McSweeney’s vs. They Might Be Giants

at the Athenaeum Theatre, October 25

Live music may be more likely to inspire gut-level catharsis than any novel, but you can’t knock the pleasures of tinkering with your brain in private: aren’t some evenings better spent reading than buying $20 rounds for your buddies to spill on your shoes? That’s the sort of question I hoped the McSweeney’s vs. They Might Be Giants variety show would raise when it rolled into town a couple weeks back. The event may have been touted as rock-lit team building, but the title suggested a competition–two mighty braniac armies, representing different media, squaring off to joust with idiosyncratic gusto.

The show itself was less stimulating than all that. Readings by Dave Eggers and other authors published in his independent literary journal, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, alternated with songs from the companion CD that John Linnell and John Flansburgh–they who be Giants–recorded for the sixth issue of the mag. Unfortunately the contest was unfair from the start. The playful ease of TMBG’s goofball pop only showed up the McSweeneyites’ labored cleverness–the harder Eggers and his crew flexed their cerebrums, the more they seemed not just out-brained but downright nasty. When with feigned self-deprecation Eggers described his journal as “strange, esoteric, sometimes coherent, and always poorly copyedited,” he set the tone for his compatriots. That neurotic need to fake awkwardness as a way of proving you really aren’t awkward at all was the main theme of the McSweeney’s dorkface minstrel show.

The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, a band who scavenge other people’s unflattering photos and make fun of them onstage, kicked things off with the first instance of a running gag–equipment failure–that would get less funny each time it recurred. Between every act a fumblesome pause lasted long enough to let the densest viewer in on the joke: sure we’ve got plenty of stage techs, but what if this really were a low-budget production? Then the synchronized rainbow light show took over as TMBG played a couple tunes and the McSweeney’s writers launched into their ugly-nerd shtick.

The first reader, Arthur Bradford, could barely keep from snickering as he shambled onstage with an acoustic guitar. I was willing to write off his tale of scavenging for neat stuff in the woods as merely a self-indulgent childhood memory. Then one character turned out to have a wife. From there the pseudophilosophy and smug sexual panhandling–the narrator goes after his buddy’s wife, natch–piled up to their logical conclusion: Bradford smashed his guitar. The audience placed laughs–polite laughs, laughs that never stepped on the toes of the performer’s next line–in all the right pauses.

Next up was Keith Knight, a slightly amusing but hopelessly harmless cartoonist. He struggled to offend, but his sensibility is about as cutting edge as the Sunday funnies. (Sample gag: “What do you call five black guys on a street corner? A gang. What about four black guys and a white guy? A basketball team.”) Knight’s panels, text and all, were projected on a screen behind him; he read them, slowly, aloud, and the audience never laughed until the punch lines. “They laughed,” a volunteer usher said, “like a TV audience.”

Then came the star of the show. Eggers’s reading was preceded by accolades from an onstage lackey: “Here is a tall, bold slugger set vivid among the lesser writers!” The wunderkind-elect then dragged himself to the podium and droned into the mike as though he really detested the burden of being such a staggering genius. The guy acts like he hates his own work so convincingly you start to agree with him. At one point he stopped to announce something he’d said wasn’t in the text–he’d added it “just for you,” he said, then giggled, apparently astounded by his own generosity. Eggers read from his new novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, a tale of two buddies (supposedly from Wisconsin, though they talk like no one from earth) who lose a friend to a freak accident, stumble on a heap of cash, and decide to travel the world giving it all away to folks who confuse them by not always being grateful. The excerpt he chose flashes back to a junior high dance and is narrated by a boy who, though popular enough to hit the floor with ten girls in a night, still worries obsessively that he’ll pee down his pant leg. Whatta nerd!

Later, unbelievably, Ira Glass was trotted onstage. Glass was the best speaker of the evening but got the fewest laughs–he foolishly ditched the naughty-roommate and grossed-out-girlfriend humor of Knight and Bradford in favor of the Big World Out There. Glass’s perfunctory jabs at our president’s privileged background and malevolence toward the little people were shocking in this context. Shit stirrers like Philly’s Underground Literary Alliance gripe that Eggers rode to fame largely on the proceeds of his parents’ will. (Whether that’s true or not, it’s hard to ignore the ghoulish efficiency with which he strip-mined their tragic deaths for material for his breakthrough book.) Considering how much public discussion of his finances exists, Eggers might as well have invited Pulp to sing “Common People.”

In the first two-thirds of the show, They Might Be Giants got far too little stage time. They sang backup to Eggers’s reading (he rolled his eyes in ironic kinship as, a cappella, they rendered the Spandau Ballet song mentioned in his text) and performed a few songs from the McSweeney’s companion CD. They prefaced one song by saying they were updating it for each performance; Linnell then started the keyboard riff on a wrong note. “Sorry, real mistake,” he said pissily. “I’m continually updating the song by playing it wrong.” Finally–an accident that wasn’t planned. The pop stomp that followed might have been as great as it sounded at the time, or it might have just been a relief from Eggers’s tediously labyrinthine wit.

Once the writers took their bows it was announced that after a ten-minute intermission the band would play a full set. The spectators scrambled for beers. One guy stood in the lobby sucking frantically at a smoke; he said he hadn’t been so excited to hear They Might Be Giants since high school. “Yecch! I mean, here I am with my camera and all, but still, I gotta say, there are too many goddamn artists in this world.” Then he heard the band starting up and sprinted for the theater just in time for their breakthrough 1991 hit, “Birdhouse in Your Soul.” It sounded fresh, complex, precise, witty.

The rock set provided yet more contrast to the cheapness of the McSweeney’s lot–it was dogged, professional, and masterfully copyedited. During a medley of hypermelodic song snippets, Linnell’s goofy little paws scooted round his synth while he piped away in a voice both adenoidal and soulful. Flansburgh worked the crowd, playing guitar, bounding about with the gusto of a 15-year-old but the stage presence of a seasoned performer. TMBG’s singing has sharpened over the years, and their songwriting has grown more consistently hooky–“Hopeless Bleak Despair,” off their 2001 album, Mink Car (Restless), is one of the best odes to joy I’ve heard in a while. Though their barrage of cleverness isn’t always spot-on, you never wonder what they’re doing up there. They’re putting on a show, they’re doing their best, and when they screw up they’re mad at themselves but they live with it. When Linnell hauls out an accordion, he’s not being ironic–he’s about to shred, and you can laugh at him or not.

Confetti cannons piffed, the crowd became flesh and blood again, I did the twist, and rock ‘n’ roll thrashed the book world but good.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.