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From the Literate to the Literal: Joni Mitchell as a Comic Muse Print-ready version

by Jim Robinson
July 3, 2015

This paper was presented by the author at:
University of Lincoln 3 July 2015

People don't come to Joni Mitchell for humor. They may seek out her music for solace or for understanding or for a bracing glimpse at the absurdity of life, but Joni Mitchell, at least in her music, isn't good for a laugh. Which is why it may seem strange to claim her as a comic muse, and I'm not talking about making fun of Joni Mitchell or deriding her music as sad-sack or (heaven forbid) adolescent. I love Joni Mitchell, have listened to her religiously since I was 17, would argue that anyone who belittles her as a confessional songwriter is wrong, and at the same time I have been inspired to write lots of comedy simply by listening to her lyrics and wondering what would happen if real people lived out the lives Joni Mitchell paints so beautifully in her songs. In this presentation I want to look at two different pieces I've written - one a short play for a festival that focused on marriage as its topic and the other a concluding monologue for a Christmas musical-comedy - and explain how Joni Mitchell's music led me to write these two comic sketches.

The first piece is called "The Last Time I Saw Richard and Deirdre" and features Richard, 30 years after he was immortalized on the album Blue. In the song "The Last Time I Saw Richard," Joni Mitchell paints a portrait of a cynical ex-romantic, someone who, like an oracle, predicts Joni Mitchell's (or the narrator's) similar, cynical fate. The song is poignant, prescient, elegant in the raw tension that exists between the bruised, romantic music and the bitterness of a woman who knows, deep down, that her gorgeous wings will never unfurl, that this is going to be a long, long phase. Joni Mitchell's song is beautifully literate and bracingly aware. She is analyzing the situation even as she immerses herself in it. In real life, however, this crystallized moment would drag on, start to get stale, become ridiculous. Richard's prophesying, which is sort of pompous in the song, would irritate the hell out of his wife. The tragic characters in the song would become tedious. And so, since comic sketches that get mired in arguments are tiresome, I imagined Richard revitalized, a middle-aged academic whose taste in bars has gentrified and who, like another of Joni Mitchell's men, criticizes and flatters and has probably spent a lot of time imitating the best and memorizing the rest, which are probably middle-aged academics, a group I know a bit too intimately (hello, England!).

Deirdre, on the other hand, may have started out as a figure skater (although I changed her ambitions), but now she's Marlena or Scarlett or Harry's wife, any of the grasping women Joni Mitchell depicts with her acidic brush strokes. As for Eliot, well, he's just part of this arrangement, an audience proxy for everyone who has been conscripted into the petty wars that shell shock love away.

The other sketch I mentioned is called Joni Mitchell is Scrooge and is partly taken from my own experience as a teen-aged Joni Mitchell fan and references "Big Yellow Taxi," "River," and, obliquely, "Face Lift." My mom - who is warm and wonderful and nothing like the character in the sketch--couldn't stand Joni Mitchell's music. She'd practically ululate while imitating the lyrics to "Help Me" and the entire album Blue drove her from the house. Part of Mom's issue with Joni Mitchell was the swooping vocals, but a more subliminal issue, I think, had to do with Joni Mitchell's refusal to land, emotionally, on any one spot. Now, I don't want to make Mom or Joni Mitchell mad. In a grudge match I'd put my money on both of them and slink away in silence. But if Mom had listened to the lyrics (and she did, at least enough to eviscerate them) I am confident she'd be unsympathetic at best. Like Joni Mitchell's own mother in "Face Lift," my mom would no doubt tell Joni Mitchell to "snap out of it." I think Mom would see Joni Mitchell's deep ambivalence as a luxury that isn't worth the cost. And while I'm just guessing here, I think Mom would be dismissive, but also a bit threatened. What good can come of thinking about anything so much? You'll just make yourself and everyone around you unhappy. I thought about this as if to prove my mother's point, and a character who is only loosely based on my mom began to appear. And, as Joni Mitchell sang so concisely, this character doesn't know what she's got 'til it's gone.

So, these are my videos. I hope you enjoy them and see them as a tribute to Joni Mitchell's music, vision, artistry, and humor.

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Added to Library on August 15, 2015. (11604)


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