By Scott Brown
Updated March 17, 2020 at 02:47 AM EDT
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The Tenacity of the Cockroach

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  • Book
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We in the trade like to think of the celebrity interview as an art. And art it most certainly is: The art of strategic insinuation, the art of preserving ”relationships” while tickling readers with innuendos, the art of (how to put this diplomatically?) pasteurized honesty. But, as the late Douglas Adams (author of ”The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”) once observed to the Onion A.V. Club, ”The idea of art kills creativity.”

Thank goodness, then, for the blocky, ad hoc artlessness of The Tenacity of the Cockroach: Conversations With Entertainment’s Most Enduring Outsiders. Compiled from the archives of the A.V. Club (the oft-overlooked entertainment section of the satirical paper) and sporadically annotated by ”Weird Al” Yankovic ”for added historical perspective,” the 68 very real Q&A’s collected here offer something unique in a media world that’s been airbrushed and Botoxed into submission: the sort of cranky candor that can issue only from the mouths of the Roger Cormans, Alan Moores, Jello Biafras, Bob Odenkirks, and David Crosses of the world. Behold, the B-listers, the niche denizens, iconoclasts, defiant retirees, and curmudgeons. Some are thunderously successful, more or less on their own terms (Alice Cooper). Some are unabashed sellouts (Gene Simmons), while others chide themselves a little for compromising (George Carlin). Some are holding on for dear life, inches above C level. Few would look out of place in a 10-10-220 commercial.

They are the book’s ”enduring outsiders,” a euphemism that has the advantage of being not wholly untrue. (Though, come on, is Vanilla Ice really an ”enduring outsider”?) To keep the enterprise from collapsing into a giant ”Hollywood Squares” compost heap, editor Stephen Thompson and his staff toss plenty of off-the-beaten-boilerplate hardballs. ”What do you really think of Conan O’Brien? He seems like a huge a–hole,” Thompson lobs to ex-”Late Night” sidekick Andy Richter. (”Nice try,” Richter laughs — before obliging with a few backhanded compliments.) And you’ve got to respect staffer John Krewson for remarking to ”L.A. Confidential” author James Ellroy: ”You’re kind of from white trash, though.”

On average, the interviewees give as good as they get. When confronted about his apparent lack of flavorful biographical information, reclusive ”Bloom County” cartoonist Berkeley Breathed replies: ”This year, I started listening to Celtic music and collecting vintage ray guns. If you don’t think that’s more interesting, well, then, you agree with my wife.” A question about possible reissues of his old ”Bloom” books elicits this gem: ”Why bother?… They’re usually a little mildewed from sitting at the base of all those toilets in all those bathrooms throughout America during the ’80s. Appreciate how this sort of legacy sits with a serious writer like myself.”

As you may have noticed, the A.V. Club doesn’t try too hard to steer the discussion toward the current or the cool — or anything in particular, really. Thus, each exchange evinces an Osbournes-esque verity. (Witness Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick taking call-waiting in the middle of his interview, which touches off a meandering tangent on home life: ”My kids don’t give me messages too well…”)

But despite its laid-back, smoking-in-the-greenroom approach, ”Tenacity” is far from agendaless. It pulses with the workaday entertainment voyeur’s restless search for coherence and integrity in the pop trash heap. And, true to Geek Credo, it flirts with the belief (slightly naive, slightly heroic) that purity is to be found on the fringes. That it’s sometimes indistinguishable from misanthropy is a risk the A.V. Club is willing to take. ”People are stupider than anybody,” bellows Tom Lehrer, the still-controversial ’50s song satirist who quit performing in 1972 to teach college mathematics. ”They ban ‘Huckleberry Finn’ because it has the word ‘nigger’ in it. That’s just silly. But what can you do? Except kill those people.”

A beautiful sentiment, and one you won’t see in the pages of PARADE. But is it art? Let’s give the inimitable Mr. Adams the last word: ”Media are at their most interesting before anybody has thought of calling them art, when people still think they’re just a load of junk.”

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The Tenacity of the Cockroach

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