Originally published in Boulder Weekly

November 2007

I have been heterosexual for as long as I can remember. Yes, it’s true that I once screamed “I love you, Adam!” in the passion of the moment at a Counting Crows concert, and when I was in junior high, I made out with a girl from Greece whose Magnum P.I. mustache put my own hairless upper lip to shame. But aside from these inconsequential experiments, I have never participated in “the love that dare not speak its name.” (Church camp doesn’t count, of course.)

Therefore, I was a bit surprised when I first watched Late World with Zach on VH1, and I got a tingling feeling in my sin spot. I’d never had a man-crush before, and it was a frightening experience. I quickly called my friend, Paul, who has been in love with John Elway his entire life. Paul calmly explained that, in America, you can be heterosexual and in love with another dude as long as you drive a very large truck and constantly talk about how much you like vaginas.

“On the other hand,” Paul said, “it’s possible that you’re just very very gay.”

Over the years, my man-crush on Zach Galifianakis has grown into full-blown man-love. I love his shaggy beard and his wild hair and his fat Buddha belly. But mostly I love how he makes me laugh.

Just like Sarah Silverman, Eugene Mirman, David Cross and every other comedian who doesn’t artistically masturbate on a derivative sitcom, Hollywood will never figure out what to do with Galifianakis. [Future Me: Um, yeah, I was a little bit off with that prediction.] He’s too smart for them. And while that’s probably frustrating for his agent, it’s incredibly reassuring for those of us who truly love comedy as an art form.

Like an evil succubus draining the souls of unwitting sailors, Hollywood has been slowly sucking the life out of comedians for years. For example, Galifianakis and Silverman both have minor roles in the 2001 movie Heartbreakers, and it’s an interesting exercise in cultural devolution to watch two of the funniest people on the planet sit quietly in the background while Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sigourney Weaver and Gene Hackman attempt to provide the comedic drive to this femme-fatale revision of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

This type of thing has been happening for a long time, and it goes a long way in explaining the popularity of shows like Everybody Loves Raymond. Therefore, in order to comprehend the intelligent, yet anti-intellectual humor of Galifianakis, it’s necessary to put his art in perspective.

Think of it like this: If Woody Allen impregnated Lenny Bruce, who consequently birthed a bi-polar Yeti and then abandoned that freak child at the doorstep of Charles Bukowski, who turned him into a raging alcoholic before introducing him to Tom Waits and Chuck Klosterman, who later sold him acid at a party in SoHo where he managed to get involved in a three-way with Joan Didion and Daniel Johnston, who in turn gave birth to another hairy, deranged infant… that child would be Zach Galifianakis.

When I found out that Zach was coming to the Boulder Theater, I got so excited that I actually rented every season of Tru Calling, just to watch my man on a prime-time television show. Now that’s tru love!

At first, I offered to fly out on my own dime and interview him in California for this article. When that didn’t work out, I asked if I could chat with him on the phone. And after he rejected me a second time, I finally convinced him to answer my questions via e-mail. I waited. And waited. And waited.

When I just couldn’t take the suspense anymore, I wrote him another e-mail… and then I contacted his agent… and then I wrote him a message on MySpace with a smiley-face emoticon at the end of it… What was wrong? Did Zach like me or did he like me like me? I had to know.

Finally, mere hours before my deadline, I got an e-mail from his webmaster, a meddling bitch with the unlikely, Seussian name of Carnie Cacarnis. She said that Zach had done a lot of interviews lately, and he might have gotten “confused.” Unfortunately, he couldn’t talk to me now because he was “in the middle of the woods and out of Internet range.”

It was obvious to me what was happening: Carnie was trying to keep us apart. She probably had him trapped in a cabin deep in the forest, where she forced him to look at her stupid family photo albums all day, and if he tried to escape, she wedged a two-by-four between his legs and broke his ankles, à la Kathy Bates in Misery.

In any case, it was clear that I wasn’t going to get an interview. Fortunately, I think I know Zacharius pretty well by now. We’ve bonded throughout the course of this process, and I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if I wrote about what the interview would have been like if Crazy Carnie hadn’t stuck her nose in where it didn’t belong. I’m fairly certain that it would have gone something like this:

Zach Galifianakis lounges on his couch at his home in Venice Beach. He’s wearing a pair of loose khakis, house slippers and a silk shirt that’s open at the collar, allowing his curly chest hairs to dance in the breeze. There’s a bowl of grapes on the coffee table between us, and he periodically plucks one from the pile and puts it gently between his lips. It’s been a long day and he’s exhausted.

Dream Zach Galifianakis: You know, Dale, sometimes it’s difficult to be funny. People expect me to be a clown. Did you know that? They expect me to dance around like an idiot all day. Well, I have news for you, America. I’m not a clown; I’m an artist.

Dale Bridges: Do you know what else you are, Zach?

DZG: What’s that?

DB: You’re a human being.

DZG: That’s right, damnit! I’m not just some ridiculous monkey that entertains children at birthday parties. I’m a real person. Sometimes, I think you’re the only one in this world who truly understands me.

DB: What about Carnie?

DZG: Don’t make me laugh. It’s over between Carnie and me. I hope I never see that crazy webmaster again.

DB: Oh, you don’t mean that.

DZG: Yes, I do. After the stunt she tried to pull in the woods, she’s lucky I don’t press charges.

DB: Let’s not talk about Carnie right now, OK?

DZG: You’re right. This is our time. I’m sorry about all this confusion. Is there any way I can make it up to you?

DB: You can give me one of those grapes.

DZG: Oh, you…

We laughed and fed each other grapes and talked deep into the night. And then Zach lifted up my shirt and blew zurberts on my tummy. It was a magical, manly bonding experience between two manly men. Of course, like all manly things, eventually it had to come to an end. We were both sad when we parted ways, but we knew that we would always, always have MySpace.

Originally published in Boulder Weekly

April 2009

“Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” -Mark Twain

“I do think the patriotic thing to do is to critique my country. How else do you make a country better but by pointing out its flaws.” -Bill Maher

The great thing about doing an interview with Bill Maher is that I can pretty much write whatever I want in this introduction and people will read it. There are limits, of course. For instance, if I start to pontificate on the chemical properties of earwax or the mating habits of the majestic manatee, readers might decide to skip the intro altogether and jump straight to the Q&A section. But as long as I keep the discussion more or less on topic, I can take the scenic route to our destination. That’s one of the advantages of writing about popular culture — it’s popular.

Maher is an intelligent iconoclast who inspires controversy and attracts a diverse audience; everyone from Thoreauvian political activists to Pabst-guzzling frat boys find something interesting about this guy. He has been a humorist for more than 30 years, and in that time, he has starred in movies, hosted national television shows and toured the world with his unique brand of comedic skepticism. He walks a shaky tightrope between social criticism and entertainment, and that balancing act intrigues people. That’s why you’re reading this sentence, and it’s why I wanted to interview Maher in the first place.

Many would argue that the art form of stand-up comedy started with the “take my wife, please” vaudevillian performers of the early 1900s, and while this assessment wouldn’t be completely false, it’s also not completely true. Telling jokes is one thing, but engaging in subversive satirical art is something entirely different.

It is my contention that modern humorists such as Bill Maher owe their careers to a man named James W. Paige, who was not a comedian at all; he was a scientist. Specifically, he was an inventor.

Now, don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of this Paige fellow, because most people haven’t. He lived a fairly innocuous existence in the 1800s, went completely bankrupt toward the end of that century, and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave after he died. The invention he is most famous for is the Paige Compositor, which was an automatic-typesetting machine that weighed more than three tons and had approximately 18,000 working parts. Paige filed for the patent on his Compositor during the height of the technological age, when inventors were considered folk heroes on par with Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone. But for every Thomas Edison and Charles Westinghouse, there were thousands of over-zealous young men who could not turn their “Eureka!” moments into viable business models. Paige was one of those men.

An unrealistic perfectionist and an obsessive tinkerer, Paige fiddled with the details of his infernal typesetting machine for two decades before he discovered that it had no practical use in the newspaper industry, for which it was originally intended. However, Paige was blessed with unrestrained optimism and a silver tongue, and while he was working on his Compositor, he was able to convince various wealthy individuals to invest enormous sums of money in his hopeless contraption, always promising profits in the future. One of those investors was a man named Samuel Clemens.

Most people knew Clemens by his penname, Mark Twain, under which he wrote some of the greatest works of fiction in the English language, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson. He was one of the most successful and beloved writers of his time.

However, in the 1880s, Clemens was no longer a precocious, young artist. He was an elderly husband and a father of four. Tired of struggling to pay his bills as a writer, he set his sights on becoming, of all things, a businessman. You’d think a skilled storyteller like Clemens would be able to recognize a smooth-talking dreamer like Paige a mile away, but Clemens was blinded by greed and his own overactive imagination. As a writer, he was clearly a genius, but he did not have a practical mind. Clemens ended up investing more than $300,000 (this would be about $7 million today) in the Paige Compositor, and he lost it all. This combined with the demise of his publishing company forced Clemens to declare bankruptcy in 1895. He lost almost everything.

However, Clemens was a proud man and announced publicly that he was going to pay back his debts before he died. That was a tall order considering he was flat broke and owed more than $200,000 to various entities around the country. In an effort to recover his good name, he embarked on an ambitious lecture tour that consisted of nearly 150 appearances on five continents. This would have been grueling campaign for anyone, but for a man who was penniless and about to turn 60, it was particularly harrowing. As a young man, Clemens had gone on lecture tours to support his writing, and he had not enjoyed the experience. He stated that he would never put himself through that kind of torture again. But these were desperate times. He had no choice.

Clemens’ lectures were a combination of well-timed jokes, small-town anecdotes, readings from his popular novels and biting social satire. They were more successful than he could have ever hoped. Audiences around the world crowded into theaters to see this mumbling, wild-haired American with the droopy mustache and spidery eyebrows. Somehow he managed to entertain them with nothing more than a raspy drawl and a trusty cigar. The lectures were always amusing, of course, but it wasn’t just about getting laughs. Clemens used humor as a cultural weapon. He poked fun at the political tyrants of the day and openly advocated shocking social change, such as women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery. He criticized Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. No one was safe from his rapier wit. He combined literary storytelling and social commentary with live performance in a way that no one else had ever seen before. By the time Clemens returned from the lecture circuit, he had paid off every cent of his debt and emerged as one of pop culture’s first international celebrities.

This was the birth of the American humorist as a populist advocate for social conscience, and it paved the way for an art form that eventually became known as stand-up comedy. One man, one spotlight, and the only rule was that you had to leave ’em laughing.

It would be misleading to say that Bill Maher is the modern embodiment of Samuel Clemens. If any living comedian deserves that honor, it’s probably Jon Stewart. However, Maher does carry on a tradition that has become essential to the notions of liberty and individualism that we often take for granted in America. Comedy is a truth-telling ritual, and in tumultuous times, one can gauge the level of personal freedom in a society by how far its humorists are allowed to push the envelope. Maher is one of the few comedians who refuses to placate his audience and constantly pushes the intellectual and ethical boundaries of our culture. Like Clemens, Maher insists on attacking the most powerful people and ideas in this country, and it’s important that he continues to do so. If the Twains and Mahers of the world are ever restricted from expressing themselves, we’ll know America is in real trouble. We don’t always have to agree with him — in fact, I’m fairly certain Maher would be the first to suggest that we aggressively challenge his opinions — but it’s good to know he’s out there, fighting for the right to offend us.

If we can still laugh at ourselves, there is hope. When the laughter stops, that’s when the real trouble begins.

It seems like your comedy and your personal views have gone through an evolution over the years. How would you describe your current political and social ideology?

Wow, it sounds like I’m trying to get into college. Well, primarily I’d describe it as “funny,” because if I stop being funny, then I’m out of a job, and in this economy nobody wants to be out of a job. That’s my number one goal, to be extremely funny, so when I get off the stage, people feel like, “Wow, I spent money on him in the recession and it was worth it.”

But it is a pleasure to have a whole new act. I mean, six months ago it was all about Bush and war, and now it’s Obama and the economy and lots of other subjects. It’s really been fun. I just got back from Tulsa and St. Louis and Kansas City, and people are just hungry to hear about this new world… and to make fun of it. People need to laugh.

You’re often accused of coming down hard on conservatives, but you’re also critical of liberals, which I think is important.

Yes, yes. It’s funny; I was trying to get my friend Dennis Miller to come back on the show, and he said, “Last time I was on I got booed by your crowd” — you know, because he’s more conservative now. And I said, “Dennis, they boo me every week and it’s my show.” I think unless you’re getting booed you’re wimping out. You’re just preaching to the converted. You have to once in a while unsettle people’s opinions if you think they’re being complacent about their beliefs.

You know, Obama is not some infallible chocolate Jesus… that’s Kanye West. We like him and I think he’s doing great and he’s sprayed the country with a big can of Bush-Be-Gone, which I think is terrific, but there’s a whole world to talk about.

In your documentary, Religulous, you say you’re preaching a message of doubt. Why do you think doubt is important to America?

Certitude is the hallmark of those who are not very bright. If you think you know for sure, you don’t. It bugs me to no end when people talk about the theory of evolution as if it’s just another religion. No, there’s a very fundamental difference between science and religion. Science is always looking to disprove. Evolution is simply the best evidence we have right now. And by the way, for the first 50 years after the theory of evolution was printed by Darwin, scientists didn’t come onboard. But over time, there was a tipping point where they came to understand the theory and test it out, but it was always a theory they were trying to disprove. That’s not what Christians say — or Jews or Muslims. They don’t say, “Show me better evidence.” They are absolutely 100-percent certain.

One of the criticisms I got for Religulous was, “Oh, Bill, you’re such a big meanie. What does religion hurt? It gives people comfort. Why are you bursting their bubble?” And I really feel like perhaps my purpose in life is to make that connection of how religion is actually hurting people. You can start with the idea that 61 percent of Americans say they think religion solves all or most of their problems. Which is great — except that it doesn’t. So if you think you can pray away global warming, you can’t. And 25 percent of Americans think Jesus is going to come back in their lifetime. You know, before they cancel Ugly Betty, Jesus will be here and save the day. So if you ask me: Do you think there’s a connection between why this country hasn’t moved more on an issue like climate change and religion? Yes, I do. I think there’s an absolute connection. And then the other problem: People who think their comic-book hero is going to come back and save the day are much less likely to try to fix things, and we desperately need to fix things right now.

Do you think faith is always bad?

Well, it depends on how you define faith. Yes, I think it’s bad if it’s defined the way religion defines it, which is the willing and purposeful suspension of critical thinking. Yes, that is bad. If you mean: Do I have faith in something that has earned my faith?… Do I have faith that when I have breakfast at Denny’s, the eggs will be to my liking? Yes, I do, because I’ve done that before so my faith has been rewarded. Do I have faith that the new Bruce Springsteen album will be good? Yes, because I liked the other ones. But faith as a replacement for thinking… that’s the George Bush-style faith. That is not good.

If you could snap your fingers and rid the world of religion, would you do it?

Yup.

In Religulous, you pounded on the Muslims, Christians and Jews quite a bit, but you didn’t mention much about the fashionable liberal religions, like Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. I was wondering if there was a reason you didn’t get into that.

Yes. Time. Originally, we had talked about getting into Hinduism. We even thought about going to India, which would have been a focal point for Hinduism, Buddhism and Shinto. But the truth is there was just no time. So we made the decision to do the religions that are familiar to the Western world. The big three: Christian, Muslim and Jew. Of course, we included Scientology and Mormons because they’re sort of in the American camp. But it would have been too much explaining. I don’t think Americans know very much to begin with about those religions. It would have been a three-hour movie.

Why do you think Religulous was passed over at the Oscars?

Well, I think because of the subject matter. The Oscars are not known (chuckling) for wanting to break new ground, so I guess we should have seen that coming. But I think it does serve to help make [the Best Documentary] category more and more irrelevant. I mean, [Religulous] is the sixth-highest grossing documentary of all time. By any yardstick you want to use for why a doc should have gotten nominated — putting aside the fact that people actually saw this one as opposed to the other ones — it was something that challenged people. It was a topic that hadn’t been done before. There’s no reason they had for snubbing it, except that religious people are everywhere. Religious people sit on those boards. And they were just not going to have it. They were just going to do what they could to get back at it, and that’s one lever of power they had: just try to ignore it. But they can’t, and it will be around forever.

You’ve been criticized for being anti-American, but you actually have a lot of positive things to say about the United States. What types of things make you feel patriotic?

Well, right now, we’re undoing a lot of things that made me feel ashamed of my country. We’re closing Guantanamo Bay, and we’re stopping torturing people, and we can have stem cell research again, and we’re rejoining the world in trying to deal with climate change, and we’re not raiding marijuana clubs anymore, and we can talk to other countries without the dreaded preconditions. We’re even thinking about talking to Cuba.

We can’t change everything overnight, but we can at least try to get the smell of stupid out of the furniture. It’s so great to have an adult… Man, when you see Obama attacked by the Right with these stupid things… I mean, they’ve got nothing, but they constantly come up with some new thing to attack him for. “He’s buying a new helicopter… grrrrrrrrr.” “Michele is showing too much arm… oh, no.” “Hugo Chavez handed him a book!” And he just brushes it all off and gives you an adult response. We got so used to government being run by a clown posse; it’s astounding how good it feels when a man just handles the job like an adult and talks to us like we’re adults. You know, he quoted Voltaire. An American president quoting Voltaire! I felt like a hockey mom at the state fair when Jesus appears in the cotton candy.

Aside from religion, what do you think is the most dangerous problem we’re facing as modern humans?

Environment. That stuff is getting so scary and so dire that it might be too late already. This year, we’ve had so many discouraging reports from all these scientists concerning the glaciers melting and oceans warming. No one knows for sure what will happen when the glaciers melt, because they have always been essential to our survival. They reflect the sun’s heat back into the atmosphere like a giant mirror. So I guess we’re going to have to build a giant mirror.

Do you know who Ward Churchill is here in Boulder?

Yes, I had him on my show a few years ago. Now, what? He won his case?

Yes, he won, but they only awarded him one dollar.

(Chuckling) One dollar? Always the backhanded compliment of the one dollar. Well, I think this is a very conformist country. I think that’s one of our problems. People have said to me many times, because of my tribulations, “Do you think we have free speech?” Absolutely, we have free speech. I’m not worried about free speech. Like many other things, you have to fight for it sometimes, but even the Bush administration couldn’t touch free speech. What I’m more worried about is free thought — people on their own accord just not thinking outside the box. So I applaud anybody who is outside the box, and he certainly is.

We need more people who say things that make everybody else go, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you said that!” Yeah, well, just think about it then. At least the idea is out there. We can reject it. We can say he’s wrong about certain things. But at least he’s saying “the things that you’re not supposed to say.” This is such an “Oh my God you can’t say that” kind of country, and if someone says one thing that makes you a little bit uncomfortable, you have to go away for all time. Well, that’s not really what this country was founded as. So, yes, I don’t agree with everything he says, but I’m glad there are people like that speaking out.

A lot of your commentary deals with criticism of people following various leaders like sheep. As you become more popular as a media figure, does that ever worry you—people blindly listening to what you say without challenging your opinions?

I think it is always a problem when you have people who like you. But I think of all the people who might have that problem, I’ve got to be close to the bottom of the list, because my audience is primarily composed of free thinkers. Especially the people who come for the live stand-up shows. They really understand where I’m coming from, I think, and they understand what free thinking means. I notice this year that I get booed a lot in the studio by my own audience. And that’s OK. That tells me that we haven’t sold out, and we’re unsettling people’s opinions, which is something you should do. You shouldn’t just tell them what they want to hear.

You also talk about gender issues a lot in your comedy. Do you think humans are naturally monogamous?

Some. There are some people who are naturally monogamous… they’re called women.

I’m kidding. You know, people think I’m anti-marriage; I’m definitely not anti-marriage. I know many people — okay, well, I don’t know many people, but I know some people who are very happily married. They’ve found that person who makes them laugh and makes them happy, and they are infinitely more happy having that person in their life every day. That’s terrific. I’m not against marriage. What I’m against is the judgment that so many in our society make against people who choose the other path, who don’t choose to pair up with someone eternally. Because the viewpoint that is so often expressed, passively or not, is that this is somehow a failing. People have often used the world commitmentphobic about me. As if not wanting to commit to someone forever is a disease. And that’s what I object to. It’s not a phobia; it’s just a choice. It’s like, I don’t like sushi either, but I’m not sushiphobic. I’m not afraid of sushi; I just don’t like it. So that’s all I’m trying to say.

Why won’t you consider running for political office?

(Snorts) Well, you try to start a campaign with the slogan, “Drugs are good and religion is bad.” Please, I don’t get up before noon. There are press conferences, and you have to change your life, and I’m not married, and I go out with girls… there are a million reasons I could never get near elected office. I don’t think that’s my destiny. I was drawn to be a truth-teller and politics is anything but telling the truth.

Originally published in Boulder Weekly

May 2008

“I hate Paris Hilton,” he said, while chewing on a mouthful of Corn Nuts. “She has absolutely no redeeming qualities, and if there is a hell, I hope she burns there for all eternity after dying in a painful knife-juggling accident.”

I was on a bus to the airport when the man sitting next to me made that statement. We’d been talking about a wide range of topics: professional tennis, Billie Holiday, reality television and serial killers, just to name a few. I forget the man’s name (it was one of those three-letter monikers: Dan or Jim or Tom), but I do remember that his favorite serial killer was Jeffrey Dahmer. This stuck out in my mind because we talked about his interest in Dahmer less than five minutes before he declared his hatred for Paris Hilton. His demeanor had been affable and somewhat excited when talking about a notorious murderer who killed 17 people and made their skulls into ashtrays, but his voice dripped with venom when he began to discuss a blonde hotel heiress who hangs out with two yappy, annoying bitches (her Chihuahua, Tinkerbell, and Nicole Richie). Cannibalism he could understand, but The Simple Life was unforgivable.

I would estimate that about 73 percent of America currently shares Dan’s/Jim’s/Tom’s feelings toward Paris Hilton (if not his affinity for crunchy, high-sodium snacks and postmodern psychopaths), and I would never try to dissuade them. In fact, I can’t think of a single reason to like her. By all accounts, she appears to be a completely vapid human being, contributing absolutely nothing positive to the world whatsoever aside from pornographic fast food commercials and the occasional beaver shot.

On the other hand, I can’t really think of a reason to hate Paris Hilton, either. She has never done anything harmful to me personally (e.g. kicked me in the testicles) or to society in general (e.g. passed a law legalizing testicle-kicking). She hasn’t advised little girls to join the KKK or expressed a desire to punch newborn kittens. In fact, aside from a few traffic violations, the worst she can be accused of is pathological narcissism and bad manners, both of which are essentially endemic in Hollywood. Therefore, it would seem logical that we as a society would have no feelings about Paris Hilton at all.

But that’s not the case. Not since Yoko Ono yodeled her way into the zeitgeist has there been such a despised celebrity icon in Western culture. This is because there is absolutely no guilt involved in hating Paris Hilton. As Dan/Jim/Tom suggests, she has no redeeming qualities; hence, there is no glass ceiling on how much we are allowed to loath her.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that Jeffrey Dahmer has no redeeming qualities either. However, hating serial killers does not serve a purpose in our culture. We are not expected to glorify or idolize serial killers (which, of course, is (at least partially) why we often do); senseless murders are considered evil by definition. Celebrities, on the other hand, are constantly demanding our adoration. They flood our radio stations and dominate our televisions. They have perfect skin and perfect bodies. They are talented. They are charming. They are everywhere, all the time, and they are supposedly better than us in every way.

Except for Paris.

She is none of these things. She can’t sing. She has a lousy personality. Unless you’re into freakishly tan anorexic women, she is not very attractive. And she is such a horrible actress that even her homemade porn movies are stick-a-fork-in-your-eye boring.

It’s not just that we like to hate Paris Hilton; it’s that we need to hate her. She represents everything we secretly despise about celebrity culture but are not allowed to express.

If you want proof of America’s dysfunctional, passive-aggressive relationship with celebrities, look no further than the check-out line at your local supermarket. Every King Soopers and Safeway in the country has the same collection of entertainment magazines near the cash register. Half of them have covers that display beautiful, air-brushed photos of Cameron Diaz and Vince Vaughn aside gushing, pseudo-clever headlines, such as “Just Diazzling” or “InVINCEable!” and the other half are out-of-focus, unflattering tabloid photos of the exact same celebrities passed out on the sand in California like beached manatees. Sometimes, I see middle-aged mothers acquiring both types of periodicals at the same time, and I’m always amazed by their schizophrenic aesthetics. Do they a) adore Cameron Diaz, or b) detest Cameron Diaz?

Of course, the answer is really c) all of the above.

We want celebrities to be inhumanly attractive and glamorous, but we also need to know that they’re fat, disgusting sluts just like the rest of us. However, it’s difficult to properly express hatred for the very same people you’ve been socialized to admire. For instance, even if you can’t stand Tom Cruise’s smarmy smile, it’s impossible to completely separate him from the romantic, devil-may-care pilot in Top Gun or the pants-less teenager who won our hearts in Risky Business. To over-simplify the point, Tom Cruise symbolizes something more than Tom Cruise.

That’s why Paris Hilton is the most important celebrity in the world at the moment. She has never established an identity beyond the spoiled, vain media whore that she appears to embody; therefore, she serves as a type of resentment lightening rod for the general public. Instead of denouncing her as the bane of American culture, we should be thanking her for providing an invaluable service to a celebrity-saturated generation. She’s kind of like the pop culture version of Che Guevara. (I have no idea what that means, but I still think it might be true.)

Of course, not everyone agrees with my brilliant cultural analyses. When I finished explaining my theory to Dan/Jim/Tom at the departures gate at DIA, he threw away his empty Corn Nuts bag and smiled at me. “I understand what you mean, and it all makes sense,” he replied. “But nothing you just said changes this one, simple fact: I hate Paris Hilton.” And then he boarded a plane to Dallas, and I never saw him again.

Originally published in Boulder Weekly

May 2008

When I was eight years old, I punched my best friend, Ray Bledsoe, in the head because he said that Lois Lane didn’t really love Superman. In retrospect, I think I might have overreacted slightly, but at the time, I felt my actions were justified.

It might seem kind of strange to some readers that the only thing Ray found unbelievable about Superman was his personal relationship with his coworker. After all, this is a dude who shoots laser beams out of his eyes and fights crime wearing red boots and blue tights. However, Ray had a point. In the comic book world, Superman’s extraordinary abilities and fashion sense are completely understandable. He gained his powers when the radiation from Earth’s yellow sun mutated his alien DNA (duh). And as for his costume: try kicking the crap out of super villains while wearing blue jeans and Birkenstocks sometime. I think you’ll find it’s a lot harder than it looks.

On the other hand, it’s difficult to believe that an intelligent woman like Lois — who is a newspaper reporter, for the love of God — would be fooled by Superman’s lame Clark Kent disguise: a blue suit and a pair of dorky glasses. Ray’s argument was actually fairly sophisticated for a kid that slept with a Scooby-Doo night light. Ray believed that a woman who is truly in love with a man should notice certain details about him — such as the fact that he is the same goddamn person she sees at work every goddamn day. At best, their relationship is dysfunctional. At worst, it is a sham.

Of course, Superman and Lois have always been a bit of a mismatch. Superman was raised in Smallville, Kan., by his foster parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, while Lois is a city girl, hailing from the appropriately named Metropolis. He’s the conservative boy scout-type; she’s a blue-state feminist. At the very least, they need to watch a few episodes of Dr. Phil and work on their communication skills before they start apartment hunting.

And when you think about it, as a boyfriend, Superman/Clark is emotionally distant and a bit passive/aggressive. He keeps secrets. He won’t talk about his real parents. He can see through walls and hear conversations that are happening two miles away, which is bound to feel a tad invasive after a while. But Lois is no prize, either. For starters, the woman is workaholic and kind of a narcissist. She’s always blowing Clark off to go on some assignment for the Daily Planet. She never has time for anyone else. And she’s horribly superficial. She drools all over Clark when he’s dressed up as the athletic, handsome Superman, but she won’t even give him the time of day when he puts on a pair of glasses.

In many ways, Lois and Clark represent the ultimate paradox of modern American gender roles. Lois has to work twice as hard to prove that a woman can succeed in a man’s world, but at the end of the day, she ignores opportunities to engage in an emotionally satisfying relationship and instead falls for the hunky, tough guy who can come to her rescue in an emergency. Clark tries to be passive and non-confrontational whenever possible, but society is constantly demanding that he assert himself through violence and authoritative behavior (America doesn’t just want men; it wants super men).

In short, Lois and Clark are my parents. And they’re probably your parents, too.

In the same year that I punched Ray Bledsoe in the head, I began to notice a change in my parents’ relationship. They were never the type of couple to make-out in public or call each other pet names like “Pumpkin” and “Sugar Britches,” but now they seemed to actively resent one another. My dad started spending all his time in front of the TV, and my mom became an exercise nut. They divided the house into occupational zones. At night, while my dad watched the Broncos game in the living room, my mom angrily lifted weights in the basement. The kitchen was the Gaza Strip.

And while my parents were fighting over psychological boundaries throughout the house, I was retreating into the fantasy worlds of sci-fi and comic books in my room. I chose Superman because he represented unconditional idealism. Unlike Batman, the Incredible Hulk and other comic book heroes with complicated motives, there was no ambiguity with the Man of Steel. Superman was always good, and he never failed. Therefore, when Ray Bledsoe suggested that Superman and Lois might not be as happy as they appear on the surface, I kind of flipped out, because on some level I knew he was talking about my parents.

There’s a reason why the Baby Boomers have such a high divorce rate. They were the first generation that had to deal with the knowledge that America (and, by extension, the American family) wasn’t perfect. And while scholars will probably point to Vietnam and Nixon to explain this, I will always think about Superman at the North Pole, locked away in his Fortress of Solitude. He and Lois can’t talk about their problems, because if they do their universe will implode, so they just sit there, ignoring one another, waiting for Lex Luthor to blow something up.

Originally published in Boulder Weekly

June 2008

Here’s the type of person I am: if my best friend were bitten by a zombie tomorrow, I would shoot him in the head immediately. No hesitation. No wah-wah goodbye speech. None of that pussy crap. Just BLAMO! And I would expect the exact same treatment if I were suddenly zombified.

You see, folks, when the zombie apocalypse comes, there isn’t going to be time for sentimental nonsense. Do I love my mother? Of course. Did she read The Poky Little Puppy to me when I was 5 years old and make me peanut butter sandwiches with the crusts cut off? Yes, she did. Will I chop her head off with a machete if she rises from the dead and tries to eat my pancreas? You’re goddamn right.

This is by far the most frightening aspect of the whole undead paradigm, and it is why most people will not survive a zombie attack. Unlike other creatures in the horror genre, zombies are not faceless psychopaths or supernatural monsters that you can immediately disassociate yourself from. They are your homeroom teacher. They are the girl you took to prom. They are that sexy cousin who wore black fingernail polish and made you think naughty thoughts during family reunions. (Hi, Sandy! How’s Aunt Helen?) Anyone can become a zombie at any time, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it except blow their brains out when it happens and then go on with your life. This is why zombies are the perfect metaphor for modern culture and why I am slightly obsessed with movies that feature stiff-limbed ghouls that rise from the grave and stumble around in search of human appetizers. They represent the brain-dead khaki-wearing hoards you see every day lined up at Starbucks, twitching and grinding their teeth like heroine addicts because they haven’t yet had their caffeine enemas.

The first time I heard about zombies was in Sunday School. “Jesus called out in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.” John 11:43-44. Of course, nine chapters later, Jesus also rises from the dead. He doesn’t bite off a chunk of Peter’s ear or start nibbling on Mary Magdalene’s large intestine — BUT, right before he dies, Jesus makes the disciples eat their first communion, which is supposed to represent his body and his blood. And that’s pretty damn creepy when you think about it.

Now, before all you James Dobson Storm Troopers get your panties in a bunch, let me explain that I’m not saying all Christians are mindless bloodthirsty corpses. I know at least two or three Lutherans who have never tried to rip my skull open and eat my brains. However, there is definitely a lot of religious imagery in the Bible that coincides with zombie mythology (and don’t even get me started on vampires).

And I’m not the first to notice this correlation. There have been hundreds of articles and books written on the subject over the years. In 2006, Baylor University Press published a tome called Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth by Kim Paffenroth, an associate professor of religious studies at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY. (In case you didn’t know, George Romero is the director of Night of the Living Dead, the iconoclastic indie film that defined the modern zombie movie.) In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Paffenroth said, “I think zombie movies want to portray the state of zombification as a monstrous perversion of the idea of Christian resurrection.”

This statement may or may not be true, but the irony is that Paffenroth herself comes from one of the largest zombie factories in the country. Every year, colleges across America crank out politically correct, multicultural clones who inevitably end up transforming into the middle-age hipsters you see at trendy restaurants wearing $75 Che Guevara T-shirts and $400 blue jeans designed to look like they belong to a dairy farmer in Oklahoma. Universities are just as responsible for producing mindless automatons as television, video games and Hare Krishnas.

The point here is that our society is composed of countless theological/cultural/intellectual institutions that control our thoughts.

Personally, I belong to the zombie organization known as “The Media.” We take large, complicated subjects and reduce them to simplistic sound bites that are then forced onto the masses until the general population becomes so confused that they lock themselves in their suburban homes and eat mountains of delivery pizza and take Xanax and watch Oprah and cry themselves to sleep.

So go forth, American zombies, and find some delicious, juicy brains to munch on.

American Idolatry

January 14, 2012

Originally published in Barrelhouse Magazine

Fall 2006

For twenty-seven years, I lived what I thought was a relatively happy and satisfied life. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there were good times and there were bad times, there were ups and there were downs, but through it all I considered myself fairly lucky to be blessed with the existence that fate had afforded me. I had a safe (if somewhat cheerless) childhood, which allowed me to feel the joy of overcoming some minor psychological obstacles and served as an excuse for all of my future failures. I was educated, traveled, and relatively well-read. Although I wasn’t wealthy, unlike most Americans, I was at least debt free. I was single, and since women are generally more caring, thoughtful, and intelligent than men, I always had girlfriends that were both more attractive and more interesting than me. Furthermore, I wasn’t gay, black, handicapped, or female, so I didn’t have to constantly consider how this successful life was perceived by the general culture. Sure, there was some white, male guilt wrapped up in there, but I had long since learned to smother that by listening to NPR and carrying a copy of Toni Morrison’s latest novel with me wherever I went. Yep, in 2002, I considered myself a relatively happy man.

But, apparently, I was wrong.

There was something missing in my life, even back then, only I didn’t know it yet. Those relationships and career goals that I had worked so hard to nurture were just proverbial carrots on a string, wild geese that I chased in order to fill the void while the true piece of the cosmic puzzle remained just outside my grasp.

Then, in the spring of 2002, it finally happened: a group of television executives at FOX imported a reality show from England that they renamed American Idol, and at long last my petty, little, inconsequential life was complete. At least, that’s what I’ve been lead to believe.

I don’t watch a lot of television myself, so I have never seen an entire episode of the groundbreaking show that has held the nation in its grasp for four long seasons, much like the taloned hand of Satan holding a still-beating heart over the eternal flames of Hell. It’s my theory that FOX teamed up with the CIA to test some type of new psychological weapon on the public that hypnotizes mass audiences through their television screens. Since I have never actually been able to sit through all sixty minutes of this mindnumbing marker of the end of civilization, my brain remains untainted. This is the only way that I can explain the overwhelming, almost cult-like following of such an obviously horrible show.

Even though I don’t watch American Idol, I know all about it. I know that Simon Cowell is rude and British; I know that Paula Abdul is always nice to the contestants, no matter how badly they suck; and I know that Randy Jackson used to be fat and he says “Dawg” a lot. I know that Kelly Clarkson was the winner of season one, Rubin Studdard of season two, and some girl with the unfortunate name of Fantasia was victorious in season three. Without ever listening to a Ryan Seacrest monologue, I know that there was a large lady named Frenchie who got kicked out of the competition because she once modeled nude for a website devoted to plus-size women. How do I know all of this? Because it is simply impossible to ignore American Idol in this country. The public will not permit it. I have told people time and again that I don’t watch American Idol, that I have never watched American Idol, and, in fact, that I loath American Idol. It makes no difference. They don’t understand. It’s like telling a Texan that you don’t enjoy the taste of beef or informing an entomologist that studying bugs is probably the must boring past time on the planet. They either a) think that you are lying or b) believe that you haven’t really given t-bones or termite collecting a fair shake.

Fans of American Idol stare at me in wide-eyed amazement when I tell them that I would rather dip my ball sack in honey and sit on an ant hill than listen to my favorite songs get raped by a group of future Vegas lounge singers. And, inevitably, they try to convince me to reconsider my opinion. I don’t know exactly why. Does it really matter whether or not I like their show? I love to read Hemingway but when I come across someone who isn’t keen on his prose style, I shrug and say, “Yeah, he’s not for everyone.” And then I get on with my life. I don’t follow them around reading passages from For Whom the Bell Tolls in the hopes that, through mere repetition, I will be able to make them see the error of their ways. American Idol fans are like newly inducted Jehovah’s Witnesses, forever stalking me with a copy of the Watch Tower in one hand and a Justin Guarini single in the other.

If it was merely the general public who watched American Idol, I might be able to let the issue go, but it’s not. Most of my good friends and respected colleagues watch it as well. This is, for me, the greatest enigma. Call me cynical or conceited if you want, but I have very little faith in the ability of the average Joe Shmoe to form an educated opinion when it comes to popular culture. In fact, I expect bad taste from the moron who cuts me off in traffic or the bitch that breaks out two dozen coupons in the express line at the supermarket. Most of us just don’t have the time or inclination to wade through the media blizzard and figure out that Britney Spears is a hillbilly Barbie Doll who would be more at home wrapped around a stripper’s pole than in front of a microphone. And to be fair, it isn’t really the consumer who has poor judgment as much as it is the executive in the board room who sacrifices quality for efficiency. It’s simply a lot easier to paste a pretty face on a bad idea than it is to worry about originality, talent, or content. I know that the general populace is too busy to make such inconsequential comparisons, but I expect more out of my close comrades.

All of my good friends are college graduates, many of them with masters degrees and beyond, and they are all—absolutely every single one, without exception—smarter than me. Oh, I probably read more books and I have a specific talent for circular logic and sarcasm that makes me appear to be the victor of many dinner table debates, but this is not really intelligence. Have us all sit down in front of a game of Trivial Pursuit or Scrabble and you will see my IQ points drop like the Dow Jones on September 12th. This is what keeps me awake at night. I could understand if they watched the show with detached amusement for sociological purposes, but this is simply not the case. They love American Idol. They are invested in it. They groan when certain Idol hopefuls hit a particularly spine-wrenching note and they cry out in protest when one of their favorites is voted off. You would think that Pontius Pilate was sentencing the son of God to death instead of a bitter, pompous, English man making overly critical remarks about a group of well-dressed karaoke singers. It’s crazy.

After the Vietnam War ended, my uncle never even mentioned the horrors he witnessed on the battlefield, but it’s been a year now and I have a coworker who still tears up whenever someone speaks of the Clay Aiken/Rubin Studdard decision. I mean, come on, does it really make a difference whether they gave the title to the fat black guy or the skinny ambiguously-gay guy? Neither one of them can write their own music or play a goddamn instrument anyhow.

And that is the heart of my criticism, I suppose. American Idol is simply a larger manifestation of an endemic problem in the music industry, which is the fact that there are fewer and fewer musicians in a corporatized image factory that specializes in spitting out Britney Spears clones. Instead of artists, we are being overrun with entertainers. For every Tom Waits or Tori Amos, there are twenty or thirty J-Los and Hillary Duffs waiting in the wings, like sirens attempting to lure a nation of lost Homerian characters onto their island so they can suck out our souls through our eardrums. They are an army of backup singers posing as leads, thousands of David Cassidys who believe in their heart of hearts that they are really John Lennon. Instead of mastering guitars or pianos, future Grammy winners would be better off learning how to fit into hot pants and install hair extensions.

Which is why American Idol is not just bad, it’s evil.

Of course, my opinion on this issue is completely irrelevant. Reality television is fake and nihilistic, but so what? That’s what television is for, which is why we love it. No one wants to come home from an eight-hour day at a soul-crushing job and sit down to a David Lynch movie. We want brainless, clever entertainment that makes us laugh without humor and cry without depth. That’s the beauty of television and no one really wants to take that away—not even me.

No, I don’t necessarily mind that American Idol makes millions of dollars for FOX while the Bob Dylans of the world starve to death. That’s the way it’s always been, and Bob Dylan wouldn’t be Bob Dylan without a little hunger and heartache thrown in there. What really gets my goat is that I am personally unable to ignore the whole phenomenon. I have been denied my constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of apathy. My friends are hooked on American Idol and they won’t stop talking about it, which, according to my calculations, leaves me with three options: 1) chuck this whole society business, find a cabin somewhere in the woods next to a pond, change my name to Henry David, and spend the rest of my life eating trail mix and burning cow dung for warmth; 2) get some new friends; or 3) start watching a show that makes me want to stick a fork in my eye.

Number one would definitely be a possibility, except for the fact that I’m about as rugged as a baby kitten with none of its survival instincts. I can’t hunt or cook or really build anything more complex than a peanut butter sandwich.

Number two is out of the question. I don’t have a lot of good friends because…well, to be completely frank, I don’t like other human beings. Don’t get me wrong, I am not one of those people who believes that humans are intrinsically corrupt or evil, just that they are intrinsically boring. Most people have nothing new or interesting to contribute to my life, or even to a conversation. It’s not necessarily their fault and it doesn’t make them bad people, but it also doesn’t mean that I should be forced to pretend to be amused when they tell me a twenty-minute story about how their three-year-old daughter eats her peas with a fork instead of a spoon. I have six very good friends and I don’t plan to make any more. Unless sex is involved, I don’t want to talk to anyone outside my current social circle.

Which brings us to option number three. It’s really not asking too much, I suppose. All I would have to do is relax on the couch for an hour every week and keep my big, cynical mouth shut and I could make everyone so very happy. Just sit back and watch while a group of eager, beautiful young men and women compete for my adoration. Quietly observe while Ryan Seacrest—that middling, talentless, unfunny Dick-Clark-with-highlights—becomes the voice of the next generation. Simply turn my head and cough while society gets sucked down into a dark, ugly vortex of banality and bad taste, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the end of the disco era!

Or I could go take a note from my old pal Ernest Hemingway. When Hem discovered that the world was inevitably doomed despite his best efforts to save it, he put a shot gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger with his big toe. Let’s see, shot gun…American Idol? Shot gun…American Idol? It’s really a no-brainer, I suppose. Pardon me while I do some toe stretches.

Originally Published in Boulder Weekly

July 2008

“If crime fighters fight crime and firefighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight?” –George Carlin

Shit. Piss. Fuck. Cunt. Cocksucker. Motherfucker. Tits.

These are the seven words that defined George Carlin’s career, but you won’t see them in any of the mainstream newspaper articles written about his death. Oh, sure, some rebellious columnist over at the Miami Herald might drop a piss or a tits in there to impress the office worker he’s banging in the copy room during his lunch break, but you won’t see a fuck or a shit. This is because most journalists aren’t allowed to use these terms, even when they’re praising a man whose greatest legacy was battling censorship by saying the exact same words their publishers will not permit them to write. The irony of this is so poignant and surreal that it actually sounds like one of Carlin’s own comedy routines. I can picture him up in Atheist Heaven right now, an eightball of coke in one hand and an underage prostitute in the other, laughing at all the timid assholes in The Media trying to reconstruct his punch lines with third-grader terminology: “What the Fword, mother-effer?”

In 1972, Carlin was arrested in Milwaukee after performing a comedy routine called “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television.” (There you have it, one more reason to never ever go to Milwaukee.) This was a philosophical diatribe that ran about 20 minutes or so and showcased Carlin’s gift for deconstructing society by stringing together long, poetic sentences packed with offensive soliloquies. About a year after Carlin’s arrest, a similar set of his jokes broadcast over the radio instigated a Supreme Court case that set the precedent for FCC regulations on “obscene” material. (These are the same regulations that would eventually inspire the infamous “It Hits the Fan” episode of South Park and force Howard Stern over to satellite radio.) These incidents helped establish Carlin as a counterculture icon and marked the beginning of his lifelong battle against censorship, a battle that ended on Sunday, June 22, when he died of a heart attack at the age of 71.

Shit. Piss. Fuck. Cunt. Cocksucker. Motherfucker. Tits.

These words all refer to anatomical parts, sex acts or bodily functions: Feces. Urine. Intercourse. Genitalia. Felatio. Matriphilia. Breasts.

I can think of hundreds of words more offensive than these in the English language: Lie. Murder. War. Politics. Fundamentalism. Apathy. O’Reilly.

Here’s the deal with words: They are supposed to be symbolic representations of these little things you have running around in your head called thoughts. Language does not have its own agenda. The word prick, for instance, is just a combination of four consonants and one vowel that, when arranged in the correct order, can be used to represent a specific action or object. And that single word can take on numerous meanings depending on the context in which it is used. As Carlin noted, “On television, you can talk about pricking your finger, but you can’t discuss fingering your prick.” Language is the most sophisticated tool that we have for human expression, which is why certain groups are always trying to control it.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, Hypothetical Reader. You’re thinking, “Hey, cocksucker, what about offensive, exploitive words like faggot and nigger?” Well, you’re right. These are terrible, hurtful terms that have been used by ignorant men and women throughout history to feed our fears and promote a culture of hate. And it makes perfect sense that members of the gay and African-American communities would want to take these words away from the fraternity homophobes and redneck racists who hide behind language instead of using it as form of articulation and transcendence. It is also reasonable that feminists wouldn’t want to be called cunts by brainless, macho cockbags and Mexicans would take offense to the word wetback rolling off the tongue of some Beverly Hills housewife who has never worked a day in her goddamn life.

However, it’s not the words themselves that are evil; it’s the humans who use them. Carlin understood this, and that’s why his comedy is important. He challenged the Orwellian demigods who constantly try to control our thoughts by outlawing the symbols that we use to express them.

It’s not necessarily that our thoughts shouldn’t be controlled; it’s that we should be the ones controlling them.

The Sky’s the Limit

January 13, 2012

Originally published in Boulder Weekly

September 2008

I’m thinking about redecorating my apartment. Nothing fancy, just a giant 7’ by 7’ Cross-Word Puzzle Mural to cover the east wall in my bedroom. It has 28,000 clues and 91,000 squares, and it comes with a 100-page help book and a nifty storage box, all for the very reasonable price of $29.95. Of course, if I purchase that, I’ll also need the World’s Largest Write-On Map Mural, which covers more than 10 square feet of wall space and features capitals, countries, major cities, political boundaries, time zones, ocean depths and more! This is the only detailed, eight-color 2006 mural of its size, and it’s a bargain at just $149.95.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that my living room is going to look pretty drab after my bedroom has been bedazzled with these unreasonably large wall-hangings. That’s why I plan to throw out my couch and replace it with a full-scale replica of King Tutankhamen’s Egyptian Throne Chair. At just $895, this detailed copy of the 3,500-year-old original is a steal. With a hand-painted gold exterior and a carved lion head on each armrest, it’s a must-have for any Egyptophile.

I know, I know — the throne is going to look ridiculous sitting next to my normal, boring oak bookcase. Which is why I absolutely must have the matching $895 King Tut Life-Sized Sarcophagus Cabinet, which looks like an actual sarcophagus on the outside but also has a surprising amount of shelf space on the inside.

*     *     *

I first discovered SkyMall magazine on a flight from Denver to Chicago in 1996. I was 21 years old, and it was the first time I’d ever been on a commercial jet. Consequently, I was scared shitless. I tried to relax by listening to music and digging my fingernails into the right arm of the octogenarian sitting next to me, but I couldn’t get my mind off the fact that I was sitting in a 300,000-pound hunk of metal that was filled with 50,000 gallons of flammable fuel hurling through the sky at 500 mph. For the first time, I truly understood the meaning of the words “death trap.”

After annoying the flight attendant with a million questions, most of them concerning the laws of gravity, I finally picked up a SkyMall and started to flip through the pages. I was immediately enthralled. Robotic vacuum cleaners; collars that translate your dog’s barks into human speech; fish tank coffee tables; musical toilet-paper dispensers — I was perfectly content for the rest of the flight.

Over the past decade, I have continued to collect SkyMall magazines, although I have never made a single purchase from any of them. My favorite issues sit on my coffee table (which, sadly, is not also a fish tank), and I look through them on a nightly basis. As a tool for understanding American culture, SkyMall is more important than The New Yorker, Harper’s, Newsweek, Esquire and Rolling Stone combined. These magazines can only give you facts and supply you with social commentary; SkyMall on the other hand is an ongoing sociological experiment. And since SkyMall’s only agenda is to make money, you can trust that it’s not influenced by anything except greed. SkyMall products that don’t sell are quickly removed from the magazine, but the popular items return month after month, year after year. Therefore, if you’re an obsessive nerd with a lot of time on your hands like I am, you can trace cultural trends by examining how the contents of the magazine evolve over time.

It’s important to note that SkyMall customers don’t fit into a single category. I doubt if bluecollar workers in Detroit are scratching their heads and wondering where they can find a portable commercial steam cleaner or an electric shoe buffer. On the other hand, SkyMall is not just a magazine for high-class millionaires, either. It’s difficult to imagine Donald Trump and his cronies ordering a toolbox with orange flames painted on the side or a bar stool with a motorcycle seat.

At first glance, SkyMall appears to be extremely random and chaotic: a hot dog cooker on one page and a tapestry depicting the French countryside on the next. However, if you read it consistently, you realize that SkyMall has actually tapped into an extremely specific piece of our national psyche: the desire for more. No matter what socio-economic class we belong to, Americans want more. If we have a 24” television, we want a 32” television, or a 45” television, or a flat-screen television. If we have an appliance that makes two pieces of toast at a time, we want one that makes four pieces, or six, or we want an appliance that cooks rotisserie chicken while it balances the checkbook and plays samba music. Americans defeated the British, we conquered the wilderness, we landed on the moon, and now we want a fountain pen with a builtin digital recorder and an FM radio. All for the very reasonable price of $89.99.

Dear Mr. Wonka,

I have read one book and watched several documentaries about the inner workings of your so-called chocolate factory and, frankly, I am appalled.  Although the documentaries seem to conflict in certain areas (namely, whether you employ geese that lay enormous golden eggs or trained squirrels that shell and sort nuts), it is clear that you have no regard for OSHA regulations or federal law.  I am speaking, of course, about the short, curiously-tan men on your payroll called Oompa-Loompas.

I understand that it was necessary to close your factory to the public because your candy-making secrets were being stolen by competing chocolateers, such as Mr. Slugworth; however, did you even think about the loyal workers that you laid off in the process?  How many of those men have pulled your taffy and washed your nuts over the years?  Hundreds?  Thousands?  Wonka Bars have always been made by Americans for Americans; but now, with the stock market plummeting and the terrorists at our doorstep, you take all of the union labor out of your factory and replace them with foreigners who are willing to work for mere cocoa beans.  Does that seem fair to you?

And that’s not even the worst of it.  There’s a name for luring an entire race of people away from their homeland and forcing them to work for you without monetary remuneration.  Yeah, it’s called slavery.  Maybe you’ve heard of it. That little operation you’ve got going–the one where the workers live with you inside a walled fortress and sing happy little songs while they toil in the fields all daythat’s referred to as a plantation.

If you want to keep your candy-coated ass out of the federal penitentiary, I suggest that you turn over birth certificates and citizenship papers on every single one of your pint-sized employees this instant.  I don’t care how many Wangdoodles, Hornswagglers, and Vermicious Knids you saved those Oompa-Loompas from; you still have to pay them minimum wage.

Sincerely,

Dale Bridges

p.s. My sources tell me that you recently turned your entire operation over to one Charlie Bucket.  I hope we can expect Mr. Bucket to run a much tighter ship, because if you think the American public is going to stand for more of this type of behavior, you are nuttier than the tasty, chocolate-covered candies that you make, my friend.

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