Dispatches from the Creation Wars

My Favorite Things: Humorous Author

I posted on who I thought was the funniest comedian a few days ago, now it’s time for who I think is the funniest writer of our day. The award goes to Joe Queenan. Queenan is a freelance writer who has written in dozens and dozens of magazines as diverse as Spy and Forbes. He has also authored several books, including Balsamic Dreams: A Short but Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation, My Goodness: A Cynic’s Short-Lived Search for Sainthood, and the funniest of them all: Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon. This last book is simply one of the funniest books ever written. I’m going to post some excerpts from the first chapter of this book and hope to avoid any copyright problems. If any lawyers are reading, just think “fair use”.

Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon is basically Joe Queenan’s trip through the worst of American popular culture. He goes on a journey to experience the worst music, the worst books, the worst restaurants, the worst movies, and anything else he can think of. Needless to say, most of those horrible things are wildly popular in the US. In this respect, this book resembles, at least in tone, Paul Fussell’s BAD, another terrific book. Queenan’s journey begins, predictably and horribly enough, with the musical Cats:

Cats was very, very, very bad. Cats was a lot worse than I’d expected. I’d seen Phantom years ago, and knew all I needed to know about Starlight Express and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, so I was not a complete stranger to the fiendishly vapid world of Andrew Lloyd Webber. But nothing I’d ever read or heard about the show could have prepared me for the epic suckiness of Cats. Put it this way: Phantom sucked. But Cats really sucked.

One of the things that fascinated me about Cats was the way I’d managed to keep it from penetrating my consciousness for the previous fourteen years. Yes, I’d been walking past the Winter Garden Theatre at 50th and Broadway since 1982 without once even dreaming of venturing inside; and yes, I’d heard the song “Memory”; and yes, I’d heard about all the Tonys Cats had won; and yes, I’d seen all those garish subway posters; and yes, I’d been jostled by those armies of tourists streaming out of the theater at rush hour as I myself tried to hustle through midtown. But all those years that Cats had been playing, I’d somehow avoided even finding out what the show was about. Wandering past the Winter Garden all those years was like wandering past those dimly lit S&M bars in Greenwich Village: I really didn’t need to know the details.

Now my blissful ignorance had been shattered. So without any further ado, let me share the wealth. For the benefit of the two or three other people in this society who don’t know what Cats is about, here’s the answer: It’s about a bunch of cats. The cats jump around in a postnuclear junkyard for some two and a half hours, bumping and grinding to that curiously Mesozoic pop music for which Andrew Lloyd Webber is famous–the kind of full-tilt truckin’ that sounds like the theme from “The Mod Squad.” There’s an Elvis impersonator cat, and a cat that looks like Cyndi Lauper, and a cat that looks like Phyllis Diller. All the other cast members look like Jon Bon Jovi with two weeks of facial growth.

Sure, Cats is allegedly based upon the works of T. S. Eliot, but from what I could tell, the show had about as much to do with the author of “The Waste Land” as those old Steve Reeves movies had to do with Euripides. Cats is what Grease would look like if all the cast members dressed up like KISS. To give you an idea of how bad Cats is, think of a musical where you’re actually glad to hear “Memory” reprised a third time because all the other songs are so awful. Think of a musical where the songs are so bad that “Memory” starts to sound like “Ol’ Man River” by comparison. That’s how bad Cats is.

Ah, but this is just the jumping off point for his journey. There are larger fish to fry:

I came home from Cats feeling totally dejected. In the back of my mind, I’d expected the show to fall into that vast category occupied by everything from bingo to Benny Hill. You know: so bad, it’s good. But Cats was just plain bad. Really bad. About as bad as bad could get. Revisiting the horror in my mind later that evening, I consoled myself with the assurance that surely this would be the lowest point of my adventure, that nothing I subsequently experienced could possibly be in even the same league as Cats.

Then I cued up the Michael Bolton record.

So much for that theory.

For years, I’d been vaguely aware of Michael Bolton’s existence, just as I’d been vaguely aware that there was an ebola virus plague in Africa. Horrible tragedies, yes, but they had nothing to do with me. All that changed when I purchased a copy of The Classics. When you work up the gumption to put a record like The Classics on your CD player, it’s not much different from deliberately inoculating yourself with rabies. With his heart-on-my-sleeve appeals to every emotion no decent human being should even dream of possessing, Michael Bolton is the only person in history who has figured out a way to make “Yesterday” sound worse than the original. He’s Mandy Patinkin squared. His sacrilegious version of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” is a premeditated act of cultural ghoulism, a crime of musical genocide tantamount to a Jerry Vale rerecording of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” And having to sit there, and listen while this Kmart Joe Cocker mutilates “You Send Me” is like sitting through a performance of King Lear with Don Knotts in the title role. Which leads to the inevitable question: If it’s a crime to deface the Statue of Liberty or to spraypaint swastikas on Mount Rushmore or to burn the American flag, why isn’t it a crime for Michael Bolton to butcher Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”?

From horrible music to horrible movies:

In the days and weeks that followed, I gradually realized that mainstream American culture was infinitely more idiotic than I had ever suspected. Take movies. Over the years, I’d come to believe that a special ring of hell had been reserved for Lome Michaels for promoting the careers of Joe Piscopo, James Belushi, and others of their ilk. But nothing those dimwits had done on film had even vaguely prepared me for the prepaleolithic world of Adam Sandler and Chris Farley. The whole time I was watching Billy Madison and Tommy Boy I kept saying to myself, “I know that these people are alumni of `Saturday Night Live,’ so I know that if I sit here long enough, they will eventually do or say something that will make me laugh. Heck, they’re pros.”

Oh, foolish, foolish man! Hours and hours later, I was still in my chair, comatose, watching these Gen-X Ostrogoths ruin my day, my week, my civilization. Here’s Sandler setting a bag of poop on fire. Here’s Farley getting covered in cow shit. And here’s Bo Derek, co-starring. What a sad commentary on our society that we have produced movies so bad that you feel sorry Bo Derek has to be in them. Which just goes to show: No matter how famous you are when you’re young, if you don’t play your cards right, you’re eventually going to end up in a movie with Adam Sandler.

Was all this a surprise to me? Yes, I can truly say that the scale of horrendousness proudly displayed in these motion pictures was awe-inspiring. Sure, I’d known that these movies were out there, but not until I’d actually sat all the way through a couple of them did I have any idea how satanically cretinous they were. Until I saw Billy Madison and Tommy Boy, I’d always thought that the three scariest words in the English language were “Starring Dan Aykroyd.” Now I knew better. Being introduced to Joe Piscopo and Dan Aykroyd and only later learning of the existence of Adam Sandler and Chris Farley is like going to school and learning about the Black Plague, only to find out many years later that there’s something called the Blacker Plague.

And I don’t even want to talk about Pauly Shore.

The whole experience leads Queenan to coin a new concept and a new phrase:

Gradually, my passion for peerlessly disorienting experiences caused me to experience a strange new emotion. Technically speaking, there is no English phrase or idiom to describe the feeling to which I refer, so here I will take the liberty of coining the term scheissenbedauern. This word, which literally means “shit regret,” describes the disappointment one feels when exposed to something that is not nearly as bad as one had hoped it would be. A perfect example is Neil Diamond’s recent album, Tennessee Moon.

“Hollywood don’t do what it once could do,” Neil sings on the title track, so he packs up his “dusty bags,” grabs “an old guitar,” and hits “that Blue Highway,” rambling back to that “old Tennessee Moon” where he once “fell in love to an old Hank Williams song.” Yes, when Neil hears that “lonesome whistle moan,” he says, “So long, Big City,” because he’s “longing for those country roads,” and knows it’s time to “take a swing down south” to “see if that “girl Annie still remembers me.”

Let us ignore for a moment the implausible elements in this song, most importantly the fact that Neil Diamond hails from Flatbush. Let us also ignore the fact that The Country Record has been a cliche since Dylan recorded Nashville Skyline, that the record contains the obligatory phoned-in Waylon Jennings duet, and that Neil Diamond, a man who makes Burl Ives sound like Joey Ramone, does not come across in an entirely convincing fashion on the John Lee Hooker-type track where he sings “I’m gonna be rockin’ tonight.” This is a line that reminds me of the time Senator Al D’Amato got dressed up as “a narc” and went up to Harlem to register a “bust.” Man, did some shit go down that day!

Despite this abundant evidence of dire lameness, Tennessee Moon did not even approach Michael Bolton’s The Classics for sheer acreage of horseshit per square foot if only because Neil Diamond at his worst still sounds better than Michael Bolton at his best. The reason? At least Neil wrote the atrocious songs that he was slaughtering.

Yet, much to my consternation, I found this terribly disappointing. At a certain level, I had now begun to hope that everything I encountered would suck in a megasucky way, and was honestly disappointed when some proved merely cruddy. Like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, I wanted to gaze directly into the abyss, to stare at the horror. But as the days passed, as I ventured deeper and deeper into the heartland of hootiness, I grew crestfallen at the failure of certain monstrously popular cultural figures to achieve the bathetic levels I craved. Dean Koontz’s Intensity was sadistic, depraved, and revolting, but the book could not hold a candle to The Horse Whisperer’s Mephistophelian inaneness. Slam Dunk Ernest, a direct-to-video film about a lovable moron, was predictably idiotic, but because it had one good joke (Ernest, the unlikely basketball hero, changes his name to Ernest Abdul Mustafa), it could not rival the horrors of Billy Madison and Tommy Boy.

An interesting concept, this shit regret, but he had to apply it to one of the most popular singers in America:

Garth Brooks–Glen Campbell under an assumed name–was a perfect example of the scheissenbedauern phenomenon. Every Garth Brooks song I encountered was a redneck anthem about truckers, drivin’ rain, country fairs, burning bridges, that damn old rodeo, ashes on the water. In the typical Brooks song, “Mama’s in the graveyard, Papa’s in the pen,” there’s a fire burning bright, “this old highway is like a woman sometimes,” and some old cowboy’s “heading back from somewhere he never should have been.”

Garth is always sayin’ a little prayer tonight, payin’ his dues, shipping his saddle to Dad. But Jehoshaphat, he wouldn’t trade a single day, because love is like a highway, it’s one big party, and let’s face it: He drew a bull no man could ride. So all that’s left to do is whisper a prayer in the fury of the storm and hope you don’t miss The Dance.

It goes without saying that folks call Garth a maverick, heck, there “must be rebel blood running through (his) veins.” But sometimes you’ve just got to go against the grain, “buck the system,” even though “the deck is stacked against you.” In short, Brooks’s music was the musical equivalent of a Pat Buchanan stump speech, market-researched baloney where the lyrics were so generic you started to suspect he was using Microsoft’s Drugstore Cowboy for Windows 95 (not available in a Macintosh format) to write them.

But even though songs like “We Shall Be Free” blatantly ripped off Sly & the Family Stone–fulfilling the dictum that black music is always ten years ahead of the curve, and country and western twenty years behind it–and even though Brooks recycled more riffs than Ray Davies, and even though Brooks was so bland he made Gordon Lightfoot sound like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, these records didn’t actually make you puke. This was about the highest tribute I could pay to most contemporary country-and-western music.

On the other hand, it didn’t make me do anything. Somebody once said that when you turn on the radio, Genesis is what comes out. That’s exactly the way I felt about Garth Brooks.

So, all right, he chomped, but he didn’t chomp royal. He chomped in the same off-the-shelf way most millionaires in hyperthyroid cowboy hats chomped. But he didn’t bite the big one. And for some reason, this bothered me. When I went slumming like this, I wanted to cruise the bad slums. I wanted to hit Watts, the South Bronx, North Philly. From the cultural slumming point of view, Garth Brooks was little more than a slightly rundown neighborhood in Yonkers.

The rest of the book has each chapter devoted to a different aspect of popular culture, and there are some surprises along the way. He wades through the musical morass by going to see Barry Manilow (he liked him) and John Tesh (he accused him of “defiling the temple” of Carnegie Hall). He ultimately decides that Billy Joel is the single most loathsome singer-songwriter in history, which I disagree with entirely, but it’s still hilarious to hear him rip Joel to shreds. On the subject of movies, he decides that Cannonball Run II is the single worst movie ever made, but he considers this a compliment. And he’s right, that was truly an audaciously bad movie that was fun to watch because they KNEW how bad it was when they were making it.

Needless to say, Queenan’s journey into the pop culture abyss ends, like so many singing careers, in Branson, Missouri. I highly recommend this book, and virtually everything else that Queenan writes. He’s everything P.J. O’Rourke wishes he could be.

Comments

  1. #1 Stuart Levine
    March 29, 2004

    Anyone who thinks that Cannonball II is the worst film ever made either have bad judgment or have never seen Mandingo.

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