We’ve all been friends with that person. The one who manages a high-stressed job, picture perfect relationship all the while canning peaches, knitting intricate sweaters “just because” and whose backhands would make Serena Williams weep. Oh, this old thing, they feign as they trot out homemade jerky (after hunting, killing, dressing and drying the meat themselves, of course).
We love them because they’re wonderful, but really, after hours upon hours of far-fetched humility, sometimes you wind up feeling in desperate need of a Kanye-esque declaration of self-importance. One grandiose “I am a Jedi” moment (thank you Tracy Jordan) and we can sigh in relief at the presence of a slightly elevated being in the room who is at least somewhat self-aware.
But really, people just want to see other people fucking up—not necessarily in the devastating-for-others “Heckuva job, Brownie” sense, but in the please don’t let me be the only one that crapped in my pants at the Pizza Hut buffet kind of way. Hence, the appeal of the everyman and woman. They may be award-winning, record-breaking geniuses, but their most memorable, lasting images come from them playing less successful, more debased and difficult versions of themselves (if you count wearing a snuggie while eating a giant block of cheddar as a failure, that is, which of course I do not). It’s in acknowledging and then mining their weaknesses that these artists have been able to realize their greatest creative potential. Here are five of our favourites. (Britt Harvey)
30 Rock’s Liz Lemon versus Tina Fey
Oh, Tina/Liz. No matter how much you protest to the contrary, few would ever refer to you as anything other than a bonafide genius. Tina Fey, a feminist beacon no matter what she or the haters say, created the perfect counterpoint to her assertive and put-together image with the sandwich-crazed, (mostly) sexless, and irritable (but nonetheless appealing) Liz Lemon.
Liz Lemon, like Fey, was also the head writer of a sketch show, albeit one with a little less of the critical and cultural heft of Saturday Night Live. Liz Lemon was a complicated character, one whom you could rightfully root for but who, at times, let her selfishness get the better of her. (Among her low points was the time she tried to empower an impressionable pregnant teen so she could adopt her baby.)
However, Liz Lemon’s “failures” made her into an everyday folk hero (consider the permanence of her eye rolls, “blerg” and “Liz-ing,” for starters). You could argue that Liz’s failures—her stubbornness, her commitment to her work, her refusal to comply with relationship demands (even if your boyfriend is stupid doctor Jon Hamm)—are, in fact, not failures at all, but a wry send-up of all the working-woman stock characters thrust upon us like Subway coupons at an auto show.
Liz’s failures are her strengths. Tina Fey, you sly fox. (Britt Harvey)
Louis CK in Louie versus Louis CK
The Louis CK from Louie is a middling-to-sorta-successful comic/sad sack with a bad body image, horrible luck with women and a serious depression-induced Häagen-Dazs binge-eating issue. This may or may not be an accurate depiction of the man himself, except for the fact the “real” Louis CK is much much much more successful, and maybe just a little bit meaner.
Louis on Louie is a divorced dad, a comic and a cynic whose brand of comedy details the small, the big, and the oftentimes infinitesimal ways in which human beings can be utterly beautiful while also being utter pieces of trash at the same time. The real-life Louis CK is, after all, a divorced dad, a comic, a cynic and … you get the picture.
The fictional Louis is oftentimes bereft, bumbling and perpetually aggrieved by life’s many indignities, but you get the sense that, through this “failed” or “lesser than” self, he gets to explore these indignities to their fullest potential. That is, he still gets to be human. And it is this humanness that guides the most brilliant episodes of the show. (Britt Harvey)
Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm versus Larry David
If the Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm ever finds success, it’s either short-lived or in spite of himself. Like his real-life counterpart, he was a co-creator of Seinfeld; unlike his real-life counterpart, he has flailed about ever since, lacking either the motivation or the luck to follow through on the promise of his talent, and has made everybody in his life miserable in the process. Curb’s early episodes focused on Larry as a mogul who became a creative drifter, a respected and influential comedy writer who devolved into a depressing, sweatpantsed shell of himself. Even when, after much cajoling, he got his act together enough to pitch a show to ABC, he ended up torpedoing the deal by cutting the hair off the executive’s daughter’s beloved doll. Then he tripped Shaquille O’Neal during a Lakers game.
The Larry of Curb has spent an episode with a pubic hair caught in his throat; organized a dinner in which a Survivor contestant and a survivor of the Holocaust argued over survival supremacy; invited a sex offender to a Seder; gotten a boner while hugging a displaced hurricane victim; and managed to disappoint his long-suffering wife, Cheryl, at nearly every turn before they finally divorced in the show’s most recent season. Real-life Larry also got divorced a few years ago, but at least he managed to put together a brilliantly funny show about, as one character puts it in season eight, a “social assassin.”
Real-life Larry has said he wishes he could be more like the fictionalized version of himself, that he could turn off his brain’s self-censorship function and speak his mind, regardless of the disastrous consequences. The Larry of Curb is “my version of Superman,” he told Rolling Stone. “The character really is me, but I just couldn’t possibly behave like that. … This is an idealized version of how I want to be.” That he’s been able to stifle those impulses might be his greatest success of all. (Jordan Ginsberg)
Joaquin Phoenix in I’m Still Here versus Joaquin Phoenix
Phoenix is a wildcard, the kind of guy whose background includes alcoholism, cult membership, and nearly blowing himself up by trying to light a cigarette in the gasoline-covered aftermath of a car wreck, only to be stopped by a passing-through Werner Herzog. But he’s a successful wildcard, a great and celebrated actor who throws himself into challenging roles that force him to address his demons (the addicted Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, the damaged and itinerant veteran who joins a Scientology-like cult in The Master). That being said, nobody really anticipated his rap career.
You’ve seen the Letterman appearance: A bearded, disheveled, discombobulated Phoenix rumbled onto the Late Show set and talked—sort of—about retiring from acting in favour of hip hop. “Well, Joaquin,” Letterman said, after Phoenix stuck his gum on the host’s desk, “I’m sorry you couldn’t be with us tonight.”
It was a stunt, of course—a stage-setting act for the Casey Affleck-directed mockumentary I’m Still Here, chronicling said self-destructive career detonation for the purpose of making a (dumb, inelegant) point about reality television, apparently? Phoenix fatigue set in pretty quickly and the film crash-landed, but despite tagging himself with the enduring stink of a mildly ambitious public performance-art piece whose success depended on people believing this horror-show was real, he seems to have rejoined the A-list ranks with barely a scratch on him. He’ll always have that batshit Letterman appearance, though. (JG)
Philip Roth as Nathan Zuckerman, David Kepesh and Philip Roth versus Philip Roth
Roth’s work is full of duplicates and doppelgangers and surrogates, versions of the author whose lives and accomplishments mirror in many ways their creator’s, but who also provide Roth with vehicles for the indulgences and indignities he may have only imagined or anticipated as inevitabilities. Zuckerman, over the course of his literary life, battles with crippling pain, considers abandoning writing, fights with his ill brother, and struggles with incontinence, all the while treating the women he meets more or less like shit. Kepesh is Roth at his most awkward, least adept, most lustful, least fuckable. Roth as Roth is largely reserved for his struggles with Jewishness and Americanness, whether as a scared and confused child in an alternate-reality U.S. presided over by a Nazified Charles Lindbergh, or as a grown man confronting an impostor who forces him into a reluctantly hawkish stance on the role and importance of the state of Israel.
At least some of these things are based in fact; ask Roth’s ex-wife Claire Bloom about how he treats the women in his life. But, despite the ostensibly confessional nature of his writing, his real interest in these works is in how an author develops a relationship with his characters and, in turn, how readers latch onto those characters and use them as proxies for their relationships with the author. It’s a neat trick, but one that invariably—and, probably, intentionally—asks readers to at least consider whether the monster they’re reading about is, indeed, the same sort of beast as the man who created it. (JG)