'Coyote v. Acme': Frazier, monocled

June 09, 1996|By Lisa Schwarzbaum | Lisa Schwarzbaum,special to the sun

"Coyote v. Acme," by Ian Frazier. FSG. 121 pages. Everything in popular culture is amusing if you observe it through a monocle. And no publication has squinted with more arch detachment - at least until Tina Brown took over as editor - than the New Yorker, which, for 50 years, has made an art of magnifying the smallest blips on the zeitgeist screen until they appear to be big, silly blobs and then winking, "Good Lord, what do you make of this?" In turn, this patented ironic spin on the desperately un-ironic has spawned a thousand college humor magazines, 25 years of "Saturday Night Live," five nights a week of David Letterman, and an army of imitators, all of whom think that if you skewer presidential candidates and labor-saving kitchen devices and throw in a few references to dead philosophers, you're ready for a cool gig writing for "The Simpsons."

What they don't get, these Woody Allen wannabes (well, early Woody Allen), is that making fun of espresso machines is easy; comedy is hard.

Before the success of his two lilting, observant, non-ironic nonfiction books, "Family" (1994) and "Great Plains" (1989), Ian Frazier was best known as one of the longer-running, most successful purveyors of this characteristic New Yorker party trick - a skilled parodist who could eyeball a speck of pop cultural effluvia at 50 paces.

In "Coyote v. Acme," 22 of Frazier's humor pieces have been collected from the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly and Army Man (O eclectic author!), where they first appeared. But whether you smile or flip the pages impatiently may depend on whether you can still find amusement in dated references to Nancy and Henry Kissinger, TV's "Northern Exposure." and the infamous 1991 movie flop "Hudson Hawk" - and whether you fully appreciate the deep ontological implications of Chuck Jones' exhilarating, classic Roadrunner cartoons.

In fact, the title story, which refers to the travails of the Roadrunner's nemesis, Wile E. Coyote, and his ongoing dissatisfaction with products manufactured by the Acme Company, is the best of show here: the court transcript (in full, legal deadpan) of a lawsuit against Acme for its dependably shoddy merchandise that leaves the plaintiff blown up, run over, burnt, etc. The piece charms because it takes the absurd with giddy seriousness. The entries that strain, on the other hand, take the everyday to oxygen-thin heights of whimsy.

In "Have You Ever," Frazier has fun with insurance policies for daytime soap opera characters ("Have you ever had hysterical pregnancy/temporary blindness/six-week brain tumor"). In "Boswell's Life of Don Johnson," he does what cries out to be done to that essence-of-Eighties celebrity. But the fizz is forced when he stages a vignette between the painters Manet, Monet and Renoir ("In Plain Air"). And by the time he trots out the old standby of addressing taxpayers in "Line 46a," you may want to set "Coyote v. Acme" aside and go directly to the source, i.e. "Without Feathers" or any other collection of Woody Allen's literary humor - for some words from the master.

Either that, or else stretch out with "Family" and "Great Plains" to see how wonderful Frazier can be when he's not hellbent on being wonderful.

Lisa Schwarzbaum is a writer-at-large and movie critic for Entertainment Weekly. She was previously a feature writer at the New York Daily News and had worked for the Boston Globe and Real Paper. A regular contributor to national magazines, she is writing a book about the spiritual life of Hollywood for Pocket Books.

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