Sunday, December 5, 2010

Everyone's a Comedian: My Not Brief Enough Foray Into Stand-Up

It was the summer of love, 1995. My band, The Poor Boys of Rock, was opening for a Pearl Jam tribute band called Itchy Fish. The venue, a bar in Medway, Massachusetts, was packed and had been applauding for us throughout our set. That was until it was my turn to sing. It was the only song in the set on which the rest of the band were stupid enough to let me sing lead vocals. I had proposed adding Hootie and the Blowfish's smash hit "Hold My Hand" to our set list. It's a simple song, consisting of merely three chords. So I thought it would be perfect for us. I sang my heart out on this little ditty, sounding as much like Hootie as possible, and when the last chord was played, when the song was over - there was just silence. Nothing. Not even a smattering of applause. I honestly think I heard crickets. It was one of the most amazing and offensive things I have ever experienced. I've seen awful bands before and applauded out of courtesy at least. I don't know if the song sucked, or if I just sucked, or if they didn't enjoy my Darius Rucker impression. I mean, a bunch of alt-rock Pearl Jam fans probably don't want to hear an H&TB song anyway. Whatever the explanation, I wanted to die, perhaps even kill myself right there on the stage, like GG Allin always promised to do. I was scarred, perhaps for life, that day. For years afterwards, this moment would stand as the symbol of my pathetic reach for pseudo-rock stardom. I could have sang a neo-Nazi anthem or one of the racist Johnny Rebel tunes from the 60s and received a better response than what I got that night. I vowed never to perform again. Actually, that's not true. I would perform as part of a cleverly named power trio "Sexx" just two years later, our only performance resulting in those in attendance actually shouting for us to stop playing. Because, like any performer, be it a tap dancer, a puppeteer, or a mime, I was born to perform. But this scene - the thunderous guitars, the stacks of speakers, the banging of the drums - through the years, was getting old. Perhaps there were better forms of entertainment out there for me.

Ever since I can remember, comedians have been my rock stars. Sure, I worshipped many of the 80s glam metal bands
when I was a teen, and tried in vain to grow my hair and have girls worship me. But it was stand-ups who had the true stage talent. Just a man or woman and a microphone. Maybe it was because it was something I couldn't do, or hadn't learned to do. I had stood in front of people and sang and played many times. It was nerve racking, but nothing a person who could play couldn't actually do, even if it was poorly and caused either unfathomable silence or near riots. At 15 my comic gods were Sam Kinison and Andrew "Dice" Clay. They hated each other, but I could never choose sides because they were both great. I had all of their tapes, and even cried when my father wouldn't let me purchase Dice's The Day the Laughter Died because of the "Explicit Lyrics" warning that appeared on the cover. I dug Carlin and Hicks, and had tapes of performers from Woody Allen to W.C. Fields. I had been a writer since high school, with humor always as the goal. The question did occasionally loom. Could I do what these talented people were doing? I had stood on stage and been maybe one hundredth of an Eddie Van Halen. Could I also be one hundredth of a Jerry Seinfeld?

There's an episode of Cheers in which the character Cliff Clavin decides we wants to have a go at stand-up comedy. Billed as “The Merry Mailman,” his routine is abysmal and consists of nothing but "What's up with that?" lines (e.g. "What about those Avon ladies? Ding-dong! What's up with that?") Even Cliff’s best friend Norm says, “I never thought I’d see a whole room full of people not laughing at Cliff.”

When Cliff is done with his set, the lights turn on and he looks around and no one is there except Norm. Cliff asks, "Where did everyone go?" "There was a bomb scare," Norm replies.

"Where?" Cliff asks.

"Right about where you were standing, actually," Norm says.

Cheers' mailman Clavin is one of the most sympathetic characters in television history. Whether it was being a contestant on Jeopardy! or having Johnny Carson do one of his jokes on The Tonight Show, he was always trying to be somebody, and always failing. We sympathize with him, and some of us even identify with him, because most of us have experienced a minor disaster like these that Cliffy had to go through. It was with John Ratzenberger's Charlie Brownesque character in mind, that I tried my own hand at stand-up comedy.

Our first story begins on a breezy March afternoon in Massachusetts in 2004. The New England Patriots had just won their second Super Bowl. Million Dollar Baby was the Academy Award winner for Best Picture. And Fantasia Barrino was on her way to becoming the third American Idol. Our (that is myself and my then girlfriend, soon-to-be fiance, and now wife Amy) neighbor Margaret had just published a book about being a survivor of a physically abusive marriage. We were very happy for her, both for coming through it strongly and for being a published author. To celebrate the book's publishing there was a spaghetti dinner at a local bar. For whatever reason, there was also going to be some open mic comedy. Nothing like some comedy to kick off the publishing of a memoir about spousal abuse. Margaret, knowing what a sensitive and funny guy I am, and Amy, despite knowing I certainly am not the former, each suggested I participate.

When you have a tendency to be funny in your everyday life, people will sometimes say, "You should be a comedian." I'm not someone who's always on. In fact, most times I'm completely off, like an air conditioner in the wintertime. But when I'm comfortable, I can be quite amusing, and some people have indeed said this to me. It's not uncommon, however, for two people to have completely different impressions of me - one will think I'm a comedian, the other that I'm just a creepy, silent dude. Of course, I had never done the stand-up thing before, but, like Cliff Clavin, I had always secretly wanted to. Then again, I always wanted to be a pro wrestler. To try that without any actual training would lead to certain injury, perhaps death. Just ask Brian Ong or Branden Starr. Well, guess what? You can’t because they’re both dead.

Tragic wrestling school deaths aside, just by pondering it, I was beginning to succumb to the "You should be a comedian" idea.
I really thought about it, whether I wanted to do this. It was open mic. What could it hurt? Of course, I had to come up with a routine. Would I be a singing comedian? A prop comic? An impressionist? So I prepared myself a set, some based on things I had already written. No sense in writing new material, I lazily thought. I mapped out a short set list and practiced. These would be my topics:

Part 1. Spring, Easter and Religion

Part 2. Gay Marriage

Part 3. The Red Sox-Yankees Rivalry

I think part of me wanted to burst some bubbles as my material on gay marriage and the Sox-Yankees rivalry might cause a little controversy. Watch out! Here's comes the new bad boy of comedy! I could have just gone up there with some memorized jokes from a Milton Berle book. Maybe drawn a face on one of my old socks and had everyone in stitches. Instead I wanted to do anti-religion, pro-gay marriage, and anti-Sox fan material.

Thus, on a cool spring night, Amy and I drove to this bar. The name of it escapes me. I think I forgot the name as soon as we walked in there. We had a tough time finding it, and I secretly prayed we wouldn't. I was ready to chicken out. I didn't want to tell Amy this. She believed in me, believed I was a funny man. Perhaps if I had piped up and said, "Oh, well. You know, there's a wonderful Italian place somewhere around here," she would have given up. Alas, after driving in circles for twenty minutes, we found the place.

We arrived, ate our dinner, and watched some absolutely atrocious stand-up from students of some guy's comedy class. Who's teaching stand-up in Fitchburg, Mass? I had no idea, but what a group. This boosted my confidence a little. Even if I sucked, my material was better than this! I figured most of these people received the class as a gift from one of their children. You know, just as you would buy your mom a pottery class? Oh, I was full of big talk and criticism. Just let me up there!

Once this hilarity ended, there was an improvisational comedy session. I guess there's an improv troupe in Fitchburg also. Who knew it was such a hotbed of comedy? I guess you can call it “Third City.” Somehow, I participated in this improv thing. I don't know how or why. Amy may have pushed me up there. The ridiculous thing is I actually killed. I was a riot and I really should have quit while I was ahead. The bit consisted of a duel between two contestants in which you had to name things, like brands of shampoo or types of venereal diseases, and keep naming them until someone can't. I was up against a woman and felt shampoo brands was more than a little sexually bias. But I'm pretty good at making stuff up. So when I ran out of brands, I'd say something like "Henderson." And they had to take my word for it. There were no judges. No one was checking my work. It was a stupid game, really, with a lot of holes. Finally, I lost. I shouldn't have said "Hitler." No one was going to believe that Hitler was a brand of shampoo. I then had to pretend I was dying - a foreboding sign of things to come. I was on my knees and everything. I was so Shakespearean. When this was finally over, I still had to painfully wait through a woman playing a bunch of songs on a guitar. Did I really want to be a part of this? I mean, is Letterman or someone from Comedy Central here? Why am I doing this? It was fight or flight time, and I was fighting for some reason. I was ready to make my comedy debut.

Finally, it was my turn to go up. This young man introduced me. He pronounced my name correctly, which surprised me. But, honestly, if there was one instance in which I would have liked a creative mispronunciation, this was it. So, I sheepishly walked onto the stage. Now here's the thing that really destroyed me. This is the thing that would have made or broken my experience: Had I gone up with my notes, a la Richard Lewis or Janeane Garofalo, I might have killed. I still think the material was stellar enough. Enough, I'm saying, for a bar in Fitchburg. I'm not saying hand this material to Chris Rock and he has a new HBO special. I'm saying it was funny enough compared to what I witnessed through the course of the evening. Most of the students had used notes. Make fun as I did, I was less than a student. I had been watching this stuff for twenty years, criteria I ridiculously thought made me qualify to perform without the prerequisite the other "comics" had. For some reason, I thought notes were a little hack, even for a beginner. But what did I have to lose? If I wasn't such an arrogant stand-up snob, I might have done well for myself. But, no, I had to go up and try to recite my first ever stand-up act by memory. I was practically shitting myself walking up to that microphone. Then I went on, getting a small amount of laughs with my bit about how the Easter Bunny killed Christ.

Then came my hilarious Miracle Whip bit, the tail end of which went:

That’s a board meeting I wish I were in on:

“Okay, Ted, what new product ideas do you have?”

“Well, sir, how about we put human feces in a can and call it Second Coming Sloppy Joe Mix?”

“Why, that’s a dandy idea, Ted!

Say, could you pass the crack vial?"

This was slightly reminiscent of the old Grape Nuts routine ("No grapes. No nuts."). And I regret that last line immensely. Someone in the crowd actually shouted at me, "You're on crack!" and I froze. Holy crap! I was just heckled! I saw the guy too. He was playing pool, probably not even listening to most of what I was saying. What do I do? I don't have any comebacks! I could tell him his mother's a whore and have him stab me in the parking lot later. I wanted it to all be over. This set, this night, my life. I mean, if Freddie Prinze, Ray Combs and Richard Jeni did themselves in, what chance did I have?

I wanted out of there immediately. Get the hook. Cut it short, I told myself. I was having a panic attack; yet, I was still holding that microphone. So I ignored the heckler, and within seconds I made the executive decision to axe the pro-gay marriage portion of my little show, which examined the arguments against same-sex marriage. There I would have been in a seedy hetero bar in Fitchburg defending the homosexual's right to be married to a bunch of people who were no doubt angry to be living in the one state at the time that would allow this to happen. I had a whole section about the slippery slope to incest and bestiality. I explored the Biblical arguments, and that it says homosexuals should be put to death, but it also says that any woman who can't prove she’s a virgin when she's married should be put to death. And "Yikes!" (I actually had that written in my notes - "Yikes!") That would make for some interesting ceremonies. There would have been just a bunch of material embracing the rights of homosexuals performed by yours truly in front of a bunch of drunks. Would it have been a hate crime if I had been beaten up afterwards? I'll never know, because I punched out of that bit like a fighter pilot from a burning jet.

However, perhaps just as bad was the bit I decided to go into next. I went straight for part three of my act: how Red Sox fans are stupid with their "Yankees suck!" chants every place they gather. I even did a Ted Kennedy impression in this bit. It was terrible. I also did a bit about the Curse of the Bambino. So, seven months later, when the Sox won their first World Series since 1918, you can bet I was taking partial credit for the victory.

I managed to get through this portion, and I didn't get lynched, but I was completely embarrassed and I wanted out
of there toot sweet. But Amy and I stuck around to say goodbye to Margaret. We never saw her. Amy later told me she said I was funny. But we saw her a lot less around the neighborhood after this. She was probably hiding behind cars every time she saw us. Either way, my first, and what I thought would be my last, stand-up performance was history. I was glad it was all over, and I really thought I would never do it again. I was worse than Cliff Clavin, Fozzie Bear, or anyone else who tried stand-up.

Now, I don't know. I might just be extremely hard on myself. Amy says I certainly am. After all, actor/comedian Richard Belzer wrote, in his 1988 book, How to be a Stand-Up Comic, that, "Failure is inevitable in early stand-up comedy," and that, "Everyone bombs in the beginning." He also wrote that, "You can't be a part-time comedian any more than you can be a part-time brain surgeon." Well, I decided that I would be less than part-time. After this experience I put performing stand-up completely out of my mind. One and done. That was my motto.

Now comes part two of our saga. Made, perhaps, oh, a thousand times worse due to the fact that rather than performing in front of a bunch of Central Mass drunkards, I was standing in front of my co-workers. Nearly two years after the Fitchburg Massacre, my department at work was having another of its yearly Christmas parties, or "Winter Celebrations." In fact, it was in January, on my mother's birthday, making it all the more horrible. The year prior, my co-worker Jim, who was a deejay on the side, brought his equipment to deejay the party, which was a karaoke extravaganza. Who knows if they ever paid him for his services? But it was such a success they decided to do it again. This year, as luck would have it, someone decided to expand and make it a whole talent show. There would not only be karaoke for all to sign up for, but if someone had another talent - like comedy perhaps - go for it. Being a guitar player, it did occur to me that I could just sing a delightful song. But there was no way I was going to laboriously bring my guitar into work and make an ass of myself that way. I only need a microphone to embarrass myself, thank you.

Right now, reader, you're probably asking, "Asshole, didn't you learn anything?" But, see, I had just come off one hell of a best man speech at my brother's wedding in England. I mean I killed. I was Jack the Ripper. But, of course, I was very much helped by my notes. Everyone reads from notes when giving a speech. That was the one time I was ever smart - or good - when standing in front of a crowd. Thus, basking in this recent victory, and forgetting the "You're on crack!" heckle that had been haunting me for 21 months, I said to myself, "Comedy, eh?" So I proudly marched up to the sign-up sheets and wrote my name under "Comedy." When it got out to my team members that I had signed up, one of them, my buddy Steve, asked me, "Have you done it before?"

"Once," I replied, just as confidently as if I had performed in clubs all over the country, and forgetting that you wouldn't go 21 months between your first and second brain surgeries. Steve was the kind of guy who participated in nothing, and someone I should probably have paid attention to. Words cannot describe the stupidity of doing something like stand-up comedy in front of everyone you work with. Parties like this should really be done outside of work, preferably at night at a bar. Not for ninety minutes in between the workday like this was. Booze is a necessity for karaoke, comedy, and anything involving a microphone and a crowd of people. Even priests have a big chalice of wine to get them through. I must have thought I was going to be great, and be a star to everyone or something. I mean I killed just a few weeks prior! My comedy translated to a whole nother country! I was on fire! Someone should really have slapped some sense into me. I let this best man speech go to my head.

The key, once again, was the notes. I again decided to absolutely NOT use notes while on stage, choosing instead to try to memorize my act as a seasoned veteran would. Mind you, a year later someone did a monologue from Jaws while reading notes. It wouldn't have killed me to do the same. Have I yet beaten to death that I really should have used notes in both of these instances?

This being a work event, I had a toned-down set planned. I was very careful picking the material. So I went with 80s nostalgia. That sounded like a great idea. A wonderful topic, in fact. Who doesn't love the 80s?

Here was my topics list:

Part 1. 80s game show Puttin' on the Hits!

Part 2. Fortune-telling game MASH

Puttin' on the Hits! was a syndicated lip-synching talent show in the mid-80s hosted by Allen Fawcett. I thought segueing from karaoke, and also with lip-synching hilariously being offered as a talent, to a retro topic like Puttin' on the Hits! was ideal and very safe. I also figured this would segue beautifully into my bit about the old Mansion-Apartment-Shack-House game.

Deejay Jim introduced me as "funny man." I was the lone "comedian" among seven or eight karaokers. And this was recorded. I know that. Someone has this on tape somewhere. So picture this material with very frequent stuttering and pausing and portions of it omitted because I forgot some lines. This went far worse than the Fitchburg Massacre did. And picture, also, that I was wearing what looked like a barbershop quartet shirt while performing these jokes. Belzer wrote that, "Your look is a matter of personal style," but I certainly didn't want to give off a Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby vibe.

It was show time. I began by stating that I wanted to do karaoke, but that Jim didn't have "Fishheads" or "The Humpty Dance." That was about the extent to which my game plan worked. I staggered through the rest of my act like Edgar Allan Poe through the streets of Baltimore:

You ever do Puttin' on the Hits with your friends, and lip sync to “Material Girl,” and everyone laughs at you and throws stuff at you? Oh, I did. Sitting there with my little sticker albums and my Lurky from Rainbow Brite pillow I made in Home-Ec… Hiding my sister’s friend’s jelly shoes while they’re in her bedroom:

Miss Mary Mack mack mack
all dressed in black black black

Playing MASH - Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House.

Brilliant segue, yes? I wish I could tell you it came out that way. At this point the microphone was a .357 Magnum and I was R. Bud Dwyer. I was trying to put together as much of my act that I could recollect into words as coherently and quickly as possible so I could get off that stage. It was then that I realized why they call a bad stand-up performance "bombing" or "dying." This is not hyperbole. It really feels that way. I can't say exactly where the Butt-headesque "Uhhhhh"s appeared. I do remember saying the words "I'm blanking," at one point. I realized I was doing worse than the comic Amy and I saw at this dive in New York who, during his set, actually said, "I hate my own act." However you feel about the sample material as it's written, just know it was delivered horribly, and I spaced out a number of times. I did get laughs, perhaps sympathy ones. I don't remember what Jim said when it was over, but I do recall returning to my seat, and seeing my friend Steve completely unable, or unwilling, to look my in the eyes. He was embarrassed for me, as he should have been. For once I couldn't wait to get back to my cubicle and do some work. There were a small few who told me I did great, but, overall, the after effect was akin to the Hootie fiasco. On my drive home I was like Philip Seymour Hoffman after he tried to kiss Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights. "I'm a fucking idiot! I'm a fucking idiot!"

The following year (Yes, I stayed for nearly two years after this.) my boss tried to coax me into performing again, but I was having none of that. I was officially retiring the microphone, the barbershop shirt, everything. I would not be appearing on Last Comic Standing anytime soon.

And that was my foray into the world of stand-up, perhaps the shortest career ever save for the countless people who smartly did it but once. I don't know that I ever would have had the stamina or heart to bomb hundreds of times over the course of months or years. Twice in a two-year span was plenty. I ended up having more respect for stand-ups than I had even before.

Steve Martin said, “Comedy may be big business, but it isn’t pretty.” The latter was probably never truer than when I was on stage, with the possible exception of when Steve Lubetkin leaped to his death from the hotel next to the Comedy Store in 1979. I imagine that was pretty darn ugly.

If comedy truly equals tragedy plus time, then I learned that tragedy equals comedy plus me. And I understand why people bungee jump or skydive. It's a hell of a lot easier on the ole nerves than trying to tell jokes on stage.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Michael Frissore: Pushcart Prize Nominee

One of my dazzling short stories, "Game Shows," has just been nominated for a Pushcart Prize by a wonderful fledgling literary journal called The Toucan, an outfit based in Pittsburgh, PA. This is huge news as last year my story "The Smell of Eggnog in the Morning" was nominated for Dzanc Books' Best of the Web anthology. So next year I hope to be up for a Nobel or something.

To read this Pushcarty story:

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The 9 Greatest Serial Killer Nicknames

The world has seen a hell of a lot of serial killers. With most comes an appropriate nickname, usually coined by the media, but sometimes used by the killer himself (or herself). A lot of these nicknames are boring. Every stupid nurse who murders a bunch of his or her patients is labeled The Angel of Death. There are plenty of those. It must be hard to stare at their blank faces and not snuff 'em. Still, how about a new nickname for one of these ghouls, like the Convalescent Killer or the Pillow Talk Slayer?

Then there's the simple practice of taking the area the murderer focused on and adding "killer" to it, such as "The Green River Killer" or "The Baton Rouge Serial Killer." Well, in that case, you'd best be hoping a second killer doesn't one day pop up in those places, because he'll be nothing but a sequel: The Green River Killer II. Electric Boogaloo.

Then there's the plain silly. William Heirens was labeled "The Lipstick Killer" because he wrote a message in lipstick at one of the crime scenes. Boy, I'll bet he regretted that once he heard what people were calling him. I'll bet he was made fun of back at the serial killer headquarters - "Hey, it's the Mascara Murderer!" "Watch out! Here comes the Rouge Ripper!"

What about Colin Ireland, the Gay Slayer? His name came from his choosing homosexuals as his victims, but it sure sounds a lot like he's the gay one. You also had Gerard John Schaefer, who snatched up the nickname "Florida Sex Beast" before Ted Bundy even had a chance. And Jerry Brudos, who had the awful, creepy nickname, "The Shoe-Fetish Slayer."

There was also Altemio Sanchez, "The Bike Path Rapist." Well, I don't care if the word rapist" follows it, "Bike Path" makes you sound like a nine-year-old. You were just skipping along, killing people while on your paper route.

There are also the many beasts, monsters, and vampires. But these are the nine greatest nicknames enjoyed by the world's serial killers.

9. Nannie Doss - The Giggling Granny/The Jolly Black Widow

You would think that Nannie Doss was a completely likeable woman. What's not to like about a grandmother who's always laughing and baking apple pies with five tablespoons of rat poison baked in?

Doss may have been a bit of a piker in only murdering family, including four husbands, her two children, her mother, two sisters, a grandson and a nephew. This puts her only a little above Andrea Yates, for Pete's sake. Anyone can kill family. Most of us think about it all the time. But she did have not one, but two great nicknames, and I don't mean the Fran Drescheresque name "Nannie." Between her "Giggling Granny" moniker and "The Jolly Black Widow," why has there never been a movie made about this silly woman? She was also given the name "Arsenic Annie, which would make one hell of a musical. Doss died in prison from leukemia in 1965. Wasn't so funny then, was it, Nannie?

8. The Zodiac Killer

Oh, sure, you might think of astrology as incredibly silly, what with the horoscopes, or horrible scopes, always appearing right below the latest Cathy cartoon, but was there ever as cool a thing as the puzzles the Zodiac left for police in San Francisco in the late 1960s? You might not think much of the zodiac. I mean, it does seem just a step above being The New York Times Crossword Killer or The Dear Abby Slayer, but this guy made it work.

And the fact that he was never captured only adds to the mystique. If the San Francisco media had just called him "The Murdering Ass with All the Stupid Symbols," he wouldn't be nearly as romanticized as he is today.

7. Dennis Rader - BTK

He of the very chantable, pro wrestling-type nickname. Just don't call him "the Bind, Torture and Kill Killer." This makes him the serial killer equivalent of ATM Machine and PIN Number.

Like Mr. Zodiac, BTK evaded police from his very first murder in 1974 all the way until 2005. He was also known for writing letters to police and the media. Had the Kansas man not written again in 2004, he might still be at large. But how cool is it to be a serial killer with a nickname consisting only of letters, especially when those letters stand for what they stand for? No wonder he wrote again after all those years and was arrested months later.

6. David Berkowitz - the Son of Sam

He's been glorified in song and film. They even named a serial killer law after him. He was one of the lucky murderers who nicknamed himself and had the name stick.

Berkowitz murdered at least six people in New York City in the mid-70s, leaving behind letters that referred to himself as "The Son of Sam," Sam being his neighbor Sam Carr, whose Labrador retriever Harvey, Berkowitz claimed, was possessed by a demon and had commanded that Berkowitz kill.

This lead to many questions at the time, such as how this made him Sam Carr's son, and why did they never question this evil dog? I mean he was at least as culpable as Manson was in the Tate-LaBianca murders. Didn't anyone ever think that this Sam guy named the dog Harvey after the six-foot white rabbit who commanded Elwood P. Dowd to kill? Dowd never bought Harvey's story, but Berkowitz was just too gullible.

The weird thing was that the two actual sons of Sam Carr were each dead by 1980, one from an apparent suicide, the other in a car accident. Berkowitz is still in prison, where he has found Jesus, God bless him.

5. Peter Stumpp - Werewolf of Bedburg

You may never have heard of Stumpp, who supposedly committed his crimes in Germany circa the 1580s. Apparently he was a wealthy farmer with a couple of children, and he may have had an incestuous relationship or two somewhere along the way, with both a distant relative and his own daughter. But that last part is easily forgivable since Stumpp was a practitioner of black magic. He even had a magic belt given to him by Satan himself, that, when worn, turned him into a mighty, vicious wolf, Hence his name, "the Werewolf of Bedburg."

From there the legend gets a little crazy. Stumpp was an insatiable bloodsucker of everything from humans to goats and sheep. He confessed (albeit under threat of torture) to killing and devouring 14 children, one being his own son, plus two pregnant women and their fetuses. Oh, and he had sex with a succubus, the lucky bastard. For his crimes Stumpp was brutally executed. All of this may seem a bit harsh, but what else was there to do in Germany in 1580?

Centuries later there was Albert Fish, the Werewolf of Wysteria, but that just sounds like he was a character on Desperate Housewives, killing people is a very silly fashion.

4. Nikolai Dzhumagaliev - Metal Fang

Okay, so you have a Russian serial killer. Already pretty cool, right? But this one has white metal false teeth. It's already the stuff of graphic novels! But wait, theres more! He's a cannibal, see, and he murders women with an axe, then serves them as dinner to all of his friends! And his name? Metal Fang!

It was Kazakhstan in the early 1980s, and Dzhumagaliev was having a great ole time with all the hacking and cannibalizing until his snitchy, buttinsky friends found a human head and some intestines in his refrigerator and ratted him out to the cops. Like many slashers, the grand total of kills for ole Nikolai ranges from the confirmed seven to perhaps as many as 100. Needless to say, Dzhumagaliev was found to be completely insane and was placed in a psychiatric hospital. He escaped in 1989 and eluded capture until 1991. Then they released him in 1994! To this day he's a free man and living in Eastern Europe with relatives who check their fridge and freezer regularly.

3. The Cleveland Torso Murderer

This is a tricky one because it sounds like he traveled to various circuses killing men billed as "The Human Torso," like Prince Randian on the cult film Freaks.

Also known as "The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run," the CTM was also never caught. In fact, most of his victims were Jane and John Does. The official body count is 12, all during the mid 1930s, which includes the lead detective in the case. But he could have murdered as many as 40 during a 30-year span, for all anybody truly knows. Per the nickname, most of the victims were beheaded, and their torsos were often cut in half.

The inability of famous detective Eliot Ness to capture CTM cut Ness's career short.

2. Sergei Ryakhovsky - The Hippopotamus

The Russian-born Ryakhovsky murdered at least 19 people between 1988 and 1993, but did the press give him the nickname "the Moscow Butcher?" Nope. "The Monster of Moscow?" Don't be silly. Due to his thick neck and pasty skin, and just his overall despicable bulk, he became "The Hippopotamus." There were some who called him "The Balashikha Ripper," but once the hippo moniker started going around, this commie might as well have been trying the eat marbles with his mouth controlled by little children.

King Hippo, who was also a necrophiliac, was supposed to face a firing squad in 1995, but apparently he was too easy a target. He's still serving life in a maximum-security prison.

1. Cayetano Santos Godino - The Big Eared Midget

If U.S. cities were more like Buenos Aires and Moscow and gave serial killers awful names, rather than cool ones, we might just see less and less of them.

This little fella was born in 1896 in the capital city of Argentina. At just 16 years of age he began setting buildings on fire and murdering children. Did the people of the city start calling him "The Buenos Aires Killer?" Heck, no. Due to his small stature and large ears, he was called "petiso ore judo," or "big eared midget." He died in prison in 1944. But don't cry for him. He's number one on this silly list.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Stern-Portnoy Connection

How radio’s most successful shock jock based his act on one of the funniest novels ever written.

Philip Roth’s 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint is considered one of the funniest in American literature. The story consists entirely of narrator Alexander Portnoy at his psychiatrist discussing his problems: his doting Jewish mother, the anti-Semitism which he believes surrounds him, his sex life, and so on.

Howard Stern, in addition to seeing his own psychiatrist, vents for four to five hours a day on his radio show, and has for twenty-five years. Stern was a nationally syndicated radio talk show host from the mid-80’s until his departure to Sirius Satellite Radio in 2006. He earned the label “shock jock” for his often sexual and racial humor.

Upon reading this literary classic, I was struck by the sense that perhaps some or most of Stern’s act has been fabricated and based on Philip Roth’s brilliant novel. Stern was fifteen years old when Portnoy was published. As a bright boy growing up Jewish and hoping for a career in comedy, how could Stern not have read this book? And what percentage of his fans even knows it exists?

The interesting thing is that no one cries about being ripped off more than Howard Stern. For almost twenty years Stern has labeled every other deejay in America and abroad as his “clones,” from small-market jocks to stars like Don Imus and Rush Limbaugh. Forget that Imus, Steve Dahl, and Dave Rabbit were doing Stern’s type of radio long before he did. Stern has gone so far as to claim that many television shows steal from him. Programs as diverse as MTV Unplugged, The View, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader, the entire Reality TV genre, Friends, and Beavis and Butt-head were all somehow taken from Howard Stern’s lofty brain.

It is, however, common knowledge within the radio industry that Stern himself has pilfered a few concepts here and there. It was two disc jockeys in Portland, Maine who first did a bit on the air called “Butt Bongo,” which Stern then started doing on his program and turned it into a successful video called “Butt Bongo Fiesta.” Fartman, for years Stern’s signature, originally appeared on a National Lampoon album in 1979, three years before Howard introduced the character on his show. In his first book, Private Parts, under the chapter heading, “Yes, I am Fartman,” Stern had the nerve to date the character back to his own childhood.

But it is where one would least expect to look, where many a Stern fan would rarely even venture, the literary world, that you will find the greatest example of Howard Stern’s thievery.

I should mention that I have the utmost respect for Howard Stern as a radio personality. I was an avid fan for eight years, from 1996 to 2004. He is indeed something of a pioneer, who, directly or indirectly, influenced many after him, even current shock radio top dogs Opie and Anthony. Stern could even be called a comedic genius who has employed many great comedians over the years, from Billy West to Jackie “the Joke Man” Martling to Artie Lange.

Family and Jewishness

Among Portnoy’s biggest complaints is his family: his doting mother, who checks everything from Alex’s wardrobe and fingernails to his stool; and his yelling, constipated father. “The Jack and Sophie Portnoy Debating Society,” Alex calls them, and the house he grew up in, “that lunatic asylum.”

Stern’s own family has long been fodder for his show. He has told many stories of his father screaming at him (Ben Stern screaming “Shut up! Sit down!” at Howard became very popular when Stern’s film Private Parts was released in 1997), and his mother doting on him to the point of checking his underwear and taking his temperature rectally into his teens. The latter is mentioned in Private Parts.

Like Stern, Alex, a Jew, takes issue with both Gentiles and Jews. About, “that sour grape of a religion,” Portnoy says, “Jew! Jew! Jew! Jew! Jew! Jew! It is coming out my ears already, the saga of the suffering Jews! Do me a favor, my people, and stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass.” A Stern fan could surely imagine this being said by Howard himself.

But Portnoy has little love for non-Jews – “…they know how to go out into the woods with a gun, these geniuses, and kill innocent wild deer…You stupid goyim!” When discussing Christmas and the birth of Christ, Alex wonders, “How can they possibly believe this shit?”

One of the most abundant topics on Stern’s show is anti-Semitism. He has often spoken out against Louis Farrakhan, Mel Gibson and others deemed to be anti-Semites. In 2004 Stern attacked Gibson for the anti-Semitism in The Passion of the Christ, and called Jay Leno a “lying douche” for not bringing up Gibson during Stern’s appearance on The Tonight Show. In 2001 Stern said his grandfather thought Superman was an anti-Semite, and in 2007 Stern called Don Imus “an anti-Semite and a racist.” Stern has also said that Polish people are “notorious Jew haters.”

There is no lack of Yiddish terms that both Stern and Portnoy use: meshuggeneh, mishegoss, schvartze, shtupping, shmattas, shvantz, and even one of Howard’s favorites, “Kishmir in tuchis.”

“Talk Yiddish? How?” Alex says in Portnoy. “I’ve got twenty-five words to my name – half of them dirty, and the rest mispronounced!” Similarly, you wouldn’t hear Howard use more than this. In 2001, a caller to Stern’s show asked him to define some of the Yiddish terms he often uses. These included schmate (rag), mishkite (an ugly man), and alta cocker (an old man). Stern has talked about how his relatives would speak Yiddish when they visited and he had no idea what they were saying. Yet Stern has even had a category called “Yiddish Sayings” in his “Black Jeopardy” games.

Stern has often lamented that, when he was growing up, everyone in his neighborhood in Roosevelt, New York moved away because of the influx of blacks moving in, but his parents wouldn’t follow. This caused him much angst, perhaps so much that this was something he couldn’t change about himself in his act. For Alex Portnoy’s parents actually did move to Newark from Jersey City because of anti-Semitism, and especially a rash of carved and painted swastikas in the neighborhood in which they lived.

This last point is especially interesting considering how affected Stern claims to have been by living in Roosevelt. Stern’s view of his own family may have been heavily influenced by Roth’s novel. One could even say that many Jewish families are like this. It’s certainly plausible that Stern read this book as a teenager, perhaps while his parents were screaming at each other. Maybe his sister just wasn’t around.

The Physical and Mental

Stern’s two favorite topics for self-deprecation are his nose and his penis, obsessions that mirror Portnoy’s. Discussing his mother, Portnoy says, “Of me, the heir to her long Egyptian nose and clever babbling mouth.” He even thinks of lying to people about his Jewishness (Stern claims to be half Jewish, though both his parents are indeed Jews.), “but how am I going to lie about this fucking nose?” Portnoy says. Callers to Stern’s program often make fun of his “schnoz,” and him being a “big nosed Jew.”

After the nose, it’s Stern’s penis (particularly its small size) which he obsesses about. Portnoy does as well. “I am so small,” he says. “I hardly know what sex I am, or so you would imagine.” He then refers to “that fingertip of a prick that my mother likes to refer to in public as my ‘little thing’.” Stern has, on numerous occasions, referred to himself as being hung “like an acorn,” or “like an elevator button.”

On a couple of occasions in Portnoy, Alex says he doesn’t smoke cigarettes or do drugs and hardly drinks, but he does use the word fuck a lot. When Stern was married he prided himself in his clean off-air persona: no booze, no drugs, in bed by eight o’clock. But, wow, does he too have a filthy mouth!

Alex also goes into how he gets “pee shy,” not being able to go to the bathroom when others are present. Stern has addressed this topic many times. In 1999, and again in 2001, he had Dr. Steven Soifer, author of a book called The Shy Bladder Syndrome, on his show. Stern even used the term “Pee Shy” in his book Miss America to introduce a chapter about longtime cohort Fred Norris.

If Stern talks about something, then hears that another radio personality talked about it in the same way, that host is ripping Stern off. Here you can call it influence, maybe even parallel thinking, but why wouldn’t this ever be the case when Howard is the one being supposedly being ripped off? Surely if a radio host were to discuss his lack of size or pee shyness, Stern would say something like, “I wonder where he got that from.”


There are passages in Portnoy that may very well directly link the novel to Stern’s career choice. Stern wanted to be on the radio when he was a kid, though, probably not at age five like he has always said. In Portnoy, Alex, a fan of radio shows like Fibber McGee & Molly, writes a radio play. “My radio play is called ‘Let Freedom Ring!’ It is a morality play…whose two major characters are named Prejudice and Tolerance…We pull into a diner in Dover, New Jersey, just as Tolerance begins to defend Negroes for the way they smell.”

Alex delights in listening to “three solid hours of the best line-up of radio entertainment in the world,” including Jack Benny and Fred Allen. Perhaps Stern took this queue from Portnoy: “My God! The English language is a form of communication! Conversation isn’t just crossfire where you shoot and get shot at…Words aren’t only bombs and bullets – no, they’re little gifts, containing meanings.” Portnoy even calls himself “Alexander the King,” perhaps leading to Stern’s referring to himself as “The King of All Media.”

Stern himself, when mentioning old radio, has pointed more to dramas than comedians like Benny and Allen. Surely, though, there has to have been some influence. While Stern hasn’t always shown respect for those who came before him, he has historically accused his contemporaries of plagiarizing from him, even if they were doing shock radio a few years before him. Indeed, this may be defensive paranoia on Stern’s part. Howard, having taken from the likes of National Lampoon and others, would certainly always keep an ear open for even the slightest rehashing of his own material.

Social Conscience

As indicated in the title of Alex’s radio play, he is a very patriotic man. “You name it,” he says, “and if it was in praise of the Stars and Stripes, I knew it word for word!” Stern has always been a patriotic radio host, particularly after 9/11, and has long gone after celebrities he has deemed un-patriotic. Like Alex, and despite his racist and homophobic reputation, Stern has quite a social conscience. Though, Stern and Portnoy both mix it with the ridiculous.

Calling himself, “The Great Emancipator,” Alex vows to free his penis from bondage, “Let my Peter go!” he demands. “My politics,” he says, “descended entirely to my putz.” In addition to his frequent “Black Jeopardy” games, in 1997, when Stern held a “Rap Summit” on his radio show, inviting rappers from both coasts of the country, his staff each took on rap names, with Howard being “Tarzan.”

Both characters fancy themselves, in an exaggeratedly humorous fashion, to be like a pseudo-Lincoln: Stern referring to himself as Tarzan, in control of the Black population; Portnoy draws a parallel between Blacks and his own genitalia. Stern might have learned from Roth how to combine his social conscience with the absurd, whether it’s sex or what some might find racist.


As on Stern’s radio show, there is no shortage of shock in Portnoy. There is a whole chapter, titled “Wacking Off,” devoted to Alex’s excessive masturbation, something Howard often speaks of himself. Alex, like Howard, discusses his bathroom wiping techniques, another favorite topic of Stern’s. “I wipe until that little orifice of mine is red as a raspberry,” Alex says. There are numerous examples of Stern discussing wiping techniques on his show, from excessive versus proper wiping to using baby wipes for avoiding hemorrhoids.

Portnoy imagines that “the sluttiest-looking slut in the chorus line” pours maple syrup and, “licks it from [his] tender balls.” When Portnoy farts in the bathtub, “she kneels naked on the tile floor…and kisses the bubbles.” Farts are a part of Stern’s legacy, and there was an amusing bathtub scene in his movie.

Alex also asks a friend, “Tell me what it was like when she did it…What about her tits? What about her nipples?…Tell me everything there is to tell about pubic hairs and the way they smell…” This sounds like Stern talking to a caller. Sexual fantasy and description have long been a huge part of Stern’s show.

Shock existed in literature long before Portnoy. One need only look at James Joyce’s Ulysses or Henry Miller‘s Tropic of Cancer for that. Stern has long prided himself on “introducing” shocking talk to radio and television; though, you can indeed find examples of FCC fines for radio crudeness going as far back as the early 70s. Stern has claimed that nobody said “penis” on television until he came along. One can nitpick about this, as Dr. Ruth Westheimer, at least, was using this word during Howard‘s early days in radio. Television, perhaps, hasn’t been ready for this word until very recently. According to the Parents Television Council, viewers didn’t hear a toilet flush on TV until All in the Family; the word “condom” was even spoken in primetime until Cagney & Lacey; and the words “screw” and “piss” didn’t make it until 1994. This certainly wasn’t all Stern’s doing.

The Monkey

In Portnoy, Alex introduces us to a character he calls, “The Monkey,” a female friend who speaks, “high-fashioned Italian,” and is his, “old pal and partner in crime.” Just thinking of her, Alex says, “gives me a hard-on on the spot!” But, “The sex-crazed bitch is out of her mind!”

We learn that The Monkey is from West Virginia and had an abusive father. Now, reader, this is going to sound racist, but it is in keeping with Stern’s “shock jock” label. The Monkey in Stern’s life could be one of two people. It could be producer Gary Dell’Abate, of Italian decent, who is often referred to as a monkey on Howard’s show. A more fitting answer, however, would be sidekick Robin Quivers. Quivers is Stern’s “partner in crime.” There is often sexual tension between the two, and she has been referred to as “crazy” on the show. Not only that, but Quivers, while not from West Virginia, is from Baltimore, and also had an abusive father.

With the character “The Monkey,” the similarities become uncanny. Leave the rest maybe to parallel thinking or unconscious borrowing, but here Stern has hand-chosen for himself a character from this very novel, and not once even mentioned the book on his program.


The juxtaposition of these two entities becomes downright spooky in the last third on Portnoy. Coincidentally perhaps, within the last hundred pages of the book, Roth uses the word “stern” a number of times. Parts of the details of one of The Monkey’s fantasies are boys seeking admission to West Point, and the ones selected are those “able to maintain a stern and dignified soldierly bearing…”

Alex, in another section, fears being accosted by a gang of anti-Semites while he stands, “wearing a stern expression on [his] pale face.” He also speaks of a woman who “used [his] name as a stern teacher would.”

Finally, Alex refers to being, “one happy yiddel down there in Washington, a little Stern gang of my own (capitalization of Stern is in the book).” Before landing in New York, Stern did his show in Washington. Robin Quivers and Fred Norris were part of his “little Stern gang.”

So there you have it. Could Stern, who labels disc jockeys across America “Howard Stern clones,” be a hypocrite and thief himself? If you know Stern, you may see the parallels. You may find these parallels coincidental, even ridiculous and far-fetched. Surely many Jewish families are like this, and surely vulgarity predates Portnoy, you may say. But they are certainly no more ridiculous than a man claiming that anyone talking freely on the radio or television is stealing from him. It’s definitely no more absurd than Stern saying no one had musicians perform acoustically in a studio before he did.

If I may recommend a book to you, read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Read it in Howard Stern’s voice if you know his program.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Those Lying Russian Wrestlers

I will never trust a Russian. Not because of my anti-Communist upbringing or the countless strippers who have refused me lap dances, but more because of professional wrestling.

When I was ten years old and started watching wrestling, I quickly learned to boo the Russians because they were always the bad guys. Every week I watched the National Wrestling Alliance, where "The Russian Bear" Ivan Koloff and his nephew "The Russian Nightmare" Nikita Koloff battled the likes of the Road Warriors and the Rock and Roll Express - two good guy, American-born tag teams - and I booed and hissed at those lousy Ruskies with all my might. A third Russian, Krusher Khruschev, joined the Koloffs, making it always a lopsided battle, those cheatin' commies.

Then when Khruschev left, Ivan Koloff brought in someone named Vladimir Petrov because Ivan's own nephew Nikita turned good and started teaming with "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes. Now there was a good guy Russian? How was I supposed to believe that? It was hard but Nikita seemed sincere, and he still used a move he called The Russian Sickle, but he used it against bad guys now, so it was all right.

The NWA even had a pair of masked Russians called the Russian Assassins, Russians so evil they have to hide their dirty Russian faces. They were trying to destroy Ivan Koloff when he turned good just like his nephew did. What, was the Cold War almost over or something?

About the same time, the American Wrestling Association had their own Russians, Boris Zukoff and Soldat Ustinov, who beat the Midnight Rockers for the AWA Tag Team Titles. Why, you dirty Russians! Who do you think you are? They were always beating up on handsome American wrestlers, guys like Ricky Rice and Derrick "Starfire" Dukes, who no one but me remembers and who could very well be dead like the rest of them.

Then, of course, everyone knows about Nikolai Volkoff in the World Wrestling Federation, who teamed with The Iron Shiek to beat the American Express for the Tag Team Titles at the first Wrestlemania. He too would later become a good guy. Under what circumstances I couldn't even begin to tell you, but it happened.

Here's what I really hate, and why I'll never trust another Russian. Nikolai Volkoff is the only Russian I've mentioned who was even an actual Russian! He's Josip Nikolai Peruzovińá of Mother Russia. He meant it when he sang that National Anthem. Notice none of the other Russians sang the anthem, all those nonsensical words to try to figure out.

How can they play these tricks on children, dressing up non-Russians and calling them Russians? That team of the two Koloffs and Kruschev? Turns out they were really two Minnesotans and a Canadian. Yeah, the stupid "Russian Bear," real name Oreal Perras, was from Ontario, same as Alexis Smirnoff, a wrestler from the 70s I never watched, real name Michel Lamarche of Quebec. And "the Russian Nightmare?" Just a guy named Nelson Scott Simpson.

"See ya, Mom. Me and Nelson are gonna go catch a Twins game."

"I don't want you hanging out with that Russian boy, Jimmy."

"Oh, mom. He's not from Russia. He's from right here in good ole Minnesota, dontcha know?"

Vladimir Petrov? Another damn poser from Minneapolis named Al Blake. I should never trust Minnesotans is what I should do, because that Soldat Ustinov liar was also Jim Lanning of the North Star State. That's four Russians who were actually born in Minnesota! And two from Canada, but who ever trusted Canucks anyway?

Then Boris Zukoff? Real name Jim Barrell, from down here in Roanoke, Virginia. What kind of Virginian pretends he's a Russian? That's treasonous!

Not only that, but those two guys who were the masked "Russian Assassins" were guys from New Jersey and Arlington, Texas, guys who most of us had seen wrestler sans masks under other names.

How do I know it's just wrestling that's done this to me? How do I know Dostoyevsky wasn't growing corn in Nebraska before he wrote Crime and Punishment? How do I know Stravinsky wasn't some dude from New Hampshire? Milla Jovovich, Maria Sharpova, Sergei Fedorov, you're all on notice. I'm watching your interviews to see if I detect a Canadian, Minnesotan, or any other type of North American accent and then I'm blowing the whistle on all of you. Then I move to the Estonians, Georgians, Lithuanians and Ukrainians. I'm looking at you, Oksana Baiul. You're not getting away with impersonating a former Soviet chick on my watch.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Bear Shadow By Frank Asch

Normally, the biggest crimes committed by bears are stealing picnic baskets, sucking at football, and being large, hairy, male homosexuals. Oh, occasionally one will maul a few buttinskies at a campsite, but these incidents are few and far between. Most bears just like sitting with a jar of honey, like Winnie the Pooh, or a nice marmalade sandwich, like Paddington Bear.

The character Bear in Frank Asch’s Moonbear series of books, while adorable as all freaking hell, proves himself to be perhaps a little more psychotic than the average parent might like. It’s in the tale Bear Shadow that Bear becomes something out of a Quentin Tarantino film. Not since Teddy Ruxpin has a bear been so capable of scaring the crap out of our children.

The story begins innocently enough. Bear is doing some fishing when his shadow scares a fish away. Bear then tries to run away from Shadow, something we’ve all done at one time or another. Some of us run from our shadows in fear. Others box our own shadows and try to bite its ear off. So there’s nothing strange going on just yet.

Bear hides from Shadow. He climbs up a cliff to escape, but Shadow keeps following him. Every child must wonder what Bear has to do to escape the pestering of Shadow.

It’s then that Bear goes off the rails. The next idea he has is to grab a hammer and some nails and nail his shadow to the ground. Now you have to wonder whom the true villain of the story is. One need only think of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and the parrot from the Monty Python sketch, to know that being nailed to anything is not a good time.

Luckily for all right thinking people, Shadow is like Jason in Friday the 13th. You can’t get rid of him that easily. When Bear zigs, Shadow zags, avoiding every nail this grizzly little guy throws at him.

Next, Bear goes Edgar Allan Poe on Shadow’s ass and tries to bury him alive. He digs a hole, seemingly unaware that Shadow is watching his every move. The element of surprise is completely lost on Mr. Bear. And when Bear fills the hole back up, Shadow, with the trickery of Bugs Bunny himself, is free from the premature burial Bear had planned for him.

From there Bear tries every other method he can think of. He borrows a gun and shoots Shadow. He tries to drown him, and set him on fire, the latter causing Smokey the Bear to pay our anti-hero an angry visit. But you cannot kill Shadow.

Is this the same Bear who wished the moon a happy birthday in Happy Birthday, Moon? The same kind creature who bought the moon a top hat? Goodness, it can’t be. Why can’t he just tell jokes like Fozzie? Or pitch for a sugary cereal like Sugar Bear?

If you compare Bear Shadow to the book The Berenstain Bears Kill and Eat Sister Bear or the episode of the Care Bears, “Bedtime Bear Goes to Sleep…For Good!” it’s relatively mild. Nonetheless, while Bear Shadow is indeed a wonderful little story, you may want to hide your hammers, nails and shovels after reading it to your child.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Let’s Read About Ruby Bridges By Ruby Bridges and Grace Maccarone

Martin Luther King Day is the day that we righteous Americans celebrate the time MLK said, “I’m MLK, and I’m here to recruit you,” as well as when James Earl Jones shot him for saying such a thing. These events both happened on the same day; thus, most people take the day off.

In honor of this day and man, I will be reviewing Let’s Read About Ruby Bridges, co-authored, perhaps coincidentally, by Ruby Bridges herself, the least known of the Bridges family. While her brothers Jeff, Beau and Todd became great actors, Ruby became a hero in the black community, a la Kool Moe Dee and Jaleel White.

Bridges co-wrote the book with Grace Maccarone, author of such wonderful children’s books as Three Pigs, One Wolf and the Seven Magic Shapes, Mr. Rover Takes Over, and Classroom Pet. Maccarone got her name, incidentally, after her father Yankee Doodle stuck a feather in his cap.

We all know Ruby Bridges’ story. In the early 60s many American schools that taught nothing but white children begged Bridges to come and matriculate at their facilities. But she wouldn’t. She would only attend black schools, until one day she agreed to go to a mostly white school.

Yet, this book tells a different story. It insists that it was the whites who kept Bridges out of their schools. Of course Bridges herself would tell the story this way more than forty years later, but how are we supposed to believe that Mr. Rover really did take over if Ms. Maccarone is revising history like this?

Thus, innocent white children everywhere are reading Let’s Read About Ruby Bridges today and looking at their parents with shame. These parents can only say, “Dude, I wasn’t even born yet. And, besides, my school was part of the bidding war for Bridges. We wanted her. She turned us down.”

But the children won’t believe it. Not when they hold the story told by Bridges and Maccarone in their tiny, alabaster hands. Not in Obama’s America. Next they’ll try to convince our children that Birth of a Nation was not a comedy.

The only thing I have to say to Ms. Bridges is, “Whatchu talkin’ ‘bout, Ruby?” And to Ms. Maccarone, I say, you’re delicious, but only with tomato sauce. I cannot eat you with just butter. Sorry.

By the way, these are jokes, people. I know the story didn’t go the way I’m saying it does. I admire Ruby Bridges just as much as John Steinbeck, Norman Rockwell, and Eleanor Roosevelt did. You learn all this in the book, which is wonderful. Read it. Cherish it. Tell your kids how awful white people are.

Again, kidding. Satire. Tongue in cheek. Planted firmly in cheek. God bless Ruby Bridges, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and God bless the U.S.A.

After 1968, of course.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Cock-a-Moo-Moo By Juliet Dallas-Conte


The beautiful thing about children’s literature is that you can tear through it pretty quickly. Tell the know-it-alls in your book club you just didn’t have time to read Nicholas Sparks’ stupid book because you read about 200 better ones. None of their beeswax that each is twenty pages long and full of pictures.

Such is the case with Juliet Dallas-Conte’s epic Cock-a-Moo-Moo from Little Brown. It’s perhaps 25 pages, but who knows? They ain’t numbered. Could be 40 or 50. Who’s counting? Not the little turds having this read to them. That’s for sure.

But here’s the problem with Dallas-Conte’s tale: Try to read it to your child without giggling. I myself turn into Beavis and/or Butt-head each time I say “Cock-a-Quack-Quack” or “Cock-a-Oink-Oink” to my son. One could imagine the author published the book after a wager with a friend:

Dallas-Conte: I’ll bet you I can publish a children’s book with the word “cock” in it no less than twelve times, including in the title.

Friend: It’s a bet, you naughty little minx.

A bet like this hasn’t been made in the publishing world since Wolfgang Petersen’s wager with one of his German buddies that he could turn Michael Ende’s novel The NeverEnding Story into a homoerotic fantasy film that would be screened at every NAMBLA meeting.

Cock-a-Moo-Moo is your classic loser-turns-hero tale. A rooster (See. Ms. Dallas-Conte never told her friend the main character would be an actual penis) is the laughing stock of an entire farm because he can’t properly cock-a-doodle-doo. Rather than turning the place into Columbine or setting all the animals ablaze with his telekinetic chicken powers a la Carrie, the rooster pays a fox to break into the henhouse one night and rape all the hens. Of course, Rooster pulls a swerve on the fox, clucking like a maniac, thereby waking up the animals so that they may chase the rapist fox away.

Oh, yeah. They may have come to snuff the rooster, but he ain’t gonna die. This is important because roosters had a bad name in 20th century American literature for years with Foghorn Leghorn shooting his mouth off in the 40s, 50s and 60s. It took a man like Rooster Cogburn and his “It’s payday, boys. Come and get it!” attitude in the 70s to change that. Things took a turn for the worse again when Terry Taylor wrestled as The Red Rooster in the WWF in the late 80s.

But, when the 21st century began, this unnamed fella brought honor to roosters everywhere. Cock-a-Moo-Moo, as far as my lazy bit of research has turned up, is Dallas-Conte’s only children’s book. Oh, she’s illustrated a couple of cookbooks (probably chicken recipes), but this is her To Kill a Mockingbird. And, just as President Bush handed Harper Lee the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007, maybe ole Barack ought to consider handing the same honor to Dallas-Conte for showing us just how brave and hilarious a rooster can be.