Friday, December 22, 2006

From DVDs to IEDs

The teen and I are doing our seasonal, consumerist duty at Best Buy, when to our right, in the DVD section, stand two tall Marines over a smaller teen boy. Back and forth, a well-rehearsed duo, the queries fly -- How old are you? What are your plans after high school? What do you want out of life? Do you want to be successful and respected?

The kid is pretty relaxed. Short, spiky jet black hair. Large silver earring in his right lobe. He keeps browsing the comedies as the Marines make their pitch: The USMC can pay for half of his college tuition; plus, if he enlists now, there may be a large signing bonus. The kid says that he doesn't want to go to Iraq. The Marines tell him that he probably won't go there. The kid smiles, shakes his head, and gently but adamantly says he's not interested. The Marines retreat, split up, and hunt for more possible fodder perusing CDs and cell phones.

"Couldn't help overhear," I say to the kid. "Nice job. You handled that well."

"Thanks." He pauses. "A buddy of mine joined the Marines. I thought about it, but I don't want to go to Iraq."

"And that's where you'd go. Those guys were lying. They want more troops over there."

"I know."

"Well, anyway. Take it easy. Have a nice Christmas."

"You too."

He checks out the teen in an approving way, then heads to the registers, DVDs in hand.

Later, at home, this little scene keeps bugging me. Did the Marines simply enter Best Buy and start hitting on teens without any clearance from the store? Or is Best Buy signed up for the war effort, offering its young customers to the military? I phone the store, and after pushing 28 numbers, finally get a human voice, a woman who works in the TV section.

"Hi. Got a question about in-store solicitation."

"Yes, sir?"

"I was in your store earlier, spending money, and I noticed two Marine recruiters trying to get your teen customers to enlist. What is Best Buy's policy on that?"

"I don't know if we have a policy on that."

"You mean, if I came into your store with a box full of bibles and started selling them to your customers, you wouldn't do anything?"

"Well, sir, we have a strict policy against outside solicitation."

"But aren't the Marines selling something?"

"I don't understand."

"Those Marines were selling the Iraq war."

"Were they?"

"They need bodies to send to the Middle East. Is it Best Buy's policy to provide these bodies?"

"I think, sir, that those Marines were selling service to our country."

"Which means sending kids to Iraq."

"I suppose it does."

"Let me get this straight. I cannot sell the purported word of God in your store, but the Marines, or any other branch, can sell war and not be thrown out. Is that about right?"

"Maybe you should talk to a senior manager."

"Great. I'd love to."

"I'll connect you."

After 20-plus minutes of listening to canned holiday music and the same pitch to buy plasma screens and PSPs, I get a dial tone. Cut off. So I try the national corporate office and am told that I must have been seeing things. When I insist that I saw Marine recruiters and that all I want is Best Buy's policy on this, if indeed there is one, the guy puts me on hold. More canned music and commercials. Then a recorded voice asking for my Visa, Discover or AmEx card number. I hit "0" in the naive, dated hope that this will swing me back to an operator, but all it does it make the recorded voice agitated, saying that it does not understand my request. I hang up and let the whole thing go.

The teen is perplexed by my digging.

"Recruiters are everywhere. Of course they're at Best Buy. They're at the fucking mall, for God's sake."

"I know. But doesn't it seem odd to you that a major outlet would serve up its customers to the military? It's bad enough that they try to get you to join all their 'savings' clubs. They're working for the Pentagon, too?"

"Get real. This is America."

So it is. And with every $100 purchase, Best Buy will throw in a free body bag. One size fits all.

Last May, I wrote of my son:

"All of this [cartoon] viewing has come in handy at his school's annual talent show, where the boy and I have performed brief physical skits to the delight of the assembled kids, but also to the consternation of a few parents who felt we were putting 'unsuitable' ideas in the heads of the children. Our biggest crime came two years ago, when the lad played a strange, abusive magician and I his hapless assistant/victim. The visual punchline came when he was to pull a rabbit out of his hat, but instead produced a pair of men's underwear. I then began to shimmy and shake, reached into my pants and yanked out the missing stuffed rabbit, which brought the house down. The kids loved it; the teachers seemed split; some parents smiled, but others glared at me when I came off stage. Within days I heard from some teachers that they received several complaints about how kids were pulling stuffed animals out of their pants at home while referring to our act. This cast a mild pall over our talent show appearances since, with teachers telling us 'no poop jokes, no references to butts, no hitting over the head, no kicking, and especially NO PULLING THINGS OUT OF YOUR PANTS.' We still do well (I mean, the kid has a ringer for a partner -- and a director, a duty the wife handles), our most recent bit being a recreation of a simple handshake, crammed with all kinds of visual absurdity, ending with me getting creamed with a large Cool Whip pie. That old gag still works, at least with elementary school kids."

Yesterday morning, the boy and I appeared before his class to give a brief lecture/demonstration of various comedic forms. His teacher assigned the class to talk about the traditions in their lives, and my son chose our talent show appearances. Originally, I wanted to go back and deconstruct the rabbit-out-of-the-pants gag, since kids still talk about it. However, the boy warned me that this was taboo and that we couldn't do it. I said that if it were in front of the entire school, that would be one thing. But this was to happen in front of a 5th grade class. Surely they could handle the rabbit bit. The boy still shook his head no. So I went to his teacher, who's really great and open to most things, and pitched the idea. She looked at me quizzically.

"Are you kidding?"

"No. It's just one class."

She, too, shook her head. "There is a ban on that kind of comedy here. Too many parents complained. You two made your mark on this school." She laughed.

"Wow. Really? Are those parents that constipated?"

"Come on."

"Can the boy hit me over the head with a big stuffed sock, then smash a whipped cream pie in my face? Is that allowed?"

"Yeah. I guess you can do that."

So that's what we did, explaining the logic of slapstick. The kids loved it, and laughed when I took the pie. As I walked out of the room, cream dripping down my face, a boy asked me about the rabbit.

"Maybe in middle school, son."

While we're on the topic of verboten comedy, I came across this old Howard Stern bit from his early-90s TV show. I hadn't seen this since it originally aired, and it's still incredibly funny, as well as disturbing, but this is Stern we're talking about. "The Homeless Howiewood Squares" shows Stern at his creative peak, and really can't be explained, just absorbed. There is, of course, Daniel Carver, The KKK Guy, whose racist language gets its own laughtrack. But there's also Susan Muldowney, The Underdog Lady, whose personal philosophy is based on that 1960s cartoon character, which she honors through interpretive dance. In the second part, she explains her world view in very passionate terms, and the look on "Match Game" host Gene Rayburn's face is priceless. High concepts crash against lowbrow jibes on a cheap Jersey set. No wonder this show beat "SNL" in the ratings.

I will have a special, holiday-themed post over the weekend. See you then. And if the below clips are yanked from YouTube, will someone please tell me? Thanks.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

George W.S. Trow

Was found dead in his Naples, Italy apartment on December 1. He was 63.

If you know anything about written humor of the 1960s, or of the early National Lampoon, then you've encountered Trow's sensibility. He was, as the obits stated, extremely witty and elegant in tone, not the type of humorist or memoirist meant for the masses. Trow, along with Christopher Cerf, was the first Harvard Lampoon writer to bring R&B and rock music into that musty, elite circle, thus opening it up for the many talents that followed. Yet despite his love for the pop music of the early '60s, Trow remained wistful for a more refined time. He especially hated television, and counseled his close friend Michael O'Donoghue against taking the "Saturday Night Live" gig in 1975. Trow felt that TV would cheapen if not wreck O'Donoghue's comedy, and in a sense, he was right. But O'Donoghue, who at the time was very broke and had always desired a showbiz career, ignored Trow's advice, and the two of them, while remaining friends, went in different directions.

I got to spend a couple of hours with Trow while researching "Mr. Mike," and he gave me a very in-depth interview. We met at the Telephone Bar in Manhattan. He was dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, gray hair close-cropped, a small man, but looking lean and strong. We sat at a corner table and had a couple of drinks. He spoke eloquently and emotionally about his own upbringing, his time at the New Yorker, how the National Lampoon came together, and of his relationship with O'Donoghue, one of the more meaningful friendships he said he ever enjoyed. A mutual friend told me that he thought that Trow was in love with O'Donoghue, and listening to Trow talk about his late friend while chain-smoking unfiltered Lucky Strikes, I believed it.

Trow was an enormous influence on O'Donoghue, providing a stylish example to an outcast writer who dressed in ripped pants and worn Army jackets. They collaborated on "Savages", an early Merchant/Ivory film in which a tribe of mud people wander into an abandoned mansion and quickly evolve into upper-class sophisticates, reveling in a decadent manner before returning to the forest and their previous, primitive lives. Trow also appeared on "The National Lampoon Radio Hour" as Mr. Chatterbox, a Walter Winchell-type gossip monger who repeatedly implored his listeners, "Do try to mix with a better class of people." In April 1990, Trow and O'Donoghue appeared on-stage together in O'Donoghue's short play, "The Paris of the Prairie," a bizarre little act featuring two old geezers on a porch trading stories about how decent society had gone to the dogs. It was a theme that Trow knew well and explored in his seminal work, "Within The Context of No-Context."

After speaking at length about his friendship with not only O'Donoghue, but also with Doug Kenney and the playwright Timothy Mayer, Trow suddenly became very emotional and looked a bit lost. He stubbed out his cigarette as tears streamed down his face. "I can't . . . I can't . . ." he said to me, then began to sob. I turned off my tape recorder and tried to offer some comfort, though what kind I had no clue, since he didn't know me at all. Trow then stood up and quickly left the bar, his crying increasingly loud. And that was that. Weeks later, I phoned him, but there was no answer. Then his phone was disconnected. When "Mr. Mike" was finished, I was told that Trow was living in Texas, though my source wasn't fully sure. It seemed that Trow was wandering around the country, never staying in one place for too long. Whether or not he ever received my book, I have no idea. Indeed, I didn't know he was living in Italy until my friend Josh Karp told me that Trow had died.

One by one, the old Lampoon crowd is fading away. While not as flashy or extreme as some of his compatriots, George W.S. Trow was nevertheless a solid, significant part of the generation that changed American comedy. Rest in peace.