Flying Velvet Unicorn Meat

7dbffc53b4941094_landingNote: I know this is well overdue, but I’ve been ruminating about this article and the writer’s plight for some time since reading it. Basically, here’s why it’s okay for writers (and other artists) to think the world owes them a living when we provide services. Expecting otherwise is downright un-American.

When you’re younger and say you want to be a writer, people look at you as if you’ve decided to breed flying velvet unicorns for a living. Parents, teachers, and minimum wage employers are the most common criers of boo. The nastier ones tell you to forget about it because you’ll die poor, hungry, and alone. The limply supportive ones beg you to find a “career” and do a little writing on the side—you know, to be safe. Just remember: it’s not a real job. More on that later.

But you keep it up, and eventually someone might decide your words are worth paying for. Not a lot. Nothing close to compensating you for your time, research, expenses, etc. The most I ever got was about $1,200 for an feature article. Awesome, right? I must be wearing mink underwear under an ermine jumpsuit, right? Well, after calculating the aforementioned, time, research, expenses, etc., and including the endless rewrites insisted upon by the editor (who, according to his suggestions, appeared to be reading a different article) I should have cleared way more (and let’s not get into taxes, healthcare, social security, etc.—you have to mail the government their chunk on your own). But you make sacrifices, because thank goodness you’re being published, and you understand the publishing industry is always in a rough way. You take what you can get.

And then you grow older. You acquire a spouse, perhaps, a home, children, and so forth. You take on writing jobs you’d rather not do or get a day job you don’t hate (if you’re lucky), to keep food on the table. Society continues to be no help at all. Even as it consumes writing in the form of books, newspapers, the Internet, films, TV shows, and so on, it still views you as an aberration. On the face of it, you produce nothing of value. You can’t eat an essay; you can’t build condos on a novel. And after all, writing isn’t WORK! Writing is “fun.” Bricklaying, plumbing, accounting, selling, marketing, lawyering, and so on—by gum, those are REAL jobs that deserve to be given a living wage, because they
contribute. And they’re boring—unless you’re lucky enough to have a penchant for cement, figures, and torts.

The arts and artists, on the other hand, deserve to suffer, because what do the arts ever PRODUCE that can be bought and sold?

You know, besides books, newspapers, the Internet, films, TV shows, video games, advertising, and so on.

Anyway, it’s good to suffer for your art! Oddly, society feels it’s not good to suffer for your selling, marketing, or  number-crunching. Let me repeat a phrase I coined in a moment of inspiration: Have you ever heard of a “starving young accountant?”

Consider this (and I’m not picking on any particular professions; merely pointing out the facts): even a mediocre to middling lawyer, accountant, or salesperson can earn a living wage. I’m not saying it’s easy or that they work any less hard than a writer, but the system is geared to compensate them for showing up, mucking in, and not messing up—as it should.

Conversely, writing success is rarely equitable to just compensation, according to hours worked and income generated. In the aforementioned fields of publishing, TV, and film, success is parsed out to a lucky, talented, formulaic, shrewd, and/or whorish few. You’ll notice a recurrence of certain names in your favorite media and fan sites. No matter how enjoyable or abysmal their output. They are the few who presumably worked hard, got a break, found an angle, established themselves as dream- and taste-makers, and got paid well for it besides.

Most writers… Well, that never happens for us.

As a full-time writer, you end up in one of four situations: (1) ruling your own personal Stephen Kingdom and making money hand over multiple fists (extremely rare) or making enough doing what you love to afford a comfy home, regular meals, and two dentist visits a year (just plain rare); (2) working a day job (more common); (3) having an EXTREMELY understanding spouse who carries the burden of bringing in a regular paycheck (infrequent but not unheard of); or (4) taking every job that slips over the transom while living on microwaved burritos (too often).

I’m not singing the socialist blues here. It’s a fact of life that we live in a  capitalist society, and in a capitalist society you work if you want to survive, because hard work is compensated. At least, that’s the way it used to be, more or less.

The business of business is business, not to mention screwing every person, place, and thing on the planet out of one more nickel. Human beings have long been both ladders and obstacles (with their selfish needs for food, water, shelter, and love) to profit. Thus far American labor laws remain powerful enough to ensure (legal) workers aren’t buggered TOO much, and by and large, cheating people and working them to death are still somewhat frowned on. I’m not talking about undocumented workers, obviously, and minimum wage is purely a joke, but my point is that the general rule is that you MUST compensate people somehow for their time and effort, otherwise, they’ll walk away. How then to ensure you squeeze every last drop of sweat from their bodies and minds while you have them under your thumb? If you’re not paying people enough, your first resort is fear. Work, or I’ll fire you. Work, or I’ll dock your pay. Work, or your kids don’t eat. Work, or I’ll make you even MORE miserable. Work! Regardless, the bosses eventually reach a point where they can’t scream and starve efficiency out of their workers. So, what’s next?

Why you make them “partners,” of course. Not business partners with stock options and whatnot, naturally, but, you know, chums!

Enter the implementation of happy-face corporate programs, disingenuous penny-pinching, and the return of the nonsensical notion that one’s work life is equitable to one’s home life. Your time, skills and knowledge aren’t being rented, pal. Your paycheck is secondary to participating in a splendiferous never-ending picnic of joyous labor. Grab a potato sack, champ, and start racing! Uh, but before you do that, can you stay late to prep that PowerPoint for the CEO’s presentation tomorrow? Golly, why do you look so annoyed? Pulling together is what families DO, right? What? You haven’t seen your real family in weeks? I don’t follow you.

This appears to be what’s happening with our beleaguered writer. Publishing is hurting, pal, and the “family” needs you, because we’re all in this together. The offer of “exposure” in lieu of grocery money is just their little way of stepping up and saying thanks.

Editors who pull this crap know better, since they too are doubtless being reamed by requests from on-high to be more “proactive” (e.g., letting support staff go and assuming more duties for less dough). I suppose “exposure” is an attempt to give something back. Personally, I find it less insulting than the several times an editor tried to schmooze work out of me, because hey, bro, your stuff is very… very… “hip,” amiright? Then again, given a choice between being schmoozed and being offered nonmagical beans for my work, I’d choose… neither. Because it’s a scam either way.

People who aren’t writers may not understand why an experienced scribe wouldn’t leap at the chance for “exposure” in a major magazine. Let me put it this way. Ask any CEO you know if he or she would accept a million pin-back buttons bearing their face instead of cash or stock options. Jeepers, ask anybody on any company’s staff anywhere if they would accept a full-page ad plastered with their face in the major metropolitan newspaper of their choice, in lieu of a month’s pay.

Ah. That daylong flush of excitement doesn’t seem so enticing now, does it?

Exposure is a term of relative value. I’d say that if you’re in your early 20s and starting out in the writing racket, and an editor from a top-tier mag offers you a chance to have your work appear on their blog for naught but “exposure”—you ride that pony until it drops dead, chum. Silver platters show up infrequently—so do it and add an impressive tear sheet to your young, emaciated portfolio (just make sure you retain the rights; there’s no shame in requesting a one-time reprint contract). But here’s a sour truth, kid. Unless you set the editors and their readers afire, that’s likely it for you for a very long time. You might end up in some mid-market mags, newspapers, and sites, and you’ll probably poke along if you keep working your ass off, but you’re not displacing anyone at Harper’s or the New Yorker on the basis of one blog post. Still, well done. I wish you every happiness.

Now, let’s imagine you’ve been writing for 20-plus years. Maybe you haven’t cracked the high-profile markets, but you’ve done okay with local papers, a few web sites, and the like. Maybe you’ve got a small-press book or two under your belt. You’re not a hobbyist or an American primitive discovered typing in a bayou shack. You’ve paid your dues. You’ve flown the flying velvet unicorn past your parents’ front window to their delight. You’re a G-D writer for a living.

And then some editor from a magazine—one from whom you might have collected a stack of rejection letters—comes along and asks you to rewrite a piece of yours for them, for free. No, not for free—for “exposure.”

We’re not talking about a charity or nonprofit you’d contribute to out of the goodness of your heart. No, this is a mag claiming to present ads “from energy companies to luxury products to top tech brands.” (And Scientology too, apparently, cough.) As they love to trumpet, they have A-listers writing for them. They seem to be doing okay. Toughing it out maybe, trying to please the owners, but they’re staying put. According to the articles I’ve been scanning, they’re doing fantastic with their digital presence. Digital… Hey, that’s like blogs and stuff, right?

But they just can’t shake loose with a quarter a word for an article. That’s about $300 for a 1200 word piece; I think I averaged about $250 for an article of that size when I wrote for the Chicago Journal. Not much, but something. I didn’t expect the very local newspapers I write for to pay me my weight in gold. But, man, that Atlantic “exposure.” What a plump, juicy plum, right?

Except it’s not an appearance in the actual magazine, it’s a blog post. Unless your piece memes harder than Grumpycat, your “exposure” will involve a few friends sharing your Facebook link to the site. You are literally working for nothing—no money, no promise of further publication, not even placement on the home page. You’d have equally good results posting it to your own blog. They’ll clear X number of bucks through click-throughs, no doubt, but at least your mom, dad, and significant other will be impressed.

Still, I get it. It sounds cool. I’d probably do it myself because I’m one of those writers with a day job, and I consider writing a vocation, not a career (though I wouldn’t say no to a book contract). But I have no illusions. I’ve had similar “breaks” and near-breaks that came to nothing. Let me give you a grandfatherly piece of writing advice, young scribes—do not wait for the single event that will launch you into the big time. Just work hard, enjoy yourself, and promote your work (no one else will). If fame and fortune come, they come. If not, at least you’re doing what you love. That’s only slightly more rewarding than “exposure,” but it’s something.


This “exposure” thing is noisome. Claims that exposure is a worthy substitute for pay are irrational to the point of insult. Firstly, and as the Wonkette article points out, this amply demonstrates the beleaguered state of modern journalism, and the workload imposed on editors due to cutbacks. The bean-counters determine that if more work were done by fewer people, there is greater potential for profit. That one human is now doing the work of three—often to deleterious effect for all parties; quality DOES slip, you know—however, escapes them. Best to prod that person to challenge themselves and “innovate” and “impact” ways to improve work processes. If they can’t, well, they’re just being difficult. Fire ’em. Better yet, suggest that you’ll fire them. That’ll pour nitro in their gas tank, and you’ll get three to five months of extra work hours out of them. Hey, editor! BOO! Get your writers to work for exposure peanuts.

We can’t feel too bad for the editor mentioned in the piece either, despite Wonkette’s suggestion. She knows damn well prison life is slightly better for trustees. She’s achieved a comfy position and decided to remain in place by exploiting (or attempting to exploit) others. That’s unfair (both to her and the writers she’s soliciting), not to mention lousy business. This attitude has become endemic in the working world. While companies are pulling in profits, they’re still telling the proles, “Golly, we wish we could throw you a bone, but, you know, we’ve got bills to pay. Heck, we’re barely hanging on here. So why not muck in, champ? Spend a little of your own dough? We’re all in this together!” Where it becomes egregious is when the organization plays the austerity card for years.

Note the mushy statements like “unfortunately…can’t pay you for it” and “I understand if that’s not a workable arrangement for you, I just wanted to see if you were interested.” She’s trying to soften the impact of asking him to suffer a little bit so she, and her magazine, can fill a column and sell ad space. Do you know what that’s called? Manipulation. It’s running a long con, involving many marks in this case, I’m guessing. How many other authors were approached this way? How many sighed, added another notch to their belts, and said, “Oh… okay… I guess so…”? The writer’s work, as well as his or status, is likewise denigrated and devalued further. And the attitude spreads: “Why should I pay you when I can get a hundred writers like you for free?”

This perception is becoming prevalent. Publications are no longer viewed as conveyances of information; they’re ad sheets tacked together by articles and photos. Without advertising, say the moneymen, you wouldn’t HAVE your little Mickey Mouse weekly readers! Yet, they forget that without articles, no one would see their damn ads. The fact that video and audio have supplanted print is entirely different discussion, but let me stress this: people read books, newspapers, and magazines not for the ads, but for the articles. The ads are targeted at these people because of the editorial content they peruse and enjoy. But this perception is being slowly obliterated because it allows for greater profit. “Writing and photography is valueless, so let’s cut the budgets and staff to the bone. But…pursue free content by convincing the creators of their “worthlessness.” Nyah-ha-ha.”


There’s another level to the above, not discussed in the piece; though this is only my supposition. Requests like these always carry an implied threat, whether intended or not. “If you work for free this time, I’ll remember you fondly. If you don’t, well, I’ll remember you were ‘difficult.’ No other promises though if you say yes. In fact I’ll probably ask you to work pro bono again.”

When you’re trying to make it in any business—especially one as insular as publishing—you don’t want a “difficult” reputation—particularly when you aren’t difficult. That goes for both sides of the equation. Writers will write for you and write well if they are suitably compensated to the point of being able to buy groceries. So, what gives with the shakedown? What stomach-dissolving need are you fulfilling by shaking down a writer? Wait, I have it. Greed.

Let me quote Heath Ledger’s Joker: “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” Internships are an exception, I suppose. I recall a local journalist making the case for young reporters coming into local and regional papers to do scut work for nothing but experience. The supposition, however, is that because you are young you probably know jack about the business when you’re starting. The danger rests in attempts to let the average age for interns creep into the late 20s. I imagine we’ll have thirtysomething interns before long, paid with a robe, a daily handful of rice, and a begging bowl. Personally, I believe unpaid full-time intern/apprenticeships only work for Victorian cobblers and blacksmiths, and that they’re just another scam to preserve profit. However, if you’re in school and Mom and Dad are providing a roof and filling the fridge, take advantage of working for nothing for a while to build that portfolio and resume.

But if you’re writer already in the business—and an old hand at that—don’t go for “exposure” unless you can afford it. In fact, don’t bite; because you’re setting a precedent for the next thousand or so writers, and perpetuating the contradictory bugaboo we writers have had to fight all our lives: it’s okay to screw writers, because they produce nothing of value.

Strangely, the media continue to display an insatiable appetite for flying velvet unicorn meat.

99 Glass Balloons

Many years ago, I read at an event covering the topic of writings found on the Internet. It was the late 90s, and the Web was still a brave and uncharted new world. The concept of uncompensated writers covering unusual and personal topics was novel enough to warrant this sort of attention.

The guy who organized the event was a friend of a friend, and he asked me if I wanted to participate. “Sure,” I said. I like attention, I wanted to pimp my writing, and I almost always accept any public speaking engagement because it forces me to step out my shell. Words of advice for young people: do the things that terrify you, while avoiding the things that might kill you—you’ll be the better for it. I was free to read whatever I liked, just as long as it came from Web version 1.0. I told him I’d give it some thought.

I was already treating the Internet as my personal book genie—whatever I wanted to read appeared on the screen after punching a few words into Yahoo’s search engine—magic! Yahoo provided everything in a tidy outline format, with links leading to links leading to other links. A search for Religion led me to paganism, satanism, and alien-astronaut-worshipping sites; a search for recipes turned up chili, hot sauce, and dog meat dishes (a weird obsession of mine back then, though I’ve never indulged); and a scan of the Sex subject heading turned up every kind of humping imaginable. Humans sure are funny, and the Internet brought me more than a few surprises. I recall the paraphrased words of Rev. Ivan Stang: No matter how strange you think you are, after you start digging you discover you aren’t.

Such was the case when I discovered a balloon fetishist’s site. I’d heard about “balloonatics” before—Quimby’s sold a zine addressing the topic (doubly strange since it was a balloon/inflatable furry zine—because, you know, why the hell not?). Given the commonality of latex fetishes, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine someone being into balloons. For perspective, I read a psychiatric report about a fellow who was in love with his car. Yes, he did THAT, and in exactly the way you’re imagining it.

Comparatively, the site was almost cute, with no photos or films—just little sketches of puffy unicorns and vignettes about the site owner “frolicking” with balloons. If there’s such a thing as hardcore balloon porn (probably), this wasn’t it, and while it wasn’t something you’d show your 90-year-old Presbyterian grandmother (unless she’s into that sort of thing), it was amusing. I’ve seen far worse.

The guy provided an “About” page that seemed perfect for the reading. No profanity, no icky-sticky imagery, just a honest description of the fun he had bouncing and boffing about in a closet full of balloons. I don’t remember the storyline, such as it was, but it ended with the memorable phrase, “The balloon didn’t pop… but I did!” Come on. If you’re not chuckling at that, your heart has ceased to beat. I’d found my soliloquy. I e-mailed the guy and asked for permission to read it. The balloonatic had a sense of humor and said, sure, go right ahead. Nice fellow.

I showed up at the event with my girlfriend/future wife Michael and my friend Kathy. It was held in an auditorium at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and I was surprised the place was at least half-filled. I was expecting something much smaller. I certainly wasn’t expecting recording equipment on the stage, manned by a bespectacled guy in a suit.

I told the event organizer what I planned to read, and he was fine with it, not to mention amused. Cool. I figured I’d stand up, read, plug my zines, and then sit down. As I recall he mentioned the event was being broadcast on the radio. Really? Wow. Where? He told me the name of the show. I’d never heard of it, but of course, I was a fairly insulated person back then. Just like now.

As I waited my turn I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. I can’t remember most of the speakers, but two stood out. One fellow walked up and started expressing his concern about his mother being online, sharing the usual predator fears. The host began inquiring about the roots of his problem, turning the situation into a humorous therapy session.

Another reader… Ye gods. I’m almost afraid to describe the situation.

His reading was… disturbing. He’d found (I assume he found it rather than written it himself) a creepy testimonial by a man in an apartment, raving paranoiacally about the “loser” next door. The part that sticks with me—and I mean “sticks” as in “GETITOFFME!GETITOFFME!”—involved the “loser” neighbor having a three-way with his buddies, featuring various unpleasant descriptions of the attendant sounds, smells, and stains. The guy read it in a creepy voice, sweating buckets and shuddering so hard you could see him quivering from the back seats. It was uncomfortable. I would have put it down to method acting, but when the organizer called time (we had a time limit), he screamed, “Fuck! FUCK! FUCCCCK!” then ran from the theater, smashing the push bar on the exit door on his way out We could still hear him screaming “FUCK!” in the lobby. Ye gods.

During the first reading I mentioned, the recording guy seemed bemused, but more interested in flipping switches and turning dials, though he described the “therapy session” for his audience: “At this time, listeners, both men are laying down, stretched out, on the stage.”  I couldn’t see or hear his reaction when the second fellow self-immolated. Wish I had.

Then came my turn. I set the scene and proceeded. Well… I didn’t have them rolling in the aisles, but I got a few chuckles (and not just Mike and Kathy’s, thank God). When I reached the part about “The balloon didn’t pop… but I did!” I looked up at the crowd with a gaze of wide-eyed wonder. That got the big laugh I was looking for. After I finished and the crowd applauded, I heard the glasses and suit guy (stationed stage right) say, “Wow…” I didn’t expect him to talk. I figured he was just some AV nerd, not a co-host. I turned to look at him.

I wouldn’t call his expression one of horror. Slightly shocked, yes. He looked like many another person I’ve met, suddenly discovering the world isn’t as homogenized as they thought it was. I can’t claim to have read his mind, by the way. That was just my impression after he paused, shook his head, and said, “I wouldn’t know where to BEGIN editing that!”

I shrugged and said something like, “All right. Good luck!” But I left the stage thinking, “Good Lord. After that other guy you’re worried about editing ME?”

Now… I can’t say when I first learned who the host was (I bet many of you have already figured it out). More than likely Mike or Kathy told me he was a local radio personality named Ira Glass who had a newish show called This American Life on WBEZ. Really? Neat. I tuned in the following week to hear myself on the radio. Considering Glass’ response, I didn’t get my hopes up. Sure enough I wasn’t on the show. C’est la vie, I said with tremendous originality.

I later heard from my friend (the one I shared with the organizer/host) that Glass was fairly unhappy with the event (all hearsay, so don’t hold me or him to any of this). He was particularly displeased with the human volcano, but he made a point of mentioning, “that balloon guy!”.

Oh, how I laughed at that. Dan Kelly: Balloon Provocateur.

Again, humans are funny.

I get it. TAL isn’t for people striving to reach the boundaries of human endurance and good taste. But it all seemed a little silly. I’ve never sought to shock people. My tolerance for weirdness is higher than most, but I’ve trained myself to edit my topics according to my audience. Still, every now and then you have to introduce high strangeness to the general population, otherwise they’ll never grow up. Getting it through the gatekeepers is the challenge. It’s interesting that, in 2012, someone like Louis CK is an NPR darling. Clearly, he should be, because his show Louie is an often touching and highly intelligent exploration of humanity, emotion, society, sexuality, and so on. Still, while they’ll chat with him about his adorable daughters and that suicide episode, I doubt they’ll ever run sound clips of him singing his happy song: “Shittin’ in Hitler’s mouth/and I’m pissin’ in his mother’s face.”

As a postscript, life moved on, things have changed, and other cliches have abounded. Glass got famous, works out of New York, has a TV show, and had a voice cameo on 30 Rock. I, on the other hand, remain unknown and have aged badly. WHO’S LAUGHING NOW?

As a semi-serious postscript, I’ve run into Glass on occasion over the past 15 years, usually at social events where we share friends. He’s a pleasant enough fellow, though he seems to have a drive to perform for whoever he’s with. But even as he talked at me about whatever, I was able to amuse myself by looking him in the eye, smiling, and nodding, all the while thinking, “You have no idea I’m balloon guy, do you?”

As a post-postscript, I shared the above purposeless story for one reason. Namely, to explain why this video filled me with wrongful delight.

You… you don’t think I converted him, do you?


I need to remember to activate comments. I had to disable them in general because the damn spambots are hitting me like locusts.

So, say something to let me know you’re reading!

And thanks, Carrie, for the excitement over my recent appearance.

Things I Never Understood During My Tenure on LiveJournal

1. The large number of people who, whenever I posted admonishments against people who annoyed me in meatspace, thought I was speaking directly to them—against all evidence and even across state lines.

Me: Curse you, foul creature, for failing to submit those TPS reports before the 3 p.m. meeting. I damn thee!

Commenter: What? When did I do this? Why are you so mad at me?

Me: Beg pardon? You know I’m talking about work, right?

Commenter: Well, how am I supposed to know that?

2. The number of people who felt a need to fix my attitude about everything.

Me: Dammit! I hate it when people put piccalilli on my hamburger.

Commenter 1: Hey, that’s not fair, Dan. A lot of people LIKE piccalilli. Maybe you need to give it… and them… a chance.

Commenter 2: Yeah, Dan, I’m not sure what brought that on. Don’t you think you’re being a little unfair?

Me: Huh? I personally don’t like piccalilli. That’s all I’m saying.

Commenter 1: I’ve never heard of anyone who didn’t like piccallili.

Me: Sure you did. Me. Right now.

Commenter 2: No, I don’t think so.

3. Those who thought that when I offered an opinion on something they enjoyed immediately assumed I believed they were idiots.

Me: Man, fuck Kajagoogoo. Other people can like them, but I hate them. Fucking Kajagoogoo. And fuck bucatini pasta too.

Commenter: LOOK, I can LIKE Kajagoogoo and bucatini pasta if I want to, and your ARROGANT and ELITIST attitude has NOTHING TO DO WITH IT.

Me: All right. I’m just saying I personally don’t like Kajagoogoo and bucatini pasta, because…


4. The folks who felt the need to provide ongoing reviews of my posts.

Me: To get to the other side! And that’s why that chicken crossed the road. Chortle chortle!

Commenter: This wasn’t as funny as that post you made May 5, 2003. Why don’t you write posts like that anymore?

Me: Uh, because they already done been written, boss?

Commenter: Well, if you just want to sit back on your laurels I suppose that’s a good answer. Also, you know that post where you said, “Remember when candy bars were as thick as a baby’s torso?” Well, I don’t remember that.

Me: I figured some people wouldn’t since it didn’t happen.

Commenter: Yes, but how is that post relevant to me? To my needs and memories?

Me: You know, I’d love to help you find what you’re looking for, but I’m not sure what it is or where you lost it. In fact, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist.

Commenter: Also, this post is going on too long. And I know I never wrote this. In fact, there aren’t any posts that look exactly like this one, so I think none of this stuff happened.

Me: Um, sez you?

Commenter: I smugly sit back, now that I have made my point.

Me: What?

That Old Gang of Mine

Every time I think of joining the Facebook groups for my old grade school and high school, I visit the sites and the feeling goes away.

“Hey! Remember that guy with the thing? And he did that thing by the thing in the gymnasium? OMFG THAT WAS HILARIOUS! COME ON, YOU REMEMBER! THAT GUY!”

“What about that one time that kid puked, and they spread that stuff, that orange stuff on the puke? And we all smelled the puke? Remember that?”

“Hey, whatever happened to that crazy old teacher with the weird lisp and the lazy eye? OMFG SHE WAS HILARIOUS!”

“Uh, that was my mom, and she died of an aneurysm last year.”

“Oh, hey, she was a beautiful lady, man.”

“Here are some AWESOME pix from that time we went to Great America. Remember how out of focus and badly composed we all were back then? HILARIOUS!!!”

Joaquin Phoenhoax

If the 1990s were the age of irony, where everything sat between double quotes, the 2000s and 2010s are promising to be the age of the participatory lie. Bush’s claim of WMDs was the most egregious example. Even in the face of contradictory evidence, even now, long after it’s been proven that Hussein had no WMDs, we’re simply supposed to accept that we were lied to, but what’s done is done. We’re not even allowed to be outraged, being told that it serves no purpose to pursue legal action or demand resignations and apologies because… just because. Go along with it, chumps, until the next lie.

Now we have the semi-revelation that Casey Affleck’s documentary, I’m Still Here, purportedly charting Joaquin Phoenix’s descent into madness and shame, is a hoax. Practically everyone knew that Phoenix was faking it. His behavior was too sudden, too contrived, and too bizarre to be real. When it was learned that Affleck was filming the documentary, it became more obvious. Then the film came out, and while a handful of sensitive creatures bought the film’s premise and sent out pleas for Phoenix’s reclamation, most critics who saw it (I didn’t) found it discouraging, disgusting, and ultimately fake. Now that Affleck has admitted his fake documentary is fake, there’s an inevitable backlash. Sort of. Reaction has been annoyed but subdued, and the NY Times blog has even run a piece with a final swipe at those who dare complain about being duped.

Such behavior is endemic on the Internet. I remember a particularly nasty soul who believed anyone who was ever duped in any way on the Net had only him- or herself to blame. This judgmental attitude is completely appropriate when reprimanding those who e-mail their social security and bank account numbers to strangers, play on railroad tracks, or stand up on roller coasters, but to stigmatize the basic, very human instinct to empatize with others is just wrong. The blame has been shifted from the perpetrator of the lie to those who believed it; the attitude being that the victim should have known better, even when evidence refuting the lie wasn’t immediately present. This supports the passively evil practice of reflexive cynicism. Reflexive cynics aren’t terribly useful as commentators, advisers, or human beings. I’m not making a plea for brain-dead optimism; I’m saying that permanent cynicism is childish and ultimately leads to stasis—you’ll never be hurt if you never act, but you’ll never accomplish much either. I’d add that if you ever choose reflexive cynicism as a personality trait—never screw up, because you will be consumed by your fellow scolds.

So, what does this have to do with the participatory lie? Because during the course of Phoenix’s little drama in real life, there didn’t seem to be a serious effort to investigate if he was putting it on or not. Even David Letterman chose to participate—I’d hesitate to say “knowingly” but I’d likewise hesitate to say “unwittingly”—going for the laughs offered by a genuinely flaky Phoenix rather than coming out and saying, “Come on. What’s the game?” Then, with the film’s release, the tone shifted to, “We knew all along,” setting a new course for the marketing of the film vis a vis a debate over the propriety of Affleck/Phoenix’s gag. We supported the lie, now let’s react strongly over being duped (even though it was all done with our full participation). Furthermore, let’s mock those people (Roger Ebert was one) who thought it might be real. Amazing. If all of this was constructed in a marketer’s office somewhere, it’s cause for being very afraid of how easily the mass of journalists and public intellectuals can be manipulated. Present company included.

I’m Still Here is also another instance of the impractical joke. In terms of hilarity, I’d put it on the tier between giving someone a fake winning lottery ticket and a phone call stating a loved one just died in a car accident—ha ha, just kidding! Descriptions of the film describe a series of events in which Phoenix is arrogant, insane, abusive, and self-destructive, but, as far as I can tell, without a hint of amusement or a tip-off that it’s all a game.* In one apparently unforgettable scene, an abused underling shits on a sleeping Phoenix. The penetrating commentary on the nature of celebrity oozes from every frame I’m sure. If anything, it sounds like Affleck and Phoenix overreached, and their satire became bloated with so much unpleasantness, no one feels much like laughing.

Affleck and Phoenix didn’t especially hurt anyone—though their own careers may be a bit dinged. But the hoax of I’m Still Here is comparable to taking an exceedingly long time to tell a terrible and offensive joke, blowing the punchline, and then standing uncomfortably in front of a group of confused, insulted, and slightly angry individuals who’d like the last 10 minutes of their lives back. Who could blame them?

* Okay, the rapping was a tip-off, but it seems like the absurdity of the rapping becomes submerged by Phoenix’s increasingly erratic behavior. If Affleck and Phoenix were going for a more plausible case of celebrity overreaching, they would have had Phoenix trying to become a rock star ala Keanu Reeves or Russel Crowe. Instead they went for the off-the-rails insanity of a rap career, and it doesn’t sound like they did much more with it than annoy P. Diddy.

Look at My Dumb! Gee, You’re Thumb!

I love a good hoax or practical joke, but the gist of the Dry Erase Board Jenny hoax seems to be, “Ha ha! You thought she was real! But she wasn’t!” There’s no game here, other than, I suspect, an attempt to garner some hits with a hot piece of… Uh, a very pretty girl.

The moral, I suppose, is that you shouldn’t believe everything you see on the Internet. Hardly a new piece of advice, yes? At the end of the day, we come away from this hoax not chuckling, but with a feeling of disappointment that a young woman who’d been sexually harassed hadn’t wreaked revenge on her pig boss. Let me highlight that word: disappointment. I’ll come back to it later.

First, I’d like to address what I’ve just decided to call the “impractical joke.” I had a friend who pulled plenty of impractical jokes that left me more confused than amused or embarrassed. Once he left a note on my desk (I believe he had a female friend write it for him, to achieve a more girly look and feel) “from” another woman at work. The note stated that she knew I enjoyed Nintendo video games (which I did), and maybe we could hook up, play a few at her house, and brush up on our skills. Nudge nudge, wink wink. Something like that. Sexually speaking, I’d hit a dry spell, and I likely would have grabbed most any opening a woman offered me (snicker). However, something didn’t gibe.

A Nintendo date? What the hell is a Nintendo date? If it was sincere, why wouldn’t this woman simply approach me and ask me out? Is this a gag, and if so, what’s the punchline? And again: Nintendo? Maybe it sounds funny in this context. I think I’m making it sound funnier than it was. I was mostly perplexed. I was especially perplexed since I didn’t recognize the woman’s name, and there’s the rub.

I walked over to where my friend and a few other co-workers were standing and asked, “Anyone know what this is all about?” (Note: I’m a lousy subject for practical jokes. I already expect to be handed an exploding cigar or to sit on a whoopee cushion at any given moment).

“I don’t know, Dan. Did you talk to _____________? You should really follow that up!”

“No, because I have no idea who this woman is,” I replied.

“Well, maybe you should talk to her (giggle, titter). I bet you have a lot in common,” he answered.

“Um, I’d have to know who she is first.”

“You know…” and he gestured to another part of the office. “She’s in sales. Over there.”

“Huh?” I replied.

My lack of reaction showed that the jig was up, or that, at least, I wasn’t about to make an ass out of myself. Like I said, practical jokes are wasted on me.

“I wrote it,” said my alleged friend. “This is _________. You know, she has legs like stovepipes.”

I shrugged. I had no clue who he was talking about. Now it was just uncomfortable.

He walked me over to a place where we could see her sitting in her cubicle. She was middle-aged, frumpy, dumpy, and, God forgive me, ugly as sin.

Ah, there’s the gag. Ha. Ha.


“You know, if you play a practical joke, it should make sense,” I told my friend. “It shouldn’t be mean, either.”

He shrugged. He probably still thinks he pulled a long con on the level of the Spanish Prisoner.

The Dry Erase Board Jenny gag wasn’t mean, but it wasn’t all that amusing either; more accurately, it was no longer amusing once it was revealed to be hooey. Also, as I said, there was no context; no chance for a sharp individual to know he or she was being gaffed. We assumed this young woman had quit her job, and despite the 20/20 hindsight of the “I knew it all the time” crowd, it wasn’t immediately obvious that we were being gulled. It’s as if I said to you, “I’m going to give you $20.” Then, when you put out your hand I’d laugh and say, “Ha ha! Dumbshit! You believed me!” Impractical. People thought they were reading an amusing story, but they weren’t. Ba-dump-bump. My goodness, it doesn’t even perform the primary practical joke function of pricking at anyone’s pride. I’d add that it mostly worked because of the site’s lack of high profile. The Chive is apparently known for practical jokes, so I guess that’s an argument for taking anything they say with some skepticism… but only if you’d heard of them. Which I hadn’t. I wonder how many others have?

Some might suggest this is yet another lesson that the Internet, if not life itself, must always be approached with a belief that everyone is trying to fuck you blue, and if you ever, EVER fall for a gag, hoax, or scam, you had it coming. I am a fairly skeptical person who isn’t prone to abusing his emotions, but I haven’t reached the point where I could live with such a clenched mind and pickled heart. I appreciate skepticism and pragmatism, but reflexive cynicism is the province of dull minds.

Coming back to the concept of disappointment… While I hate describing anything as a trend (that should be left to the Times, which sees trends everywhere the way paranoiacs see Men in Black 1), Dry Erase Board Jenny typifies a notion that keeps popping up in the media: you cannot fight back. Jenny was fake. A young woman tormented by a chauvinist boss zings him beautifully in public… But she didn’t. She didn’t exist. That ‘s a little sad. 2

Let’s review: We were gleeful when this charming young lady stuck it to The Manâ„¢, or rather the little The Manâ„¢ most of us face day in and day out. Then the rug was pulled out. The redemptive final board that said she knew things would turn out okay (which, largely, is how life works. That’s “okay,” not “perfect,” by the way) was invalidated. In the same day, we learned that after the flight attendant’s final speech and beer-swilling slide to freedom, he was not just fired but arrested. Arrested. Fictionally, more and more TV shows build up adversaries who know all, have infinitely deep pockets, and are untouchable—leading to the grim spectacle of watching Our Heroes in a continual cycle of futility. Nietszche explained that we enjoy watching tragedies because we thank the gods it’s not happening to us. Dry Erase Board Jenny goes a step further brings the tragedy home, saying, “Idiots. You didn’t really think there was hope, did you?”

I dislike the Dilbertian attitude of giggling through hell. “Ha ha! The people in charge are incompetent monsters! Ho ho! We’re doomed to repeat the same monotonous, soul-killing tasks again and again! Hee hee! Nothing can be done! Get back to your cube, swallow your daily shit-lump, and let your supervisor grab your crotch, or The Manâ„¢ will have you wearing a paper hat by day’s end! Hahahahahahahahahaha!”

What? Don’t you get it? 3


1. When Megan Jasper of Sub Pop pranked the Times by creating a list of nonexistent grunge slang words the Old Grey Lady published without verification, THAT was funny as hell. Why? Because the Times could have solved it all with a few phone calls. Moreover, the terms were so insanely stupid (Big bag of bloatation? Swingin’ on the flippity-flop? Wack slacks?), it’s difficult to believe the article passed through the hands of the editorial profession’s supposed creme de la creme. Again, it’s all about context.

In the spirit of the grungespeak list, I’ll grant that the invention of the word “HPOA/HOPA” was ingenious. I do suspect the Chive folks ran over to and added it because people like me might seek verification. Ha ha! I thought that was a viable source! What a dope!

2. Arguably, another tip-off that this was a hoax was that Jenny was an aspiring broker, and as such, would have no conscience.

3. They were wise not to say that “Jenny” was groped, propositioned, or otherwise directly threatened. I’d like to know how many feminists, lawyers, and general activists were ready to rain holy hell on her former place of employment strictly on the basis of her being described as a “hot piece of ass.” I wonder how much the Chive people thought this through?