Anyone who’s read Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” knows that it’s a poem about a hopelessly awkward guy at a party who’s thinking about asking a girl on a date — or at least to meet him for coffee sometime. Sure, Prufrock imagines it as “tea and cakes and ices,” but, for all practical purposes, it serves the same point as coffee. And, of course, as Eddie Izzard says, if you can get someone to agree to coffee, then “sex is on — that’s the unwritten rule”:
The only problem for Prufrock is that he can’t quite make it past the speculation phase of the relationship. Instead, he just keeps staring at the (latest) woman of his dreams and imagining all of the clever pickup lines he might use to get her attention.
To start, Prufrock digs deep and comes up with a real humdinger: “Let us go then, you and I,/When the evening is spread out against the sky.” And, okay, it’s a little over the top, but it beats the hell out of something lame like, “Did it hurt when you fell from heaven? Because you must be an angel.” But then Prufrock blows the whole game with line three of the poem: “Like a patient etherized on a table.” Of course, he hasn’t actually said this yet — it’s all still a matter of speculation, he’s still working out the details, and, as he himself puts it, there’s still plenty of time for “a hundred visions and revisions” — but it’s hard to imagine anyone but a borderline necrophiliac getting turned on by the thought of the evening spread out against the sky like a patient etherized on a table.
Which isn’t to say that Prufrock still can’t get the girl. Loads of guys screw up the first line when they’re trying to meet women. If I remember correctly, that’s half the fun of the whole endeavor. Consider, for example, Jemaine Clement’s imagined overture to a beautiful woman in the first episode of Flight of the Conchords:
As with Prufrock, Jemaine’s best lines — e.g., “When you’re on the street/Depending on the street/I’ll bet you are definitely in the top three/Good lookin’ girls on the street” — are more likely to send the woman running for the hills than to charm her, and a subsequent encounter with the same woman doesn’t put him on any better footing:
Yet even if Jemaine’s pickup lines are completely hopeless, he does what Prufrock can never bring himself to do, which is to go down swinging. Where Prufrock paints himself into a corner with his obsessive “indecisions,” Jemaine gets in the game and goes for the girl.* One reason he can do this is that he lacks the crippling degree of circumspection that locks Prufrock in a debilitating state of paralysis. (Actually, he probably lacks any circumspection at all.) But the bigger reason, I would argue, is that Jemaine has a wing man in his good friend and band mate Bret Mackenzie.
Throughout the videos for both “Part Time Model” and “Business Time,” Brett shows up at key moments — either to join in the chorus of the songs or to play a few licks on his guitar — and it’s his presence that gives Jemaine the extra push he needs to bust a move. Indeed, the fact that the entire series is, in many ways, a paean to the finer points of wingmannery is underscored by its penultimate episode, “Wingmen,” in which Jemaine attempts, with questionable results, to help Bret meet a woman. Once again, the point isn’t whether or not Bret gets the girl. It’s that he tries. And it’s his wing man who gives him the confidence to do it.
The trouble with Prufrock, of course, is that he doesn’t have a wing man. That is, he doesn’t have someone to say, “Hey! That line about the patient etherized on a table? That is so totally awesome! You gotta do it, man! You gotta use that!” And that is exactly what a wing man is supposed to do — no matter how bad the pickup line, the wing man needs to say it’s awesome. Because the wing man knows that all pickup lines are crap, but also that that’s how the game works: You dig yourself into a hole with the bad pickup line, then you spend the rest of the night trying to dig your way out. If you’re witty, charming, self-effacing, and/or funny, you might actually get somewhere. If you lack any of these qualities, then you might not. But the one thing a wing man knows is that you definitely won’t get anywhere if you don’t try.
Beyond demonstrating the value of a good wing man, all of this also helps to explain why TS Eliot and Groucho Marx became pen pals. Though it’s generally not a good idea to conflate poets and their poems, in the case of “Prufrock,” it’s hard not to, especially since Eliot slips so easily into the obsessive voice of his narrator.** And if we accept this conflation, we can see why Eliot might have been so drawn to Marx. Marx, like Jemaine Clement, knew how to talk to the ladies:
Although Eliot was happily married to his second wife by the time he and Marx started corresponding, chances are good that Prufrock was still foundering in his efforts at wooing the opposite sex. What’s more, given the rumor that Eliot was working on a sequel to “Prufrock” at the time of his death (allegedly titled “Prufrock Goes and Gets Some”), we can be fairly certain that the Marx-Eliot partnership would have born spectacular fruit had Eliot survived.*** As it stands, however, we are left with the image of Prufrock lacking a wing man and lingering “in the chambers of the sea/ By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown /Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”
* Actually, he probably doesn’t. Most of the musical interludes on Flight of the Conchords are framed in a way that renders them fantasy sequences rather than part of the events unfolding in the show’s reality. But just work with me on this one.
** Just like I slip so easily into the voice of a drug-addled divorced mother of two in The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl, thus proving my point.
*** Note to high school English teachers: You have to admit that it would be hilarious if your students plagiarized this information without bothering to check the footnote.