Damien James on the Chicago Humanities Festival

November 10, 2009 · Print This Article

Matt Groening and Lynda Barry circa 1984 by Michael Sepcot.

Matt Groening and Lynda Barry circa 1984 by Michael Sepcot.

Guest post by Damien James

In the brief Chicago Humanities Festival preview posted a couple of weeks ago, I listed what I hoped would be some highlights, and I wanted to take a moment now that the festival is about halfway through its run to tell you about two events I recently attended so you get a picture—maybe fleeting—of how this years programming is meeting my admittedly high expectations.

In the near future I’ll share more about specific events as well as thoughts on the festival theme—laughter—with the intention of communicating how important the Humanities Festival has been for me, maybe how important it is to the city itself, and possibly beyond. It’s also my hope that it will become important to you, if it isn’t already. After all, each of us is a part of the greater festival of humanities as it plays out in our own lives every day, in the choices we make which not only effect ourselves, but everyone in our local and even global community.

And if this happens to be your city, the excellence of CHF earns you some bragging rights. Privatized parking meters, bogus mayoral claims of how green Chicago is, Land of the Lost-sized pot holes and shitty CTA service, our former governor’s “reality” TV career, and our failure (thank Jesus) to win the Olympic bid are not the only things we have going for us…

Chicagoan Harold Ramis was the first presenter I saw, and we should all be lucky enough to have so much to laugh about at 65 years old. I told him after his presentation at the Thorne Auditorium that he seemed to be an incredibly happy guy. He took a beat before responding and said, “I’m an actor.” Reading this on the screen, one can easily interpret those three words as “Of course I’m happy! And famous! And rich! And on my way to Spiaggia! Have you ever had their Gamberi e polenta al forno con erbe cipollinariccio di mare e cavaile? It’s fucking delicious!”

What you missed by not actually seeing and hearing him, however, was how easily his eyes and voice conveyed the same bittersweetness as when, answering a question from the audience as to what he would most like to accomplish at this point in his life, he said, “This is gonna sound sappy, but I’d just like to have a successful marriage.”

90 minutes with the writer/director/actor disappeared loudly and instantly as laughter spread itself across the spectrum of emotion while Ramis shared clips and anecdotes from his favorites, bouncing off the brilliant surfaces of the Marx Brothers in all their surrealist glory (this was the first time I had ever seen them on the big screen, which enhanced their funny ten-fold; As a kid, Ramis wanted to be both Groucho and Harpo), Cary Grant in Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace, Monty Python and their heady existentialism, Woody Allen and his flawless ability to embody the deep-seeded angst we all experience at least a thousand times (I’m underestimating) in our lives, Dr. Strangelove, Preston Sturges, the Coen brothers, and many more. It was as entertaining to watch Ramis laughing at the clips he shared as the clips were themselves.

He went from self-effacing to self-aggrandizing as if on cue and drew out delight at each step, boasting ownership of “four percent of AFI’s top 100 funniest films,” and admitting that he went to Hollywood to get laid. He told unexpected stories (“My wife said that for her fiftieth birthday she wanted to meet the Dalai Lama, so I called some friends in Glencoe…” They did in fact meet him, though Ramis was fairly certain that the Dalai Lama had never seen Caddyshack.), and spoke about the days leading up to The Second City, when Mike Nichols and Elaine May were at The Compass doing what had never been done before, his introduction to Billy Murray (“the funniest peanut vendor you could ever meet”), his musical history at the Old Town School of Folk as kid, and how he went into college like John Kennedy and came out like John Lennon. Even if you don’t care for some (or any) of Ramis’ films—though is there really anyone who doesn’t like Ghostbusters at least a little bit?—it was impossible not to be charmed by his enthusiasm and candor. Ramis closed with a scene from Monty Python in which a sing-along and group whistling was taken up to cheer Christ while crucified.

Just 48 hours later, with equal candor and a thick sloppy ladling of playful insanity, Matt Groening and Lynda Barry took the stage at the UIC Forum on 725 West Roosevelt, where both were hilarious, inspiring, and incredibly goddamn smart. Before they were introduced, it was said that the attendance for their presentation was the highest in CHF history. Sitting next to me was Chris Ware, who simultaneously looked around the Wal-Mart-esque room with it’s AC-lined high ceilings, institutional paint, and florescent lighting, and joked (I think) in his oddly compelling self-loathing-laced voice, “This place is just horrible. I feel like they’re going to take us all on stage and execute us.”

Regardless, the place was packed, and it was one of the more diverse crowds I’ve seen in four years of attending CHF events, which seem to draw more from middle-aged Northshore affluence than the richness of the inner-city student and working class. Why that is I am still not certain.

To claps and shouts, Matt and Lynda began. The two have such a deep history and palpable affection for each other that their conversation was completely engaging, like sitting at the adult table with older siblings you adore as they tell stories of their most outlandish drinking games, yet they carried with them the weight of decades of familiarity. They emphatically traded tales about their family histories, how they were both directly influenced by the mottos of their fathers (for Lynda: “There’s no problem too big to run away from;” for Matt: “If you’re going to do something, overdo it.”), how they met at Evergreen State College, their humble beginnings as a writer/chauffeur and a nude artists model, respectively, and the myriad ups and downs of living off creativity and the mostly constant struggle of trying to make it as cartoonists in the adult world, which is, as Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer said, “not a job for grown-ups.”

Lynda’s facial expressions and hand gestures were exclamation points on her punch lines. “Good art and good images,” she said wide-eyed and nodding as if to slow children she none the less loved dearly, “keep you from killing yourself and others!” Matt’s comic dialogs from his sons (“Listening to my kids was a great way to make weekly deadlines. At least until they got old enough that they no longer wanted to cooperate.”) as read by he and Lynda were met with those deep belly laughs that make your cheeks and crows feet hurt. During a clip of The Simpsons, someone even screamed.

Matt and Lynda made each other laugh, too, despite the fact, or because of, how much they admittedly annoy each other. Matt boyishly blushed at times, which Lynda seemed to savor. “He even asked me to marry him once,” she said, Matt looking down at the table, reddening. “He didn’t mean it.” The two had such chemistry on stage that it was easy to imagine them together, maybe just as easy to imagine what a disaster it could have been.

Groening and Barry spoke only briefly on the importance of each others work, but even that was unnecessary. They were ushered off stage by a standing ovation. People knew they were in the presence of greatness. I only say that because some of them said as much out loud. I might not have held the same opinion before hearing the two artists speak, but after, I felt the same way. Matt Groening and Lynda Barry weren’t trying to, but they convinced me.

That you can do what you love and maybe carve out a little place for yourself, despite how difficult it may be at times, is something every artist should hear and remember, not that carving out a place for yourself should ever be the motivation. Love for what you’re doing is the only motivation which is self sustaining. The decades of experience Groening and Barry shared with CHF patrons is proof.

CHF runs through November 15th. Get ticket info at: http://www.chicagohumanities.org/

Damien James is a self-taught artist and writer living (barely) and working (constantly) in Chicago. He has contributed to Chicago Reader, New City, Saatchi Gallery Online, Art Voices, and the general goodwill of mankind, among other things. His art has been seen in Chicago’s Around the Coyote Gallery, Brooklyn’s 3rd Ward Gallery with Art House Co-op’s Sketchbook Project, various apartments in Berlin, London, and a tiny village in Romania.

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