Twenty years ago, I had a pal who’d refer to certain notorious individuals—a loutish, drunken posturer of a novelist; a Hollywood producer with a Brobdingnagian appetite for drugs and sadomasochism; a sotted theater critic who would fall asleep at Broadway shows, rousing himself to stagger to the bar at the intermission—as “existential heroes.” When called on the phrase, he would concede that these people made the world a lesser place. But he loved the brazenness of their sinning. He also (although he couldn’t quite articulate this) loved that, when exposed, they didn’t fold up and crawl under a rock, as so many of us would. If the self is defined through action, and if action is undermined by shame, then the absence of shame must be the true precursor to self-realization—and, thus, existential heroism.
This is, of course, sophomoric bullshit—but it also seems to be the irony-laden ethos of the new Comedy Central cartoon series Kid Notorious, in which the producer Robert Evans is presented as just this brand of existential hero. For those who don’t know Evans through his autobiography (which became an overpraised feature-length documentary in 2002), The Kid Stays in the Picture, he began his Hollywood career in the late ‘50s as a bad actor. Then, thanks to a combination of good looks, hustle, and the favors of Variety editor Peter Bart (at the time a reporter for the New York Times), he became one of history’s youngest studio heads—the swinging counterculture’s answer to Fitzgerald’s Monroe Stahr. Evans did avert the collapse of Paramount with Love Story (1970) and The Godfather (1972), but he was closer to Sammy Glick than Irving Thalberg: His real talents were in self-promotion, credit-hogging, grinding directors down with idiotic suggestions, bedding starlets like Ali MacGraw, and living life as a nonstop orgy by the pool of his beloved Beverly Hills mansion. But the nuttier and more solipsistic he got, the easier it seemed for people to make their peace with his ineptitude. As a director who’d had a nonsensical experience with Evans told me recently, “Whatta character!” He rolled his eyes, but he was smiling fondly.
Evans still has some foxiness in him, though: He exploited that “Whatta Character!” persona in his autobiography (and especially in the audio book version, with his frequent and hilarious departures from the text) and has seen his status soar among junior executives who resemble my friend from 20 years ago—who love the idea of such a bum living so high and getting so much tail. It was Kid Notorious himself who came up with the idea for Kid Notorious, which might be described as Mr. Magoo for the cocaine era. In each half-hour episode, the hero—wearing shades, a suit, and a turtleneck with an expensive platinum chain—drifts through his life in a haze of drugs, sex, material luxury, and reflexive deal-making: myopic but generally serene. Although he has many short-term goals—in the episodes I saw they include getting a movie made after Sharon Stone decamps for Broadway, creating a hip-hop Broadway musical based on The Godfather, and obtaining sacred Tibetan yak for a soup he wants a studio to finance—his chief motivation is maintaining his absurd lifestyle. If he can get a picture made, great. But if, at the end of the day, he’s still sitting in his private screening room with his puss (Puss) at his side and a freshly made cosmopolitan from his English butler (English), then all is right with the universe.
Evans narrates the show himself, and his voice is the best thing in it: deadpan and nasal in a way that makes you think of booze and buckled septums. And Kid Notorious is full of good, cheap, how-did-they-get-that-past-the-network? gags. In the Sharon Stone episode, the actress takes all the roles in The Vagina Monologues, which she re-names Sharon Stone’s Vagina—which allows for jokes on the order of, “Sharon Stone’s Vagina stinks!” and, “When is Sharon Stone’s Vagina opening?” and “We must close Sharon Stone’s Vagina!” etc. It made me laugh every time—but when it comes to Sharon Stone’s vagina, I’m easy. Less of a hoot is a monstrously fat Francis Ford Coppola, who stomps on grapes while mixing a pot of tomato sauce. One level even further down we get a Jacques Chirac who wins Evans’ manse in a poker game, fills the pool with hairy-legged and woolly-armpitted women, and schedules a Jerry Lewis Festival in Evans’ screening room. I’m not that easy.
Kid Notorious is executive-produced by Brett Morgen, co-director of The Kid Stays in the Picture, and Alan Cohen and Alan Freedland, who worked for many years on the affectingly mundane King of the Hill. None of these guys has a perspective on their hero that’s any more complex than “Whatta character!” And the flat animation—rudimentary movement, Rushmore heads with mouths that open and close—doesn’t help to fill out the portrait. The larger problem with the show is that it doesn’t transcend its campiness. SouthPark is full of rude caricatures and scatological jokes, but it’s sustained by extremely sophisticated satire and, often, genuine outrage. Kid Notorious is sustained by nothing except Evans’ opportunistically self-deprecating egotism. The cartoon could well be just another scheme to keep his house.