Italian American food, or American Italian? Image: Getty
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Will Self on how to rescue our lives from marketers and margherita pizzas

To examine the photographs in Little Frankie’s with attention would be to rescue all these lived lives from the great shingly erosions of late capitalism. But let’s just eat junk food at low prices instead.

A mannish-looking woman in a white blouse buttoned to the collar and a straight black skirt kneels in the foreground of an undistinguished tract house, clutching a three-year-old girl about the waist so that her rigid crinoline skirt tips up on one side. They both look pained and the shot isn’t particularly well composed – a telegraph pole rises up out of the woman’s head.

Some years ago Nicholson Baker wrote a fine essay for the New Yorker on the books used as props in the Ralph Lauren mail order catalogue. Baker’s point – in analysing the disjunction between these bought-by-theyard volumes and the off-the-peg shmatte draped around them – was that the book had become a symbol of a form of leisured cultivation aspired to by the sort of people content to be accessories to the brand; in short, these were books that did even less than furnish a room – they furnished the idea of a room that one might have, were one to stop spending all one’s money on tacky designer clothing.

The same could be said of the photographs framed and stuck up on the walls of the Little Frankie’s that we ate in the other evening. These are emphatically not meant to be looked at, let alone analysed – these are images that should be merely glanced at, and so subliminally assimilated to the desired commercial gestalt.

In a way, to examine the photographs in Little Frankie’s with attention – with sympathy and reverence, even – would be to rescue all these lived lives from the great shingly erosions of late capitalism; as someone might pick up small pieces of smoothed bottle glass from the beach, take them home, put them in jars filled with water and, placing these on the windowsill, observe how the sunlight transforms such undistinguished lumps into glowing jewels. But, hell, everyone’s life is too short, eh? So let’s just eat junk food at low prices instead.

Little Frankie’s is the cadet arm of the mighty Frankie & Benny’s chain, which has over 200 outlets in the UK. The only thing that distinguishes them is their piccolo size, otherwise they offer up the same shtick: a cod version of the cultural miscegenation that on their website is styled variously “New York Italian” or “Italian American”, but which at the branch where we found ourselves was detailed – as one of my sharp-eyed sons pointed out – “American Italian”.

I’d like to think that this was because someone high up in The Restaurant Group (the plc that owns the chain, along with Garfunkel’s and Chiquito) had come to the conclusion either that: a) such now is the degree of assimilation that it should be reflected in their terminology, or b) they need to dissociate themselves from all the usual Italian- American clichés – DiMaggio, Sinatra, The Sopranos, blah, blah, yech.

But the reality is almost certainly that a middle-ranking marketer had focus-grouped the reversed couplet and found out it played better with punters, such – as I believe I’ve already pointed out – is life. In Little Frankie’s, the bubblegum Fifties pop played nonstop and I wondered what our waitress – who admitted to me she came from Pisa – made of it all. The marketing department long ago (1995, when the first branch opened in Leicester) concocted a backstory: the eponymous Frankie, aged ten, moved from Sicily to Little Italy in New York in 1924 and a year later his parents opened a restaurant . . . blah, blah, yech. I can’t believe anyone devotes any more headspace to this than they do to the flash-bulbed revenants they see on their way down to the chequerboard-tiled toilets. There may be dark wood floors and bentwood chairs and “granite-effect” tabletops at Little Frankie’s, but so far as I could see, the only evidence of a sense the clientele were involved with was taste.

The same sharp-eyed boy said his margherita pizza “thinks it’s better than it is”; a strange remark that I think was occasioned by it being covered with slices of actual tomato rather than just the purée he favours. The other son said that his burger was shit and his onion rings were shit, and the extra hot dog we ordered was also shit, but that he’d eaten them all because he was so hungry. For myself, I didn’t mind my tough little steak – and when I complained about the cold chips, the waitress obligingly brought me a dish of chips so hot that, had we been in an Italian-American restaurant, I’d have suspected the chef of trying to whack me. Bravissimo!

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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Marc Maron: a conversation with the anxiety co-pilot

Now that the interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads and featured guests from Iggy Pop and Barack Obama, what does its host Marc Maron want to say?

Richard Pryor decided to talk about race. Sam Kinison used his fame and his family history to talk about God. Bill Hicks asked why nothing produced in America seemed quite worthy of the people who consumed it. Now that the intimate, interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads on iTunes and has featured guests from Mel Brooks to Iggy Pop and, this summer, Barack Obama, what does its host, the comedian Marc Maron – adopter of stray cats, recovered addict and vinyl hoarder – feel he has to say?

“I think the type of conversations that I have on the show are something that is missing in our lives,” Maron told me one recent Friday, down the line from the garage in the garden of his home in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where WTF has been recorded twice a week since 2009. “We’ve lost the knowledge that it’s not that hard to have an hour-long conversation with someone. You’re built to carry whatever problems they have. I think it’s good for the heart.”

If the Maron family crest bore a motto, it might be that timeless adage: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Born in 1963, Maron was raised by a real-estate broker mother and an orthopaedic surgeon father, first in New Jersey, then in Alaska, then in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “My father is and was both an overactive hypochondriac and a physician,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Attempting Normal, “which is a bad combination.” After studying English at Boston University, he began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 24.

“I don’t think of myself as a joke guy,” he told me. “Most of what I do is creating a dialogue around my own problems. Some people call it ‘navel-gazing’ but I’d prefer to call it ‘compulsive self-awareness’.”

And there have been many problems. Maron, now 51, began his 2013 comedy special Thinky Pain by telling the audience in the basement of the Village Gate nightclub in New York that he didn’t “have a lot of respect for people that don’t have the courage to lose complete control of their life for a few years”.

When Maron was 35, unhappily married, hoovering up booze, weed and cocaine most evenings, he met a beautiful aspiring comedian 12 years his junior, who told him he looked dreadful and offered to help him get sober. And she did, more or less. He divorced his first wife and pinned his hopes on his second. By 2009, he was living on the US west coast, divorced for a second time, barely able to work and newly dismissed from the morning talk show he’d co-hosted on the left-leaning Air America radio network.

“It was a period where I needed to talk a lot,” he said, “but also to sort of re-engage with something I think I had practised as a child: being part of somebody else.” With the former Air America producer Brendan McDonald, Maron began recording conversations with comedian friends, seeking advice, delving into their lives. He asked stock questions, such as “What did your old man do?” and “Who were your guys?”, as if they might provide some clue to where he had gone wrong. Then people started to listen.

“I started getting emails saying somehow or other the dialogue with my guests, or my monologues, were making people feel better or getting them through dark times,” he said. “I never anticipated people would get that type of help from the show.”

In a recent episode with Ian McKellen, Maron explained to the British actor that his listeners were “sensitive, slightly aggravated, usually intelligent people”, not so much “a demographic, more of a disposition”. By 2010, WTF had attracted a cult following. Robin Williams came to the garage and talked about his depression. Maron’s fellow stand-up Todd Glass came out as gay on the show after a string of suicides among young LGBT people. Friends whom Maron had known throughout his career, including David Cross, Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk, joined him to reminisce. His 2010 interview with Louis CK, arguably the best-known US comedian of recent years, was voted the greatest podcast episode ever by the online magazine Slate.

“Comedians in their infancy are generally selfish, irresponsible, emotionally retarded, morally dubious, substance-addicted animals who live out of boxes and milk crates,” Maron wrote in his memoir. Yet, as they mature, they can become “some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open-minded . . . creative people in the world”.

“The best comics are people that have taken the chance to live a life independent of mainstream culture and expectations,” he told me. “They’re constantly looking for an angle on the information coming in. They write things down. It’s the life of a thinker, or a philosopher, or poet – however you want to put it.”

I suggested that poetry was an ideal analogy for comedy, not only because poets reframe reality in a truthful way but also because they can be savage and resentful, particularly to fellow poets. It’s a fact Maron openly concedes about himself.

“I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called F*** You, Marc Maron,” he said at the 2011 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. The episode of WTF with Louis CK, a friend since the late 1980s, is remarkable not only for the moment when CK becomes audibly emotional as he discusses the birth of his first child, but for the way in which he unflinchingly airs his grievances with Maron, who confesses to envying CK’s success so much that they lost contact for a time. “You were being a shitty friend by being jealous,” CK says. “I could’ve used you . . . I got divorced. I got a show cancelled. I could’ve used a friend.”

So, in 2015, with a TV series about his life on the IFC cable network concluding its third series, the widely discussed interview in which Obama opened up about parenting, gun control and racism in the US and a series of high-profile appearances in Dublin, London and Sydney booked to showcase new material, surely the glass at last looks half full? “Maybe,” he said. “There are some people whose ego is able to accept the love and adoration of an audience. I’ve always been one to question that.”

Yet the improvements to his life – recognition, financial security, reconciliation with old friends – are undeniable. “Most creative people move through a tremendous amount of insecurity, which can turn to hostility. But the podcast became socially relevant and some of the insecurities dissipated. I could accept myself, for the most part, and realise that all the hard work I’d done for half my life had manifested into something that connects with people.”

Maron’s biggest anxiety today, he explained at the end of our talk, before opening the garage door to face the day, is that he’s “swamped with work all the f***ing time”.

“I beat myself up feeling like I should be out in the world, seeing a play or some art or something. Often, when I do monologues, I think, ‘I’ve got nothing to talk about.’ But then I go on and talk about nothing.”

The truth is that Marc Maron isn’t Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks – but that’s OK. We live in a different time. Perhaps what listeners need most is not more opinions, but a little help getting out of their own way: a co-pilot to navigate the anxieties of living day to day. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “The little things.”

Marc Maron performs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 3 and 4 September

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses