The Mike Daisey brouhaha and when you can get away with truthiness onstage

Charles Isherwood, the NY Times Theater Critic, examines the Mike Daisey brouhaha. He brings up an interesting perspective: Personal narratives can get away with loose truths more than outward facing social/political stories.

I also heard from a friend who is a performer of first-person comic monologues himself, who admitted that he has tweaked the truth in search of a shapely punch line now and then, and suspects most performers who traffic in the genre do much the same.

His e-mail brought up a point I didn’t have time to make in my earlier response to the controversy, namely that first-person narratives that are exclusively personal are likely to be judged by far looser standards than those that turn their gaze outward to engage with problems of larger social or political import. Would it bother me to discover that some of the stories told by Claudia Shear in her breakthrough solo piece, “Blown Sideways Through Life,” were tinkered with, or that Lisa Kron did not stick strictly to the details of her father’s and mother’s experience in her shows “2.5 Minute Ride” and “Well”? I have to confess not.

I don’t mean to suggest that they did, of course, but the confessional memoir, at least onstage, has been allowed to play by different rules.

I think it's a good point. Goes back to the audience's expectations. If you portray yourself as a documentarian reporting first-hand on a socially important issue, the crowd isn't expecting you to just make up facts. But when an audience sees Richard Pryor describing his heart attack, David Sedaris recounting working as an elf, or Birbigs detailing his sleepwalking, they probably wouldn't be shocked if they found out embellishing was going on.

This piece in EW says it well:

It is perfectly legitimate in art and theater to exaggerate and fabricate and consolidate facts and events, but only as long as the audience knows that’s what they’re getting. There’s an unspoken contract with the viewer (or listener, or reader) and when that is deliberately misrepresented, there is no way to retroactively change that original perception.

When I tell stories, I always start from the truth. But then I often combine characters, change the order of events, tweak what was actually said, and exaggerate at punchlines. To me, it's the nature of the beast. Then again, I'd never claim these stories to be journalism.

Also, there's a tone thing here. When Daisey gives his monologue, he sounds so goddamn self-important, heavyhanded, and moralistic — like a teacher tsk tsking his pupils. If you put yourself on a high horse like that, ya better not be making it all up. It's like a political comic who invents a "this guy said this offensive thing" premise and then rails against it...lame, lame, lame. Once you start pointing fingers, you raise the bar on how truthful you have to be.

Related: How honest do you feel a comedian's act should be?

1 comment:

Emerson said...

I think the big issue was that Ira Glass and TAL did ask Daisey for clarifications and he straight-up lied to them.

Daisey and James Frey warped the truth to make themselves look tougher. I tend to have more sympathy for artists who exaggerate to make themselves look more ridiculous.

My heart would be shattered if Richard Pryor did not in fact own a talking crack pipe.

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