Vonnegutted Case File #173: Slapstick (Of Another Kind)

Vonnegutted Case File #173: Slapstick (Of Another Kind)

It’s easy to get discouraged about all the essential books, movies, TV shows, albums, plays, etc. you never got around to experiencing, especially in a geeky online realm that ascribes an importance to pop-cultural hyper-literacy disproportionate to its actual value. Yes, it’s great to know a lot about obscure entertainment, but it’s no substitute for being an honorable, decent human being. For intellectual gladiators of the comment boards, it isn’t enough to have merely seen the films of Abbas Kiarostami. In order to truly excel, one must also have informed, passionate opinions about Kiarostami, and an eagerness to anonymously accuse others of being fucktards if they disagree with those opinions. 

I like to see pop-culture blind spots in a more optimistic light. Instead of bemoaning, for example, the fact that I’ve only read three Kurt Vonnegut novels (Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast Of Champions, and now Slapstick), I take joy in knowing there is a vast world of Vonnegut-y goodness out there just waiting to be explored. I’m as giddy about the process of delving deep into Vonnegut’s oeuvre as a 12-year-old kid whose irresponsible dad got him a subscription to Penthouse for Christmas. The Sirens Of Titan; Mother Night; Cat’s Cradle; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and Vonnegut’s late-period output glitter before me, glistening with potential.

So I feel a little guilty conceding that I read Kurt Vonnegut’s 1976 novel Slapstick solely as preparation for writing this Case File about a notorious adaptation starring Jerry Lewis, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Jim Backus, Sam Fuller, and the voice of Orson Welles (as The Beaver). I was treating myself to great beauty and truth to prepare for a film of astonishing ugliness, bad taste, miscalculation, and stupidity. 

In his prologue, Vonnegut describes Slapstick as “the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography.” That’s an odd statement to make about a book about a pair of deformed twins who together form a single staggering intellect, yet pretend to be mentally challenged as a culturally mandated charade. Vonnegut lived a colorful, eventful life, but it wasn’t that colorful. Instead, Slapstick feels like an emotional memoir. It’s less about Vonnegut’s life than, as he writes, “what life feels like to me.” He sometimes comes across as a playful alien intelligence who is able to discern truths—some profound, some ridiculous—about our culture and world that are invisible to us natives. Besides, what smart, sensitive person hasn’t felt like an alien at times? Especially when they’re teenagers?

In the prologue, Vonnegut writes in a manner that only seems casual and stream-of-consciousness, exploring his love of comedy teams like Laurel & Hardy and his tender, complex relationship with his family. Most notably, he discusses an uncle who had just died, his own brother, and his beloved sister, who died of cancer in 1958, a death that casts a long shadow over the novel. Initially, the references feel random, even irrelevant. They aren’t. The title and dedication to Laurel & Hardy embody the novel’s obsession with the possibilities and limitations of partnership in all its forms—creative, intellectual, familial, and romantic. Like the novel’s protagonists, Laurel and Hardy were more than the sum of their individual parts.

The novel’s main characters represent an extreme version of famed partnerships like Lennon/McCartney, Pete Rock/C.L. Smooth, and Justin Guarini/Kelly Clarkson. It isn’t just that they accomplish more together. Together, they’re capable of almost anything; separately, they’re borderline-useless. Vonnegut derives a lot of poignancy from the vulnerability and loneliness that comes with acknowledging that your success and happiness are almost completely dependent on another person. Slapstick is a somber meditation on the insatiable hunger for connection and the ferocious quest to find another person who will complete us. But it’s also a sad, knowing treatise on intelligence.

When they touch or are in close proximity, twins Wilbur and Eliza collectively constitute a genius the likes of which our sick, sad, corrupt world has seldom known. But they learn early on that their society values beauty over intelligence. Though it was written in the early 1970s, Slapstick feels eerily prescient. It anticipates a world where our nation’s greatest competition comes not from our old Cold War adversaries the Russians, but from the ruthlessly practical Chinese, and where beauty is prized to such a degree that a muscular man can now make $5 million a year for pointing to his abdominal muscles and calling women trashbags, while the newspaper business dies an unmourned death. 

Wilbur and Eliza’s genius becomes a curse, a freakish abnormality. So they decide to hide their brilliance and pretend to be drooling, scatology-obsessed, overgrown babies who never evolve beyond the mental age of 3 or so. The twins imagine, with justification, that the world doesn’t want them to be intelligent, so they play the role of dependent, deformed, monstrously huge toddlers so their coterie of servants, maids, and doctors can continue to lead comfortable existences caring for what they imagine to be helpless fools. 

I have a friend, one of the most brilliant, beautiful people I know, who recently confided to me that she sometimes thinks about just how much of her intellect she’d be willing to give up to be a size 2. It saddened me that she would be willing, if only as an intellectual exercise, to give up so much of what makes her special for the sake of conforming to our culture’s rigid body standards, and looking like everyone else. Slapstick is informed by the terrible knowledge that a lot of people feel the same way, that we live in a world whose preoccupation with appearance long ago passed pathological en route to criminal and psychotic. 

Reduced to its broad outlines, Slapstick sounds oppressively wacky, but the novel isn’t a broad comedy with an underlying seriousness so much as a genuine tragedy. It’s overwhelmingly, almost unbearably melancholy and resigned. It’s ultimately an incestuous love story between people who share a love and a bond so vast, so powerful and all-consuming, that they’re able to block out the rest of the world whenever they’re together.

Slapstick takes the form of an autobiography written in the dreary remains of a dying world by Wilbur, now an old man and also, incidentally, president of the United States, a pointless profession in a post-apocalyptic hellhole. Slapstick (Of Another Kind) disregards this element and so much more of Vonnegut’s novel that it’s tempting to imagine that writer-director Steven Paul (who went on to produce Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2 and Bratz: The Movie) and his dupes simply ruined another, lesser novel. What could have driven Paul, a 22-year-old-old talent manager with one film to his name, to undertake such a Herculean endeavor? What made him think he could translate the poetry and philosophy of Vonnegut’s book into cinematic terms? It’s hard to say. Paul may have been motivated by hero worship, but urinating in Vonnegut’s mouth and dancing a merry jig on his mother’s grave would have been more respectful ways to honor the author’s legacy.

Slapstick takes place largely within its narrator’s melancholy mind and the womb-like emotional space he occupies with his sister/lover/soulmate. But Slapstick (Of Another Kind) races so doggedly and nonsensically from one go-nowhere subplot to another that the bond between the genius twins is relegated to the background. The miscalculation begins with the film turning the twins into the alien progeny of a mysterious entity voiced by Orson Welles. Vonnegut used fantastical scenarios to elucidate the human condition, so it feels heretical to transform poignantly human characters into emissaries from another world. 

Jerry Lewis and Madeline Kahn play dual roles as a married couple at the pinnacle of the socioeconomic ladder, and their seemingly mentally challenged progeny, who, for no discernible reason, look vaguely like chipmunks. The humor in Vonnegut’s novel is sly, sad, and understated. Paul recalibrates the comedy to fit the spastic, depressing stylings of late-period Jerry Lewis. The twins’ birth, for example, has been re-imagined as slapstick wackiness that climaxes in Lewis falling backward out of a window and dropping artlessly into a vat of shit-colored paint. This seems to set the bar prohibitively low for tone-deaf baggy-pants excess. Yet later in the film, Lewis, as one of the twins, engages in manic shenanigans conveyed via Benny Hill-style comic fast-forward before literally staring straight at the camera and shaking it vigorously. 

Sadly, it isn’t the only sequence to “benefit” from speeding up the film stock to ostensibly comic levels. Slapstick was finished in 1982, then re-scored (Michael Legrand’s score was discarded) and re-edited, ostensibly to contain more “Yakety Sax”-ready nuttiness. It was released in 1984 to the kind of reception that generally accompanies news of the deaths of small children.

Paul seems to have written the script around whatever campy guest stars he could secure for a few days. (Once a talent manager, always a talent manager.) So Merv Griffin pops up as himself to interview a pocket-sized, miniaturized Pat Morita (as the Chinese ambassador). Jim Backus sits around looking bored and confused as the U.S. president. Marty Feldman does a pointless Peter Lorre impression as a bug-eyed servant. And Sam Fuller chomps on a cigar and devours scenery as a gung-ho military man. 

Vonnegut’s novel contains an awful lot of information to disseminate. Slapstick (Of Another Kind) goes about the dirty business of exposition the only way it knows how: artlessly. In their twin incarnations, Lewis and Kahn constantly tell each other what they already know, especially since they already share a single intellect. Even more egregiously, Paul explains away the central metaphor of the novel by having a 2-inch-tall Morita tell the twins’ parents, “We found out in the People’s Republic Of China that if you put two lonely, ugly, not-good-for-nothing twins together for a long enough time, nighttime, daytime, you let them communicate, they come out with a genius that put Albert Einstein to shame.” This, friends, is one place where Paul did not, in fact, improve on Vonnegut. 

Vonnegut’s Slapstick is a science-fiction fantasia about loneliness. First, it’s about the loneliness of only being able to share your world with one person. Then it’s about the loneliness of losing that one person. In the novel, the narrator becomes obsessed with the concept of family after his twin dies in an avalanche on Mars. Then he gets elected president on a platform that promises to provide artificial “families” for everyone by giving every citizen a new middle name and number they’ll share with tens of thousands of instant new family members. The president, for example, has the name Daffodil-11, and is “related” to everyone who shares it.

In this, the novel feels eerily prescient. Artificial families surround us today, whether they’re our castmates on Jersey Shore, people who share our affection for Faygo and clown-themed horrorcore duos, or people who comment on Internet message boards and enjoy discoursing about unsuccessful movies. I don’t think it’s coincidental that Daffodil-11 sounds like an Internet handle. The Internet has arguably done more to alleviate loneliness—which Vonnegut posits convincingly as humanity’s basic, incurable problem—than anything else. Only in our world, we choose our artificial families based on the websites we visit and the bands and movies we love, instead of letting the government intervene. 

In Vonnegut’s genial tragedy, the narrator experiences two apocalypses. First, there’s the personal apocalypse of losing his connection to the only person in the world who matters to him, his better half. Then the world itself begins to die, echoing his haunted psyche. In Slapstick (Of Another Kind), however, the separation between these siblings screams “third-act conflict!” Paul threw out 70 percent of Vonnegut’s novel, destroyed its bittersweet tone, and gutted the author’s tricky voice out of the film for the sake of getting his near-geriatric star to flail his way through agonizing setpieces involving electroshock therapy and wearing a Groucho Marx getup while stumbling through army drills. Paul reduced a masterful exploration of the human condition into a fever-dream version of Hardly Working.

Giddy with the hubris of youth, Paul attempts a form of reverse alchemy that transforms Vonnegut’s gold into the tin of a bad E.T. knockoff—think a less product-placement-intensive Mac And Me. Instead of being a weary lament on loneliness, intelligence, and family, Slapstick (Of Another Kind) becomes a broad comedy about a pair of ostensibly loveable, childlike aliens reconnecting with their alien brethren. The film lurches incoherently into the realm of crowd-pleasing science-fiction stupidity at the end, when Lewis and Kahn’s alien parents return to earth in a blinding pool of white light, and Orson Welles delivers maudlin treacle about how mankind must now “listen with their hearts.” It isn’t just a terrible, schmaltzy, cop-out ending: It’s the fucking Poochie ending, with the fun-loving aliens returning to their home planet. I hope those pajama-clad fuckers die en route, to the extreme!

Slapstick (Of Another Kind) ends with a syrupy attempt to infuse unearned sentimentality into a clattering parade of grotesques that couldn’t feel further removed from Vonnegut’s principled, unsentimental humanism. To Vonnegut, the universe expresses its oft-hidden benevolent streak in the subtle satisfaction of a long talk with an old friend, not in Orson Welles spouting Hallmark sentiments. Vonnegut’s novel is a tragedy. Paul’s unforgivably awful quasi-adaptation is just tragic. It’s a crass violation of everything Vonnegut stood for, and continues to stand for today. 

Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure 

The same can be said of 1999’s Breakfast Of Champions, just one of 50 Case Files compiled in My Year Of Flops: One Man’s Journey Deep Into The Heart Of Cinematic Failure, the book version of this here column. At the risk of being immodest, I feel it’s quite good. Think of it as sort of an alternate cinematic history written about the losers, rather than the winners. 

The book will have as much to offer newcomers as it has to offer diehards who’ve read every Case File. There are 15 new Case Files on everything from The Cable Guy to The Last Action Hero to Skidoo, as well as illustrations, interviews with the talent involved in the films, an introduction, an outro, and a minute-by-minute recount of the three-hour-long director’s cut of Waterworld.

My Year Of Flops: One Man’s Journey Deep Into The Heart Of Cinematic Failure would not have been possible without all your love and support. You made this book happen. I wanted to write a book worthy of your loyalty and dedication. I feel like I succeeded. I had an option to put out the book in paperback or hardcover. Hardcover is more prestigious, and almost invariably leads to paperback, but I consider myself a reader’s advocate, and I wanted the book to be cheap enough for college students and struggling young professionals. 

With perverse dedication, I took what could have been a quickie cash-in and transformed it into an obsessive, time-and-work-intensive labor of love that I can say, with complete confidence, is worth your $10 to $15, especially if you’re the kind of person who reads down to the end of a 2,800-word essay about an obscure Kurt Vonnegut adaptation starring Jerry Lewis. I look forward to meeting many of you during my tour stops for My Year Of Flops so I can thank you personally for making what was only a distant dream three and a half years ago a glorious reality you can keep in the bathroom and read while on the shitter. 

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

More My Year Of Flops