On Netflix, Loudon Wainwright III Puts the Fun in Family Dysfunction

In a funny new Netflix special, the musician, actor and humorist Loudon Wainwright III explores his relationship with his family by performing essays his father wrote

On May 24, Loudon Wainwright III recorded a Netflix special, “Surviving Twin,” at the El Portal Theater in North Hollywood. The date might be incidental to most people, but not to me and not to Bob Dylan. See, May 24 happens to be one of the only two things I have in common with Bob Dylan. Apart from both of us being Jewish, we share a birthday.

How does LWIII (as he’s known to fans) come into the equation?

Loudon Wainwright III in his Netflix special, "Surviving Twin."
Suzanne Hanover / Netflix

Well, back in 1992 he wrote Dylan a birthday tribute song – “Talking New Bob Dylan” – in which he explained how his own career began in Dylan’s shadow and how, instead of having the confidence to perform his own material, he “won a whole lot of Bob Dylan imitation contests.”

In typically self-denigrating fashion, Wainwright describes how record labels “were signin’ up guys with guitars” and looking for the new Bob Dylan. “We were new Bob Dylans,” he groans, in perfect Dylanesque, “your dumb ass kid brothers.”

When I spoke to Wainwright by phone last week, he confessed that, while there are some years when he remembers that it’s Dylan’s birthday, he can’t recall whether he was aware of the significance of the date at the time of recording.

“Ironically,” he added, “I’m going to see Bob Dylan perform tonight. He’s going to be performing tonight at the Beacon Theater here in Manhattan.”

I confessed my envy.

Whatever the circumstances of Wainwright’s career trajectory, the 72-year-old musician, actor and humorist has been entertaining audiences with his music and acting for 50 years. He released his first album in 1970 and has more than two dozen studio albums to his name, as well as television roles in “M*A*S*H” and “Community.” He also appeared and wrote the music for Judd Apatow’s “Knocked Up.”

It was Apatow and Christopher Guest – a longtime friend and former “bandmate” in Spinal Tap (when it was just a TV sketch and not a seminal mockumentary) – who brought “Surviving Twin,” launched last month, to Netflix. Guest also directed the 90-minute special, and he and Apatow produced it.

The show begins with Wainwright striding onto the stage, already playing his acoustic guitar. When the applause dies down, he launches into a raw, emotional version of the show’s title track.

As he goes on to explain, “Surviving Twin” is a “posthumous collaboration” with his late father, Loudon Wainwright Jr., an acclaimed journalist whose career writing for Time magazine spanned four decades. Interspersed between Wainwright’s songs, almost all of which are about his relationship with his parents and/or children, he performs some of the hundreds of essays his father wrote.

“I wouldn’t characterize my relationship with my Dad as being a close one,” Wainwright told me. “We were competitive and combative. When I was a young man, I pushed back – which was appropriate. But we weren’t close and I always felt bad about that.”

With Freudian and Oedipal candor, Wainwright describes fighting his father for his mother’s affection; he confesses to wanting to hurt his father and asks, “Can a man’s son be his twin?”

Wainwright’s father died in 1988 and, he says, the collaborative, posthumous effort “brought us closer.”

Personal and honest

“Close” is also not an adjective that Wainwright uses to describe his relationship with his four children – three of whom are successful recording artists in their own right: Rufus and Martha Wainwright, his children with Canadian folk singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, and Lucy Wainwright Roche, whose mother is singer Suzzy Roche.

Wainwright’s songs are often uncomfortably personal and honest, but always witty and poignant. He sings with aching regret about the time he hit his daughter, wistfully and almost apologetically about his privileged upbringing in the country clubs of Westchester County. He might be best known for his novelty 1972 song “Dead Skunk (in the Middle of the Road),” but the B-side of that single (Google it, kids) was the sweetly plaintive “Needless to Say.”

“When I began to write songs in the late ‘60s and early 1970s, they were autobiographical,” Wainwright says. “Then I segued into my unhappy marriage and my difficulties with young kids. When my father died, though, I was – in a sense – freed up to write about him in a different way.”

Indeed, four years after his father’s death, Wainwright released an album called “History,” which he says is entirely about his father – and even includes a song that his father wrote. It also took him four years after his mother died to release “Last Man on Earth,” which included several songs about his mother.

Those two albums form the backbone of “Surviving Twin.” But don’t be fooled by the heavily psychological elements of the show. Wainwright delivers his heart-rending lyrics with charm and humor. His performances of his father’s essays channel Garrison Keillor; they are delivered with the kind of warmth and affection that Wainwright did not share with his father during his lifetime.

And “Surviving Twin” is also very funny. Wainwright says that when he told his grandmother what his first child was going to be called, she complained that “Rufus is a name for dog.” She was right, he jokes.

Wainwright tells his audience (addressing them as “kids,” even though many look more like his peers than his offspring) that it’s important for children to tell their parents, “Fuck you!” His own children have had ample opportunity to say just that to their father. Carrying on a family tradition, Rufus and Martha have both written songs about their father; Martha’s “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole” is, she has said, a response to her father’s way of writing songs about his family, rather than tending to them.

What was it like, I asked him, to hear his own children tell him “Fuck you!” He laughs. “You mean: How does it feel to hear them still tell me that?”

“It was a shock,” he says. “But thinking about it, it’s totally appropriate. My kids have all, in one way or another, told me to fuck myself.”