AN INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
Part of the mission of Electric Literature, the non-profit publisher of Recommended Reading, is to preserve the place of literature in popular culture. Sometimes the relationship between the two is clear — film and TV adaptations of books being the most obvious — but at Electric Literature we believe in literature as a pillar of popular culture in its own right.
So what might we expect from literature in popular culture? Through it we can find common ground, enjoyment, and topics of conversation. But making literature popular certainly doesn’t mean dumbing down content; it means trusting in the intellectual and emotional appetites of our audience. It also means having a bit of fun.
The connection between the 200th issue of Recommended Reading and popular sitcoms was initially tenuous and probably still is. While 100 episodes mean a sitcom is viable for syndication, reaching 200 episodes is a mark of longevity few sitcoms ever achieve. (Seinfeld only made it to 180.) Sitcoms in the 200 Episode Club have indelibly made their mark, for better or for worse, on American identity.
Over the next four days, we present four authors writing on the 200th episode of four sitcoms: J. Robert Lennon on The Cosby Show (Monday), Rob McCleary on The Love Boat (Tuesday), Morgan Parker on The Jeffersons (Wednesday), and Téa Obreht on Frasier (Thursday). Each piece is accompanied by an original illustration by poet and artist Chelsea Martin. Because of the talent of these writers, what began as a tongue-in-cheek way to commemorate the 200th issue of this magazine has emerged as a powerful commentary on the relationship between literature and pop culture.
I’ll admit I thought J. Robert Lennon had lost his mind when he said would write about The Cosby Show, given that Bill Cosby has been revealed as a serial rapist and an abuser of power, a man who took horrible advantage of dozens of women with the help of a system that excused, accommodated, and enabled him.
When Cosby’s victims began to speak out, many observers who had grown up watching The Cosby Show knew that if they were ever to watch the show again, it would be with the corrupting hindsight of innocence betrayed. In “And So, We Commence,” with his signature kindness, bravery, and yes, humor, J. Robert Lennon has captured what it is like to watch The Cosby Show today. In a mere 1,500 words he confronts the uncomfortable juxtaposition of a wholesome family comedy with the repeated violation of women’s rights, beings, and bodies.
Pop culture has a way of folding in on itself, and in “Captain Stubing Has Collapsed,” Rob McCleary uses Frank O’Hara’s poetry to get his head around the many celebrity cameos of The Love Boat, from Andy Warhol to Lana Turner. McCleary writes, “With his appearance on the 200th episode of The Love Boat, Andy Warhol’s life is now a closed circle. A fact he does not understand consciously, but with the unwavering intuition of the true artist.”
Whether the culture circle is closing or infinitely spiraling back on itself in a tangled mess of allegory, reference, and the occasional progress may be the best question that emerges from this little experiment. In “Magical Negro #607: Gladys Knight on the 200th Episode of The Jeffersons,” Morgan Parker uses her own poetry to take on “The Good Life,” the title episode. “The good life is striking everyone,” reads the 200th episode summary, somewhat ominously. If “the good life” has stricken Parker, the question is what does it mean and how does she want it: “Sometimes eating a guilty salad/ I become a wife,” she writes. And later, “I want to be the first/ Black woman to live her life/ exclusively from the bathtub.” The idea that asking a talented poet to watch a late-stage episode of an outdated sitcom could yield a result like this is the kind of thing that helps me get out of bed in the morning.
Last but certainly not least, in “Retrieval,” Téa Obreht reflects on Frasier, a show which she admits she had on in the background while writing her New York Times bestselling novel The Tiger’s Wife. Unlike home videos or mixtapes, these Frasier reruns symbolize a fantasy of an easily accessed past: “I am thinking of the irretrievable: the fragility of all those homemade mixes, labored over by lamplight, shattered in moving boxes,” Obreht writes. Because the characters in Frasier have not lived beyond the final episode of the show, their pasts can be experienced without the painful distance wrought by the future.
I am so grateful to these writers, and to the many others we have published thus far in Recommended Reading, for allowing me, every week, to have a look at fiction being powerful, moving, relevant, and useful.
Editor-in-Chief, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading
Captain Stubing Has Collapsed by Rob McCleary
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Original Fiction for “The 200 Episode Club”
Recommended by Electric Literature
Lana Turner dumps Frank Sinatra then Ava Gardner dumps Frank Sinatra then Mia Farrow dumps Frank Sinatra so Frank sits at home watching Lana Turner on the 200th episode of The Love Boat with the sound turned off snarling the incandescent rage that is the home field advantage of the late-stage alcoholic.
The records no longer sell.
Frank Sinatra does not know why the Frank Sinatra records do not sell.
He rises unsteadily from the tattered recliner on skinny, old man legs. Bright yellow, old man pee spots the front of his tighty-whities.
Frank Sinatra does not know why the Frank Sinatra records no longer sell. Frank Sinatra cannot fathom why Lana Turner is on the 200th episode of The Love Boat. Frank Sinatra is not even sure what the fuck “The Love Boat” even is.
Or what the fuck “Menudo” is.
Frank Sinatra knows one undeniable fact: Lana Turner and Menudo are on the 200th episode of The Love Boat, and Frank Sinatra is not. He flails his skinny old man arms, knocking over the lamp and plunging the room into darkness, and his soul into a Dostoevsky midnight.
Frank Sinatra has collapsed.
With his appearance on the 200th episode of The Love Boat Andy Warhol’s life is now a closed circle. A fact he does not understand consciously, but with the unwavering intuition of the true artist.
That’s him on the gangplank. A two shot with his first true love, Blotted Line (Candy Darling in an ill-fitting and hastily made costume of styrofoam and pasteboard). Warhol accepts the parameters of this reality: a small, angry lesbian with a .32 has been released into the labyrinth interior of the Pacific Princess.
Andy Warhol has had it with the flunkies at The Factory.
The itchy fright wig.
Silk screening Mick Jagger.
Andy Warhol has had enough. A touching scene where Blotted Line begs him not to go out into the ship.
Silk screening Mick fucking Jagger.
Andy Warhol has had enough of life. Andy Warhol has had enough of Andy Warhol.
Valerie Solanas finds him in the strange nightclub where Menudo performs before a packed crowd of predatory pedophiles and Lana Turner. Menudo, rehearsed and drilled to the point of dissociation by their manager, barely flinch when the shots rings out. Andy has been begging Lana Turner to let him make a silk screen of her. He is shot through both lungs, spleen, and liver, collapsing in an enormous pool of blood. Lana Turner sees the enormous pool of blood and swoons. Andy Warhol changes the channel. Now he is Andrew Warhola, the frightened boy from Pennsylvania, and this is his greatest work.
Lana Turner has been to lots of parties. And acted perfectly disgraceful. But she has never collapsed.
On the 200th episode of The Love Boat, Lana Turner collapses.
The 200th episode of The Love Boat has taken Captain Stubing to a bad place. He has been drinking heavily since the day they put out of port.
Captain Stubing hasn’t spent his entire fucking life on the fucking Love Boat. Captain Stubing has been in the shit. Captain Stubing has hosed what’s left of his buddies off carrier decks. For 199 episodes he has hoped to become famous for a mysterious vacancy. But the fucking white shorts, white knee socks, and white shoes have killed the dream. No one ever becomes famous for a mysterious vacancy in white shorts, white knee socks, and white shoes.
“My life is a final chapter no one reads because the plot is over,” he announces over the p.a. system, his wracking sobs a maudlin echo down the hallways and decks. The hallways are empty. The .32 toting lesbian still at large. Still angry. The All You Can Eat Seafood Buffet is untouched. The whirlpool unused.
Frank Sinatra has collapsed.
Andy Warhol has collapsed.
Lana Turner has collapsed.
Captain Stubing has collapsed.
Oh Captain Stubing we love you get up.