of their Saturday now that his death has been successfully faked, and the next shot is of two kites flying gaily in the sky, but then the camera pans and Marge and Lisa are revealed to be flying the kites while Homer lies drinking a Duff in his hammock and counting as Bart lazily pounds a hammer on the brick patio. Again, both of these gags are facilitated by the animated nature of the programs, and both shows use the reveal adroitly.

There is more than visual humor to be had in each series, however. Both Family Guy and The Simpsons demand the viewer be familiar with popular culture in order to understand certain jokes, but there is still a significant difference to be found in the types of references made. When Stewie attempts to remember his home phone number, the first sequence of numbers that come to mind are “867-5309;” when he discovers his blunder, he proclaims “Damn you Tommy Tutone!” Obviously, anyone unfamiliar with this early eighties one hit wonder will have no idea what Stewie is talking about, but others may appreciate the brainy toddler’s knowledge of power pop which predates his own time by over a decade. Stewie and Brian also play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon in the car, which requires the viewer to be familiar with this game in order to understand what they’re doing, and perhaps knowledge of the specific actors and movies named will also increase the scene’s humor, but really the main humor of the scene comes from the fact that a talking dog and a toddler have the capacity to play the game and berate each other in an intellectual fashion.

The references in “Mother Simpson,” however, take a bit more parsing to be appreciated. In the third act, Burns calls in the F.B.I. to track down his helpful hippie assailant, and the agents are none other than Bill Gannon and Joe Friday of the second version of Dragnet, with Harry Morgan providing Gannon’s voice. The characters are never named, though (except Friday is once referred to as “Joe), so unless the viewer is familiar with Dragnet already, then the gag is entirely lost. Also, Lisa and her grandmother bond over bashing John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, and anyone who had to read said book in the ninth grade can better appreciate their commentary. Strangely enough, one of the finest moments in the episode occurs when Homer discovers that what he thought was his mother’s grave is actually that of Walt Whitman, which sends Homer into a violent fury during which he exclaims, “I hate you, Walt freakin’ Whitman! Leaves of grass my ass!” Personally, this scene sends me into a violent fury of laughter every time I see it, but the gag is probably lost on anyone who has never heard of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Really, though, the funniest part is that Homer is apparently rather familiar with it, which is hilarious considering how alternately buffoonish and intellectual he can be.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of “Mother Simpson” which clearly places it in a separate league from Family Guy is Homer’s mother’s epiphany. As revealed in a flashback, Homer’s mother tucks him into bed and enters the living room to find Abe watching the first Super Bowl. As soon as she sees Joe Willie Namath’s lustrous mane of hair and wild sideburns, an entirely new world of rebellion is opened up to her, complete with a circular pan around her featuring swirling colors and psychedelic imagery in the background. This new world puts her in direct opposition to the old one to which Abe subscribes, which is represented by Johnny Unitas’s “haircut you could set your watch to.” For The Simpsons to so perfectly summarize the attitudes of the late sixties via the hairstyles of the starting quarterbacks for the New York Jets and the Baltimore Colts is nothing short of brilliance—sheer brilliance.

“Road to Rhode Island” does not offer the kind of depth that “Mother Simpson” does, and I feel confident that the same could be said of the two franchises at large. Overall, The Simpsons is a complex and intelligent television series, and even though I have not seen a large amount of Family Guy episodes, I feel confident in stating that its product is nowhere near as intelligent or complex as The Simpsons’s. These qualities help to solidify The Simpsons, and “Mother Simpson” in particular, as works of art, and hopefully this analysis provides some clarification as to what enables The Simpsons to stand above Family Guy and countless other programs, as well.

One of the greatest influences on my life comes not from a hero or a parent or a mentor, but from a television series. An unfortunate product of our age, perhaps, but I have no qualms admitting it and accepting it. For better or for worse, I grew up watching The Simpsons, and was shaped and molded by what I saw. The jokes of The Simpsons became my humor, the style became my sensibilities, and the dialogue became my vocabulary. Someday I hope to catalogue everything I learned and gained from watching the series as an impressionable youth, but this is not the time or place. Now I’d like to examine one episode from the seventh season of the series entitled “Mother Simpson,” original airdate November 19th, 1995, directed by David Silverman, and I will attempt to follow much the same format as I did in my previous entry.

The episode opens with an elaborate plot employed by Homer to skip out on a day of community service. The main conflict, however, is not introduced until the second act, and actually has nothing to do with Homer at all. The main external conflict is Mother Simpson vs. Mr. Burns, and it is established via flashback to the day when Homer’s mother was forced to abandon him. Ostensibly, the internal conflict arises once Marge announces her reservations regarding Homer’s mother, and Homer’s joy turns to anguish as he comes to the assumption that his mother must have left because he was a horrible son and she didn’t love him. Homer is perhaps too slow and naïve to jump to such a conclusion on his own, but he still carries that sadness with him until the situation is resolved.

Both conflicts come to a head at the same time in the final scene. Mr. Burns’s wrath once again sends Mother Simpson on the run, and she manages another successful evasion of the tyrant and the law with some help from a familiar ally. Before she does so, however, she takes the opportunity to give her son a proper good-bye, one for which he is actually awake and reciprocal. She assures him that she will always be a part of him, which is further illustrated by her annoyed grunt as she clumsily hits her head on the van, and Homer can live happily knowing that his mother is still alive and indeed truly cares for him.

Although the first act of the episode wildly differs from the latter two, it still contributes integrally to the main plot. In fact, this is an episode which probably qualifies as having only an A Story; one could argue that the two conflicts mentioned above naturally imply an A Story and a B Story, but the two are so intertwined that they can easily be considered part of one driving narrative. The first act takes a long time to set the stage for where the plot is headed, but everything that happens is related and relevant to the next thing that happens, or at the very least something that happens later on, thus establishing good cause and effect as well as important elements that will recur in the final act.

The climax of the story occurs when Homer and his mother say good-bye. The scene recalls the flashback of Mother Simpson kissing her sleeping boy at her initial departure, and Homer even explicitly mentions how he’s glad he’s awake this time. The emotional moment between mother and son is punctuated by the gag of Homer’s mother hitting her head, but even this bit of slapstick serves to create a sweet bond between the two and reinforce their powerful connection. The scene also features significant moments of silence, which can be found elsewhere in the episode, too; simple slow zoom reaction shots go a long way to convey their emotions without words, and Alf Clausen’s musical cues always enhance the moment. The story concludes with a gorgeous shot of Homer sitting on the hood of his car watching the stars twinkle in the sky, and the credits roll over the landscape with an extremely subdued and intimate closing theme. It is endings like these that illustrate why The Simpsons is more than a funny cartoon or an animated sitcom; the show takes silly characters in crazy situations and somehow still touches the viewer on more levels than the vast majority of other shows could ever hope to achieve.

“Mother Simpson” may therefore be easily classified as a work of art. To take a twenty-two minute timeslot and construct a complete narrative with as many complexities as this episode has is an incredible feat, and it is something that The Simpsons has been able to do over the years on an impressively consistent basis. In my next entry I will delve further into these complexities and provide a side by side comparison of “Mother Simpson” with my last entry’s topic, Family Guy’s “Road to Rhode Island.” I realize that a comparison of two episodes does not equal a good assessment of the two programs as a whole, but it will at least allow me to explore a few fundamental differences between the two and draw conclusions from there. Though my proclivities for The Simpsons over Family Guy and just about any other series that isn’t The Simpsons ought to be evident, I will continue my efforts to be as objective as possible.

On “Road to Rhode Island”

February 22, 2010

Pointlessness is certainly nothing new in popular entertainment. The point of entertainment, after all, is to entertain, but the only way to determine if something is entertaining is to subjectively decide whether or not one likes it or is amused or engaged by it. My aim in this forum, however, is to determine if something is art, and to do so in a more or less objective manner. I do not deny there is a high degree of subjectivity in what I do, but I do strive to provide objective analysis of entertainment, regardless. One television series in particular that deserves attention in terms of pointlessness and entertainment is FOX’s Family Guy, a show that embraces pointlessness to the fullest and seeks to entertain with varying levels and styles of humor. The focus of this analysis is Season Two’s “Road to Rhode Island,” which originally aired May 30th 2000 and is directed by Dan Povenmire.

“Road to Rhode Island” opens with a flashback that establishes the episode’s main internal conflict: Brian has abandonment issues because his mother did nothing to prevent him from being taken away from her. The main external conflict is established later on in Act One: Brian and Stewie lose their plane tickets and must find alternate means to return home. This external conflict is also fueled by the interpersonal conflict between Brian and Stewie; their relationship is primarily based on jokes at the other’s expense, and Stewie also wants to rat Brian out for being irresponsible.

The external conflict is resolved when the travelers return home and Stewie covers for Brian, which shows a change of heart from Stewie’s earlier attempts to tattle on him over the phone, which Brian thwarts by physically restraining him. The internal conflict is resolved by Luke the farmer, who assures Brian that his mother wanted him to leave and find a better life. Brian also gains closure by absconding with his mother’s stuffed body and giving her a proper burial in a park. The episode ends with Brian contentedly reading a newspaper at home, his mommy issues now behind him.

The B Story features Lois and Peter’s adventures with marriage videos that help improve communication but ultimately turn out to be a ploy by Lois to turn Peter on. There is some conflict here because Peter is obviously terrible at communicating and then believes he is keeping a secret from Lois, except Lois apparently doesn’t care about Peter’s lack of communication and is in fact secretly trying to improve their sex life. The conflict is unimportant; the only purpose of the B Story is to provide the humor of expectations being defied through the reveals that the videos are actually sex tapes and that Lois knows it all along.

The main conflicts of the episode are irrelevant, as well—they serve only as a vehicle to the climax, which is a musical number that extols the journey of the travelers and reinforces the bonds between them. The number features cheesy Broadway choreography, cliché dress-up montages, and delightfully bad lyrical and non-lyrical barbs between the singers, all of which serve to mock the musical genre and make fun of a pointless narrative device while reinforcing its merits at the same time. The lyrics even go so far as to take jabs at FOX and the censors, because the very device of a musical number takes the audience out of the narrative and the writers choose to take them even further out by drawing attention to the network and the nature of the entertainment being consumed (thus infusing the song with humorous metafictional elements).

As a story, this episode is basic and weak. The plot is nothing more than a generic series of events around which jokes and gags may be displayed. There is no real emotional content to be had—Brian’s internal conflict is resolved by two lines of dialogue from an incidental character, and then he recapitulates with his mother by burying her, but any emotional impact is instantly deflated by Stewie’s nonsensical eulogy. There is no emotional impact in Stewie and Brian’s bonding, either—it simply culminates in another defial of expectations (one expects Stewie to make Brian his slave à la an episode of The Brady Bunch, but really he only wants him to record said episode). Family Guy doesn’t care about emotional content, though—it only cares about laughs.

Ultimately, Family Guy succeeds as a work of pointless entertainment, but lacks the element of beauty requisite for art. Of course, beauty and perhaps even emotional content are hardly concepts that can be objectively defined, but they are still unavoidable aspects of this analysis and must suffice for discussion purposes. Though my exposure to Family Guy is limited, it does not strike me as a work that strives to be beautiful, and is therefore content to be entertainment. This particular episode goes out of its way to parody the conventions of the buddy genre, and does so to fair comedic effect (the title sequence is even altered for this purpose, which perhaps even separates this episode from other “regular” episodes in the series). Though aspects of the show are clever and it succeeds in providing gags upon gags, Family Guy is not something I would classify as art.

Though I have already made known my opinion on The Greatest Rock n’ Roll Band of All Time, there is one musical artist who transcends such labels: the late Warren Zevon (nevermind that he’s commonly classified as a singer/songwriter—he’s transcendent). Of all the beautiful and thought-provoking songs Zevon has produced, I’m going to examine a track off of 2002’s My Ride’s Here: “Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)” written by Zevon and Mitch Albom.

Like many Zevon numbers, this isn’t simply a song—it’s a story. It’s a life story, in fact, which spans a young Canadian named Buddy’s entire career as a hockey player, from the time he was able to skate at age nine right up to the ambiguous ending: “The big man crumbled, but he felt alright / ‘cause the last thing he saw was the flashing red light / he saw that heavenly light.” For such a light-hearted tune, this line, well, really hits you, because Buddy the underdog finally achieves his life-long goal, and his success is enough to bring tears to one’s eyes. Then again, those tears may also be for the price he may or may not pay; after all, it is emphasized that the goal is scored in Buddy’s final season and on his final night. A more casual listener could think this simply makes for good suspense or a more poetic finish, but things are never that simple when Warren Zevon is behind the tale. If the last thing he saw was the flashing red light, then one can probably surmise that was the last thing he ever saw and will ever see, but at least Buddy can die happy knowing he got his goal.

Once again, catharsis comes in the climax, though in this instance it is perhaps the story more than the music that produces the effect. That is not to say that the music does not contribute to the experience, however; in the verse featuring the climax, the song pares down to only Zevon’s voice and piano, with just a hint of Paul Shaffer on the keyboards behind him. This brings all the attention squarely on the story without too much instrumental distraction, but the steadily rising organ tones make for an almost heavenly experience, melding perfectly with Buddy’s triumph/tragedy (triumphant tragedy?).

The story does stand on its own, however, and it is difficult not to feel for Buddy and connect with his plight and desire. Buddy is kept down by his coach because he’s not a star, but he is the King of the Goons with a box for a throne (which is a nice extended metaphor). Buddy lives without the option of having options: as the speaker states in the chorus, you, the listener, might be able to choose brains over brawn and take care of your teeth, but what else can Buddy do? It’s almost naturalistic, even, because Buddy is tied to his fate and has no choice but to accept it, except Buddy does try to take control of his destiny and maybe even wins out in the end—but at a price.

The way the story is told is significant, as well. One verse in particular stands out as an example of Zevon’s expert delivery: the verse opens with the speaker speaking for the crowd, and Zevon echoes the “Hit somebody!” of the chorus with assertion and gusto, and then slides back into his narrative tone until he gets to the plaintive Buddy, pleading with his coach, saying “I want to score goals.” The speaker then mainly channels the coach, who is condescending, reassuring, and authoritative at the same time. All of this works due to Zevon’s performance of the lyrics, which has much more to do with storytelling ability than singing ability.

The humor of the story also contributes to its narrative significance. The vaguely dark sense of humor so characteristic of Zevon not only makes the song funny, but it also makes the overall emotional impact that much more effective. Because the song is so lighthearted, the listener does not expect the tearjerker climax and gets hit with a rush of excitement, sympathy, and sadness that has been unwittingly primed by the happy hockey humor and wry commentary on obnoxious sports fans. (It is worth noting that whereas all the hockey players are Swedes, Finns, Russians, and Canadians, the only American element in the song comes from David Letterman’s abrasive exhortations in the chorus—which I’m sure says something about American fans and Americans in general.)

Zevon is nothing if not an artist, and there are so many of his songs one could exhibit as examples of art, but “Hit Somebody!” is not a likely candidate for the list. It’s almost too clean, too simple, and lacking the hard edge of much of his work, but simple equals effective in this case. It is beautiful, it is useless, it is masterfully executed, and it is art.