In the players’ handbooks that once circulated among commedia dell’arte troupes, the wandering actors of early modern Italy used to set down inventories of the lazzi, or comic turns, that were their stock in trade. Among these routines, out of which entire performances could be constructed, was the lazzo del bastonado, or what we might call, in American showbiz tradition, the “shtick of the stick.” The theatrical scholar Mel Gordon, who has compiled and translated the old commedia handbooks, cites a concise description of this lazzo: When your audience becomes restive, you may win back their attention by whacking another actor with a good strong length of wood.
Anyone who has put on a puppet show for children will recognize the soundness of this advice. Indeed, historical researchers into the fortunes of Punch and Judy have confirmed that the use of the bastonado is especially funny when it causes a baby to fly wailing out of its mother’s arms. This observation may lead us on to consider the various infantile lazzi, which include suffocation, throttling and the beating of a child’s brains against the proscenium arch, all of which have attained a just venerability.
The mind, convulsed, grasps for such precedents when contemplating the new political comedy Team America: World Police, an animation featuring a roster of marionettes, plus two house cats and a cockroach. Prominent among this cast are puppets representing the likes of Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Janeane Garofalo and Michael Moore–people who support The Nation and its causes, and who for this good work are incinerated, decapitated, eviscerated and dynamited in effigy, with effects that are as bloody as the filmmakers, in their glee, can muster. Do I justify my helpless laughter–do I deepen my understanding–by tracing these comedic enormities to a reputable past? Or am I forgetting that tradition also endorses the practice of female circumcision, the myth of Jewish blood lust and the alcoholic yowling, at sports events, of nationalist ditties? In short, am I talking about artistic heritage or the lazzo del fascismo?
On the side of art, I note that Team America is principally the work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who could be called the “creators” of the beloved television series South Park, if God had only made the world flat. Parker and Stone’s fundamental shtick in South Park is to express lavishly rude subject matter through abjectly simple drawings and animation. This marriage of the overstated and the underachieved is also their technique in Team America. The figures are now three-dimensional, by virtue of being marionettes; the settings are clever, colorful dioramas, rather than crude backgrounds; and the budget, at a reported $30 million, is breathtaking by the standards of South Park, or for that matter a family of four in Gary, Indiana. Nevertheless, the basic joke of Team America develops from the film’s bluntness. Although the title characters are said to be an elite force of military heroes, outfitted with the most elaborate spyware and armaments, they are, most nakedly, a set of plastic figurines, which bobble at the end of visible strings and move their faces like theme park Abe Lincolns. Had Parker and Stone credited Leon Trotsky as their co-writer, they could not have come up with a more blatant visualization of the concept “imperialist puppets.”