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More Tom Waits, Less Bob Barker, Please

  The Tenacity of the Cockroach
The Onion A.V. Club (Stephen Thompson, Editor)
Three Rivers Press, 2002
Rating: 4.3

Posted: January 20, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

There's a certain undeniable symmetry to the fact that The Tenacity of the Cockroach, the first book to collect pieces from The Onion's more serious section, The Onion A.V. Club, focuses on interviews with entertainment figures who, for one reason or another, operate outside of the usual star-making machinery of the entertainment industry. Like most of the figures interviewed in the book, The Onion has achieved success on its own terms, staking out a relatively virgin patch of comedy soil to yield solid results. And like many of these entertainers, the book is a lesson in turning negatives into positives. Not only are its Q&A interviews the best part of the otherwise visually off-putting A.V. Club (to be fair, I'm talking here of the online version, having never seen The Onion in its print form), which reviews books, music and film with a jarring seriousness that throws a wet blanket on the site's far more effective humorous pieces; but the subjects of those interviews, and thus the thematic structure of Tenacity, spring from the fact that in its early days, The Onion could gain access to the Negativlands and Vanilla Ices of the world more easily than the Jack Nicholsons.

Whatever its lucky-accident origins, The Tenacity of the Cockroach is an often fascinating look at some of the entertainment world's mavericks, do-it-yourself-ers and cult figures. At its best, as these interviews accumulate, it becomes something of a manifesto on thinking for oneself and daring to think and live outside the conservative parameters of the status quo. On the musical side, for example, Henry Rollins, Fugazi's Ian MacKaye, Aimee Mann, Steve Albini and Too Much Joy's Tim Quirk give voice to individual aesthetics that share at their core a determination to approach their work on their own terms, and even in some cases an inability to consider doing things any other way.

But for every Mark Mothersbaugh (Devo) with a genuinely different and even subversive point of view, Tenacity includes a Joan Jett or a Grant Hart (ex-Husker Du), who may fit the definition of an "outsider" but offer very little of substance in the area of following a singular muse. As engaging as these interviews are, they dilute the strength of those interviews in which artists offer a glimpse into a unique creative process or idiosyncratic worldview. For every chat with Penn & Teller (discussing their disdain for "magic" and the deeper thematic and philosophical implications of their work) or Alan Moore or John Waters or Conan O'Brien, we get a figurative game of softball with Vanilla Ice, or Ronnie Spector, or Elvira. For every mercurial James Ellroy or gaseous Harlan Ellison or overlooked Martha Plimpton, it seems the cost is an insufferable John Kricfalusi (Ren and Stimpy) or a disappointingly prudish and not-very-insightful Ray Bradbury. Why Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen instead of Ice-T? Why Andrew W.K. instead of Neil Gaiman, or Vanilla Ice instead of, say, Robyn Hitchcock? And why Bob Barker at all? In what way, in what world, is the host of The Price is Right really considered an entertainment "outsider?"

But such complaints are minor ones (and to be fair, it's true that the choice of interview subjects is limited, on some level, by the people The Onion could snag some phone-time with). The Tenacity of the Cockroach fulfills its objective fairly well, especially in an evolving series of interviews with Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, the brains and brawn behind the brilliant (and thus, sadly, obscure and short-lived) HBO sketch comedy series Mr. Show. These chats, spread out throughout the book as well as in real life, offer a rare look at the different highs and lows of a particular creative endeavor, from unbridled artistic freedom to nasty corporate struggles to feelings of deflation and exhaustion. It's an ingenious device that perfectly complements and underscores the book's main thematic approach.

A series of sporadic asides by "Weird Al" Yankovich, who offers hit-or-miss color commentary on far too few of the interview subjects, proves less successful. In a too-telling throwaway gag, "Weird Al" says of Fugazi: "I've definitely heard of them." Which might be funnier if he hadn't limited most of his comments to solely those iconoclasts -- most notably Tom Lehrer, Stan Freberg and Dr. Demento -- with whom he shares a sensibility, and whom he's met personally.

But for all its thematic hiccups, from odd or even sad choices (a depressingly desperate David Lee Roth; an all-too-eager to shill for himself Robert Forster; um, Bob Barker?) to willfully obtuse or annoyingly coarse subjects (Bloom County creator Berkeley Breathed and Russ Meyer, respectively), The Tenacity of the Cockroach hits far more often than it misses. And those hits form a crazy-quilt collage of insights into the benefits, pleasures and occasional pitfalls of pursuing one's own unique vision. It ought to be required reading for every independent rock band, quirky character actor or renegade writer hoping to make their mark on the world, for every one of us reluctant to march to the beat of the lock-step lemmings clogging the airwaves with "reality television" or market-driven pap, everyone who prefers Lucinda to Shania or Bob Dylan to Justin Timberlake. If only there were more of us, and more of these interviews to keep us going.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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