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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.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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