Review by Samantha Roth
In the Fall of 1996, my sophomore year of high school, my best friend Maya and I dressed up as the “Two Wild and Crazy Guys” for Halloween. We had watched the sketch a few times on late night reruns of Saturday Night Live and mostly thought that our costumes would be an excellent way to display some of our loudly patterned plaid polyester bell-bottom pants. At school, no one knew who we were supposed to be except for one boy who wore a track suit every day and used his free periods to practice breakdancing on a flattened cardboard box in the sunken gated courtyard of our nerdy magnet high school. Someone, we agreed over slices of pizza later that evening, who got us.
School was just down the street from the neighborhood’s zoned high school, Dewitt Clinton, where the likes of James Baldwin had once attended, but that we only knew as the holding pen, for when the “paddy wagon” would round up class-cutters. It was one of the older school buildings from the turn of the century with high ceilings and tall windows that had to be opened from the top with a long pole. I was only sent to “Clin’en” (as we pronounced it) once, and I was struck by how beautiful it was compared to our school building, a 1960s sprawling Modernist institutional structure that inexplicably covered nearly one square block. In the main entry hall to Bronx Science there was a massive, big brother-ey tiled mural of the evolution of science over time, but in my memory was simply a looming Jesus.
“Paddy wagon,” I later learned, is an offensive term, but the jargon of our youth is tough to shake when we revisit the past. I recently watched an updated version of the “Two Wild and Crazy Guys” SNL sketch with the aged Steve Martin and Dan Akroyd in which they wore what seemed to be the original costumes over their changed bodies. This was largely a nostalgic performance, one appreciated only through the lens of recalling the doofy, lady hungry “foreigners” of days past. The anachronism of dated humor is inevitable as the evolving politically correct rejection of ethnic slurs makes it impossible to look back without acknowledging poor decisions and naïve understandings. That’s time passing, that’s culture developing.
But some of us try our hand at many things, and have well-documented archives to show for it. Steve Martin, a household name, has been famous for over fifty years. He is a comedian, actor, writer, musician, art lover, and just a guy (but not in a messy James Franco kind of way.) In the 1990s, years after his comedic debut, Martin began to publish screenplays. WASP (1996) is a one-act play depicting the perversity of a 1950s nuclear family of four as they negotiate each other’s needs and expectations, with some authority placed on the father figure. It is The Glass Menagerie as restaged by Paul McCarthy.
Perhaps because I’m not an older gentleman who grew up with the weight of the expectations of Middle America upon my broad shoulders, I am more interested in the pathos of Martin unpacking these issues just a few short years after a particularly climactic moment in his acting career, starring in films like Roxanne and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, than the text itself. Martin seems compelled to examine his own position and participation in the dominant culture system, but like my own fumbling early misuse and experimentation with language and fashion, the concerns of his WASPy family-play strike a similarly uncomfortable, awkward, and discordant read. Not exactly a decade late, but somehow incredibly dated, I’m swayed into submission and interest of this content by the subtle presence of unexpected celebrity. The culture wars of the ‘80s and ‘90s were of course a significant moment in recent Art History, when artists like Robert Mapplethorpe were forced to battle conservative forces of censorship. Contextualizing Martin’s play in this era feels like a generous read, but perhaps it’s worth speculating that he may have been grappling with his own identity politics.
WASP was originally published in a limited edition of 1000 copies, with illustrations by Martin Mull. Mull is most familiar to me as the uptight diner manager on the brilliant late ‘80s, early ‘90s sitcom, Roseanne, a show that did indeed have much to say about identity politics, feminism, and family. (He also recently exhibited work at Samuel Freeman Gallery.) His ink and wash drawings pepper the publication, with small rough figures negotiating abstracted objects and spaces. These too strike me as more interesting because of their relationship to their actor-maker. I like to imagine Martin and Mull meeting somewhere on the West side of LA, Mull deep into 7th or 8th season of Roseanne, and Martin, perhaps filming Father of the Bride II, excitedly pulling out their texts and drawings to show one another while paparazzi might snap a shot of them drinking coffee, to be used in a “Stars–They’re Just Like Us!” tabloid column.
Two wild and crazy guys, experimenting in a new land.
Steve Martin with illustrations by Martin Mull, WASP, (Victoria Dailey Publisher, 1998)
Images: Cover and interior of WASP