PRINT September 1986



THE STAND-UP FACE OF THE ’80s smokes a stogie. Sean Penn, Julian Schnabel, Mick Jagger, David Salle, Robert De Niro, Eric Fischl, Joan Rivers, Gary Stephan, and David Letterman are just some of the many artists and performers who have recently been meeting the press with a cigar stuck between their teeth. (Frank Stella met his cheroot some time ago.) While clinical explications for this behavior may seem obvious (and cigarettes are on the wane), the image is still at first surprising. Despite pictures of Picasso puffing topless, and with apologies to Una, Lady Troubridge, the cigar has never been associated with poetic appeal and effulgent sexuality, nor with any of the more ambiguous images to have romanced the public since the day Albert Camus first lit a cigarette during a photo session, since the night Jimmy Dean failed to meet his father’s standards, somewhere East of Eden. For the great cigar-smoking exemplars in our culture, we must, if you will, turn our backs on love and death, and look instead to politics (Winston Churchill, Fiorello LaGuardia, Fidel Castro), to business (Al Capone, Aristotle Onassis), and, especially, to the great gang of comics and former vaudevillians on early TV.

That a bunch of more or less young artists today would want to remind everyone of the lubricious Uncle Miltie, or Sid Caesar, George Burns, Groucho Marx, or Ernie Kovacs (whose real-life wife, Edie Adams, sold Tiparillos during station breaks), is odd. But if one remembers the routines, the jokes, the attitude prevailing on those old variety and quiz shows, even if dimly from early childhood, what returns to the inner ear is a lot of talk about money. Bucks—the best way to buck a system set against you—must have provided the punch line and guaranteed the laugh for just about every gag not involving “broads,” and in fact even the women, when not merely burlesqued, were habitually assigned the task of henpecking some live-and-let-live kind of fellow for cash, or shopping privileges.

The “Golden Age of Television” comedians were stocked with the immediate inheritance of their immigrant parents. They grew up poor, got rich, were intent on staying rich, weren’t ever entirely convinced they would. It is hard to think of any other “club,” within any other generation, in any other field, that includes as many individuals rightly or wrongly famous for being cheap. The thought occurred that they might not be buying what their sponsors were selling, that they were broadcasting a certain resistance from inside the box, the brand-new heart of the consumer culture. These were stand-up men an audience could trust, sending out little codes of insubordination, and their dirty little cigars became a sign of sorts for old-time values, a kind of antidote to streamlining.

As the cigar makes its big comeback, money has taken on a new image. Since cash is becoming obsolete, money is no longer the stuff of mattresses, nor need it dirty anyone’s hands. Six-figure salaries listed in Fortune seem a little retro today just a wee bit weak on the glamour punch, and the word “millionaire” is itself either a euphemism for something much bigger, or else a bit quaint, another ’50s fantasy. Money has become our single overruling fashion, above even whatever money might buy, whatever manner of life it might support, whatever it takes to get it—has, in other words, become an essentially abstract entity. Lotteries are our loaves and fishes. Traders are our lightning rods of faith. In the age of the takeover, of the M.B.A. army, money is no longer something to earn, save, spend, give, waste, or hoard, but a mathematical formula for immaculate aggression, and a surrogate for measures of self-worth.

The comic “Uncles” had a problem with the airwaves back in 1950. Vaudeville was one thing: theater is made up of strange smells and awkward magic, of nervous actors in rancid costumes, of waiting to go on. And with the price of a ticket the situation is charged. With television there is no audience, only “America” or “The World,” and the performer must pitch human animal tricks through a void. With this dilemma, the look of comics and the feel of comedy changed. To be set forever as an old-fashioned sort of fool before the nation would be foolish—would be to be disposable. Fright wigs, service uniforms, and bawdy outfits were relegated to the prop closets of those who had the least to lose—outright clowns, puppets, sidekicks, “Mexicans” and “Chinamen,” and Phyllis Diller. The “Uncles,” most of them, started to look like their own straight men, like important employees of the station, like their own uncles, or agents, like all American tough guys—politicians, used-car dealers, tycoons, bankers, or cons—who know the way of the world. They were, in fact, confidence men, pitching to the public while telling them to beware, keeping sponsors satisfied while keeping the match alive. On television the cigars weren’t props, they were talismans, transmitting personality and unruly thought, meaning whatever couldn’t literally be said.

Well, the way of the world is anything but clear these days, and cigars in pretty faces are not the happiest of sights; a stogie will make big ears seem bigger, round eyes rounder, short men shorter, and nice girls meaner. But it will definitely put a signal across for artists and performers in their “Uncles” spot, peering out precariously at the engulfing lens. These are prophylactic times. To emerge unguarded would be foolish, would feed the fickle machine. Some personal and visible code must be found that will confirm arrival but also express identity and resistance amid the digits. The code had best be “primitive.” So there’s the cigar.

Lisa Liebmann is a writer and critic who lives. in New York. Her column appears regularly in Artforum.