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, Rob McCleary on The Love Boat, Morgan Parker on The Jeffersons, and Téa Obreht on Frasier. 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
Magical Negro #607: Gladys Knight on the 200th Episode of The Jeffersons
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Original Poetry for “The 200 Episode Club”
by Morgan Parker
Privilege is asking other people
to look at you. I like everything
in my apartment except me.
What is the point of something
that only does one thing.
I mean I need to buy a toaster.
My life is a kind of reality.
When I get bored, I close the window.
By the way what is a yuppie.
Here I am, two landscapes.
My tattoo artist says I’m a warrior
with pain. I tell her we can manifest
this new moon in six months.
When I’m rich I will still be Black.
You can’t take the girl out of the ghetto
ever. It’s too much to ask to be
satisfied. Of course I sing
through the struggle. My problem is
I’m too glamorous to be seen.
How will I know when I’ve made it.
In the mirror will I have a face.
How long does a good thing last.
Sometimes eating a guilty salad
I become a wife.
Let me be the woman
who takes care of you.
Weezy and George in drapes
and crystal silverware.
By the way predominantly white
means white. I want to be the first
Black woman to live her life
exclusively from the bathtub.
Making toast, enjoying success
despite my cultural and systemic
setbacks. I was raised to be
a nigger you can trust.
I was raised to be better
than my parents. In a small house
with a swamp cooler
I touched myself. I wanted to be
in the white mom’s carpool.
My cheek against something new
and clean. I clean my apartment
when I am afraid of being
the only noise.
Everyone I know is a Black man.
Me I’m a Black man too.
Tragically, I win. It is a joke.
I always require explanation:
Life, Dope. I am so lucky to be you.
When something dies,
I buy a new one.