Thursday, April 12, 2007

Reading Rodney Dangerfield's Lips in a Better Place

As everybody knows by now, novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. has croaked at the age of 84. I could pretend he was brilliant and I got all of his writing and found his themes profound and so on, all in an attempt to make myself look well read and sophisticated.

But the truth of the matter is, despite being a fully bona fide, authentic Bachelor of English, I've never read anything the guy ever wrote. Except for that one commencement speech, which it turns out he didn't write. Beyond that, the occasional interview or essay or stray quotation is the only contact I've had with his writing.

Like Thornton Melon, Kurt Vonnegut has graduated... to another plane of existenceNow he's gone, I still don't think he's going to shoot to the top of my reading pile. His books sound far too weird to be anything I would likely enjoy. And from what I know of him, he had a dark pessimism underlying all his humor and -- though I have strong tendencies in that direction myself -- that level of bitter despair puts me off a bit. His overall worldview was needless to say quite different from mine.

But the man was clearly funny, a great provocateur, and so I like to think he would laugh when I said, by way of tribute, that I really enjoyed his cameo in the Rodney Dangerfield masterpiece Back to School:

[after English prof Sally Kellerman gives Rodney an "F" for his report on Vonnegut, which he had hired Vonnegut to write.]

Sally Kellerman (as Diane): And whoever did write this doesn't know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut!

[cut to Rodney's dorm suite]

Rodney (as Thornton Melon): [on the phone] ...and another thing, Vonnegut! I'm gonna stop payment on the check!

[Pause as Vonnegut apparently tells him off]

Thornton Melon: Fuck me? Hey, Kurt, can you read lips? Fuck you! Next time I'll call Robert Ludlum! [hangs up]
In the end, to see what he'd seen and live through what he lived through and still be able to take himself so lightly -- that would have been enough to make him a remarkable man even if he'd never written a single critically acclaimed word.

I hope you were wrong about God, Kurt, and that He has a sense of humor to match your own. Say hi to Rodney for us, if you get the chance.

BBC obituary

2005 appearance on The Daily Show: