James Wolcott’s Critical Mass is, among other things, a guide through the wilds of YouTube. One way to read this book is in front of a computer screen, where many of Wolcott’s subjects, so memorably captured in his antic prose, can be experienced firsthand. He is the preeminent critic of contemporary spectacle, matching his own supercharged style to the highlights of forty years of TV, pop music, books, and movies. He writes equally well of Philip Larkin and Telly Savalas, Bob Dylan and Designing Women. He knows the secret channels that connect Mort Sahl to Alexander Haig and the Kennedys. Wolcott’s attention roves naturally from medium to medium, since wherever he looks he finds extravaganza and, inside extravaganza, the sadness, the boredom, and the loneliness it is designed to mask.
His ideal subject is live TV, where displays of frailty or pique often reward the patient viewer. In 2010, Jerry Lewis presented his last telethon, in which he was as usual joined by various celebrities to raise money for muscular dystrophy. Wolcott wrote his essay on the event for the September 2011 issue of Vanity Fair. It is partly a homage to the twentieth century and its bedraggled survivors, TV among them:
A performer since the age of five, Lewis himself embodies the end of an era stretching from vaudeville to Las Vegas—the last surviving clown prince of nightclub comedy and movie slapstick mime. His former partner Dean Martin, that golden raisin whose crooning voice poured like a pitcher of caramel goo, died in 1995 and was the subject of a crackling bromantic memoir by Lewis…. Lewis’s sidekick announcer for the telethon, Ed McMahon, whose copper pipes and heigh-o ebullience seemed immortal, passed away in 2009. The telethon will be less of a marathon this Labor Day, shortened to six hours from the twenty-one-hour gruelers of the past. Its former duration imbued it with psychodrama and suspense as Jerry, racked by fatigue and frustration, would start laying a super-heavy guilt trip on those sitting on their wallets and reluctant to give.
“Part of the telethon’s lure,” wrote Harry Shearer in 1979, and quoted in Wolcott’s piece, “was the opportunity to see this beautiful humanitarian turn self-pitying and nasty as the hours dragged by.” Viewers who held out to the small hours could “count on a really ugly rampage.”
The telethon piece is one of many here about the concentric circles of current mass culture, where one can easily find a trace of vaudeville in a film star’s shtick on a TV telethon viewed on a YouTube clip; or a Henry Mancini riff inside a Steely Dan tune inside a hip-hop single by De La Soul. The ideal reader for these nested artifacts is someone like Wolcott: a critic with an eye for their ironies, not a cheerleader for the new. Today you can see hundreds of short clips of Lewis’s telethons…
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.