Saturday November 27, 2021
Birbiglia, Barth, and the Problem with Protagonists
On the Friday-morning drive back from spending Thanksgiving in Port Townsend, Wash., I listened to the episode of Mike Birbiglia's “Working It Out” podcast with Bill Hader. Or I relistened to it, since I'd listened to it when it first dropped last summer. Back then, I was doing my usual walk—from the First Hill neighborhood where I live, along Columbia Avenue, which is one of those “walkable” pandemic streets, to Madrona Park along Lake Washington. It's a not-bad hike, about two and a half miles one way, with a lot of public stairs at the end. You have to do the “Rocky” thing on the way back.
Anyway, that first time I remember laughing my ass off, and thinking, “I have to post about some of this when I get back.” But then life.
Yesterday's drive back was quite lovely: foggy, cool, and misty-rainy in the early morning. I took this shot when I was on the ferry to Seattle, which gives an idea of it:
Looks gray, but it was beautiful.
And I had great company. I still laughed my ass off, and learned, or relearned, life lessons, or art lessons, such as Bill Hader's via the “South Park” boys: The story isn't “This, and then this, and then this.” It's “This, so therefore this, so therefore this.” Here's the bit I wanted to post about last summer and never got around to. Mike Birbligia tosses out some stuff that isn't even going into his standup; he's thinking essay. It's one after the other, and they're all takeoffs on the idea that life is like a movie, although sometimes it's more specific. Example: “Life is like a Pixar movie: It's so good but then you think, 'What age is this for?'”
But my favorite, and Bill's, too, judging from his laughter, was the first:
Sometimes life is like a movie: Your friend dies, and it's crushing, but some part of you thinks, “Well, I guess he wasn't the protagonist.”
That's brilliant and cold and hilarious, and it suggests the screwed-up way we view our lives and our stories. John Barth wrote a bit about this, too, in his 1958 novel, “The End of the Road,” when one character lectures another about how we're all the protagonist in our own lives, and how our stories exacerbate this by narrowing the focus to a single point of view. “'Hamlet',” the character says, “could be told from Polonius' point of view and called 'The Tragedy of Polonius, Lord Chamberlein of Denmark.' He didn't think he was a minor character in anything, I daresay.” One wonders if this is where Tom Stoppard got the idea for “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” which plays off of all of that. As does Birbiglia in his podcast.
Anyway, just wanted to pass along.