“Judge not, and ye shall not be judged.
Condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned
Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven”
– Luke 6:37, King James Version
Maureen Langan is obsessed with Kim Kardashian-West. Given that the entire world seems to be obsessed with her, Langan’s fixation shouldn’t be that surprising. Langan has often worked as an entertainment reporter, so she’s probably had to mention the world’s most famous “celebutante” numerous times as part of her job. As a stand-up comedian, Langan would almost be remiss not to give an impression or commentary on someone whose name is often mentioned in public. None of that is out of the ordinary.
What’s unique, and incredibly disturbing, about Langan’s fixation is that she fixates on Kardashian-West the way Goldie Hawn fixated on Meryl Streep in the film Death Becomes Her. I won’t go so far as to suggest that Langan has an equally malicious intent, but the fact that she uses Kardashian-West as the exemplar of all that is wrong with the world is myopic. The fact that she does it to the extent that she does is unhealthy.
If you wondering what any of this has to do with a one-woman show advertised as a reminiscence of growing up Irish-American in 1970s New Jersey, you’re not alone.
From the press release: “Daughter of a Garbageman is a tale of Maureen Langan’s 1970s upbringing in New Jersey. Her Irish mother and Bronx-born father, a New York City sanitation worker, told her to work hard, get educated and life would reward her. Not true! Life is rewarding to reality stars. How do you tell a girl to read and write when Kim Kardashian gets a book deal? When making a sex tape leads to fame and fortune? When the star of The Apprentice can become president? WHO IS TO BLAME? Is it her parents’ fault? America’s fault? With humor, honesty, and insight, Maureen taps into the hearts and frustrations of hard-working people everywhere who wonder if they, too, were raised wrong.”
You may or may not have noticed a certain celebrity’s name mentioned frequently in the above four paragraphs. As the one preceding this one is from the show’s official press, I can’t take credit for it. When combined with the ones I wrote, you see the central problem with Flanagan’s show: what was supposed to be a story about her becomes an extended rant about someone famous. She spends more time talking about Kim Kardashian-West than she ever does about her titular garbage man father – and his occupation is only mentioned two or three fleeting times.
Langan, who identifies herself as a feminist during the show, spends a considerable amount of the show’s 90-min. runtime (as opposed to the advertised 60) body- and slut-shaming the reality star for, well, being a reality star. She holds up Kardashian-West’s infamous sex tape as Exhibit “A” in her case. After all, she argues, why work hard when you can get rich from oiling up “your fat ass”? (The clichéd “Kim has a big butt” jokes are par for the course here.) But the fact that said tape was released to the public by a vindictive ex-boyfriend – who frequently tries to extend his 15 minutes of non-fame by promoting his continued obsession with her – is never mentioned.
If you’re wondering if such an omission is done out of ignorance on Langan’s part or flat-out hypocrisy, perhaps the answer lies in how she brings up Vanessa L. Williams as a counter-exampl. She recounts Williams being crowned Miss America 1984, only to be forced to relinquish her crown and title when nude photos from her modelling days resurfaced. In Langan’s eyes, Williams – a model and pageant queen who extended into a prolific music and film career (ie. she literally got where she is based on her good looks) – is used as a the “Madonna” to Kardashian-West’s “whore,” which speaks to a major blind spot in Langan’s vision. (It also makes one wonder what kind of conversations Vanessa and Kim had on the set of the movie Obsession?).
The real tragedy in all of this is the fact that when Langan actually does take the time to stop indulging her fixation, she gives clues to the kind of show this could – nay, should – have been. Granted the show still has its flaws: as a stand-up, Langan does the typical “bridge ‘n tunnel” jokes about growing up in Jersey. The accents, the smells, the Irish-Catholic guilt – it’s all pretty well-worn territory. The fact that most characters are reduced to brief mentions and funny voices does them a disservice, especially her parents. Her parents’ greater problems – she says her father is an alcoholic and her mother is repressed – take a back seat to the sitcom caricatures we’re shown on stage.
Where Langan really shines is when she’s brave enough to linger on one character or life situation long enough for it to have resonance. A truly terrifying sequence takes place in Colombia Presbyterian hospital where a teenage Langan is being treated for an eating disorder. When she’s questioned by doctors, she feels as if she’s a criminal being interrogated (complete with spotlight) and forced to “rat out” her parents, whose pressures lead to the disorder. Later, she and her sister (she has five siblings, only two of whom are named and you’ll forget those names instantly) discover that their mother changed the date on her marriage certificate to cover the fact that she was three months pregnant (ie. not a virgin bride). This leads to a talk with Maureen and her mother in which Maureen that strikes the latter in a way she doesn’t expect.
These stories are funny and sad at the same time. They show that Langan can move beyond doing “a routine” with worn-out jokes to actually acting and presenting genuine pathos. They’re exaggerated, but sincere. They’re everything this show should be, but isn’t.
If I were to guess as to why not, I’d say that for all Langan’s talk that it took her a long time to be as upfront as she is in the show, she’s still holding back. She only mentions things like her father’s alcoholism long enough for them to be the punchline to a joke or an emotional scar that she’s trying to ignore. That she mentions getting parental approval before putting on the show also speaks volumes. Langan thinks she’s made a breakthrough, but any therapist worth his/her degree would tell her that her fixation on a celebrity is a deflection; that she’s avoiding the real issue so as to not confront the real problems in her past.
Langan had the opportunity to go for the emotional jugular and resonate with her audience. Instead, she shifts most of power and rage to a tabloid obsession. For someone who claims to hate a celebrity because they got rich and famous the easy way, Langan seems pretty happy taking the easy way herself. For her to proclaim herself the voice of “hard-working people” and not see how that same slogan was used the current comb-over-in-chief means she’s no better than the very reality stars she despises.
There’s a good show buried within Daughter of a Garbageman trying in vain to claw its way out. That show would be about how a Jersey-raised Irish-American woman is eager to find out where she fits in the world when everyone – from her friends to her old world mother – has their own ideas as to what she should be. It would explore in depth the failed marriage that is here truncated to one joke. It would be about how one takes all that pain and parlays it into a comedy career that wins acclaim from her idols. It would be funny, heart-breaking, and, most of all, real.
Maureen Langan either wasn’t interested in making that show or fell victim to a major mental sidetrack along the way. She undermines her own arguments and beliefs by going after low-hanging fruit and barking up the wrong tree. Rather than go into detail about how her upbringing affected her personally, she’s happy patting herself on the back for merely thinking of making that kind of revelation.
That’s a damn shame. The world needs more stories like the former rather than the latter.
Daughter of a Garbageman is playing until March 25 at The Marsh – San Francisco.
For tickets and information, please visit The Marsh’s official website here.