My idol, the great comedian B.S. Pully, had a terrific expression that he used often in his stage show: "I'm too smart for the room." How many times have I used that line myself when faced with a deafening silence after a particularly sparkling bon mot?
It's a fact of modern life that we are often disappointed by generally low standards of drollery, especially when we have trained for the Algonquin Round Table. I know many entire careers that have had a tendency to be too smart for the room. One of my favorites is that of the wonderful Ann Magnuson, a comedian, actress, writer, and musician who has perhaps erred on the side of intelligence throughout her distinguished, though clearly under-recognized career. Born too late? Too early? Perhaps we shall see…
In the heyday of the "new wave," Ann was New York's ruling-elite comedic performance artist (along with Eric Bogosian). She not only created many extraordinary one-person shows while serving as genius-in-residence at the legendary Club 57, but she would also launch entire bands based on her satiric vision, from the feminist-primitivist collective Pulsallama, to the psycho-psychedelia of Bongwater (which released five albums), to the remarkable heavy-metal extravaganza Vulcan Death Grip.
As one would expect of someone so brimming with genius (and foxiness), Ann left the threadbare, hardscrabble art world and went off to Hollywood where she was clearly too smart for the universe. And yet she succeeded, first with small roles in big films, then starring in considerable films such as Susan Seidelman's Making Mr. Right, opposite John Malkovich, and A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, opposite River Phoenix.
In 1989, Ann crossed over to TV as a regular on Jamie Lee Curtis's situation comedy Anything But Love, but we weren't getting the full blast of Magnusonic satire. Still, Ann's enormous talent took her along the usual road to All-American success, with appearances on Caroline in the City, The Drew Carey Show, Wanda at Large, Frasier, and even CSI: Miami. And she was in big films like Jodie Foster's Panic Room, and not-so-big ones like Mariah's Glitter. But Ann Magnuson is a top banana, not a second banana, and diehard fans longed for the full effect. One of the reasons I hate Hollywood is that they have never given Ann Magnuson her own Carol Burnett Show. Of course, compared to the great Carol Burnett, Ann is a little…how do we put it…too smart for the room?
(Photo by Rocky Schenck)
Well, she's not too smart for my room, where her new album is in heavy rotation. The delightful new Ann Magnuson compact disc is called Pretty Songs and Ugly Stories and it was produced and arranged by Ann's sometime collaborator (they had a faux fake folk band together, Bleaker Street Incident) and genius in his own right/write/rite Kristian Hoffman. All dressed up in spiritualist Victoriana photographs, it harks back to various gentler, smarter times, to the delightful sensibilities of music hall and tin pan alley or at least the darker corners of the Brill Building. Ann has a lithe, crystalline, lilting voice, and at times she sounds like a sweet girl group like Angels or the Murmaids produced, perhaps, by Kim Fowley, or like Ruth Etting produced by Devo. Each song is a little gem, with the form embracing the content, like a Harry Winston setting embraces a three-carat diamond. You must buy this record if you have any hope for the advancement of comic literacy, or if you have high standards rubbing up against the calloused elbows of society. Why not buy this marvelous entertainment directly from the artist?: http://annmagnuson.com/index.html. It comes autographed, for $13.98 plus shipping and handling.