Giving Idiocy Its Due: “The Lowbrow Reader Reader” Reviewed

The Lowbrow Reader Reader
Edited by Jay Ruttenberg
Drag City Books; 297 p.

I won’t speak for everyone, but I can say on solid footing that I take the Internet and its hivemind for granted. Recently I revisited the cult TV show Freaks and Geeks, and I began to think that my cockeyed view of the show’s significance is likely born out of spending a lot of time online, where there are numerous opportunities to extol the virtues of basically anything, especially cult TV shows. The kind of “six seasons and a movie” hoopla conceived from the threat of NBC canceling a show like Community wasn’t really possible in 2000 when Freaks and Geeks was cancelled after one season. As many before me have said, the series was great. It brings back the pains and smallness of high school, but it also recalls the hugeness of joy when it hits at that age. Something as simple as a song or a comedian’s bit on a talk show could raise all sorts of emotions, the kinds of feelings absent elsewhere. I was lucky enough to have a computer growing up, but if I hadn’t had one, I probably would have written zines, pages upon pages about whatever my equivalent of Lester Bangs’ Coltrane solos were. I would have tried anything to give the things I liked their due adoration.

That impulse to create odes has always existed. Have you ever seen something and felt like it was being unjustifiably held down by someone’s more athletic elbows? Yes, of course! Some rhetorical questions are too easy. This innocent feeling both caused and radiates from a humor journal called The Lowbrow Reader, created out of the editor-in-chief’s desire to champion his comic favorites. In it you’ll read essays about unloved or unconsidered subjects, and you’ll in turn wonder why everyone isn’t considering and loving what you hold in your hands. It would have been a perfect object of affection, in fact, for the geeks of Freaks and Geeks. It’s the sort of sideshow like Cracked or Mad, or something else thought too immature, that Bill, Sam, or Neal would pore over instead of paying attention in sex ed. It’s the kind of magazine that they would later want to write for: an enthusiastic exploration of low hanging fruit, and a bastion upholding its duty to protect what we found funny in childhood or what managed to engross us in moments of despondency.

In a recently published anthology of The Lowbrow Reader, now out from Drag City, we get the cream of the crop: essays on Don Rickles’ singing career and a terrifying date with Jackie Mason; point/counterpoint appraisals of Chevy Chase from a pre-Community, post-Cops and Robbersons world; and personal essays about spying on criminal neighbors while writing half-baked articles about Pixy Sticks and meth users. It reads like the best find at a comic book store or from the bottom of an older sibling’s closet. Poems about Curb Your Enthusiasm! A truly excellent defense of Billy Madison! This is the sort of stuff to make a geek say, “Wait a minute—you can do this and it’s a job?” As editor-in-chief Jay Ruttenberg points out in his introduction, it’s only sort of a job, if we define that word by demonstrable profits. When his father asks in the midst of holding his son’s hand through the yearly tax filing (a dependency I find endearing) whether Jay hopes to make any money on the magazine, Jay replies that financial gain isn’t really the point. This is labor of love stuff right here. Surely no one demanded a consideration of the 90s sitcom Wings, and few wonder about the films Alan Arkin has directed. (Jesus Christ, why not?) What is especially wonderful about the work in The Lowbrow Reader is its ignorance of a Hornby-esque book of rules. There’s no canon, really, just what makes some people laugh.

My favorite scene in Freaks and Geeks (possibly everyone’s favorite) kept coming back to me as I read through these pages. Bill, played by a young and gawky Martin Starr, is home after school. The house is empty. He makes himself a snack that only a teenager with a crazed metabolism could ingest, chocolate cake and a cheese sandwich, and he moves to the couch with his food. He settles in for some afternoon TV, a set of 1980 Garry Shandling stand-up. And oh man—he laughs so hard that tears come to his eyes. As we watch him slap his knees and throw his head back, what’s crucial is what we hear. We don’t hear the jokes. Instead we’re listening to a song by The Who: “I’m One,” from Quadrophenia. The lyrics go like this:

Every year is the same
And I feel it again,
I’m a loser – no chance to win.
Leaves start falling,
Come down is calling,
Loneliness starts sinking in.

But I’m one.
I am one.
And I can see
That this is me,
And I will be,
You’ll all see
I’m the one.

That pretty much sums it up, right? What’s remarkable about this anthology is its ability to be a celebration of that kind of solitude and simultaneously an example of how its audience isn’t alone. Holding up the useless and the failed, examining the triumphantly debauched and intelligently stupid, is what The Lowbrow Reader does. This is where all that honest-to-God love of Don Knotts, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, or Lou Reed can go. That’s its thing, and it does it well.

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