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The Sylvester Stallone Story: ‘Rocky’ KOs Movie Biz


We are very tight on the sensual face of a young man. His mouth alternately curls, sneers, pulls tight in a grin as he talks. His dark eyes glitter, go distant in repose, grow old as tombs in the young face. Sometimes the face freezes, as if poised for sex or perjury. This is our hero, SYLVESTER STALLONE, called “SLY” by his friends. He is an actor. He is a writer. He has just finished starring in an extraordinary prizefight film called Rocky, which he has written for himself. The film will open in New York on November 21. Preview audiences have been ecstatic. They say he will win the Academy Award.

STALLONE: Yeah, Rocky. I wanted it to be real, but I also wanted to take it beyond just realism. To add fantasy. In real life, the climactic fight between Rocky and the champion probably would not have gone on that long. I mean, they were both basket cases. But for dramatic purposes, I wanted to make it an actual physical poem in a sense; there is a meter, a rhythm, It’s like a Mother Goose tale written in concrete.


The camera pulls back to reveal Stallone sitting over a lunch of vegetables: cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes. His neck is thick. He has the developed chest and upper arms of a weight lifter, which he is. He doesn’t smoke.

STALLONE: That’s where I see the drive of my writing. I want to bring forth these toys. I want to give people those visions they had when they were younger and everything seemed more playful and they were all more vulnerable. The All-American thing. Why not? I grew up rooting for the Dodgers, and it was great: The music was great, the food was great, everything was fine. They may be false images and idols, but I want to drag them back to the foreground because without a sense of optimism, without a sense of a positive future, it’s just …


Stallone continues to talk as we see brief glimpses, of him growing up with his family and friends. The early years are in Hell’s Kitchen. Then a move to Silver Springs, Maryland, where his parents open a gymnasium, then to a dreary section of Philadelphia. The parents bicker. There are cuts of young Sylvester in a variety of foster homes. The parents divorce when he is 11. Children laugh at young Sylvester, because he so thin he even develops rickets. He becomes a solitary, lifting weights to build up the spindly body and providing himself a private form of meditation. At 16, he has been kicked out of 14 schools; his father becomes rich, owner of a chain of beauty shops. His mother is still around. Stallone watches his friends and sees their lives start to settle.

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STALLONE: They just said to themselves, you know I’m 22 years old, and I’m gonna get married to some girl named Dollie Mud and retire at Takawana Street and live under the bridge and smell fish for the rest of my life. It just inflamed me that people could start preparing their spiritual coffins at such a tender age. I didn’t want to go that route in my life or in Rocky. You have to try. That’s what Rocky does. It’s his golden shot and he’s gonna take it. It took me a long time to shed my heavy pessimism. I carried it around like a banner for years. I was so goddamned defensive because people had always con­sidered me a rather muscular mono-minded greasy-teeshirt slimy-type neighborhood guinea. One thing was true: I had always worked on the physical aspect because I figured that my body was just a device to carry my brain around, but if I’m going to walk around, I’d like to have some nice equipment. That’s all. But some people figured right away that the larger your arm gets the more diminished your mind. I hope I’ve put some chips in that myth. [He noshes cucumbers and sips from iced tea.] Kids didn’t articulate it that much. I mean, they’d just say things like, ‘Ooohhh, here comes the tough guy. Please don’t hit me, please’ — and I’d just be walking into a room. The teachers would be part of it. They would say, ‘Okay, today we are having a fire drill. Everyone goes out and Stallone, you hold the door.’ During recess, I was the guy who carried the equipment out. That type … I only lived a year in Philly. I worked for a pizza company there, living with my parents, who were, I think, trying to perfect the art of estrangement. Every other day they were on the move. They’d check out and then come back, and I’d wander around Philly.

Stallone looks out the window into the sunlight. We are on the lot at M-G-M in Culver City. Technicians, and extras walk by in the hazy, polluted sunlight. Stallone’s brown eyes go soft with memory.

STALLONE: I would ride the subway. And when you sit in the subway and look through the windows it’s almost like a picture screen. You see all of these images whipping by. And I kept looking over the rail and seeing this one place, this little microcosm, this teeming-humanity kind of a place called Fishtown. It was never getting better. It was like someone pulled the plug on this place. And I thought, what about the people that are in it? Obviously they don’t care, they’re going down with it. And it was like a big balloon going down, an entire neighborhood starting to deflate. So, one day, I took a walk down there and, man, I tell you. I met or four women on the corner and they might have had four teeth between them. The were a mural of homemade tattoos, and they had cauliflower ears that looked like matching sets of raw oysters. And all that hit me. All of that. It ended up in Rocky. But I still hadn’t thought of writing. That was later.

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A younger Stallone moves through a variety of bucolic Swiss scenes. He is a weight lifting instructor, a jock, living in an all-girls school in Leysin. The mountains look as if they had been scrubbed that morning by a half-million industrious Swiss.

STALLONE: [Smiling.] My mother had a lot to do with what happened. She was always a woman who was out of place and time. She was a very flamboyant person and still is. But she married my father and was forced to live in a very provincial town in Maryland, and I think a lot of her of frustrations for the theatre, and the life of the celebrity, returned to me. So, from early on, I became what is known as an incorrigible child. I wasn’t cool; I wasn’t a bully. But I did the thing with the air out of the tires, the stolen hubcaps, fights here and there. But nothing like throwing gasoline on a woodchuck —that wasn’t my style. But then I went to Switzerland. I got there because my mother was a great con-artist and she got me in as a physical instructor. This was in a school for extremely wealthy and professsionally spoiled children. The Shah of Iran’s kid. The kids from the Hershey fortune, the kid whose father owned the Kimberly mines. The town was like one of those small objects you buy at the zoo for $4 and you turn it over and the snowflakes come down. I didn’t want to ski. I just wanted to get loaded and play pinball machines. Essentially, I was the imported American sheep dog for these little lambs, these girls. I mean it. My room was strategically located at the end of the dorm, and I was supposed to keep away these hordes of marauding mountain climbers. I mean it, they would come from England and Scotland and these places and, during the day, they would climb mountains, and at night it was like Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas. They would climb the frigging building to get to these girls. It was my job to chase these guys away and yell profanities, like, ‘I’ll get your mother for this!’ and crap like that. Until I realized it was more profitable the other way. I mean, one of the girls would say, ‘Listen, for 100 francs, maybe you could go blind for five minutes …’ By the end of that year, I had gone blind so often I could pay my own tuition — $6000 — and Prince Paul of Ethiopia and I had become such good buddies that we opened a clandestine, after-hours secret hamburger restaurant. I came back later like the most gauche American tourist. Ten watches, you know … But something happened there: they needed a body for a play. A warm body. I mean, if you could breathe, you got the part. It was Biff, in Death of a Salesman, and I realized, hey


The images of snow, pine, mountains, rich girls, pinball, and Swiss watches dissolve into the flat, hot beaches of Florida under a scalding sun. Stallone moves through the campus of the University of Miami.

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STALLONE: When I came back to America. I went to a place that was just the opposite. What is Florida? One inch above sea level? [Pause] Boy, was that bad. I learned it is actually possible to function without brain waves for two years. I was signed up in acting classes, and they said to me, ‘Whatever you do, keep your night job. You don’t have it. They don’t need surfers on Broadway.’ In classes they would do scenes. But I didn’t want to do Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Streetcar Named Desire. Everyone who came in the door was Brando. He’s three feet tall and he’s doing Brando. Another guy is nine feet tall, with one arm, and he’s doing Brando. Everyone is doing Brando there. But I had started to think that the proof of whether you’ve got a real artistic bent is whether you can write your own material and perform it. Well, I wrote some things, and they immediately took offense. They said, ‘Forget it. You stink. Why don’t you try for a scholarship in Pool Service or something?’ They said it was all over. So I hung around a while and then went home.


Stallone now moves through a darker landscape: fire escapes, dirty streets, a walkup apartment, roaches, and booking offices. We see him move through audition after audition. We also see him start to write.

STALLONE: After a while I just jumped in my ’61 Hupmobile, or whatever it was — something brown with four wheels. I head for New York and just molt for four months. Then I had my first audition. It was for Sal Mineo, for Fortune in Men’s Eyes. And he says, ‘You’re not cool enough for this part. You’re not tough enough.’ [Pause] Here’s a guy I could actually maneuver into a square knot, and he’s telling me I’m not tough enough. Well, the rejection process started weakening my confidence. I was 22. I was realistic. I would say to my friends, ‘What happens if you are going to fail? Did you ever think about failure?’ They’d say, ‘No. No. I can’t bear it. It’s impossible, man, it’s not … no way!” Right then I said to myself, They have no options. But the only option I had at that point was writing. [Pause] I said to myself, I am failing at acting; I might as well fail at writing, too. I might as well make it a Triple Crown of failure. And I started to write. It wasn’t as difficult as I was told it would be. I was always fairly glib. The William Morris Agency took me on — as a writer. They wouldn’t touch me as an actor, although I would go up there with a big hat, a poncho, anything to show I wasn’t a bookmark. But they said, ‘no. He’s a writer. Writer mentality.’ So rather than do a swan dive out the 19th floor in frustration, I decided to be a writer for a while. I must have written a million words; two novels, in a Dos Passos style, very quick, lot of dialogue, not much description of why a door is peeling. They weren’t too good and I started writing nothing but scripts and learning all the time.

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Stallone looks like a Salvation Army reject, turns into 56th Street, stops in front of posh French restaurant.

STALLONE: The second script I wrote was called Promises Written on Water — how’s that for pretension? It was a title that had nothing to do with the story, but I liked the sound of the words. You know. I was 23. Anyway, Otto Preminger was going to option it and he invited me to lunch at this upper-crust French restaurant. I had never been in such a place. They didn’t even want me to walk in front of the place, I’m in such bad shape by then. I mean I’m living in some rundown hotel where everyone is short. I don’t know why, but they are all short and carry canes … So I went in there and met with Preminger. And, after a while, he said, ‘I would like to do this script. Now, as a writer what would you want a week to do the rewrite?’ My esteem was so low — my clothes smell, and I smell — and I think about it, and I say, “Seventy dollars?” Well, his chocolate mousse shot out of both nostrils. He said: ‘Vot? Seventy dollars?” [Laughs] Well, that was such a turnoff to him that he never did option the screen play. [Laughs] And, you know, I was pushing! I would’ve settled for 40.


We see Stallone move through a variety of jobs: chopping fish in a market, working in the zoo at Central Park, standing outside Walter Reade’s Baronet Theatre in an usher’s uniform, taking a few bucks to slip people in to see M*A*S*H*. He sells a couple of scripts to TV’s Touch of Evil series. Then we see him begin to get very small acting jobs: in Woody Allen’s Bananas, in Prisoner of Second Avenue with Jack Lemmon. And he gets his first starring role: in Marty Davidson’s Lords of Flatbush. He is beefier than he is now, playing a leather-jacketed punk with great swagger and street style.

STALLONE: I just had withdrawn into my apartment in New York and said to hell with it, I will write for other people. And that’s the way it was. [Pause.] Until a friend called me up one day and asked me to help him audition for this picture, The Lords of Flatbush. So I helped him. I got the role and he didn’t. So I scraped the paint off the windows and let the sunlight in. I got my phone connected. Then, when Lords of Flatbush came out, I thought, Hey, I should at least get a walk-on on the Mary Tyler Moore show. But nothing! Zippo. Zippo. [Pause.] So it was another two years of hot and cold running rats, and roach souffles. But I kept writing. My wife, Sasha, would type them. It was like a factory. I just kept at it. I think weight lifting helped give me the concentration, the discipline, and I kept going.

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But we see Stallone start to get some jobs: he plays Frank Nitti to Ben Gazzara’s Capone ; he is in Death Race 2000. He leaves New York and settles into California. Still writing. He and his wife live in a tiny apartment, in the land of swimming pools, studios, Hollywood trade papers, and thwarted hopes. We see him finally, at one point, holding a finished copy of his latest script. It’s called Rocky. This is July 1975. Violins begin to build.

STALLONE: I had formulated the story in my mind for several months, so it didn’t take me long to put it on paper. Three or four days. I knew where I was going. I mean, I had already written it 10 times up here [Taps his head.] I knew the time was right for a film about heroes, and the ring was the place for — well, they’re like the modern-day gladiators. And I brought it over to Chartoff and Winkler and I find myself sitting with Gene Kirkwood — he ‘s a producer who just went to work for them — beside the pool, and he ‘s reading it. He flips every page and he says terrificterrificterrific, terrific, terrific, you hear “terrific” 126 times. I’m just waiting. And he finishes and says, ‘Never make it. Bad. It’s a good script, but it’ll never get made.’ [Pause.] I was waiting for that and, of course, I was gonna drown him right there. Just tie him to his beach chair and submerge him. But he ran it into Bob Chartoff and Irwin Winkler. I knew their reputation. They were very tough, astute businessmen. Give me facts, give me figures. So I gave them the script and they gave me a figure. The figure was around a hundred grand. He breathes out hard. At that time, I had about $106 in the bank. And we had a baby on the way and a dog who was beginning to eat my television. So the script went around to several of the important people at the United Artists hierarchy and they said: ‘Okay we like it — Burt Reynolds is perfect !’ It was like someone put my heart through a wringer. I said, You don’t understand, I wrote this for me, I tailored it, I sent this script to a perfect Italian tailor, perfect dimensions. It’s me. No. It’s all me. No. It’s mine. [Longer pause, remembering what happened, savoring it.] Another offer came back. $180,000. Right away, the eye fell out — bong! — the ear filled up, my body started to function very oddly with these figures. A hundred and eighty thousand dollars. Christ … Then an outside source, who will remain nameless because of embarrassment, wanted Ryan O’Neal in it, and offered in excess of $250,000, close to $300, 000. For a script! [A beat.] But what do I play in it? Well, you play nobody. You play a memory. You disap­pear. You take a vacation to Colma and that’s it. You just take the money and run. And I knew if I did that, then the whole thing I wrote about in the script was totally false, too. The picture was about taking that golden shot, in the face of adversity. So I hung on and hung on and hung on, and they realized that this guy’s not gonna give it up. Finally, they said, ‘Well, if you can make a movie for a million, not a penny more … ‘

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So, they make the film. We see Stallone working with director John Avildsen, a scrappy bantam of a man who in Stallone’s phrase “could get knocked out by a punching bag,” but fights for every foot of film. We see Stallone in a gymnasium in the San Fernando Valley, training to get in shape for the actual shooting. We see Avildsen and Stallone reject the conventional staged fights of the stuntman, and Stallone choreographing the entire climactic fight: punch by punch, on 14 pages of tightly written script. We see them shoot four and-a half days of exteriors in Philadelphia, and then a return to Los Angeles for interiors, the only way to make the grueling 28-day shooting schedule. Off-camera, Stallone fights every day with producer Bob Chartoff and then paints his portrait, in harsh black and white; the picture now hangs in Chartoff”s office. For two straight days, 12 hours a day, they shoot the film’s final fight, in which Rocky, the unknown club fighter called “The Italian Stallion” gets a shot at the crown of an Ali-like heavy-weight champion of the world. Finally, the film is finished And it is shown in screening rooms in California, and at a sneak preview at the Baronet, where Stallone was once an usher, and the crowds love it. It’s one of the best boxing movies ever made — maybe the best — but it has other qualities: heart, humor, intelligence, optimism, and a superb performance by Stallone. The word is every­where. Stallone is a star. A new star. As big as Brando, maybe. And a writer, too Maybe even a director. But big. The picture will be huge. The violins build and build. And we


Stallone is now going through another of the many interviews that will be part of his life in the years ahead In a series of cuts, we hear him talk on a number of sub­jects.

SCREENWRITING: I believe that writers are the whole backbone of the movies. They are the Whale. A great actor can’t carry a bad script, but a great script can carry all unknown actors.

TELEVISION: TV has really hit puberty. The hair is beginning to grow and curl, the testicles have just about dropped. I think it’s going to get a little mucle now.

THE ITALIAN-AMERICAN MOVIE RENAISSANCE (DeNiro, Coppola, Scorsese, Pacino, Vaccaro): Look, I’m only half Italian. But, do you think it’s pretentious to say that Italians as actors and artists tend to be more passionate than their Anglo counterparts? They seem to have a different energy. Jesus, I don’t want to offend anybody, but they just seem to be the symbols of today’s man — today’s urban man.

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OTHER ACTORS: If I’m ever in a position to do anything about it, I will always go with unknowns. ‘Cause there’s nothing more shattering than to know that you’re ready, you’ re primed — it’s like you’re ready for that major fight — and it’s being canceled and canceled and canceled. That’s like Purgatory. You end up in this vortex of self-destruction, with a chafed elbow, leaning against some bar. Telling about how it could have been. “I could have been a contender …”

THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE: I’m going to promote the film until February, and then I’m going to do this film — about Edgar Allen Poe — which is in a classical category. It will once and for all get me out of the goon category. I hope. The goon category isn’t bad. But I just don’t want to be cemented into that category forever. It’s like The Cask of Amontillado. Aaaargh …

It is late now. Stallone appears talked out. He gets up, looks out into the lot, and sees Robert DeNiro walking by, with tissues under his chin to keep his make-up from smearing his shirt. DeNiro is making New York, New York, on another part of the M-G-M lot. Martin Scorsese is directing him and Liza Minnelli. Stallone smiles. He doesn’t comment. He turns, the eyes twinkling.

STALLONE: You know what I want to be? Boy From Hollywood Makes Good! I’m serious. I live here now. It’s always Boy From Washington, D.C. Guy From Idaho Makes It In Tinseltown. [Laughs.] I want Boy From Hollywood Makes Good.

He smiles. John Avildsen is waiting in the other room. Irwin Winkler steps in to say hello. They all look pleased. There are posters commg for Rocky. Good news about previews. Stallone laughs as we



Kevin Young Has Had Just About Enough of This Bullshit

You’ve heard it all, or some version of it, before. In the year Donald Trump was elected president, fewer than a quarter of Republicans believed the fact of human-driven climate change, while a majority still believed the disproven racist lie that the first president of color was an illegitimate foreigner.

And yet the sheer breadth of these false beliefs — so widespread that you cannot accurately call them “unbelievable” — suggests a phenomenon not solely attributable to stupidity or partisanship. Too mainstream to be conspiracy theory, climate denial and birtherism are just the latest Americana fictions — deeply ingrained untruths people have been conditioned to believe.

Late last year Kevin Young — director of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and, since November, poetry editor of The New Yorker — released a book that used the current “post-truth” era as its peg. In Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, Young tries to make sense of how tall tales like birtherism take hold, breaking down the many stories that confirm chicanery — as harmless as the cheeky street vendor who gouges the price of his umbrellas when it rains or as dangerous as the politician who promises the restoration of white power will lead to prosperity — is an inherent strand of the American DNA. Rather than neatly depicting the masses as hoodwinked victims, Bunk delineates how popular prejudice and stale conventional wisdoms often readily welcome the skills of those standing by to offer simpler explanations and pills that are easier to swallow. By asking, in each case, which cultural assumption led us to be fooled, Young diligently traces the bullshit back to its more sinister, societal implications.

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When I spoke with New Yorker editor David Remnick, he called Bunk a “godsend” for these times and Kevin Young the ideal heir to the weekly’s poetry editorship. From the moment they met at an intimate dinner party hosted by Elizabeth Alexander, Remnick “was completely captivated by him. He was extremely funny, beyond intelligent, and his taste: all over the map” — in the good way.

Remnick was already familiar with Young’s poetry at the time; his poems have been published in The New Yorker since 1999. But over the course of their dinner conversation, Remnick said, “I came to realize that he was also an anthologist.” It was ultimately the varied literary palate he found in Young’s nonfiction work that led him to pick the 47-year-old for the plum assignment, which Remnick carefully describes as “a lot to balance. It’s a kind of complicated aesthetic — a political, literary, and editorial job.”

But as Young prepares for the imminent release of his dozenth poetry collection, Brown, he continues full-time directorial duties in Harlem at the Schomburg Center. And in addition to editing, he hosts the poetry podcast at The New Yorker with a Fresh Air-like ease. On all accounts, the balancing act seems well under control.

You can learn an awful lot about a man’s worldview from the kinetic qualities of his handshake. So, when Young greets me — in a nondescript conference room adjacent to the New York Public Library’s sprawling Beaux-Arts main building on 42nd Street — his formal, academic clasp-into-folksy, Midwestern double-shake-into-smooth-dap suggests that the author, poet, and professor is an embodiment of a new intelligentsia: born of the hip-hop generation, seemingly unconcerned with the guardrails of genre and convention, and as likely to debate Andre 3000’s discography as the works of Sartre.

It was this wide relatability that made Young a popular presence on campus at Emory University, where he was a tenured professor and curator of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library. And while Young’s poems are profound without killing the fun — and therefore the power — of poetry, his nonfiction cultural criticism maintains this sensibility: deeply layered without being inscrutable. Harper’s Magazine has called Young “a relaxed lyricist, precise without being precious.” A critic at The Paris Review dubbed him “a pure essayist in the vein of Emerson and Montaigne.”

A bookish only child, Young moved six times before he was ten as his parents pursued their careers before eventually settling in Topeka, Kansas. His father worked as an ophthalmologist; his mother is an accomplished chemist who also earned a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Young’s parents were each the first in their respective families from rural Louisiana to attend college.

In the late Eighties, Kevin also attended Harvard, where he joined the storied Dark Room Collective, a reading series hosted by up-and-coming writers of color in a den-turned-salon at 31 Inman Street in Cambridge. Young graduated in 1992 and left for a coveted creative writing fellowship at Stanford, but as he wrote in his nonfiction collection, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, “Once you’re in, you’re in forever.” Young’s participation in the Dark Room would be the first stop on a trajectory laden with prestigious honors and positions at the nexus of the academic and literary world. (A Guggenheim Fellowship and an induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences are among the latest bestowments.)

In an old Twitter bio, Young described himself as a “lover of things thought lost,” which, he says, has “a lot to do with my grandparents in Louisiana and the way they saved everything. Black folks in the segregated South are the inventors of sustainable living — making a way out of no way, and nothing gets thrown away.” More literally, though, Young says the bio was a reference to a devotion to “black writing that’s lost or thought lost and to rediscovering writers or promoting writers who are underappreciated.”

“When I sit down to write,” he says, “I think I’m always trying to recover some aspect of something that we might forget, but is really there.” The Schomburg Center, which Young has helmed since August 2016, is itself named after an oft-forgotten, but important black figure: Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a Puerto Rican immigrant who, upon migrating to Harlem, helped pioneer African-American history as an institutionalized topic of scholarship. The New York Public Library bought his collection in 1926, and the Schomburg’s founding mission — to serve as an archive repository of the diaspora in all its forms — is still at full tilt. Young, who lives in Central Harlem, continues the legacy, preserving the documents of relative unknowns as well as “knowns” who didn’t quite make it into the mainstream canon: Bayard Rustin, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Gwendolyn Bennett, and countless others. (The center’s fellowships grant intimate access to archives in order to expand scholarship on these subjects.)

The Schomburg gig is perfect for Kevin Young’s skill set. Because, if there’s one thing you learn after listening to him for a while, it’s that Young is a really good rememberer — of culture, literature, and changing political attitudes. Something Bunk, which was years in the making, puts on brilliant display.

P.T. Barnum and General Tom Thumb, 1860.

When we think of P.T. Barnum in 2018, most picture the charismatic entertainer embodied by Hugh Jackman in last year’s The Greatest ShowmanWe tend to forget that he got his big start, like our current president, promoting racial hoaxes at his raucous shows. It’s okay if we don’t remember, or never had a clue, because Kevin Young has remembered for us, put it in context, and connected the dots to the present. This is the rhythm of Bunk: deep researching to pull, sometimes obscure, seemingly disconnected anecdotes from the corners of history (both recent and centuries-old), then employing a dose of poetic eloquence to rejigger their relevance in the reader’s mind.

And while scholastically dense, the read feels like a fair bargain, as you, like me, get the dish on things we wouldn’t otherwise know, even if we were better read or a little more cultured. Remnick, a pretty learned fellow by most accounts, admitted: “I didn’t know nine-tenths of these stories.” Still, those unfamiliar with our past are also at risk of becoming sapped from finding out just how much of so much is deeply riddled with at least partially racist roots, from the obscure to the everyday: the movies, the circus, the church, pornography, Emerson, rock ’n’ roll. Is nothing sacred?

“You have to kind of step back and say, what are these things in our culture really about, and ask: How do they tell us something about ourselves even though they’re fake?” Young says. “In fact, especially because they’re fake! That tells us a lot about what we ‘wanted’ to believe.”

Bunk navigates a buffet of subjects — supposed “lost” tribes, fake doctors who performed actual surgeries, and PR for napalm — but much like The Color of Law, We Were Eight Years in Power, and other Woke Blockbusters of 2017, a key motif is breaking it to America that Trumpism’s underpinning sentiments are neither new nor an aberration.

“It’s letting us off the hook to think this is only a recent thing,” Young asserts. Trump was still merely White House Correspondents’ Dinner comedy fodder in the book’s early stages six years ago. But for Young, the now-president has brought a unique form of hoaxing to the forefront, which was too explicit to include alongside all the other nouns in Bunk’s subtitle: bullshit. He writes:

It isn’t that the contemporary hoax provides “a different kind of truth,” but that it offers far less. A whole lie would almost be welcome, but [these] hoaxes won’t extend us the courtesy of respecting the truth enough to betray it. Instead we have become surrounded by the halfway, mealymouthed, politicking habit of bullshit.

Trump, then, is much more a bullshitter than an outright hoaxer or humbugger. “For me,” Young explains, “a hoax is something intended or even unintentionally made to deceive. It isn’t simply a lie because even when it’s sustained, it’s often quite incomplete in its attempt.” A good example? Race, he offers. An abstract construction with dangerous, if not complete, real world consequences: minstrel shows, eugenics, anti-Semitism, Nazism, films like The Birth of A Nation, terms like “miscegenation,” and segregated water fountains are all in conversation with each other — all riffing off the same hoax of Aryanism and white supremacy. “Humbug,” on the other hand, Young reports, “is sort of a nineteenth-century term [that] falls somewhere between a prank and a hoax.”

In Bunk, Young has a well-founded fascination for this more playful shade of untruth and sees the showman P.T. Barnum as its self-serving forefather. The circus he founded, billed as the Greatest Show on Earth, shut down for good in May 2017, but Barnum’s legacy resurfaced with The Greatest Showman which, very loosely, traces the vertiginous story of Barnum’s American Museum: a slap-happy mix of a zoo, wax museum, and theater, with freak shows as the main attraction. Despite mixed reviews, the film performed well at the box office, and earned Hugh Jackman a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor for his portrayal of Barnum.

Barnum’s American Museum, 1869

The plot’s rising action, which mainly focuses on Barnum battling the classism of other, more refined white men, conveniently ignores his less flattering — and, frankly, more fascinating — ethical shortcomings. That Barnum’s first break as a showman came when he made use of a loophole in the antebellum North to rent — yes, rent — an elderly black woman to pose as George Washington’s 160-something-year-old maid. That this was one of several blockbuster acts employed by Barnum that preyed on the racially imbued myths which plagued that century.

In the movie’s fantasy past, Barnum’s American Museum is premised on convenient, if transactional, partnerships. The gazing at bearded ladies, fake mermaids, little people, and other so-called freaks is recast, with the help of a dance number, as “dreaming with your eyes wide open.”

“Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?” a patrician newspaper critic asks Jackman’s Barnum. “Do these smiles seem fake?” he retorts. “Hyperbole isn’t the worst crime. Men suffer more from imagining too little rather than too much.”

It’s a sentiment with which the real-life Barnum would have agreed, and in Bunk, Young makes the case that humbugging, while insidiously connected to harmful hoaxes, hasn’t been all bad. Its rise throughout the nineteenth century, Young tells us, fostered a wider recognition of contradiction and an exploration of the tension between faith and fact. The shift to this new cultural default extended from the common man to Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1857), to Mark Twain’s characters.

In 1865, the year Barnum was first elected to the Connecticut state legislature, he released his book Humbugs of the World: An account of humbugs, delusions, impositions, quackeries, deceits and deceivers generally, in all ages. Barnum billed it as a noble exposé of his own industry: “If we could have a full exposure of ‘the tricks of trade’ of all sorts … religious, political, financial, scientific, quackish, and so forth,” he writes in its prologue, “we might perhaps look for a somewhat wiser generation to follow us.”

Reality TV, with its requirement that we be in on the joke, is a clear descendant of the humbug era. “What if … you could have it all?” the opening sequence of Donald Trump’s The Apprentice beseeched us. Nobody seemed to fully appreciate, or care, that the man behind “You’re fired!” was an overextended real estate hawker with a bankrupt casino business. Then again, Barnum’s financial woes didn’t stop people from watching his shows.

P.T. Barnum as a “Hum-Bug”

It’s unlikely that President Trump was inspired by Barnum’s The Art of Money-Getting (1880) when he published The Art of the Deal in 1987. Still, as Bunk demonstrates, the similarities are striking: the tabloid fodder bankruptcies, the scorn they received from blueblood types, their eventual entry into politics. Young simultaneously complicates this connection, however, by pointedly noting that Trump, unlike Barnum, seems to lack a magician’s code to never give away the secrets of the trick. Despite his many sins, Barnum was driven in part by a clear, if unethical rubric — like a riddling troll under the bridge. President Trump is just a troll.

With humbug, “you know you’re getting a show, but you’re trying to ascertain what is real and what is not,” Young tells me, alluding to the Trump-Barnum comparison. “That’s part of the pleasure of humbug that’s a little bit different than just straight-up BS. I think bullshit is the kind of extreme version where it’s not even trying to fool you, it doesn’t care whether you believe it or not.”

During the 2016 campaign, a syndicated newspaper story called Trump, a carnival barker without the integrity,” a reference to Barack Obama’s remarks in 2011, regarding birtherism, that “we’re not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers.” Somewhere along the road, Trump sensed how vulnerable the body politic was to the bullshit artist’s codeless form of deceit. (If science and basic statistics are up for debate, then why not all journalism inconvenient to you?) Young writes in Bunk:

Trump signals a far more troubling mindset in which the truth isn’t so much absent or contested as it doesn’t matter … What Trump really heralds is a time when there are no more experts. … The best way to commit a hoax now is to claim you’ve spotted one. 

“One of the big problems I talk about,” Young says, “is this need to say there’s two sides to every story. Everything from vaccines to global warming is just kind of reported as this set of opinions, as opposed to things that you can verify. At the same time, I’m well aware that many of the malfeasances that have been discovered are because of journalists.”

“You look at the history of journalism and it’s not until late in our history that even a few newspapers were committed to a high degree of professionalism,” David Remnick told me, encouraging a fully contextualized view. “This is a new thing! I mean, the greatest prize in journalism is named after one of the developers of yellow journalism — Pulitzer.”

American circus owner P.T. Barnum

P.T. Barnum, distinguishing his love for humbug from what he saw as more dour forms of fibbing, eagerly cited a cynical diplomat who was quoted as saying, “Language was given to us to conceal our thoughts.” The long lineage of lies that Young catalogs — all the way up to Rachel Dolezal, neoconservative lies about Iraq, and Melania Trump plagiarizing Michelle Obama — sets the stage for his closing argument: that we’ve now become enmired in an Age of Euphemism. An era spurred in large part by a refusal to say what’s what, caused by playing along with, or granting plausible deniability to, people who don’t want to accept the ugliness — or flat-out falsity — of their opinions.

The evidence is so overwhelming in its ubiquity it can, ironically, be hard to see: heritage, not treason; bad apples, not corrupt policing; cultural anxiety, not racism; collateral damage, not civilians murdered; super PACS, not oligarchs; disrespecting the flag, helping job creators, America first. Read Bunk, or the news, and take your pick.

“I was trying to find a language that described that,” Young explains.“The Age of Euphemism was one of the ways I was able to name it, because I definitely think there’s a real impulse to not say what we mean. Once you step back, it’s a real short, scary step to ‘Nothing means anything.’”

Young particularly frets over the internet’s role in the mess. Its ever-warping ability to — with or without Russian interference — make “untruths spread faster and faster at the click of a mouse, spawning whole faux movements” as the nation becomes ever more siloed: geographically, ideologically, algorithmically. “The scary idea is that a lot of it’s disinformation, purposefully faked, coordinated; and what does that say about us? Or those who collude with that hoax?”

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In Barnum’s day, if a powerful politico had defended his wife-beating colleague, an attorney general had called law enforcement an “Anglo-American tradition,” and a Senate had passed a bill full of outrageously obvious loopholes for themselves, then there may have been no controversy at all. Now, in Young’s Age of Euphemism, it seems that, when armed with enough privilege, the bullshit will do: something to satiate a press corps eager to quote both sides until, hopefully, the scandal subsides or is subsumed by another scandal and an exhausted, overwhelmed public shrugs, or forgets.

“What was strange for me is I was finishing the book as the election was happening, and many of the things that happened, or have happened since I finished the book I — kind of almost predict?” Young said, clearly grappling with how to publicly react when one’s dystopian hypothesis is vindicated in real time. But if the two choices for people on the right side of history in a wrong world have are to laugh or to cry, then count Kevin Young in the former camp.

“I hope [Bunk] helps us be a bit more skeptical but not cynical,” he said. I wondered how in an age of takes — both good and bad, but almost always hot — Young could stay so cool, after spending years unpacking infuriatingly widespread deceptions, often about his own heritage.

“I think that some of it is my temperament, but a lot of it is really trying to be fair when I could,” he explains. “To say, ‘Well, here are some of the things that this hoaxer did that were interesting or different.’ And sometimes I am just furious about them … but I had to sort of step back and not just simply mock them nor simply make them villains, because I also wanted to understand why we fell for this stuff. We all are invested in it.”

The contrast between the cultural world that produces Young’s forward-thinking, cosmopolitan life and the sphere that engenders the nasty id-driven nationalism that despises people like him — a liberal black intellectual married to a white woman also of the media elite — is, not by happenstance, pretty representative of that sickness.

“I don’t see that disappearing because we haven’t fixed that problem,” Young told me with a sad smirk. “I was really struck by this on the day that people were marching on Charlottesville, when I was with my son watching a basketball game on the courts here in New York and it’s like: do I tell him? How do I tell my soon-to-be eleven-year-old son that there’s still Nazis? That should be a question we ask that everyone asks, not just black fathers of black sons or black parents — everyone should be asking, ‘Why are having to explain this?’ And you know the fact that that somehow can become partisan is really …” He trailed off. “That’s the scary part.”

It’s a dilemma that clearly inspired one of the more heartbreaking pieces in Young’s newest poetry collection: “A Brown Atlanta Boy Watches Basketball on West 4th. Meanwhile, Neo-Nazis March on Charlottesville, Virginia.”

“One of the things at risk is not just our notion of what’s true, but what’s possible,” Young worries. “We sometimes start to lose this sense of the breadth of the imagination, which I think is such a useful tool. And the hoax is the least imaginative, partially ’cause it often uses stereotypes or kind of corny divisions to make its case. It’s shorthand to actual experience, which is much more complicated, rich, fruitful.”

Bunk dedicates an entire section to the finding that the most successful forgeries — in art, literature, or news — are typically those authenticated by arbiters people trust. It opens with a question presented by Orson Welles in his final film as director, 1973’s F for Fake: “As long as there are fakers, there have to be experts. But if there were no experts, would there be any fakers?”

Amid the screechy ambiguity of 2018, the answer seems resounding: yes.

Best of Spring CULTURE ARCHIVES Dance Archives

Six Dance Programs to Seek Out This Spring

Earlier this week, in anticipation of the spring and early-summer exhibition seasons in New York, we previewed six upcoming art shows worth a visit. Today, our chief dance critic, Elizabeth Zimmer, lists the six dance programs not to sleep on in the coming weeks.

Acosta Danza
April 25–27
Around the turn of the millennium, Carlos Acosta — the youngest of eleven children from a poor Havana family — was part of a wave of brilliant Cuban ballet dancers who passed through American Ballet Theatre and other world-class troupes. After a long stint with London’s Royal Ballet, he’s now in his forties and directing his own ensemble, Acosta Danza, here making its U.S. debut headlining a weeklong festival of Cuban arts. For three nights on the City Center Mainstage, see Spanish choreographer Goyo Montero’s Alrededor No Hay Nada and Cuban choreographer Marianela Boán’s intense two-man duet El Cruce Sobre el Niágara. Raúl Reinoso’s Nosotros features live musical accompaniment from cellist Cicely Parnas and pianist José Gavilondo, and Acosta himself performs in a new duet by Belgium-based Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Mermaid, about a tipsy encounter between strangers. Closing the program is Twelve from Madrid’s Jorge Crecis — a fast-paced frenzy that utilizes glow sticks, water bottles, and immaculate timing to explore the limits of the human body. Also available, in City Center’s studios and WNYC/WQXR’s Jerome L. Greene Performance Space downtown: intimate encounters and master classes with dancers like Acosta Danza member Carlos Luis Blanco, Brooklyn-based Ronald K. Brown, and tap master Ayodele Casel, as well as a diverse collection of Cuban musicians.
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street,

Sarah Michelson
April 27–May 5
It’s been thirteen years since we saw a Sarah Michelson project at Performance Space — one of those that solidified her emergence here as a choreographer. A native of Manchester, England, Michelson brought nervy collaborations with visual and musical artists to PS and to the Kitchen, where she wound up co-curating the dance program for several years. She was one of the first choreographers to make her way into the Whitney Biennial, opening her startling, rigorous, athletic style to audiences who might not be tracking the downtown dance spaces. Now the Whitney itself is a downtown space, and Michelson’s completing a long residency with students at Bard upstate; fragments of that work, shown at the Kitchen last fall, confirm that her instincts are as compelling as ever. (The piece ended when she jumped into a waiting car and drove away, while her dancers, live and on video, continued in a building across the street.) The Museum of Modern Art published a book of essays about her dances by other artists last summer. During this program, she’ll show a new piece that, according to a release, considers her own history with the East Village “organization, the building, and the community from which her work emanates.”
Performance Space New York, 150 First Avenue,

Sterling Hyltin performs in Jerome Robbins’s legendary “Afternoon of a Faun.”

Jerome Robbins Centennial 
May 3–20
A child of immigrants born in Manhattan in 1918, Jerome Robbins — in his tour across the forms of dance, theater, and cinema — probably left as many enduring monuments as anyone. (These include the brilliant jazz ballet Fancy Free; the musicals West Side StoryFiddler on the Roof, and Gypsy; and a clutch of incomparable lyrical and dramatic ballets made for his home team, the New York City Ballet.) He also made many enemies, his eighty-year jaunt on this planet inspiring several full-length, tell-all biographies (including one by the Voice’s own Deborah Jowitt). You’ll have forever to contemplate this raft of accomplishments, but you have three weeks this May to savor 22 ballets at Lincoln Center, including his legendary Afternoon of a Faun on one of five all-Robbins bills. A sixth program — a tribute — opens the season and features two world premieres: NYCB resident choreographer Justin Peck honors Robbins to a score by Leonard Bernstein, another child of immigrants also celebrating a centennial in 2018; and Tony-winning director Warren Carlyle creates a medley of Robbins’s dances from Broadway hits and other sources. See these works while artists who were part of their creation are still contributing to their preservation.
David H. Koch Theater, 20 Lincoln Center Plaza,

Meg Stuart/Damaged Goods
May 4–5
Louisiana native Meg Stuart, who moved to New York in 1983 before settling in Europe (she divides her time between Brussels and Berlin), bases her vast repertoire on the concept of an uncertain body. Things fall apart in her dances, from the scenery to human relationships to the most basic steps of classical ballet. The U.S. premiere of the very graphic 2015 Until Our Hearts Stop involves six performers and the jazz band Münchner Kammerspiele (drums, piano, and bass), located onstage, all connecting with one another and drawing spectators into their immersive situations. The setting, both nightclub and arena, shares in the imagery of pornography and classical art.
NYU Skirball Center, 566 LaGuardia Place,

“Mujeres Valientes”
Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana
“Mujeres Valientes”

Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana
May 15–20
This U.S.-based Spanish dance troupe celebrates its 35th anniversary with new dances by Belén Maya — including Mujeres Valientes, for six dancers, which represents Latin American women (Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Manuela Saénz) who have challenged authorities and fought against ignorance and injustice. Gaspar Rodriguez’s score for five musicians will be performed live. The program, enacted by a cast of eight dancers and five musicians, also includes new solos by José Maldonado and Guadalupe Torres, both of Spain; special lectures; and chats. Belén Maya is the New York–born daughter of two great flamenco dancers, Carmen Mora and Mario Maya; her performance in Carlos Saura’s 1995 film, Flamenco, opened new avenues for female interpretations of flamenco dance.
BAM Fisher, 321 Ashland Place, Brooklyn,

May 18–24
Andrea Miller’s yearlong stint as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s first choreographer to be artist in residence divided itself neatly into two parts. The first, last fall, took place in the Sackler Wing at the Temple of Dendur, where her large group work Stone Skipping was named one of the best of 2017 by Wendy Perron of Dance Magazine. This May, her six dancers are in residence a handful of blocks away at the Breuer, where Miller’s latest piece, (C)arbon — developed collaboratively with filmmaker Ben Stamper and composer Will Epstein — integrates art, architecture, soundscape, and movement. After a series of rehearsals open to the public (May 8–10 and May 13, 15, and 16 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.; May 11–12 from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m.), the piece has its world premiere May 18. Thereafter, performances are available from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m. on May 18–20 and 22–24.
Met Breuer, 945 Madison Avenue, fifth floor, 

The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.


Janelle Monáe Is Coming for the Throne

Spring is a season of blooming flowers and new beginnings. Or, if you’re Janelle Monáe, spring can be a time to don Georgia O’Keeffe–esque vagina flower pants. In the video for her newest single, “Pynk,” Monáe hops around in these pants — the head of her rumored girlfriend Tessa Thompson poking through the layers of pink, labial fabric — and sings, “Pink like the tongue that goes down…maybe/Pink like the paradise found.”

The single, released on April 10, is a barely tongue in…um…cheek ode to the female body and female sensuality. All four of the songs (“I Like That,” “Make Me Feel,” “Django Jane”) released so far from Monáe’s upcoming album, Dirty Computer, which drops April 27, are undeniably, hip-gyratingly sexy. But they also demonstrate that Monáe has significantly evolved as an artist since her 2013 album, Electric Lady. Monáe, in an album full of musical references, is staking a claim to the pop throne with her idols by her side.

The four new singles show more maturity than her 2015 release “Yoga,” which was sexy, fun even, but wasn’t layered — it had the same swagger as the new songs, but none of the depth. “This is the first time that I released something with a lot of emotion. The people I love feel threatened. I’ve always understood the responsibility of an artist — but I feel it even greater now,” Monáe recently told the New York Times.

Monáe’s earlier work discussed sexuality but didn’t explore it. The songs were eye-winking, surface-level pop hits. On Dirty Computer, Monáe treats sexuality with the nuance it deserves, which situates her work alongside other seminal sexual pop artists such as Prince, Madonna, even Beyoncé.

For example, the most prominent sound on “Make Me Feel,” released in February, is the tongue click, a playful, sexual, silly sound — the sonic equivalent of a wink. But for Monáe it is so clearly more than that.

That tongue click connects her to Miriam Makeba, who recorded the traditional South African wedding song “Qongqothwane,” whose title translated to English means “knock-knock beetle” and refers to a dark beetle making a clicking sound by slamming its belly against the ground. Westerners refer to the song as the “clicking song” as a result of the clicking in the lyrics and in the background.

Clicks are not sounds that have been adopted into the English language, but rather, these sounds have originated, been kept alive, and are used today in African language and in African-inspired diasporic art. A click is certainly not a sound found in the white pop that has dominated the Top 40 in the 2010s. 

In addition to its historical importance, the clicking tongue sound is undeniably seductive.

For example, the sound popped up in Beyoncé’s 2014 self-titled album B side “Blow,” a song clearly about cunniligus. In the song, Beyoncé sings: “I’m-a lean back/Don’t worry it’s nothing major/Make sure you clean that/It’s the only way to get the/[click] Flavor.” There’s very little subtlety in incorporating a sound that can only be made with the tongue in a song so explicitly about oral sex. It’s sexy.

Monáe seems to reference that same idea in “Make Me Feel.” She uses the tongue click directly after lines like “Baby, don’t make me spell it out for you” and “Should know by the way I use my compression.” That’s anything but subtle.

Monáe’s four recent singles are stacked with references, too. The bassline on “Make Me Feel” aligns closely to the bassline on Robin Thicke and Pharrell’s “Blurred Lines.” “Pynk” recalls the funkiness of the Go-Go’s. “I Like That” is an R&B anthem with elements of Nina Simone and Tammi Terrell. All share the spirit of Prince’s warbling synthesizers and production.

“Prince actually was working on the album with me before he passed on to another frequency, and helped me come up with sounds,” Monáe told Annie Mac of BBC’s Radio 1. Prince’s DJ Lenka Paris noted in a now-deleted Facebook post that Prince provided the bouncy synth line that traces through the clicking in the background of “Make Me Feel.” The obvious love story, and the use of magenta and deep blue light (coined “bisexual lighting”) in the video of that song aligns with Prince and the Revolution’s 1986 single “Kiss.”

No sound on “Make Me Feel” appears accidental. A great musician pays tribute to their heroes by showing admiration in a song. Any creator aims to reach a level of maturation where they can integrate all of their inspirations into one harmonious concept, where one sound doesn’t dominate the other. Monáe has done it. “Make Me Feel” is its own song, with its own catchy hook that has its own fun. Even if you miss one of the dozen or so historical references in the song, “Make Me Feel” is a certified banger nonetheless.

Each of the four new singles has an element that unites it with “Make Me Feel.” “Pynk” has the same background bubbly synth line. “Django Jane” has the same swagger. “I Like That” is just as buoyant, with a Prince-inspired rap squeezed in. These songs of self-empowerment and self-confidence are perhaps an indication that Monáe is about to truly, fully come into her own.

On “I Like That,” she compares herself to “the random minor note you hear in major songs.” But in 2018, America might finally be primed for Monáe’s queer, well-deserved major breakthrough into mainstream pop.


The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.


At the Asia Society, Samita Sinha Sings the Body Electric

A large limestone head of the Buddha, from eighth-century Thailand, presides at the entrance to the third-floor galleries of the Asia Society, its impassive countenance in keeping with the calm, studious mood that usually inhabits this institution on the Upper East Side.

But these days, something messy, unruly, even transgressive, has been taking place in a gallery space just a few yards away, within the Buddha’s peripheral vision. Here, inside a white-cube room that is essentially functioning as a black-box theater, the musician and performer Samita Sinha is channeling the contradictions of the South Asian psyche around gender and sexuality, in a series of intimate shows that burst with feral energy.

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The performances, which continue through this weekend, smolder — and that’s not entirely metaphorical. The show is titled This ember state, and a large pile of coal is the main item on set. A pivotal moment in Sinha’s performance occurs as she sinks herself into the coal, evoking a pyre, and specifically the myth of Sati, the goddess who self-immolated in sacrifice after her father insulted her husband, Lord Shiva.

What unfolds is at first tentative, then wrenching, then works itself out toward a serenity that feels provisional, complicated. There is some blunt nudity, as well as passages in which Sinha’s voice has a kind of primal — or is it transcendent? — anguish that feel even more naked. With spare mise en scène by Dean Moss and sound design by Cenk Ergün, the performance enfolds the audience — twenty-five people at most, on benches along the gallery walls, in subtly thickening layers of implication and intimacy.

“I couldn’t shy away from the reality of that place,” says Sinha. She means the sexual source that animates Indian culture with its dual tendencies to enshrine and abase women, and the competing repressive violence and generative possibility that ensue. She means, as well, the corresponding part of her body. Her project, the program notes, “deconstructs Indian classical music through the pussy … to re-imagine female spirit and flesh.”

“So much of my work comes from that place in the body — and in the mind, in the psyche, in culture,” Sinha says. “The physical, fleshy reality is where the charges are. The archetypes need to open from that place, literally, in order to make space. It’s what I teach in embodied vocal work: Nothing will happen without that root.”

A lifelong New Yorker — raised on Long Island, and based in Queens — Sinha has migrated her practice over the past decade and a half from the canon and discipline of Hindustani (North Indian) classical music to experimental terrain, making her as much a performance artist as she is a vocalist and composer.

The transition began around 2005, when she took part in a multimedia song-cycle project with an operatic feel by the late poet Sekou Sundiata, the 51st (dream) state. In 2012 she collaborated on a musical version of playwright Fiona Templeton’s The Medead, at Roulette; earlier this year she acted in Moss’s Petra, at Performance Space New York, the new incarnation of P.S. 122. Sinha also fronts an avant-rock band, Tongues in Trees.

But she has carried along her Indian vocal technique, and not just as a virtuoso instrument. Indian classical music has deep roots in courts and even deeper in temples; it is built, ultimately, out of the same elements as yogic practice. This is even more true of vocal performance. The Sanskrit syllables that Sinha intones early add “on”?  in This ember state, and the breath work that follows, circle the void where body and sound originate.

“The tools for deconstruction are in the training,” Sinha says. “You have to sit with a phrase, isolate it, listen as closely as you can, then bring it back into the whole. The idea of taking it apart to re-create something — whether it be a body, an experience with other humans, a whole piece or form — is all right there.”

Sinha developed her Hindustani vocal technique in the traditional way, spending extended time in India in close proximity to her teachers, including singers Alka Deo Marulkar and Shubhangi Sakhalkar. She grew proficient in the repertory of ragas, but sought a different approach. “Classical music has a refinement and stillness,” she says. “It doesn’t encourage physicality. The orientation — and beautifully so — is on listening. In an inverted way, that does teach a profound embodiment, if you let that awareness in. But it’s not discussed.”

The clues, Sinha found, were in the culture — often at the margins. “I started to understand that there are musical traditions in South Asia that are quite radical and embodied,” she says. She cites Baul folk music from rural Bengal, and qawwali, the devotional, quasi-ecstatic Sufi singing. “Baul music uses the yogic understanding of the body, this vertical radiating entity. In qawwali, when you see Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, you can see how the sound moves through him like a volcano.”

In her own work, despite its sexual anchoring, Sinha says she is not claiming a knowledge that only women can accede. “We work with the instruments we have, I guess. There’s something about the necessity of creating a language through the body that doesn’t feel to me exclusively female at all.”


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Still, This ember state, which the Asia Society commissioned to launch a new experimental series in contemporary art and performance, arrives in a moment when the politics of gender and sexuality are highly charged. This is true in India, where sexual violence and the rise of a militant Hindu chauvinism are weaving together in troubling ways, and in the United States, where the #MeToo unpacking has unfolded against the background of vulgar Trumpian misogyny.

Sinha’s performance proposes an interior resolution, a kind of turning inside out, but she also invokes the Sati archetype fully aware of this external context.

“Part of my practice is to be alive to the sensations evoked inside of me, for example, when reading the news, and being very present with that,” Sinha says. “With what I can make with that thing, how that sensation can be turned. The myth is a point of departure to think about these ideas in a pretty wild way.”

This ember state
Asia Society 
725 Park Avenue
Through April 22

The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.


Scotland’s Young Fathers Come Out Fighting

It’s hours before another sold-out show on their European tour and the guys in the Scottish indie-rap trio Young Fathers are calling on a shitty Skype connection from Paris. The lighting at the venue, the Badaboum, is musty, and the group seems tired (and not particularly excited to be talking to a journalist) after a month of promoting its new album, Cocoa Sugar: Half of Alloysious “Ally” Massaquoi’s face is cut off by the screen, Kayus Bankole has his head in the palm of his hands for half of our chat, and Graham “G” Hastings is looking around everywhere but at the camera. When asked how the live shows are going, Graham in particular sounds weary but, still, philosophically resolute. “Some places are so reserved they just stand and watch, sometimes people are just high as fuck, so they don’t move — you want it to be like Soul Train, with everybody dancing and ignoring the band, but it never is,” says Graham of what he wishes the live show would be like for his music, which, with its dark, dramatic passion, doesn’t exactly evoke a joyful dance line. “Before, you’d have to fight to get people involved. Now we don’t have to fight, but I still like thinking that way. Now it’s a fight to make sure they come back the next time. It’s not as abrasive a thing, but it’s still a fight.”

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“A fight” is a good way to understand how this group views its mission (and live shows, which have a sweaty fury), even after two mixtapes, three albums, and enough recognition to sell out shows. They are a self-described working-class band from Edinburgh, and that means that there is always — always — work to be done. On Cocoa Sugar, their third album, Young Fathers have taken their sound to its poppiest place, with well-spun, Baptist church choir hooks that loop in your brain even when you turn the album off. That catchiness is intentional: They might have won the U.K.’s prestigious Mercury Prize in 2014 — beating indie darling FKA Twigs — but critical success and award money isn’t enough to pay the bills.

“This isn’t a lifestyle choice. If we’re not making money then we have to go get jobs. We can’t just do this because we like music,” says Graham. “We’re punching a clock. Even if it’s a weird clock, we’re still punching it.” And yet, the easy, crowd-pleasing Migos they are not, either: Cocoa Sugar is still characteristically knotty, with the trio interlacing rapping and singing over homemade beats à la 1970s New York experimental duo Suicide (whose synth lines are referenced throughout), creating hip-hop as reflected through a convex mirror. “We’re not trying to put people in a trance,” he says. “We just do what feels good.”

All thirty years old now, the three members of Young Fathers came together at around fourteen years old as regulars at a local hip-hop night at an Edinburgh club. “It was a room with a white sweaty wall and it was just all out,” Graham says. This was the Y2K era, and the DJs often incorporated dancehall and r&b into the mix, a novel approach in Scotland. In 2018, rap is regarded as pop music all over the world, but it wasn’t ten or fifteen years ago. “It was our first introduction to everything. When you went to school, rap wasn’t what kids listened to — it was underground,” Graham says. By chance, right before the three of them started hanging, Graham had been making simple beats. “A friend from school gave me software, and I saw that it was so easy — there’s the drum, there’s the bass. Then we just started making songs together in my bedroom,” he says. They recorded their first work, a little love song called “Tell My Why,” on a karaoke machine, and though that song never saw the light of the day (“No way! We were fourteen-year-old boys trying to write songs,” says Kayus), they formally started the band in 2008, and started performing at clubs in Edinburgh and Glasgow, eventually releasing well-received mixtapes in 2011 and 2013 and, finally, a pair of albums in 2014 and 2015.

Alloysious Massaquoi, Graham “G” Hastings and Kayus Bankole of Young Fathers perform at The Roundhouse on March 21, 2018 in London, England.

It must feel good, then, to confound expectations at every turn. Their roots are as a rap group, sure, but across Cocoa Sugar they sound — sometimes alternatively and sometimes all at once — like punks, avant-garde experimentalists, and seductive r&b crooners. Though the album is remarkably consistent in its scrappy, seductive tone and tempo, the process of creation for the band is loose, all the better to let each member be as weird as he wants to be. To record Cocoa Sugar, they built, for the first time, a professional studio in Edinburgh, but managed to keep it purposefully amateur. “We don’t like nice studios!” says Kayus. They are secretive about the equipment they use, but Graham says it’s pretty basic and, most important, accessible at all times. There isn’t one member who serves as the producer — they all just create sounds and see where the music takes them. “All of our equipment is turned on all the time so anyone can hit anything — it’s completely open for people to do whatever, rather than it being a complicated setting where you need to plug something in. If you want to make a noise, it’s there,” says Graham. “We’re self-contained. Sometimes when you work with engineers, by the time they’ve set up the microphone, the moment is gone.”

Cocoa Sugar swirls around questions of religion and race and masculinity and identity (Ally is originally from Liberia, while Kayus was born to Nigerian parents in Scotland) and class, but never really reveals what it’s trying to say about any of them, giving the band a feeling of intriguing intangibility. “People are like, ‘We don’t understand it.’ It’s just like, ‘Fucking hell, man. What can you do?’ This is not us trying to be anything — it’s just who we are,” Graham says. “Maybe it’s because we’re from this cold northern part of Europe where no one does anything like this. Maybe the three of us will be the only ones who can understand it.” There is something naturally sphinx-like about a band with soulful Marvin Gaye vocals coming from the stark and classic Edinburgh, but they also seem to cultivate and encourage a certain kind of unknowability. I ask them what they mean by a particular line — “Don’t you turn my brown eyes blue,” on “Turn” — and they prefer to leave the interpretation general. “It could be about race, it could be about individuality — it’s about embracing who you are. And being adamant that it’s OK to be who you are,” says Ally. “We’re leaving a lot of question marks for self-discovery in the future,” says Kayus.

When asked to describe Edinburgh, an unlikely home for some of the most cutting-edge hip-hop around, Graham at first sees it as something of a foil for artistic souls like Young Fathers. “ ‘Gray’ is probably the best word to describe it. It’s not really a music city, it’s not really a cultural city. It’s dead, in a way, so when you express yourself, it’s not taken well. When I was young, [creativity] was a reason to get beat up,” he says. “The typical kind of working-class ethos is always trying to toughen yourself up, so you couldn’t really express yourself. When we started in music, it opened up a whole world.” Raised without a silver spoon, they each have a heightened need to be not just creative, but successfully creative, a pressure that the prestige of winning the Mercury Prize helped alleviate — a bit. “See! We were right, the whole time!” says Graham. “For your parents, you can say, ‘I’m not just fucking about. This is a thing now.’ Coming from Edinburgh, you leave school, you get a trade, and then you work for the rest of your life. When you can prove that you are a working musician, then it’s an extra bonus to tell your parents.”

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What Cocoa Sugar has most of all is intensity, which, after forty minutes on a shaky Skype call with the sharp and decisive band, feels logically like the only kind of music it could ever make. Take the track “Wow”: They screech the words “Ego/Ego/Giving me what/Giving me what I need over a manically pitch-shifting beat that sounds like it’s driving itself right off a cliff. You hear both freedom and strain at once in their voices — they’re liberated, they seem to be saying, but in these exhausted voices it can not be overlooked that this is hard-fought liberation, that it was never (and never will be) easy. Working-class lads from Edinburgh with nothing but everything to prove. “That gray [Edinburgh] attitude, it’s still with you. It’s ingrained. You battle against it probably for the rest of your life,” Graham says, in the shadow of a touring schedule that will find him and his bandmates fighting their fight at least through June. “But it makes it all that much more special when you do battle it.”

At 8pm on May 5, Young Fathers play Elsewhere – Zone One at 599 Johnson Ave. in Brooklyn


The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.


Grace Jones Has One Message: Always Take the Risk

When I find Grace Jones following the premiere of her biographical documentary Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, she’s enjoying a steak medium-rare and a glass of red wine. The first words she speaks to me — in a British-tinged accent — are advice on how to dine: “Never drink water while you’re eating. Only wine. And hot sake if it’s sushi.”

In person, Jones is rather slight in stature — shocking considering her monumental stage presence, which catapulted the artist into stardom during the drugs-and-disco Seventies. There has never been, and will never be, a performer quite like Jones, whose muscled, androgynous figure painted in glitter and gold slashed through the club scenes, almost single-handedly reinventing the mystique of female sexuality into something that shimmers with danger and bravado.

When Bloodlight and Bami director Sophie Fiennes picked up a camera and started following Jones for the project, it was around the time of the recording of the 2008 album Hurricane — Jones’s first new music in fifteen-plus years. (The doc, which was released theatrically last week, continues to screen locally at Metrograph and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.) But as Fiennes’s camera attests, even in waiting a figure of Jones’s power emerges as nothing less than indelible in the pop-cultural consciousness. “Things that are unique always stay unique,” Jones says in between bites, commenting on her own miraculous staying power. “People make a lot of copies of it, but you know the real thing.” Fiennes sits beside her, acting the hypewoman, nodding along with all of Jones’s -isms.

“You have to work with the right people,” Jones continues. “Being safe is not creative. Being safe is like garbage in the gutter. To get what you really want, you have to risk not getting anything, and there are no assurances in life. A lot of things can feel almost, but the thing is not to compromise, because when it feels right, then you have to say, ‘This is my cake.’” She reaches for another piece of steak and sip of wine, as if to announce that this interview will not stop her from devouring what she desires at this very moment.

“Look,” she says, “[producer Chris] Blackwell, I’m sure had ideas for me to make millions selling records, but what we did is just as fresh today as it was then, and it’s going the distance. It’s forever, and that’s my intention.” Jones voices suspicion of artists who calculate the money they can make before thinking about the work itself, but this isn’t some form of latent class blindness she’s displaying; rather, it’s the belief that art should never be treated as a “career” in the first place. And if it turned out she couldn’t live off her art the way she wanted to make it? “I would probably just do makeup,” she answers, without a hint of hesitation.

But she understands the risks budding creators must take. In the doc, we see Jones perform on a French television show, thronged by dancers dressed as Victoria’s Secret vixens. Jones’s aghast face says everything she feels in that moment — that this is a gross miscalculation of how to visually pay homage to her subversive sexuality onscreen. “But these women were artists,” she counters. “I saw them as people instead of male fantasy. I know they won’t get to work again if they stand up and say, ‘You know, I don’t feel good in this outfit.’ They’re building their careers, and I’ve been through that.” Did that ever stop her from speaking up? “No. I would step up, and they would say, ‘OK, we’ll never have her back.’ You have to take the risk that what you believe in that moment is everything.”

Fiennes has herself gone out of bounds to make her films, which rarely follow the traditional trajectory of single-subject documentaries. This is true certainly of Bloodlight and Bami, which is nonlinear and suspended in time: far more an impressionistic portrait than a narrative. The director is now a full-fledged family friend after so many years of working with Jones. She also collaborated with Jones’s brother, Noel, on the documentary Hoover Street Revival. Though Noel is a preacher, Jones contends they’re two sides of the same coin.

Grace Jones, Bloodlight and Bami
Sophie Fiennes’s documentary “Bloodlight and Bami” includes a family reunion of sorts in Jamaica.

“My church is my shows, and that’s my rock-and-roll church, whether it’s Studio 54 or the [Paradise] Garage with Larry Levan,” Jones says. “You do get hypnotized. It’s a spiritual hypnotism, and you come out feeling — wow.” Fiennes chimes in to tell a story about Brian Eno declaring that “church is all libido,” and Jones laughs — but she’s in agreement with Eno. “Whether it’s the church or the disco, you’re all there for the same purpose,” she notes. “And I believe when you all go for the same purpose, it’s powerful.”

Jones’s own path to the clubs was by accident. She’d always wanted to be a language interpreter. It was only a lucky coincidence that she’d stumbled into an acting course at Syracuse University. “I liked the teacher, and it’s like, ‘Follow the yellow brick road,’ and I’m on stage, and they’re telling me I can sing when I don’t think I can. But some things grab you, and they don’t let you go.” What really connected Jones to performance in that class, however, was her channeling of her childhood caregiver in Jamaica — a domineering, sometimes-violent man named Mas P. And as she drifts into the memories of how and when she realized she had become Mas P in her performances, a thick Jamaican accent usurps her speech.

“I had no idea I was emulating him,” she says. “It came up while I was studying for my first film [Ossie Davis’s Gordon’s War]. I take things quite seriously. I don’t want to go into a movie as ‘the rock singer’ Grace Jones. I learned the Strasberg method. My teacher had to get into my head to analyze who I was, and all this stuff about Mas P came out.”

In Bloodlight and Bami, Jones returns home to Jamaica for a family reunion of sorts, and though she and Fiennes insist to me they did not purposely focus on the memory of the long-dead Mas P in their story, he’s a character whose menace is felt in every frame, a ghost who haunts Jones and her brothers. To exorcise this demon of her past, she simply became him on stage, her voice growling, eyes alight with fury. Jones, it turns out, has become a different kind of interpreter than the one she envisioned in class — more like a spiritual medium speaking in others’ tongues.

Throughout our conversation, her accent shifts from French to Jamaican to New York to American Southern and multiple British dialects, and she says she had had no idea she was doing it until she started making the press rounds for this film. “It’s not at all on purpose. I believe, as I speak, there is a visual that comes into my head. ‘Where did this story happen? This happened in Jamaica,’ so a Jamaican accent comes out. I’ve never thought about it until now.” Fiennes emits a knowing chuckle. “We’re on the stage for the Q&A in Toronto,” Fiennes says, “and I hear this strange European accent come from Grace, and then I realize that she’s just come from Belgium, and she’s sort of still there in her mind.”

Jones is a sponge, a shapeshifter, a whole-body artist. She’s a visionary, an Afro-futurist superfreak, a grandmother, a citizen of the world, a force. She says she would like to give lectures to young people if she could. But hell, young artists are already seeking her out for advice. “I get on these planes, and there would be people actually bringing me their contracts to read,” she says. “When you’re starting out, you’ll sign anything because you don’t know. That’s where 99 percent of the artists that begin, where they F up. Happened to George Michael — god rest his soul — to Prince. It happened to me. If you don’t have a mentor to help, you have to keep making mistakes to learn from it.”

Once you get Jones talking about advice, she can go on forever. As she puts it, “There is no easy in this business. It gets harder and harder. The only easy is loving what you’re doing and making sure you’re loving what you’re doing.” She jokes that she never wanted to be an example for other artists. “It’s honestly my nightmare,” she admits, explaining that the pressure to be perfect as a child made her rebel. “I started making art like, ‘OK, what I’m doing is so friggin’ out there, nobody is gonna follow me.’” But from the moment I sat down to intrude upon her dinner, Jones has offered me one unsolicited gem of wisdom after another. She has, unbeknownst even to herself, become what she most feared in life: a role model.

When I tell her this, she throws up her arms in comic delight, a hunk of meat still staked on the fork in her hand, and cries, “What a nightmare!”


The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.


Lady Bird: Isabella Rossellini Is Living Her Best Life

The first thing that registers when Isabella Rossellini comes within arm’s reach is that the 65-year-old beauty of international renown does not bleach her teeth. They are white, sure, but naturally so, free of glare, and the fine lines on her face come alive when she smiles. Her face is luminous and bare — that, or she’s nailed the “no-makeup” look — and she is dressed comfortably in a collared black-and-white tunic over dark flowy pants punctuated with a pair of canary-yellow, soft leather shoes. She is exchanging farewells with her model son, Roberto, who stands more than a head taller than his mother. He is holding his newly rescued pup of a few days, and they speak in Italian as he parts.

Rossellini had returned to the city from her Long Island farm for a speaking engagement with the evolutionary biologist Dr. Menno Schilthuizen at the New York Public Library the night before. There it was revealed that a species of beetle — ptomaphaginus isabellarossellini  had been named after the actress, for what Dr. Schilthuizen called “very interesting genitalia.” Fans of Rossellini’s series of comical shorts about sex in the animal kingdom, Green Porno, which debuted in 2008 on the Sundance Channel and now lives on YouTube, may have seen her turn as a duck getting it on and boasting of her “vaginal complexity.” In an email, Dr. Schilthuizen noted that the ptomaphaginus isabellarossellini showed “signs of a sexual evolutionary ‘arms race’ between male and female genitalia,” which reminded him of her duck sketch, thus inspiring the name.

Isabella Rossellini
Isabella Rossellini and Menno Schilthuizen in conversation at the New York Public Library

“I read his book Nature’s Nether Regions, and there was this convergence of interest and humor,” recalls Rossellini, who is pursuing her master’s degree in Animal Behavior and Conservation at Hunter College. “I wrote him saying, ‘We are soulmates — we have to work together.’ So yesterday’s talk was the first opportunity.” Having an insect named in her honor delighted and amused the model-actress-filmmaker, who earlier this month released her own book of illustrations and observations on animal behavior, My Chickens and I, which chronicles life on the farm, from their arrival as chicks — some of them endangered heritage breeds — until they reach adulthood by laying their first egg a few months later.

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Those in Rossellini’s orbit are unlikely to be surprised by her professional foray into animal behavior. As a young girl, she says she “dreamt to make films about animals, but didn’t know how to get there,” an ambition she’s fulfilled with Green Porno. For this maybe not-so-surprising second act, Rossellini credits her life in the country. After raising her children in New York City — while pursuing a career as the face of Lancôme and starring in cult films such as Blue Velvet and Big Night — she moved her primary residence out to her farm in Brookhaven on the south shore of Long Island.

“I don’t think I would have studied if I were in the city, because there are so many temptations that I think I would have been distracted,” she says, sounding not unlike a homework-wracked undergrad. “You know, the first time there was a difficult chapter, somebody would call and say, ‘Do you want to come see the premiere and Kate Winslet is giving the lecture.’ What am I doing with this, we should go see Kate Winslet! So living in the country allowed me to study, and then to write. And I liked that part, but I didn’t expect this love for animals would translate into another career for me.”

In May, Rossellini will be bringing her one-woman show about recent discoveries in animal behavior and evolution, Link Link Circus, to the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Hudson Yards, following its debut earlier this month at the Teatre Akadèmia in Barcelona. She performs alongside her newest dog and traveling companion, Darcy, in a humorous monologue about the animal kingdom. “My dream would be to just write and maybe direct a show, but not schlep around to 52 cities and in a theater too. It’s fun, but it’s also very difficult and your life comes to a halt, oh my God,” she says, her voice dropping and rising as if to characterize the exhaustion. “That would maybe be the next thing, involving another actress to take on the responsibility, or it’s all animation, where I don’t have to schlep the world.”

“We’re a very celebrity-driven society, but that has also helped my producing,” she adds. “I don’t know that I would find the funds if I’m not me.”

Isabella Rossellini
Isabella Rossellini and her chickens, on the farm in Brookhaven

These days, Rossellini is happy to be enjoying time at her farm with her first grandchild, Ronin, the newborn son of her model–food writer daughter, Elettra Wiedemann, who lives in Fort Greene. “She didn’t think she’d like the country, and now that she came, she understands. She likes the city, but I think just walking with the baby and a stroller and two dogs, the garbage and picking up the shit — very hard for mothers!” she laughs. “She said, ‘Oh, maybe I should stay,’ and I said, ‘No, you can’t stay. I mean, I love for you to stay, but you have to work.’ We’re not rich enough that she can just not work. I said, ‘You can do it for a year, but then you have to go back to work.’ ”

The daughter of cinema royalty, Rossellini witnessed firsthand the work ethic of her own parents, the Academy Award–winning actress Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca) and the Italian neorealist auteur Roberto Rossellini. With her siblings, including her fraternal twin Ingrid, now a university professor of literature, Rossellini grew up a global nomad residing primarily between Rome and Paris, a lifestyle driven by her parents’ successful careers. “I see them as artists that worked very hard at their art, whether it was my mama portraying different personalities of women, almost like a psychiatrist, who tries to find all the clockwork that makes a person tick,” says the actress, who also speaks French and Italian, and endearingly jumbles American clichés on occasion. “And my father saw in film a new way of communicating that could transcend reading. He was born in 1906, really the beginning of film, which was like the Internet today. All of a sudden you can see something that looks similar, it’s two-dimensional, but very similar to reality. He always felt a moral imperative to film, and told the story — especially of people who were unheard, about the civilians during the war and how much they suffered — because they couldn’t write the book. My parents were curious and engaged about life, and they very much liked what they did. Their job was important to them, it wasn’t just to make money.”

It’s an approach Rossellini has applied to her own career. “I do things because they’re interesting to me. If you say, I want to do something, but it has to be appreciated, it has to be successful, I have to make money, then you feel like a failure,” she says. “I didn’t know that I was going to start working again. For forty years, you say, ‘Oh, modeling is not lasting, it’s lasting 25 years.’ But I always thought it was going to end, I wasn’t going to get another job. Same thing when you are acting.”

“Acting isn’t going to last,” she says, leaning back into her seat. “You think it’s going to last, but soon they’re not going to call you. By the time I hit sixty, I thought, well, for sure now I’m not going to work.”

By 2016, Rossellini had taken early retirement from the Screen Actors Guild, and long since closed the door on modeling when Lancôme came knocking again, 23 years after they released her from her contract, which at the time had made her the highest-paid model in the world. “I was let go because I was 42 and told that ‘women dreamed to be young,’ ” she says of her original fourteen-year run with the French beauty giant. “I worked so well with Lancôme, we were so successful, and then there was that moment where it was so sad. I didn’t think it was time, but it was the way it was. I did try to fight it, because the marketing research said that women were very positive that I was there, but my executive at the time said to me, ‘The advertisement talks about the dream, it doesn’t talk about the reality.’ Lancôme got to be blamed, but a lot of other companies stopped working with me. A lot of magazines, and eventually it happened with acting. It was part of our culture.”

But, Rossellini notes, the culture is changing, with women in the beauty industry taking charge. “So much of my role at the beginning was to be beautiful and shut up. I wasn’t giving interviews, journalists talked to the director of the brand. As women journalists started to come in, they became curious, ‘We want to hear about the model, what she has to say. Do you use it? Do you like it? Do you get it for free?’ They wanted to know these things. And Lancôme decided I could become the spokesperson because there was pressure that came from the women journalists to talk to models. I was a very good spokesperson — you have to be clear, you have to be honest, you also have to be positive.” She pauses, and then adds, “I think what hurt me the most at the time when I left was that I knew so much about the company. I felt that I had so much knowledge, and they weren’t capitalizing on it, that I could give so much.”

Fast forward to 2015, when a woman, Françoise Lehmann, took control of the company and got in touch with Rossellini. “I was so taken aback because a lifetime went by. It wasn’t like three years, you know? So I said, ‘Let’s have lunch.’ I was a little bit afraid that they might see photos and say, ‘Oh, she looks like a very beautiful old lady.’ Because I haven’t done anything, I just look my age. So I thought, sometimes better to see me in person,” she announces, laughing. “In case there was a fantasy about what I look like, you know?”

Rossellini arrived first to their meeting, and as she waited, a motorcyclist roared up, parked, and removed her helmet. “It was delightful to see a woman, and this Brigitte Bardot hair came down, blonde, and I thought, whoa, is this the new executive?” she recalls. Her first run with the company was dominated by male executives, and she found the change refreshing. There was an honesty, a directness, and I felt very comfortable as a woman with her. I thought that she wanted to really make a point, a difference, and she said something very beautiful, that was very inspiring to me. She said, ‘Lancôme is 85 years old, and as a company, throughout the century where women achieved the most emancipation in society than [any] other century, we were there to serve her with cosmetics, the toys that women enjoy. And forty [of those years] were with you — with the company or outside of the company — and you have to be back.’ And when Françoise said that, I felt so acknowledged. Not about my beauty, but for my knowledge. And that’s when I said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to be with you.’ Because I want to work for Lancôme, of course, but also now led by a woman, there’s a sensitivity that is different. It is beautiful.”

Isabella Rossellini
Isabella Rossellini and Menno Schilthuizen at the New York Public Library

For the foreseeable future, Rossellini is content to stay local at the farm, where she also keeps goats and six beehives along with a vegetable garden maintained by a team that sells the harvest at the local farmers’ market. The actress’s recent Hulu series Shut Eye, in which she had a two-season arc as the matriarch of a crime dynasty, wasn’t renewed and she admits to feeling some relief at the timing. “I have expectations that always seem to come short: finish my degree, work on the book, work on the theater, take care of my grandchild, run the farm, and then at the end of the day, there are so many pieces,” she says. “Because I think I try to do too much, I always felt this anxiety that I haven’t done everything good enough.”

Life on the farm also keeps her in close proximity to her two adult children, their partners, and her newest “accomplice,” her grandson, Ronin. When asked if meeting Ronin was anything like meeting Roberto, who is adopted, a beatific smile spreads across her face. “I think it’s different. There is something very romantic about adoption, and in a way, it was exactly how I imagined when I was a little girl, because I thought they came with a stork — someone delivered the baby,” she says. “So I received a phone call, and they said, ‘The baby is born’ — Roberto’s birth mother had the wisdom to place the baby in adoption before she had the baby — I remember that phone call, I felt like I was a little girl. For years, I couldn’t see the beginning of Dumbo, where the stork delivers babies to the zoo. I didn’t know Dumbo would move me. I couldn’t watch it, because I would burst into tears because it reminded me exactly of Roberto’s birth, you know? It was as romantic as that.”

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On the one hand, Rossellini’s life is as charmed and glamorous as can be imagined. On the other, she’s faced her own adversity — she was raped as a teenager, which she mentions in her 1997 memoir — and seems to have developed a knack for propelling herself forward, no matter the situation. When discussing the physical trauma of scoliosis as a thirteen-year-old, which involved being placed in a body cast for more than a year, she remains pragmatic and says, “What I learned was very simple. It’s better to be healthy than sick. Physical pain detracts from a lot of things. It’s difficult to study, or read a book, anything. Even if they take you to a Pixar movie, if you’re in pain, you will not laugh. I sometimes just feel that when the hardship is gone, I feel a relief,” she says. “That’s what I learned. But I know that Americans, they want people to be enlightened. Everyone in America wants to be a guru, I feel, or expect people to be guru-like. ‘What is your redeeming, happy ending.’ If something bad happens,  there must be a lesson that makes it better.” She finds this American quality, the pursuit of a happy ending, to be absent in Europe.

But she’s also an admitted optimist. “I’m a little bit bored by somebody who says, ‘It’s so hard, it’s so uninteresting, I’m so bored, I wish I was twenty.’ I lose interest, so I try not to see that many people who are like that,” she admits. Rossellini’s distaste for negativity is palpable, as when we discuss the brave new world of social media, she admits to telling her children at one point, “My God, it’s so horrible, it cannot last!” She now has an Instagram account, and takes issue with Facebook and Twitter for having verified accounts under her name, which she says are not her own. “I feel like my grandmother!” she says, with a laugh. “But I think it’s here to stay, because everybody seems to be loving it. I can’t master it, and I think I never will, because I wasn’t born with it. So I will always be catching up, you know. As I said, I hate people that complain, and now you’re trying to make me complain!” Rossellini gives another quick laugh and shakes her head.

Isabella Rossellini

The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.


Leslie Jamison’s Road to “Recovering”

At the end of another marathon night of drinking in the fall of 2009, Leslie Jamison holed herself up in her office, clutching a red Solo Cup full of roughly eight shots of bourbon. When her boyfriend Dave entered the room — they lived together in that second-story apartment in Iowa City — she hastily hid the cup behind the futon. But then something shifted. Jamison pulled the cup back out, putting the evidence on full display.

After coming clean with Dave, Jamison began her first formal attempt at sobriety, in which she began attending AA meetings. “It was like taking an insurance policy against the version of myself…who would miss the drinking so much she’d say: I want to try again,” she writes in her new book, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath.

Later, during a relapse, she repeated this scene — this time, hiding away with the whole bottle of bourbon.

“There was not one single ‘bottom,’ ” Jamison tells me. “Those nights…drinking by myself, feeling shame…those were bottoms. It was more the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Born in Washington, D.C., Jamison, 34, grew up in the Pacific Palisades, one of Los Angeles’s wealthiest zip codes. Her father, Dean Jamison, is an economist who works on global development. Her mother, Joanne Leslie, is a nutritionist and former public health professor. And her aunt, author and psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, is known as an authority on mood disorders. Jamison followed in these academic footprints, attending Harvard for her undergraduate degree, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for her MFA straight after that, and then on to her Ph.D. at Yale, where she wrote a dissertation on sobriety and creativity that comprises a large chunk of The Recovering. Now an assistant professor of nonfiction at Columbia University’s MFA Writing Program, Jamison lives in a Brooklyn brownstone with her novelist husband, Charles Bock, her nine-year-old stepdaughter, Lily, and her baby, Ione Bird, who was born in February.

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Jamison’s privileged path — both a product of her background and her intellect and drive — is difficult to ignore, and can be hard not to envy. Jamison acknowledges privilege lightly. She plays up the days spent rising at dawn for her shift at a bakery in Iowa, and downplays her romantic journeys to places like the Ligurian coast of Italy, where, she writes, she frittered away her fellowship checks drinking wine from pitchers. Professionally, Jamison has never been too far below high-functioning, high accomplishment. At 26, she published her first novel, The Gin Closet (2010), a story about the relationships between two generations of women, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. Jamison had written the book in the years leading up to her Iowa City awakening, still deep in addiction. “I was taking certain things that were happening inside of me and following them to these more extreme spaces,” Jamison told the Daily Iowan. “It was both an act of self-expression and an act of imagination into otherness.”

The Recovering has been one of the most anticipated books of the year, and one that has received extensive media attention. Jamison’s long list of accomplishments has earned her a bit of a reputation as a “golden child” — a reputation that often plays into the coverage of the book: retroactive schadenfreude mixed with disappointment that Jamison’s proverbial “bottom” wasn’t sufficiently low.

For fun, I asked Jamison how she would defend The Recovering to a skeptic. “It’s a book you think you’ve read before, or a book you think you’ll be bored by,” she says. “But it’s neither.”

She’s right. The Recovering is not simply Jamison’s personal story; it is interwoven with mini-profiles of literary heavyweights like Charles Jackson, Raymond Carver, and John Berryman, whose lives and creative work reflected struggles with addiction, as well as the stories of a series of ordinary addicts, including some of her fellow AA members. It’s full of insights and exposes vulnerability; it’s hefty and meticulously researched — in other words, not your standard addiction memoir.

The Recovering is driven by yearning, which Jamison tells me “is our most important narrative engine.” Yearning — for passion, for acceptance, for creativity — is the seed that blooms into a reckoning with desires that drinking appeared to fulfill, and the raw feelings she grappled with when she quit drinking.

Yearning for control is another underpinning of Jamison’s addiction. “I was always obsessed with not seeming out of control,” she tells me. “So much of the time I was drunk, I was trying to act less drunk. Especially after I’d declared myself as an alcoholic, gotten sober, and then decided to start drinking again. I was wanting so badly for it to not look dysfunctional.” At a party she threw in Iowa, she had to “lock myself in our bedroom and slap myself — hard, across the cheek — to get myself undrunk again,” she writes. “It didn’t work.” During her relapse, Jamison writes, “I spent long chunks of time in my hot apartment trying to tell myself I had the drinking figured out.”

“A lot of my drinking practice was around disguise,” Jamison continues. And, in fact, many of the book’s most affecting moments present the small lies she tells during her everyday quest to hide her drinking — like buying a case of wine and telling the liquor store clerk it was for a dinner party she was throwing, or brushing her teeth so hard her gums bled to hide the smell of the gin she’d drink between the end of her shift at the bakery and when Dave would arrive home to their apartment. On her way to pick Dave up from the airport, she made a stop at the dump to discard her empty bottles. For the most part, Jamison was successful in hiding her drinking. Her friend Rachel Fagnant-Fassler told a Vulture reporter that “with Leslie, it didn’t look like dysfunction.” As Jamison describes it to me, “There was drinking before the social occasion and after the social occasion, so the drinking that was happening was a normal amount of drinking embedded in an abnormal amount of drinking.”

Jamison describes alcohol and men as filling a similar void — she yearns for love. She got together with Dave, a graduate student, after beginning her doctoral program at Yale, and moved to Iowa with him (five years after her own program ended) in 2009. Their relationship, a central focus of the book, was “corroded by my drinking,” she shares with me. “It was a necessary illustration of what the drinking’s price had been.”

Jamison began to write The Recovering in 2010, after she’d finally quit drinking, and as the product of a sober mind, it could be seen as a prime example of the clearheaded creativity Jamison seeks. It could also be viewed as a way of coming clean. The immediacy of drinking that Jamison’s words evoke comes from diaries she kept while drinking and from everyday material such as her Gmail archives. She describes a Thanksgiving evening, for instance, when she almost drank a whole bottle of wine before noon, although she told her host she’d just had one glass. Some of her most vivid descriptions come from the difficult period of her life after her initial entry into AA in the winter of 2009–10. This could be because it was freshest in her mind at the time of writing, Jamison tells me. She writes of her complicated feelings during this first stage of recovery, when she was plagued by dreams of relapsing. “Sobriety had disappointed me in almost every way I could imagine,” she writes. She was still struggling in her relationship with Dave, her writing (although reading this work, partly composed during this period, I question how much her writing was “lifeless and effortful”), and in having the energy to socialize.

“I was writing about that raw-nerved feeling of early sobriety partially as a way to keep myself from going crazy,” she confides. While the writing may have been, at first, a way to cope with sobriety, the material ended up landing her a book deal for The Recovering — initially titled Archive Lush — four years later, in 2014.

It’s also impossible not to wonder whether the book itself serves a function in her recovery — or, at least her perception of her own role as a writer after drinking has been removed from the equation. Chapter VI, “Surrender,” is Step 2 of the 12-step program — the entire book, it could be argued, serves the mandate for the taking of inventory that Step 10 requires. “The book is my attempt to write a story about getting well, the struggle back into stability, that is as compelling as the story of dysfunction,” she says. She achieves her goal — some of the richest parts of her story are, in fact, the mental games she plays with herself before and after relapsing, trying to convince herself that she has gotten the problem under control.

Jamison observes that some writers “seemed to be understanding their sober writing in terms of a kind of asceticism or deprivation.” For instance, in The Lost Weekend, Charles Jackson’s gritty, realistic novel about alcoholism that he wrote after seven years of sobriety, “the idea was for the story to be plain and simple,” Jamison says. (Jackson subsequently relapsed and committed suicide in 1968.) In contrast, David Foster Wallace was “the opposite of the minimalist” — and, therefore, a source of inspiration. “I very much responded to [Wallace’s] idea of sober writing as expansion,” she tells me. “I wanted my book to lean into the possibilities of sobriety-inspired writing, plentitude and fullness, in terms of my own evolution as a writer.”

Sobriety, Jamison says, has given her a new lens through which to appreciate the stories of others. “I really do experience a link between my life in recovery and my relationship to reportage,” she asserts. “The sense of awe at other people’s stories — that there’s so much there — was really cultivated in meetings. Hearing people talk about their lives with a certain intensity. Holding eye contact. That built up muscles that were of use to me as a reporter.”

Jamison admits that the structure — shifting from her personal narrative to the stories of others — risked “alienating a reader by getting them invested in your story and then slowly leaving your own story behind.” In fact, the book’s structure is both an important achievement — what makes it unique and ambitious — and its Achilles’ heel. I found myself eager to turn the pages of Jamison’s own narrative, then becoming frustrated when the multitude of new stories interrupted that trajectory.

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Regardless, Jamison has earned a high status in literary circles. The Recovering, her third, is the first half of a two-book deal, reportedly worth seven figures. Jamison’s next book, which was recently submitted, is a collection “linking ideas like haunting and obsession,” she says. It is concerned with “how we are constituted by things we can’t ever fully have,” and explores how things like memories play into our desires. And in an interview for Electric Literature, Jamison shared that she’s “secretly working on another novel.”

But success, she acknowledges, can be a mixed blessing for writers. At times it “propels you into, or deepens, some sense of self-obsession or self-focus, where you become obsessed with securing more success, shoring it up, stabilizing it,” she says. “The success becomes the thing that makes you feel whole, makes you feel comfortable in your own skin.”

Jamison met her husband, Bock, after she’d been sober for three and a half years. “This relationship feels very defined by sobriety,” she says. “The kind of self that sobriety made possible for me has been really important in this relationship.” When her editor suggested including this relationship in the book, Jamison felt that “there’s such an entanglement in the book between relationships and use” in the book already, and “it felt important not to end the story with a marriage plot–style resolution.”

In The Recovering, Jamison writes that she used to wonder whether she could find “anything that will feel as good as drinking.” I ask her how she feels now, nearly eight years into her recovery.

“Nothing feels good in exactly the same way as drinking felt good,” Jamison admits. “You fantasize about, ‘What would a glass of wine be like?’ or ‘What would a martini be like?’ ” Yet drinking doesn’t occupy nearly as much space in Jamison’s mind, partly by virtue of “leaning into, or living, a life that’s not about that anymore.” In large part, this is due to the around-the-clock nature of caring for a newborn.

When she does crave alcohol — a feeling she tells me “never stops” — the clichés of recovery culture often serve an important purpose. In particular, the phrase “playing the tape all the way through” helps her remember what would happen if she started drinking again. “It doesn’t mean I’ll end up vomiting into my hair…more that I’d want it again the next night,” she says. “And the next night. And I’d start wishing my daughter would fucking go to sleep at 6 so I could have it the next night.”

Still, Jamison experiences moments of pure pleasure in sobriety. She recalls turning 30 and skinny-dipping with one of her best friends. “I felt this sense of total connection to her, total connection to my own body in that moment,” she says.

“A sense of being awake and aware.”


The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.


Louie Anderson’s Next Chapter

Louie Anderson is a living legend. With a career spanning forty years, Anderson boasts a résumé that includes three Emmys, numerous film and television appearances, late-night talk show comedy sets, and comedy specials, in addition to multiple producing and writing credits.

The comedian is celebrating a new chapter in his lively career with the release of his book Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too, a collection of letters to his late mother, Ora Zella Anderson, who remains one of his biggest inspirations.

Throughout the years, Anderson — whether while hosting Family Feud or on his Nineties animated series, Life With Louie — has done vocal impressions of his entire family. Most recently, Anderson channeled his mom to win an Emmy for the role of Zach Galifianakis’s mother on the FX comedy Baskets. Anderson shines while playing Mrs. Baskets, a Midwestern older woman who adores Costco, buffets, and everything conventional.

Anderson just released a comedy special, Big Underwear. He sat down to speak with the Voice in New York City while on his book tour and fresh off an appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. Anderson, who recently headlined a show at the Cutting Room in midtown, reflected on a life in comedy, and gave some advice based on what he’s learned during his decades in the business.

How are you feeling today?

Well, you get on these jags, and you just talk about yourself, and you try to make sense of what you’re talking about. Hopefully you’re answering the questions. And it’s 5:45 in the morning, and then it’s 6, and then it’s 6:30, and then 7:30 and then 9, and then 11, 1, and now here we are at 2:30. And you think, “Can I still say anything that I don’t know? Is there anything interesting?”

But you know, you just do your thing. And I try to pay homage to my mom, and the book, and the interview process, in which it is really important to stay present.

What made your mom laugh?

She made, like, absurdity, rather than to get mad. Let’s say you drove around for a half-hour to get a parking spot. And you couldn’t get one close. And then you’d park somewhere. And as you’re walking up to the front, there would be a parking spot that would open up. And you’d have to make the decision, do I go get the car — and you hold the spot? I think that was the kinda stuff that made her laugh.

So sorta like physical comedy?

Maybe “absurdity” is not the right word. She loved silliness. She loved a good joke.

When you were growing up with all your siblings, was there a competition for laughs? Was humor something important in your home?

My brother Roger was much funnier than everybody else. So, there was really no competition. And I really wasn’t developed as a comic then. And I didn’t really have a sense that I was gonna be a comic, or be funny. But people would laugh when I talked, and I would go, “Huh!” I’m being serious, but they would laugh.

I think I had a funny way of saying things, even as a kid.

When did you know that you were a comedian?

Not until October 10, 1978, when I first went onstage. I did it on a dare. I mean, I always thought I was funny because people would always laugh when I talked, but that was the first time I prepared some jokes and went onstage. And it was only gonna be a one-time thing. I wasn’t trying to become a comedian.

Where was that?

It was just a little club called Mickey Finn’s in northeast Minneapolis, and it was open mic night. I showed up, and I went on, and all my family and friends were there, so it felt like I did really well. It was gonna be a one-time thing, and here I am — forty years later — still doing it.

I feel like maybe you lucked out. Do you think if you bombed that night you would’ve gone back?

Good point. I dunno. It would’ve been a terrible experience. I probably wouldn’t have. But, you know, is it luck, or was this all the plan? Do you sometimes feel like you’re in a plan, and you wish you knew what the next move was?

So, I dunno. That’s a good question, though. I think I was supposed to be where I am right now.

What does it mean to be successful?

I guess what marks success is being able to produce something that you created. In this case, success for each person is different, but for me, it’s being able to accomplish a goal, like writing a book, and having the book be either well-received, or well-written — or both — and have it work! Have it be something I can be proud of.

It seems like you like to stay busy. Can you just talk a little bit about your schedule?

I do like my time off. I can just lay around, and watch TV, and play a little golf, and read a little, and write a little. When I get into a groove, I like going and working for a couple of weeks, maybe even a month. I’ve had kind of a big stretch of working lately.

And then, in the middle of this whole book tour, I realized that I’m gonna be changing what I’m doing. I can feel it. What am I doing? What should I be doing? And where am I going next? And I have a glimpse of it from doing the book. ’Cause in the book, I touch on some serious, important things to me that I really want to make happen.

I think my next thing is to give back by trying to help people who need help, or need comfort, or need some sort of assistance. I think that’s my journey.

Do you feel like you’ve always been a giver?

No. I think that I was selfish, and a “taker” at some point in my life. Probably not as much as I have put on myself at times.

I think at the end of the day, I come from a family, like, if you had $3, you would give people $2 if they needed money — or maybe even the whole $3. Because you would realize the $3 would make such a difference for them.

What is something that you can only learn after years of doing comedy?

Well, first of all, you can only learn comedy by doing comedy. You can’t practice and become a good comedian. You have to go up, and have success, and failures. You learn on the fly. Stand-up is, like, the most interesting thing, because even after forty years I still work on certain jokes to make ’em better.

Because underneath every joke is a better joke.

And most people don’t ever go for the better joke. But people who are successful comedians go for the better joke. And then the better joke under that, because they want to have something significant. They want it to mean something to them.

When do you know a joke is expired?

When people don’t laugh anymore. When people go, “Unnnnhhhh.”

But do you think that sometimes it’s the audience?

Hardly ever. I think it’s always the performance. Even a bad audience will laugh at a good joke.

What do you want the audience to take away from seeing you?

All the trash that they brought in.


I want them to be walking out mumbling about their family. Or something I said that resonated with them.

When I get home from a good show — be it a movie, or live show, or stand-up, or music — I’m either singin’ the song, or sayin’ the lines from the play. Or if I’m at a stand-up thing, I’m laughing about the thing and reminiscing.

If I talk about family, I want them to be walking out thinking about their family.

When I think of you, you’re just so polite. Can you give any advice to young people in show business that they might appreciate?

The best advice I could give somebody who’s doing stand-up, or in show business at all, is, first of all, get your eye on the prize that you’re going for. I wanted to get my name on the Comedy Store marquee, I wanted to do The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and I wanted to be a host of a talk show.

I kept my eyes on those things, and I got to do all of them. I filled in for Joan Rivers for a week once. Then I knew exactly what it would be like to be a talk show host, so I could knock it off my list, ’cause I no longer wanted to do it — although I do think I would be a good talk show host. I’m not motivated anymore in that direction.

If your goal is to get a special, how will you get a special? Work it backwards. Let’s say you’re gonna get a comedy special. You work backwards. What did it take for that person to get that comedy special?

That’s what I could tell them. Work as hard on your comedy as you do at getting laid and getting drugs.

By the time this publishes, you will have performed at the Cutting Room, which is a special place because that was Joan Rivers’s room! Tell us what that means to you.

Of course Joan is always in my heart, and I love Joan, and I’m sorry she’s gone. But she’s always gonna be with me. She was a big influence on me, and a great, great, great joke writer. I’m going to be able to do my stand-up from my new special, Big Underwear, that’s out right now, if you wanna get it. I’m going to be able to talk about Baskets and how that part came to me, and also I’m gonna be able to reminisce about the week I’ve had promoting Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too, my new book.

And then I’m going to talk about families like I always do. And I’m looking forward to it. I hear it’s a great room. I have never been there. And I’m looking forward to that.


The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.