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
Retrieval by Téa Obreht
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An Original Story for “The 200 Episode Club”
On a cool spring day, in the midst of a half-hearted organizational venture through the citadel of cardboard boxes in my mother’s basement, I watch my brother unearth a 1999 Sony Discman. It’s mine, of course — or it was, once. I haven’t seen or thought of it since at least 2005, but I’m stunned by the clarity with which I can recall the texture of its buttons; the thwap of the clamshell lid dropping into place; the buzz of the gears; the Nero-days terror of not knowing whether the display would flash the digital timer, or that soul-crushing admonition: NO DISC. I’m pretty sure I could easily have gone the rest of my life without revisiting whatever sensory archive has just flown open, and I don’t know whether to feel grateful for my brother’s find. He’s examining the Discman gravely.
At fifteen, my brother is a walking affirmation of his Slavic heritage: six-two, well on his way to a goatee, so broad-shouldered and self-possessed and devoid of gangly teenaged awkwardness that his refusal to accept congratulatory pints at my wedding last year stupefied the bartender. From the other room, a familiar laugh track has reached the kind of pitch that indicates Niles Crane is talking, a reminder of my only condition for helping with my brother’s chores: that I be allowed to work as I do at home, with Frasier in the background. I’ve told myself that I’m doing this partly for the satisfaction of irritating a teenager who thinks he’s too cool; but that’s not true. I love Frasier, and I want him to love it, too, though I suspect he’s a good few years from being able to. He’s been a good sport about it so far. He thinks the curmudgeonly dad and the little dog are funny enough. He chuckles every once in a while, but his sufferance has done little to hide that he considers it a show for old people. Now, he holds up the Discman and says, “what’s this?”
I want to tell him that I probably smuggled it into the hospital the day he was born to remedy the solitude of the waiting room.
Before I answer, before I’ve even held out my hand, I am thinking of the irretrievable: the fragility of all those homemade mixes, labored over by lamplight, shattered in moving boxes. Or the VHS tape chronicling four years of college ballroom performances, obliterated by the premature declaration that I’d checked my TV/VCR two-in-one, and yes it was ready for the yard sale. And what about all those yards of waterlogged tape, that video of my brother in his first walker, awestruck by the huge, pink bubblegum orbs I’m inflating for him? I know that video is real, I remember it — but he’s never seen it, so he’ll never have any sense of this moment we shared when he was too small to stand.
I dole out some absolute diamond of sisterly wisdom: “You see, you belong to an era wherein the mere jolt of memory can prompt physical retrieval: all the pictures and songs of your youth are there, somewhere, in a perpetually accessible space that obliterates the need for reliquaries.”
I want him to understand that, when these things went missing in my day, their disappearance was absolute. Only now it’s a lecture about his generation; now, it’s worse than making him watch Frasier. “But no, not really,” I want to say, “it’s actually just like that time on Frasier” — which is something loved ones hear from me often. And it’s true, it is just like that time Frasier can’t celebrate his 200th show on KACL because Daphne has ruined the irreplaceable tape of June 14th 1996’s show — or rather, Daphne’s new boom box has ruined it — and Daphne’s ruse to replace the tape with The Best of Hall and Oates has failed, taking with it the possibility of his ever having a complete collection of The Doctor Frasier Crane Show. “Oh, all his crap is treasured!” Martin says, and I laugh every time, because I know how the episode ends — but I feel for him. Frasier is gutted by the disappearance of something he admits to Niles he probably never intends to replay, because he couldn’t now, even if he wanted to.