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The Splendor of Harvey Pekar

The Splendor of Harvey Pekar (photo)

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The first story of the first collection of the comic book “American Splendor” is four pages long and consists of 48 nearly identical panels drawn by artist R. Crumb. Each panel features a man in a gray suit with combed-over hair standing against a white background directly addressing the reader about the peculiarities of his name. His name is the same as the author’s: Harvey Pekar.

The story, entitled “The Harvey Pekar Name Story,” is about the fact that while the name “Harvey Pekar” might sound unusual, it isn’t, at least according to the Cleveland phone book. First, it had two Harvey Pekars, then a third. Later, one Harvey Pekar died. He was survived by his son: Harvey Pekar.

Then, that Harvey Pekar died too. The piece ends with three panels: In the first, Harvey speculates “What kind of people are these? Where do they come from, what do they do? What’s in a name?” In the second, he asks, “Who is Harvey Pekar?” In the third, he stares silently at the reader, an inscrutable expression on his face.

By the time that Harvey Pekar died last week at the age of 70, readers of his comics had a pretty good idea he was. For more than 30 years, Pekar invited the readers of “American Splendor” into his life to share in his triumphs and failures, to revel in his small successes and to bemoan his (as he saw them) enormous failures.

07192010_pekar2.jpgIn turning his decidedly unheroic life into the subject of a comic book, Pekar became a true innovator not only in the world of comics but in a certain discipline of obsessive autobiography that transcended any single medium. Today, we could very accurately describe “American Splendor” as the original comic book blog.

When word of Pekar’s death spread online, social network sites lit up with remembrances of the author. Most were positive, but there was one exception that wound up getting passed around. “A poet dies, no one cares,” this person wrote. “Some asshole comic book guy dies and the world pauses to reflect.”

What this person, who had surely never read Pekar’s work, didn’t grasp, was that Pekar was a poet, one of the comics’ first. His ability to speak eloquently, honestly, and with a total lack of sentimentality about the world around him would have made his voice worth listening to however he chose to express himself. In comics, it made him not only a talent but a pioneer.

Around the time that first “American Splendor” collection appeared, Pekar began appearing as a frequent guest on “Late Night With David Letterman.” In his first interview, Letterman asked why he chose to write about the world around him in comic books, instead of in a series of essays or some other form. “It’s a wonderful medium,” Pekar told Letterman, “as good as an artistic medium as any other…it’s considered a chump medium because it’s always been aimed at a lowest common denominator audience. But the potential of it hasn’t been explored to any extent.”

Pekar explored that potential, and pushed comics into places no one before had. His Cleveland, a land of bureaucratic Veterans’ Hospitals filled with eccentric co-workers and grocery stores populated by cranky old Jewish ladies, was about as far from Superman’s Metropolis as you could get. And stories — and Pekar doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his gifts as a storyteller — didn’t just break with the conventions of subject but form as well. A single panel repeated over and over for four pages with minimal changes and minimal movement? That broke every rule of comic book style in the book.

How Pekar became that rule breaker was well chronicled in the popular film adaptation of “American Splendor” from 2003. The son of Jewish Polish immigrants, Pekar was born, raised and lived his whole life in Cleveland, where, in 1962, he met a young cartoonist named Robert Crumb, a recent transplant to the area working for a greeting card company.

07192010_Pekar4.jpgBoth men loved comics and were avid collectors of jazz records. In the “American Splendor” movie, Pekar compared his love of collecting to a prospector’s hunt for elusive gold in films like “The Treasure of Sierra Madre,” sifting through hundreds of pounds of junk to find that diamond in the rough.

Pekar’s fans could relate. He was inspired by Crumb’s early underground comics to try and make his own; since his artwork was little more than crude stick figures with word balloons, he enlisted Crumb and roster of other artists to illustrate his stories.

The comics became an underground success and earned Pekar a slew of national accolades, but he still worked his “dead-end” job as a file clerk in a Cleveland Veterans’ Hospital until he retired — right around the time filmmakers Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman shot their version of “American Splendor.” (They were even onhand to shoot Pekar’s retirement party.)

The film was a critical and commercial success in 2003 — it won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and made over $6 million at the American box office — but Pekar’s death now makes the film even more resonant. The film remains a dry and funny comedy, but everything about it now seems more bittersweet. Given Pekar’s work, that feels appropriate.

Mortality hangs over everything the cinematic Pekar’s does — in early scenes, we watch him fretting over his spastic vocal chords and grimly viewing a chart at the hospital with the word “DECEASED” stamped in big red letters across it. Studying Crumb’s first batch of comics, he enviously tells the artist, “When you croak, you’re gonna leave something behind.”

07192010_pekar3-1.jpgSome of Pekar’s already profound observations in the film — read by the real Harvey, who narrates scenes in which he’s portrayed by Paul Giamatti — are now rendered heartbreakingly moving. I was particularly affected by this passage: “Life seems so sweet and so sad and so hard to let go of in the end. But hey man, every day’s a brand new deal, right? Just keep on working and something’s bound to turn up.”

Toward the end of the “American Splendor” film, Pekar faces yet another reminder of his mortality: a fierce battle with cancer. One night, his loyal wife Joyce (Hope Davis) wakes to find him frantic with anxiety. He asks her, “Am I a guy who writes about himself in a comic book or am I just a character in that book? If I die, will the character keep going, or will he just fade away?” With Pekar gone, the character can’t keep going. But he’ll never fade away. Even if there is one less Harvey Pekar in the phone book.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.