I performed on the L.A. Riot Festival at the Downtown Independent, two Sundays ago. It was an incredibly fun show to close out an incredible fun festival. Before my show, the audience booed a film about cupcakes. I got mad.
Don’t worry, this will all tie in to why you should vote.
I was waiting to go on, and the audience – who ended up being amazing, by the way – were forced to sit through a short advertisement for Sprinkles Cupcakes. Two whole minutes of their busy lives – gone! Sprinkles was a major sponsor of the festival – helped to make it happen, really – so they’d hired a talented young filmmaker named Maureen Bharoocha to do some short films for their company. They were funny and creative. The one they screened before my show had a groovy, film noir feel.
People booed it.
I flashed back to when I first started going to the American Cinematheque, back in the 90’s. This was before they had the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, and the Cinematheque a seat-of-the-pants, whatever-space-will-have-us operation. A local radio station – the always terrific 89.9 KCRW – would show these groovy, artistic short films about the station, letting the audience know about the shows and music they offered. None of these were more than 15 seconds long. KCRW was putting up money to make sure the Cinematheque got to show classic, obscure, and otherwise neglected films to the connoisseurs who loved them – and the connoisseurs booed.
At a screening one day, fed up with the booing (and the empty pose they represented) I shouted, ‘How dare these people put up money so I can watch these movies I love?”
People booed me.
I think I was in my early 30’s when I let loose on the booers and hissers. Before then, especially in my early 20’s, I would have been one of the booers. Come to think of it, I probably did the equivalent, somewhere in my past – at an all-ages show, or a rep screening back in Washington, D.C., or somewhere. You’re supposed to mindlessly, reflexively boo “The Man”, even if you don’t have the foggiest notion of who “The Man” is; even if you haven’t taken the two seconds to maybe think about what “The Man” is doing. It’s all part of growing up. It’s fine.
It’s also okay, once you get past a certain age and, through traveling or reading or just keeping your eyes open, to give the posers a nudge. It wasn’t even meant to be mean-spirited. I had people knock my head in the right direction when I was wasting my youthful energy on the wrong targets. I was passing along the favor.
But what bothered me about the booings and hissing at the Cinematheque, and then two Sundays ago at The Downtown Independent, was that they were coming not only from the mouths of 20-somethings, but also 30, 40 and 50-somethings.
There’s a line in Sunset Boulevard, where Joe Gillis, the washed-up screenwriter, says to Norma Desmond, the delusional ex-screen siren, “There’s nothing tragic about being fifty. Not unless you’re trying to be twenty-five.”
I’ve stopped trying to be twenty-five. It looks stupid on me. I went up, at my show at the Downtown Independent, and said as much. I defended Maureen’s films. I gently chided the audience for their lame booing. I applauded the twenty-somethings. I shook my head at the fifty-somethings, in their cargo shorts and ironic T-shirts. Generation X is currently staging a constant, flashmob rendition of Death in Venice. It’d be funny if it weren’t so tragic and infuriating.
Maureen sent me 6 pints of Sprinkles ice cream for going to the trouble of speaking out for her work. These will go down nicely; I’m not trying to be slim and young anymore. I can make rumpled work for me. Waist and collar sizes are way more comfortable once you commit to the God of Rumple. And as a bonus, the meal portions are bigger:
Now let’s go back to a week before the RIOT Festival. I posted a pic, both on Twitter and Facebook, of he holding a clipboard, with a link to a website called HeadCount.org. It’s simply a website trying to get people to register to vote. Look, here’s the picture:
They did a pretty good job, in the end, of getting people to register to vote. It was a noble, goofy, hopeful effort. In the face of a lot of fashionable indifference, there was action. It’s the reason I cry at weddings. Not because the occasion is so beautiful and touching – it’s the fact that, in the face of the insane divorce rate, and all the nay-sayers, there’s still two people saying, “fuck it.” It’s the eternal Huck Finn, tearing up his letter to Miss Watson, and saying, “All right then, I’ll go to hell.” It’s Morris Buttermaker in The Bad News Bears, deciding to coach a Little League team that everyone’s given up on. And it’s the housewives and hustlers, elders and outcasts, punching a fucking card in a smelly school auditorium somewhere, still believing in this wheezing, broken juggernaut of a country.
There were a lot of comments on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, from disillusioned twenty-somethings and heartbroken fifty-somethings still trying to act like they were twenty-something. “Stalin or Hitler?” “Choosing between Democrat and Republican is like choosing whether I want to be shot or stabbed.” “Scarecrow vs. Tin Man?” and blah de fucking blaaaaaaaaaaaah.
We’ve tried some pretty radical, amazing experiments with our democracy. The constant improvisation, the willingness to roll with the new, is what makes this the greatest country on the planet. Not our gods, or adherence to the ancient words in ink on hemp – it's the willingness to look at how the world is changing around us, and fucking roll with it.
So here’s the latest radical thing we should try. I don’t think it will cost anyone a penny to try it and, if it fails, fuck it. We at least tried it. We’ve tried crazier things. Ready?
What if...what would happen if Every. One. Voted?
As far as I can see, that’s the one thing we haven’t tried yet. Every single person who can votes actually goes out and votes. For whoever they want. Not even necessarily Romney or Obama. Whatever Green or Libertarian or undeclared candidate they truly feel speaks to them. What if every single person who can vote in this country went out and voted. What effect would it have on our elected leaders, knowing that every single adult of voting age made their voice heard and is waiting and watching to see what happens now? Would it change the way we’re governed – the fact that, for the first time in the nation’s history, our leaders have unshakeable proof that every single one of us is present and involved? What would happen? Wouldn’t it be cool to find out? Just once? Believe me, you could roll our eyes and Tweet irony to your heart’s content after you pulled the lever, but what would happen if the “I Voted” sticker was on every lapel, like a Guy Fawkes mask or smiley face button with a single slash of blood in the upper left hand corner? What if we didn’t boo the two minute film about cupcakes? If we’re the most awesome country on the planet, then aren’t we awesome enough for everyone to vote on its direction?
We’ll never know. I know this, but I can dream. It’s the one thing we haven’t tried. Maybe someday.
* * *
This brings me, finally, to the debates. And why I could not be more giddily, goofily, unreasonably excited to watch them.
It’s the comedian in me. The performer. You can actually change your life with one perfect set, or one flawlessly placed joke. George Gobel on The Tonight Show, and his line about brown shoes and tuxedos – immortality with one tossed-off line. Dick Gregory at The Roberts Show Bar in Chicago, telling an all-white, Southern crowd about spending “twenty years one night” in the South. Lenny Bruce at Berekeley. Sam Kinison on the first Rodney Dangerfield Young Comedian’s Special. Bill Hicks in the UK. Chris Rock’s Bring the Pain in 1996, and the “black people vs. niggers” routine – launching Chris into infinity and literally moving race relations into the 21st century. Patrice O’Neal on the Charlie Sheen Roast. Tig Notaro at The Largo last month. It can happen. Comedians know it. We see it all the time.
Read Robert Draper’s masterful “They Retort, You Decide!” in this month’s GQ, about how important these four upcoming debates are. About how past debates – and whole campaigns – have been made or ruined in a single phrase or gesture. George Bush Sr. checking his watch. Reagan radicalizing Carter with a simple, “There you go again.” Sometimes, of course, nothing comes from a debate performance, even a brilliant one. Maybe a three point bump. Maybe nothing.
As I wrote this, the HuffPo is reporting how Romney is preparing “zingers” for Wednesday night. Because his campaign is, at this point, an AMC Gremlin on fire on the expressway. His big donors are pulling out their cash and putting it into Senate and congressional races. Peggy Noonan, Bill Kristol and David Brooks are shaking their heads. This is it. And nothing has more potential for disaster and glory than a comedian cornered. Romney is a comedian right now, in the middle of a flame-out set, with half the audience walking out and the club owner threatening to cancel his hotel room and send him packing. He’s been flashed the light and he’s got five minutes to pull this thing together, to get a laugh, to get over.
Read Sarah Huisenga’s Atlantic article about debate expectations.
It’s sickeningly simple this time. Romney’s only advantage over Obama is that Obama can lose an audience, can actually bore the shit out of people, if he sticks to the script. Obama’s strength is when he’s surprised, when he’s forced to think on his feet. It’s how he crushed Hilary in 2008.
Romeny’s huge weakness is being surprised. It’s where he’s made all his fuck-ups (“I’ll bet you $10,000…”). Romney is in the unique position of having to make sure to make things unsurprising for his opponent, but make sure absolutely nothing happens off-script for him.
The tension’s going to be delicious. I’ve already for the wine picked out, the popcorn ready to pop. It’s a verbal Superbowl, a Thunderdome in neckties. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Because, let’s face it, this one is for the world.