Audrey, Mitchell, and the Pygmalion Effect

State Street Scribe

by Jeff Wing

db5049_1741cc93027c4c6cbf6421c4ad11a820Mitchell Kriegman had a big problem. He’d been summoned to the office of Jean Doumanian, newly anointed Executive Producer of Saturday Night Live, deep in the storied bowels of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. When he arrived there he saw he wasn’t alone. The entire cast and writing staff had been convened, and the vibe in the office wasn’t good.
Several months before, SNL creator/producer Lorne Michaels had left the show in a huff, worn to pieces after 5 nonstop years of producing the wildly popular weekly heart attack and feeling slighted by NBC, whose Johnny Carson-era mandarins never really understood the appeal of the show and paid it little mind. Michaels’ sudden departure precipitated an exodus, and his hand-picked troupe of players – John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman et al, left the building, too, never to return. The writers did the same. Now, mere months later, the new SNL had been unveiled, late the previous evening. Live. Now the sun had risen on a new SNL era and the press reviews were hitting the streets. Michaels’ beleaguered successor had convened the cast and writers in her office. She would read the press notices aloud. SNL 2.0 was not exactly being embraced. Trouble was, Kriegman had been singled out for praise by several critics, to his colleagues’ chagrin.

“I had three films on the show, and they got really great reviews, and nearly everything else on the show was panned. So the other cast members would turn to me after each review and say ‘Well, I didn’t hear anybody laugh at that!’ So it was like a comedy lynching, you know?” he says, laughing. “So I was glad to go, though a lot of my friends worked there.”

Could Kriegman have had any inkling of what lay ahead?

Cat

There is a moment in the classic film Breakfast at Tiffany’s where the simple sight of a wet cat draws a racking, startled sob from the viewer (he both confessed and generalized). It can be unnerving, especially after the 7th or so viewing, when one would expect the Cat Effect to be somewhat diminished. Tiffany’s is the indelicate story of a young lady’s unwilling, but ultimately redemptive, personal transformation, so it’s fitting that the lead role of conflicted will-o’-the-wisp Holly Golightly went to the inimitable Audrey Hepburn, whose own wildly improbable life story trumped anything ever written for the screen. From starved wartime waif in Holland to rightfully beloved global film, fashion and mercy icon, the slight but incandescent Ms. Hepburn managed to shoehorn a lot of change, color and meaning into her foreshortened time on Earth.

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Mitchell Kriegman’s new novel, Being Audrey Hepburn, lavishly gives Audrey her due, and Audrey fans a 5-Star Michelin feast so infused with both the facts and spirit of Hepburn’s unlikely life and career, the book serves as both primer and paean as the novel’s protagonist inadvertently assumes the Hepburn mantle, with unexpected results.

“There is almost a second story in the book, which is the true Audrey Hepburn story,” Kriegman says. “There’s so much Audrey in there they should publish an annotated version.”

Being Audrey Hepburn is a many-layered book that proselytizes and celebrates the Hepburn magic while bringing it lovingly to bear on a message that is not lost on the reader, as it wasn’t on Ms. Hepburn herself: personal reinvention has its rewards, but is not always a promenade through the park. Nor should it be. Kriegman’s emotionally immersive parable, like the best books consumed by a reading public hungry for both entertainment AND meaning (yes, they are an unreasonable lot, bless them) encloses its truths and consequences in a gaudy box of yummy Crackerjack. You will have to eat your way down to the prize ring. But you knew that.

Little Black Dress Mayhem

In Being Audrey Hepburn, Lisbeth is a 19 year old daydream believer living in a benighted corner of Jersey. Her classically screwed-up home life is a seamless, ongoing downpour of aggregating misery. Her booze-and-life-addled mom (jarringly sympathetic thanks to the writer’s careful treatment), dangerously floundering sis, juvie-destined little brother and general sense of approaching doom literally drive Lisbeth into her bedroom closet; a longtime refuge fitted with the requisite comforts of a cramped bomb shelter. It even includes a mini fridge.

In the cozy, darkened crush of her hideaway, Lisbeth obsessively watches Hepburn’s films and is thus ministered to by the star. Audrey is more guru than idol to Lisbeth, and yet more mentor than guru; an unerringly cool oracle of truth in owlish Oliver Goldsmith shades whose utterances are usable koans, and whose film canon embodies The Big Answers. To everything. Funny Face, Roman Holiday, Charade, Audrey’s films are obsessively absorbed by Lisbeth, who has produced from them filigreed blueprints for living. She draws her truths from them as someone else might mine scripture. Lisbeth’s Book of Revelation is, of course, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in this setting the penultimate Audrey film. The only other lights in the darkness of Lisbeth’s days are her calming, unflappable Nana (cryptically referred to as ‘Nan’ in the novel) and her BFF Jess, an aspiring fashion designer.

Kriegman/Klugman’s final blackout performance at the Dance Theater Workshop performance space was a piece knowingly titled An Evening of Stories and Tricks you Won’t See Anywhere.

When Jess shoots Lisbeth an insistent text from her peon job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan one evening (“U HAVE 2 C THIS!”), Lisbeth wearily hops the train across the river to the Big Apple to see what’s up. Givenchy’s iconic Little Black Dress is what’s up, the one Hepburn sports in the famous opening sequence of Breakfast, and a demure shred of designer genius whose Sacred Object status in the Show Business firmament makes it a Hollywood Shroud of Turin. While mischievously plumbing the Met’s Costume Institute archives, fashion aspirant Jess has stumbled upon it as a pilgrim might a bauble from the Lost Ark, and she knows just who to call. She unveils the find to Lisbeth, the true Audrey acolyte, with unpredictable and emotionally penetrating results. Question; does the butterfly ever long for a return to the chrysalis?

Breakout coming-of-age novels (as this one promises to be) often reflect the hidden hearts of their authors. Stephanie Meyer, author of the jugular makeout epic Twilight, is a Latter-Day Saint whose preachy bloodsuckers are analogs for chaste young men chivalrously battling their runaway lusts. John Green, who wrote The Fault in Our Stars, is an ex-seminarian (who knew?).

Being Marshall Klugman

Mitchell Kriegman is not so sanguine a figure. His journey to Being Audrey Hepburn has been an arc whose closest approach to an Ordering Principle has been Tactical Avoidance of the Expected. He has worked with both Jim Henson’s velveteen Muppets AND darkling comic genius Michael O’Donaghue, whose screaming and writhing ‘knitting needles in celebrity eyeballs’ impression was the talk of a nervous fan base in the mid-seventies, and to whose infamous cult movie Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video Kriegman contributed two segments; a film so out of left field it gave even the subculture dyspepsia. So he’s got the Mondo-to-Muppets spectrum covered. Among many other accomplishments, Kriegman has written for Saturday Night Live when that was a badge of counter-culture honor, and Executive Story Edited the puzzlingly subversive Ren & Stimpy cartoon (if you can call it a cartoon) for Nickelodeon when THAT network was a counter-culture bastion whose writers were actually under orders to innovate, even at the risk of failure.

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Kriegman on the set of Clarissa with Melissa Joan Hart

So the author of Being Audrey Hepburn is not your typical typist. His professional and artistic forays have been approximately as predictable as Brownian Motion. Perhaps not surprisingly, Mitchell Kriegman’s roots lie in the ‘let’s reframe the discussion’ performance art of early seventies New York, where the young artist put his stamp on an evening out.

“My specialty was performing in the dark, I would do these conceptual pieces in the dark. I had a persona named Marshall Klugman. I did something called The Telephone Stories, which was the first Audio Art at the Whitney Museum.” Some of his recorded pieces from this period also found their way to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During this epoch he was a well-reviewed habitué of the NYC art scene and received many favorable notices from the cred-bestowing Soho Weekly News and the regular press in Manhattan. Kriegman/Klugman’s final blackout performance at the Dance Theater Workshop performance space was a piece knowingly titled An Evening of Stories and Tricks you Won’t See Anywhere. Then came SNL. He’d been rubbing shoulders with a widening circle of oddball writers and performers, and through his association with a certain cracked visionary, Kriegman brought his filmmaking and writing skills to Saturday Night Live, the edgy sketch-comedy showcase whose bent appeal was in no way ready for the Me Generation’s prime time attentions.

SNL Heck

“I was in at the end of the Good Old Days, and at the beginning of the Not-So-Good-Old-Days,” Kriegman explains. “I wasn’t on staff but I worked with Michael O’Donoghue, so I was around all those guys.” Disagreements with NBC caused producer/creator Lorne Michaels to walk in 1980 (he ended up staying away for 5 years), and the show came to a famous dead stop while a successor Producer, on the orders of the fairly clueless NBC titans, furiously cobbled together a new cast and new writers in a breakneck two months.

“I was working on the fringes of SNL, and when the new show started I was hired to do my weird stuff, and I had an incredible catbird seat because I was aware of all the original casting they were doing, and saw them make all the wrong choices. I saw them pass on Sandra Bernhard, I saw them pass on Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman). Andy Kaufman offered to do a regular series on the show, and they passed on that offer. It was a brewing disaster. And then suddenly they didn’t really want what I did. There was a shift. Which was fine with me because I wanted to get out.”

Ren & Stimpy

He next created shows for something called the Comedy Channel, an early forerunner of Comedy Central. He did a program for Showtime called the Twisted Puppet Theater. “Puppets for people who hate them,” as he describes it, straight-faced. These groudbreaking efforts, not always embraced by an adoring public, often served as incubators for future comedy scribes. “The people that I worked with on those shows all ended up running Saturday Night Live. People like Steve Higgins, and Andrew Steele who now runs Funny or Die. They’re some of the best comedy writers around.”

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Kriegman today

Later Kriegman would develop kids programming that would redefine the genre, and along the way earn him four Emmys and Parent’s Choice Awards. “In New York City at that time, a comedy writer had two places to work; you could work in kids’ programming, or you could work in late night comedy. You know, Sesame Street or Saturday Night Live.” He went on to write Elmo in Grouchland and several other projects and features for the Jim Henson Company and Columbia Pictures. By the time he landed at Nickelodeon in the 90s, barrier-smashing was the order of the day at that new network.

“When we worked at Nickelodeon – and I mean people like Will McRobb, Chris Viscardi, and John Kricfalusi, who created Ren & Stimpy – Gábor Csupó, who created RugRats – our job was to explode kids’ t.v. That was the mission from Gerry Laybourne, the head of the network. You could fail as a show, fail in the ratings, you could fail any way whatsoever if you just took a risk.” He pauses. “And you had to come in on budget.” More loud laughter. Even having just met him, you can see Kriegman is a guy who has spent a lot of time in the throes of hilarity.

Being Mitchell Kriegman

In the early nineties Kriegman created and wrote the game-changing teen sitcom Clarissa Explains it All, which knocked down the ‘fourth-wall’, allowing its star to directly address the audience, and tackled teen subjects with a frankness and gusto theretofore relegated to the third rail, as in Do Not Touch. Most importantly, Clarissa, through Kriegman’s pointed writing efforts, tore down the gender walls that had always bisected the teen viewership.

“It was a Barbie/G.I. Joe world at that time, and nobody believed that boys would watch a program about a girl. I put a stake in the ground and calculated very precisely how to make that work. What’s interesting now is, all the kids I wrote for when they were 12 and 14, are 26 to 35 now, and I’m still writing for them, and that’s the audience for Being Audrey Hepburn. I’m somehow 20 to 30 years behind my age!”

Kriegman’s Candide-like journey through the worlds of art, laughter, and sometimes tremulous commerce has given him a thick skin, a quicksilver way with telling a story, and absolute faith in the written word’s power to convey his Audrey Hepburn fantasia in all its complex hues and nuances.

“We were all supposed to have stopped reading, right? What’s happening? Everybody’s reading! I chose to do Being Audrey Hepburn in novel form because I think that is the most vibrant, valid way to tackle the subject with the originality that I want to bring to it. What we’re seeing is the resurgence of popular fiction. The novel is the form in which character rules. There isn’t a story or a concept you haven’t heard before. What you’re surprised by is characters.” He’s worked up now, Kriegman-style. His eyes are shining, he’s gesturing, moving around in his chair, doing this thing with his shoulders.

“The most satisfying and most freeing thing for me is to do something new, and explode it. You look back at Bear in the Big Blue House or Clarissa and you think ‘oh, you did these popular shows’, but I was always on the outside. Always. It’s not the easiest way to make a career. Sometimes you hit a wall. And sometimes people see you coming and run the other way.” He throws his head back and again fills the place with a brief, staccato burst of laughter, and I start laughing, too.

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