I just happened to be listening to Fresh Air on NPR the other day, and heard part of her interview with John Cleese. He made an interesting comment about the difference between mimicry–which he described as clever, but lacking in power–and what is actually “funny.” He told an anecdote about meeting up with Peter Sellers just after he had awakened in the morning, and the fact that he had to “try on” a number of voices–an Eton accent, a Cockney one, and so on– before finally settling into his “real voice.” He also said that Eric Idle would speak with a faint Liverpudlian accent for a day or two after spending time with his friends, the Beatles. For Cleese, this showed that while Sellers and Idle were brilliant mimics, they had a “weak sense of their own identity.” Of Sellers in particular, he said:

There was a lack of real personality at his core. And the people who were very good impressionists are often rather like that. Similarly, people who write very good parodies but don’t write such great original comedy, those people often lack a certain emotional life. They’re very clever, their observation is good, but emotion doesn’t inform their work in any way. So their work tends to be brilliantly observed, but not very – what’s the word? – not very powerful. They don’t tend to be terribly funny. They tend to be terribly clever.

An abiding concern in my book, How the Other Half Laughs, is to think about what is actually “comic” about the early comics– many of which (including the ones I included in my last post) are not very funny. Some are quite clever, in the way I think Cleese means. And some are powerful without being funny, like the Mose’s Incubator strip by Luks that I reproduced at the end of my post. What I’ve decided is that much of the comedy of the early strips, many of which lampoon ethnic types associated with the urban working classes–the Irish, the Jews, and African Americans–appeals more to a sense of cosmic irony of a rather Hobbesian sort: Life is short, and then you die. What’s funny is that the dying is the part you look forward to.

Cleese’s comment, though, has more to do with a specific character in my study whom I’m having a very difficult time pinning down: George Luks. Known first and foremost as a painter, a member of The Eight, he was never really at the core of the group despite being one of its most flamboyant members. Stories about him abound in the various accounts of the Ashcan School: he was famous for leaping up onto a table at one of The Eight’s bohemian hangouts on the Lower East Side and performing, practically verbatim, all the roles of a play he had seen the night before, or doing impressions, one by one, of every person sitting around the table. Here is a drawing by Luks, not of himself, but in a pose that he supposedly adopted on many an occasion:

Luks, The Orator, c. 1920.
Luks, The Orator, c. 1920.

It’s been hard, however, for me to find out much more about him. My task is complicated by the fact that he had an enormous ego, and embellished and sometimes manufactured out of whole cloth various stories of his life. To hear him tell it, he was a prizefighter known as Chicago Whitey (not true), had met Stephen Crane and Richard Harding Davis in Cuba during the Spanish-American War (not true), and had studied painting with both European and American masters (mostly untrue– he enrolled in art school for a total of 2 months). The man was a consummate liar– someone who, as Cleese would say, appeared to have a weak sense of his own identity.

But many things about him are true. From what I can tell, he did in fact play many roles in his life– he was a cartoonist, and illustrator, and vaudevillian, a pathetic boozer, a lothario, a highly valued friend and colleague, and compassionate defender of the poor. He was an anti-Semite who generally defended open immigration and immigrant populations. And something that the historians of The Eight rarely acknowledge– he was perhaps one of the most financially successful of The Eight, despite his displays of public drunkenness and his devil-may-care attitude. Finally, and there is no gainsaying this: George Luks was an immensely talented artist.

All these contradictions, between what is true and false about him, and also just between the things that are in fact true, make George Luks a cipher to me. It explains why there are no biographies of Luks, even though he lived into his 60s and was exhibited widely, and even though he produced hundreds of paintings and thousands of drawings and sketches. When I was at the Delaware Art Museum, I looked through the papers of one of Luks’s would-be biographers, Arthur Lewis, who compiled copious notes, drafted multiple chapters, but ultimately left his work unfinished. Part of this may have been due to the fact that Lewis was simply not a very skilled biographer, but I think he also wasn’t able to get at the core of who Luks was. In the end, he simply portrayed him as a man of immense talent who was derailed by his love of the bottle– reducing a complex man to an easily understood cause-and-effect narrative.

In my view, George Luks had an extremely strong sense of his own identity. I think he decided, however, to imagine himself as more than the person he knew he was. The 1890s, as Fitzgerald showed so indelibly in The Great Gatsby, was a time when one could imagine oneself almost anything. If Luks was able to pull off his grandest impression, his impression of the man he wanted others to believe him to be, then why not?

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