Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Art takes practice. This shouldn’t surprise people.

One of the things I love about Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is that it acknowledges that being a successful performer takes work.

Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) is a 1950s Jewish housewife whose husband admits to an affair midway through the first episode. Midge winds up blind drunk in a Village bar that hosts stand-up comics, gets up on stage and gives a viciously funny rant about marriage and men. Susie (Alex Borstein), who takes tickets for the shows, sees Midge as a potential stand-up star. She offers herself as Midge’s manager and convinces Midge to try a comedy career.

The first episode, including Midge’s routine, was certainly funny. But my immediate thought was to wonder how well she’d do sober. After another drunken performance (and one stoned), Midge finally gets up on stage sober … and bombs. She’s convinced she should quit, but Susie tells her to suck it up: everyone bombs, even the best. Midge listens to Susie and begins honing her craft.

I love this. One of the things that drives me nuts about how TV and movies portray artists of various sorts is the assumption it’s all about raw talent. Not practice, not training, not work. And talent doesn’t make mistakes. If you give a bad performance or make a bad movie, it’s not a sign you need to work harder, it’s a sign you should give up. You don’t have the gift. You can’t succeed.

An episode of the 1970s high school drama Lucas Tanner involved a high-school musician trying to convince his father he could turn pro. To resolve things, Tanner (David Hartman back before the Today Show) brings in a professional to judge the kid’s performance. The pro’s verdict: the kid’s not got what it takes, game over.

Or consider an episode of Doogie Howser MD that has Doogie’s friend Vinnie (Max Casella) make a horror film. As you might expect from a teenage movie maker, his work is … not good. Vinnie concludes he should give up his dream of being a director and the script implies that’s a logical conclusion.

Oh, please! Anyone ever see The Terror (On this website, I’m guessing lots of people)? It’s an absolutely dreadful film, showing Jack Nicholson in an early screen role. Let’s just say nobody looking at that thing when it came out was going “Wow, that Nicholson guy’s got star potential all over him!”

Or take my own earliest stories (please!) written in high school. They showed no signs of talent, but I’ve sold two dozen stories since. A few people do write awesome stories their first time out (CL Moore’s “Shambleau,” for instance) but they’re the exception. For most of us it takes training, practice and rehearsal to be good. And we still sometimes suck.

If Vinnie Delpino wants to make movies, he should just bite the bullet, watch his film and figure out what he did wrong. Maybe wait a while, until he’s feeling a little less miserable about it, but sooner or later the self-critique needs to happen. As the blogger Fred Clark points out, you can start out as a bad actor (or writer, or musician) and get better, if you’re willing to learn.




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