Earlier today, I finally read a Village Voice article on comedians in New York I’d been holding on to since November, finally allowing me to put the issue in the recycling bin (achievement unlocked!). The lede runs through a list of an earlier generation of comedians, and may stand as one of the last mentions of Bill Cosby without any mention of rape. What an innocent time November 2014 was.
It reminds me of a conversation I had with Dan Bern years ago, when I was interviewing him at around the time his first album came out. One of the tracks was a song called "Marilyn," about Marilyn Monroe; I asked him why he sometimes used celebrities in his songs. He said something to the effect that pop songs can only have so many words, and sometimes you can pop a known figure in and make an instant connection with the listener rather than spending those words trying to build a new character. If there’s one out there that already does the job, why not take advantage of that?
Of course, people aren’t frozen in time. The scandal-plagued Tiger Woods of 2009 isn’t the same figure Bern sang about in 1998 (although Bern’s opening line, “I got big balls,” certainly hasn’t been harmed by time’s revelation). The Britney Spears Bern mentions in 2001’s “Alaska Highway” is the energetic teen singer of “Oops I Did it Again,” rather than the tabloid trainwreck she was for a while: Jason Alexander and Kevin Federline loomed in the future.
Shorthand or not, using other people’s lives in your art is a tricky thing. They tend to go on living them.