Among the writing staff of the seminal 1990s television comedy, Seinfeld, there was strict adherence to a dictum laid down by the brain trust behind the show, the comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. In conceiving and presenting the weekly preoccupations and misadventures of four ostensibly full-grown adults in New York City — characters whose defining trait, individually and collectively, was their myopic self-absorption — that single rule that was inviolable:
What this meant in practice was that Seinfeld became the antidote to the formulaic approach of virtually every other situation comedy that had preceded it. The genius of the show was that, over the entirety of the nine years that it aired, the main characters did not “grow” a single iota as human beings. The show ended without ever once yielding to the saccharine temptation to tug at viewers’ heartstrings. Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer were exactly the same self-absorbed people they had been when it started. Few, if any, television shows have been as consistently funny, but I’m hard-pressed to think of another comedy, pre-Seinfeld, that took such a cheerfully dim view of human nature.
That ethos made for outstanding situational humor. It’s not so funny when it’s the ethos of any actual person or group or community. Or, at the very least, it’s funny in a different way.
As it relates to the “community” category above, few readers will be surprised to learn that I have in mind the one in which I live and work. I’ve always been parochial in that way, and I don’t see that changing at this stage of my active citizenship and journalistic endeavors.
For me, local is where it’s at, and where it always has been and will be. That’s a lifelong conviction that has only deepened with the passing of decades — and is becoming deeper still in the strange and uncertain times in which we toil, brought on by critical systemic dysfunction in our politics and government, both nationally and (for us hardy denizens of Alabama) at the state level.
At the risk of raising hackles among some presumptive allies, I can state honestly and with some modicum of pride that I’ve been believing in Birmingham for a long time — and, just to be egalitarian in my presumption, I’ll add that I’ve been working for a better Birmingham and trying in every way I know how to help the Magic City rise. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it is with absolute sincerity and appreciation that I tell you that witnessing the arrival of reinforcements in such force and number and enthusiasm has been one of the truest pleasures of my life in recent years.
On the other end of the spectrum, every time I start to feel good about where Birmingham might be going — about the prospects of breaking the ingrained patterns of our history and heritage — something happens. Some remembrance of things past, some nagging thought of present difficulties, some circumstance or event that strikes a discordant note in efforts to get all of us singing off the same page of the civic hymnal.
For instance: Is it not remarkable and disheartening and maybe at least slightly soul-deadening to contemplate that less than a decade has passed since a slew of elected officials either copped pleas or did time for their roles in the labyrinthine mess that was the Jefferson County sewer scandal, and yet here we are again, with multiple ongoing investigations by federal and state authorities into suspected criminal wrongdoing by elected officials and quasi-public institutions in Birmingham and Jefferson County?
See, it’s things like that give me pause, these unending reiterations of historic obstacles to transformative growth and development in Birmingham. The apparently congenital nature of political corruption is one of those obstacles; others include the rigidity of social and economic structures and the absence of anything like a unifying vision of what Birmingham want to be and do and represent.
Individually and together, these historical reiterations suggest that Birmingham might have a problem — a problem with learning. We might be the Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer of American cities.
It takes nothing away from the “good” things that are happening in Birmingham to point this out — or even to suggest that not all of the “good” things are as good as they might be perceived. It is only by questioning ourselves, by being our own worst critics, by constantly seeking and applying ways to improve the lives of our citizens — in other words, by learning — that Birmingham will have any hope of achieving greatness as a city.
Can we do better? How?
As we move into a future that is far from certain, these are the questions we in Birmingham should ask ourselves at every turn. These are the questions that — as long as we do not fear the answers — will deliver us from our troublesome habit of not learning
Courtney Haden is the drollest man I have ever known.
Let me restate that: I’m willing to bet that anyone who ever spent more than about 15 minutes with Courtney — “long enough for a cup of coffee,” in the baseball vernacular to which he sometimes inclined in his inimitable prose stylings — would rate him high on the drollery scale. I am neither overpraising the former nor denigrating the latter when I mention them in the same breath, for Courtney’s style and perspective, and his presence over decades in a multiplicity of media platforms, made him into something very much like Birmingham’s Mark Twain.
I actually told Courtney that once, at a musical event he was emceeing — and at which I happened to be one of numerous performers — at Keith Harrelson’s place in Bluff Park, Moonlight on the Mountain (if you know Courtney, me, or both of us, you’ll appreciate that the event was in honor of Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday). On finding himself on the receiving end of such effusive praise, he shot me a look that hovered somewhere between cordial bemusement (his default setting, in my experience) and skeptical appreciation (as in, That’s awfully nice of you, my good man, but how much beer have you consumed?).
“Why, thank you, sir,” he said, and ambled off to introduce the next act.
I first became aware of Courtney in the fall of 1980. I was a freshman at Samford and a faithful listener — sometimes to the detriment of my academic progress, at least in terms of getting to early classes on time, or at all — of the inventive, freewheeling, hilarious morning show Courtney co-anchored on FM radio with his future business partner, Greg Bass.
A few years later, probably around the time Courtney and Greg stopped doing the show, a roommate and I discovered that Courtney was living in our apartment complex in Highland Park. As far as we were concerned, we might as well have been living across the parking lot from…well, maybe not Bob Dylan, but a rock star of some magnitude. It was only for a few months, and we were too intimidated (or, as seems possible, trying to be too cool) to introduce ourselves, or to do anything other than mutter hellos when we encountered the man in the flesh.
It was my pleasure, then, to become acquainted with Courtney some time later, and even more to have opportunities to work with him professionally in years after that. And while I’d matured enough to know that he wasn’t a rock star, the regard in which I held Courtney, the man and his work, only deepened over time. If nothing else, I’d learned enough to know a genuine civic treasure when I saw one. Such being the case, I was delighted, over the first four-plus years of Weld’s existence, to have Courtney’s column appear weekly in our pages.
That relationship came to an end a little over a year ago, over issues for which I take full responsibility. I’ve never been happy about that, but neither, in the rush of daily business and personal matters, have I taken steps to resolve it with Courtney.
Regret is an odd emotion because it comes only upon reflection.
I’ve always liked that line, from the American writer William O’Rourke. I like it because it performs the neat trick of conveying the essential futility of regret, while also advocating for the value of reflection.
I’m feeling both of those things very deeply at the moment, as this rather confessional reflection on Courtney is prompted by his sudden passing last week. I learned of it in a phone call last Friday morning, from our mutual friend, Ed Boutwell, and have been melancholy since.
But my personal regrets in the Courtney department are of my own making, and reconciling myself to them my own affair. Mostly, I’m deeply sorrowful for Birmingham. Our community was graced by Courtney’s singular voice, his multitudinous gifts, and his highly idiosyncratic civic spirit, and we are the better for it.
For Courtney’s absence, the future of our community will be considerably less droll. In times like these, I might just regret that most of all.