The climax of Ratatouille, Brad Bird’s perfect Trojan Horse about the artist’s struggle, centers on a piece of criticism written by the film’s villain, Anton Ego, after his hard heart is melted by a deceptively simple dish prepared for him by a rat. (It really is an insane movie the longer you think about it.) “We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read,” he says. “But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.” It’s a simple but important tether between two practices that have long been regarded as being at odds.
Ratatouille was recently unpacked in much greater detail by the podcast Blank Check with Griffin & David, whose hosts—film critic David Sims of The Atlantic and actor/comedian Griffin Newman of The Tick—review the filmographies of directors with early successes that allowed them untethered creative freedom for the rest of their careers. Think Spielberg, Shyamalan, the Wachowskis, etc. Alongside their producer, Ben Hosley, they’re currently tackling the career of Brad Bird before wrapping it up with Incredibles 2.
Their insistence that this is a “no bits, pro Smits” podcast is only half true. The hosts may love Jimmy Smits, but there are a dizzying amount of bits on the show—often to the chagrin of one or more hosts—from the constantly evolving list of nicknames Griffin uses to introduce Producer Ben, to hypotheses on how Paul Verhoeven might trick you into giving him money for a movie about Nazis, to some, let’s just say, involved ad copy with characters that include Al Pacino’s character from Insomnia who, it’s been established, sleeps on the floor of the studio during every episode whether you hear him or not.
But Blank Check is equally and genuinely rigorous in trying to establish a realistic narrative for a director’s career, identifying where they might go astray and how they get back on track, thinking of quick fixes for glaring problems, and bringing their impressive knowledge of the context of a film’s creation to the table. Each episode leaves me wondering which category iTunes should list it under.
There has always been an extremely uneasy alliance between the creation of art and the criticism of it, particularly in comedy, where bitterness is more frequently said to be at play. A lot of people also feel that in criticizing a piece of comedy, you’re missing the point: it’s a joke. This, I think, undercuts a comedian’s assertion that they would actually like their work to be taken seriously. When one does the other’s job successfully—say, when Roger Ebert wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls—it was often referenced as a way for him to better understand how he wrote criticism, as opposed to a separate creative expression. This distinction, the idea that you should pick a lane when it comes to these two things, always seemed a little defensive to me—a way to write off negative criticism as illegitimate, while leaving room to embrace positive criticism as affirmational.
Most acceptable crossovers are generally one-way streets. It’s a pretty common practice to have a novelist review a novel, and has been for decades. I always liked opening up an old review of a George Saunders book and realizing that Jay McInerney was the critic. Yeah, sometimes people are assholes about it in both directions (cough Nabokov endcough). But there are always assholes. There are people who derive pleasure from writing mean-spirited criticism, and there are people who derive pleasure from making mean-spirited art. Ebert can make Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and then turn around and write an unnecessarily cruel review of Wet Hot American Summer in the style of “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.” The way Ego wields his power as a critic is misguided, but he’s right about one thing from the start: “I don’t like food, I love it.” You don’t write about a work of art at all if you don’t love the form. Sometimes love turns to bitterness, that’s true. But a lot of the time it doesn’t, and a lot of the time it turns back into love.
What I love about Blank Check is how this division becomes increasingly muddy as time goes on. When the show began as a review of the “Phantom Menace Trilogy,” the hosts were a bit stricter about announcing their jobs outside the podcast, and yet even as their comedic roles have become clearer—often reminding me of the Larry Sanders trio in terms of how they bounce off each other and get under the others’ skins—it still feels more and more like an unnecessary distinction to say David is the “critic” on the show and Griffin is the “comedian” on the show. The mix of guests they bring on reinforces this, with critics like Vulture’s Emily Yoshida, filmmakers like Alex Ross Perry and comedians like Chris Gethard popping up in equal measure.
I don’t know how Griffin and David would identify their roles within the context of the show. They seem to have the kind of respect for the effort they know the other person puts into their job where they wouldn’t want to hop onto that label so easily. This is just my read on it, and there may be an element of projection to that. I just know that I revisit their post-mortem on Suicide Squad both to consume it as a work of comedy and as a work of criticism—it’s twice as powerful for its ability to light up both kinds of buttons in my brain at the same time.
Elephant on the website: sometimes I’ve written comedy here. Sometimes I write criticism here, giving one man’s opinion on the merits of a comedy special or show and what the comedian might be trying to do. Most of the time I get to write pieces like this, where I just get to talk about something I find interesting or exciting. So, knowing that, maybe this piece comes off just as defensively as the bias I mentioned earlier. I hope not. Sometimes drawing a line between the two jobs is pretty easy, but there are times when it’s more difficult. I try to think of that as something that people who attempt to do both just have to grapple with on their own, rather than a sign that the two are mutually incompatible. Those questions always leave me feeling like I’ve made a little progress on both.
A.O. Scott—who, Sims notes in a recent episode of Blank Check, helped identify Brad Bird as a serious American filmmaker in critical circles with his review of Ratatouille for the New York Times—has said that “a critic is a person whose interest can help to activate the interest of others.” I don’t know if the job of a comedian is really that different, essentially. In practice, Ego is right, and there will always be more to risk in creating art than in dissecting it later. But there may be more perspective in sitting down to analyze a work in context than one can have while in the trenches trying to make it. In either case, Scott also notes, both the critic and the artist still have to be in touch with their inner amateurs, struggling to express what about a given art form is important to them. I listen to Blank Check as an example of how one instinct can nourish the other until you can’t tell the difference.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and comedian. You’d be doing him a real solid by following him on Twitter @grahamtechler or on Instagram @obvious_new_yorker. A real solid.