I’m celebrating the end of a crap year by posting selections from my impressive file of rejected humor submissions. Sure, I had trouble focussing on writing this year; it’s hard to be creative when you’re checking Twitter every two minutes to see if the world is ending. But could my diminished publishing output have less to do with perpetual anxiety than with the fact that these pieces just weren’t funny?
Nah. I stand by my work. Even this probably-too-obscure list from the end of 2016 that I submitted in a blaze of fear-induced insomnia.
Lists: Delicious Holiday Foods from Around the World, or Professional Hockey Players?
Today’s offering illustrates how hard it is to keep up with the brutal churn of the news cycle. Remember “Bodega”? Sure you do. Back in September, a couple of former Google employees announced plans for a startup that would place “Bodega boxes” in lobbies of apartment buildings, office buildings and dorms. These machines, called Bodega, would offer things found in a mom-and-pop corner store, minus Mom and Pop or any pesky human interaction. Essentially, they were proposing hyped-up vending machines. But wait — here’s the best part! In their funding plan, the founders talked up Bodega boxes as an eventual replacement for “centralized shopping locations” — in other words, they would be replacing those majority-immigrant-owned stores that are always there for you, on holidays, at night, through blizzards and hurricanes. It was tone-deaf tech culture at its worst.
I was a couple hours late out of the gate with my piece, and then a submission-software glitch lost it in the shuffle, making it even later. Bodega’s moment in the outrage cycle was gone within a week. So here’s my satirical take on a terrible tech idea, preserved for posterity.
Say “Hola” to ABUELA!
Like many of our friends in Silicon Valley, we, the founders of JoshWorx, sympathize with the hard-working undocumented immigrants being persecuted in the name of nationalism. But sympathizing is one thing; experiencing the cruel upheaval of deportation first-hand is another. That’s what we — Josh and Josh and Josh — learned when we went out to get lunch one day and found that the tamale lady on the corner was gone. We asked around, and when we heard that she got snagged in an ICE dragnet at her kids’ elementary school, we bowed our heads in silent reflection and mourned the loss of that lady’s amazing tamales. Well, Josh and I did — Josh was never that keen on them, but her cart was really close to the office.
Our traumatic experience taught us that Illegal immigrants can’t be removed from society without repercussions. You might ask yourself, If all the undocumented Mexican workers are sent back, who will make my tamales? Who will pull my hair out of the shower drain? Who will do something about that family of raccoons living under Josh’s deck? As you can see, this is a national emergency. Which is why JoshWorx is proud to introduce our game-changing autonomous technology to help the innocent victims of harsh anti-immigration policies — victims like you and me and Josh and Josh. Say “Hola” to ABUELA, your personal immigrant replacement unit!
ABUELA — Autonomous Bot Undertaking Established Latino Assignments — does all the jobs the (sadly) departed undocumented Mexican immigrants in your life used to do, only faster and with no need for awkward conversations in eighth-grade Spanish nouns!
Does your apartment need vacuuming? ABUELA’s Roomba-partnered technology will leave your floors spotless (unlike Marta, who could never quite manage to get to those last few dust bunnies under the bed). Are you hungry? No need to interrupt a binge-watch of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” to visit your neighborhood taqueria — ABUELA’s onboard freezer is stocked with tamales, enchiladas and all the other Mexican comfort foods you crave, while her microwave unit delivers them piping hot to your table! Garden looking scraggly since Luis was sent back to Jalisco against his will? Check out ABUELA’s retractable hedge clippers! You’ll never feel guilty about standing inside your air conditioned home watching ABUELA dig out a dead stump in 101 degree heat — unlike Luis, ABUELA is equipped with an advanced core-temperature-cooling system!
We understand the tragedy of families pulled apart by the anti-immigrant agenda of a probably illegitimate president. We’ve been there. Josh and Josh’s wives, Amanda and Amanda, had to lean out of their respective Director of Marketing jobs after our nannies vanished overnight. And believe us, nobody is happy about it. Which is why we’re working on ABUELITA, a fully automated child-minder/self-driving-car hybrid. But, honestly, it’s not going great at the moment, because Unmarried Josh is always preoccupied with his stupid idea for a bodega-in-a-box. Bro, it’s just a vending machine! Let it go!
Anyway, ABUELA is here to help working parents, hungry programmers and people who aren’t into touching the toilet brush maintain the same quality of life they enjoyed when the immigrants were still around. We at JoshWorx even foresee a day when farmers who’ve lost their undocumented workers can employ whole fleets of ABUELAS to harvest the tomato, squash and blueberry crops rotting in the fields. We just need a little time to figure out a work-around so that ABUELA’s cold mechanical fingers stop crushing the delicate fruit to a pulp. (Hey Siri, take a note: Juicer bot? JUICITA? EL JUICADOR? JUICERO?)
JoshWorx is committed to diversity. ABUELA is the product of a talented engineering team that brings a wide cultural perspective to the table. Although, it’s basically just Josh and Josh at the moment; Masoud went home to Tehran for his sister’s wedding ages ago and seems to have run into some visa trouble. And we hardly ever see Josh anymore, now that he’s found investors for the bodega-in-a-box. But we’re confident that we’ll be able to put an ABUELA in every “casa,” “manana!” Or, more likely, whatever the day after “manana” is — we’ve had our hands full ever since Amanda walked out on Josh, and Amanda was named Director of Marketing for bodega-in-a-box. Every day is “Take Your Children to Work Day” around here, LOL. It’s been really great getting quality time with our kids. We’re so blessed! Seriously, if anyone knows a couple of nannies who’d work for $10 an hour and no benefits, could you shoot their info our way? Ethan! Isabella! Other Ethan!Stop that! ABUELA IS NOT A TOY!
Rather than dwell on the black hole of despair that was 2017, I’ve decided to end the year with some slightly irregular, re-gifted, hit-or-miss laughs. Yes, it’s my first ever year-end comedy clearance sale! Think of it as the Happy Honda Days of Rejected Humor Submissions. Hum “Holiday Road” as you read, if that helps! For the next three days, this blog will feature humor pieces that never should have seen the light of publication, according to the editors who were not as amused by them as I was. Surely you, my readers, can find some room in your hearts for the misfit toys, the day-old fruitcakes, the office grab-bag Yankee Candles, that comprised more than half of my humor writing output this magical year!
First up, we have a rejected letter to Steve Bannon, from early in his reign as the “presidential” “brain.”
Dear President Bannon,
Many years ago, you made a fortuitous investment in a struggling television show called “The Seinfeld Chronicles.” As a result, you earned a handy sum in rerun residuals. Due to an accident of time and place (I lived in the same apartment building), I was a reluctant player in that sorry glorification of Jerry Seinfeld‘s little comedy act. I write to you today to offer my support as a brother-in-arms against the greatest threat our Republic has ever known: Funny Jews.
Oh, they think they’re so clever, quipping and wisecracking as if they, not Aleksandr Dugin, invented comedy! It pains me, Herr Bannon, to see them trying to break you now with their feeble quips and Internet memes about your (I paraphrase) big-boned physique and devilish nature. For I too have been the target of like barbs from one Jewish “funnyman” in particular. Hello, Jerry.
For nine years, my dietary habits (which are perfectly in moderation — just ask my good friend the Soup Nazi), the cleanliness of my apartment and my work ethic were reduced to mere punchlines, while Seinfeld and his cohort reaped media acclaim. Well, the joke is on them, thanks to your brilliant foresight investing in thisincomprehensibly popular series. Lo, these many years later, what an irritant you must be to the liberal coastal elites who find Seinfeld’s inane observations about airplane peanuts so irresistible! What a moral quandary they now face when they tune into their precious reruns. Their nightly escape from reality only adds another penny to your coffers. Bwa-ha-ha! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!
President Bannon, let me be frank. You and I are kindred spirits. I too am a man who knows how to nurse a grudge and who savors the piquant nectar of revenge against a sworn enemy. For you, it’s Jews, and women, and liberals, and African Americans, and gays, and Muslims, and Mexicans, and small refugee children with life-threatening heart conditions. For me, it’s … Jerry. Allow me to propose an allegiance.
I have many skills that could be useful in your crusade to bring about a new world order. I have been a loyal employee of the U.S. Postal Service for well over 30 years. I know how to tamper with the mails and get away scot-free. I follow orders. I am stealthy, nimble and unburdened by conscience. I will rat out anyone, anytime, anyplace, and I’ll do it with a smile on my face.
To wit: Jerry has been consorting with a Pakistani restaurateur, one “Babu Bhatt.” A cursory interception of Mr. Bhatt’s mail reveals that he is an illegal. Do with this information what you will, My Leader. There’s plenty more where that came from. I stand ready to serve you — for a not unreasonable price. Think of what you could accomplish with a sympathetic Postmaster General by your side!
Yours in solidarity,
129 W. 81st St., Apt. 5F
New York, NY 10024
(Coming tomorrow: Another reject wrapped up in a big red bow!)
Has it only been a year? It feels like a century. There’s a Reductress satire headlined, “Why I’m Preparing for the Anniversary of Trump’s Victory by Rolling Myself Up in a Rug and Dying in There.” Oh, such a tempting option! But the tiny flicker of optimism that hasn’t yet been beaten down tells me that a better way to mark this obscene milestone is by denying our doll-handed pretender the satisfaction of our despair. So I’m going to spend the day practicing defiance through positive action, and humbly suggest that you do the same. Volunteer in your community. Join a voter registration drive. Do a small kindness. Walk in a park. Talk to people. Take a break from Twitter. Listen to music.
I’ll make that last suggestion even more specific. Listen to “Other People,” the exquisitely angry and spot-on second album by the Rails. The married British folk duo (Kami Thompson and James Walbourne) recorded this record in Nashville, and it perfectly captures the mood of the past year, all upheaval and bad juju, shattered unity and evil bastards smirking their way to power. “Troubled times and devil bones/ There’s a fork in the road,” Thompson sings in the first and last line of the album’s final track. This is a record haunted by Trump and Brexit; hearing it for the first time was like finding an ally and a friend.
The record opens with “The Cally,” Walbourne’s harmonium-driven slow march that conjures the working-class neighborhood of Caledonia Road in the ’60s, when “them big old towers, they shot up fast and left us looking skyward.” Later, on the track “Brick and Mortar,” we see that march of progress continuing throughout London in present-day, and what a betrayal of the working-class it all turned out to be.
With ferocious fuzzed-out guitar and a snapping snare drum beat halfway between a New Orleans funeral procession and a Celtic march, “Brick and Mortar” sneers at deep-pocketed “sharks and lions” gobbling up neighborhoods whole, driving out working people, artists and the poor in favor of luxury flats and bullet trains to the suburbs: “And every piece of track is another stab in the back/ They’re tearing up old London’s brick and mortar.” (The song is specific to London, but it feels like San Francisco to me.) The themes of displacement and a broken country in disarray are there again on Kami’s heartbreaking “Leaving the Land” and that ominous finale, “Mansion of Happiness,” in which one of those forks in the road ends up pointing towards an England of “walking dead,” too suckered in by their screens to see their country stolen out from under their noses.
The record is so thematically cohesive that even the songs that deal with relationships in turmoil (“Late Surrender,” “Drowned in Blue”) or lost souls struggling with their own destructive behavior (“Dark Times,” “Hanging On,” “Shame”) work as metaphors for the bigger picture of things falling apart.
I don’t want to give the impression that this record is a downer. Like Thompson’s Brit-folk royalty parents, Richard Thompson and Linda Thompson and brother Teddy, The Rails are skilled at enrobing the bleakest lyrics in the most rousing Celtic/Americana snap and twang. Most of all, while “Other People” is not exactly a cheery record, it might give you some comfort to hear your own rage and sadness mirrored in Thompson and Walbourne’s voices.
If you’re nearly tapped out of hope that justice and good will prevail, listen to the title track, “Other People”; it’s a searing denouncement of the selfishness, cruelty and tribalism encouraged by the Brexit “Leavers” and Trumpism’s “I’m the only one that matters” credo. This song is exactly the affirmation of the power of community we need right now.
Thompson has a dark diamond of a voice dipped in sorrow and shining with intimacy and kinship. Singing the unsparing, astringent lyrics of “Other People,” she does something similar to what Jarvis Cocker did on Pulp’s “Common People,” but in a much sweeter way. She makes you feel like you’re not alone in this upside-down world. She makes you believe that we will eviscerate these assholes together.
“Crazy people, money grabbers, old religion and new regimes/Backstabbers, heartbreakers, psychopaths with evil schemes,” goes the first verse of “Other People,” and as a summation of Trump and Farage and their armies of darkness, you can’t ask for much better than that. Then Walbourne comes in on the deceptively simple chorus, which has a melody that carries a hint of a gospel sway: “There are other people in this world, other people in this world, not just you.”
The first time through the chorus, The Rails are simply confirming the reality that a segment of our fellow humans is willfully devoid of empathy or moral compass. On the second verse, Thompson directly addresses the money grabbers, psychopaths, et al.: “Take the money, steal the candy, rob the blind and kick the dog/Build your palace on a graveyard/ Make believe you’ve done nothing wrong.” After that litany of evil, when Thompson and Walbourne harmonize on the chorus, they sound how many of us feel a lot of the time — like we’re up against an overwhelming force.
But then, something almost miraculous happens. On the last verse, Thompson and Walbourne turn away from the bad guys to sing to the rest of us: “Heard a sad voice, heard it cry/Take me back to better times/ This cold world feels unfamiliar/We’re all strangers in our own time.” And in this context, the chorus is transformed into a message of solidarity and strength, a reminder that we are not alone, that “there are other people in this world” who share our fears and defiance, and in this battle, it’s “not just you.” It’s a breaking-of-the-fourth-wall moment, and it could have been corny, but it isn’t; instead, it’s a brave and heartening anthem for these dark times.
(Other People by The Rails was released in the US June 29, 2018 on ThirtyTigers. It debuted in the UK last fall on Psychonaut Sounds, iTunes, Amazon, and Pledge Music, UK)
(Oct. 12 – The Women’s March announced today that Bernie Sanders will be the opening night speaker at their “Women’s Convention,” being held in Detroit on Oct. 27-29.)
Other Speakers Who Were Considered for the Opening Night of the Women’s Convention, but Had Previous Commitments
The boy who sat behind you in fifth grade and copied off all of your tests, and when you told him to stop, threatened to destroy your bike.
The male co-worker who brainstormed a new social media campaign with you, took all the credit, and got a promotion.
The guy in your fem studies class who mansplains Kate Millett.
That record store guy who told you Beyonce would be nothing without Jay Z.
The random dude in your mentions who “well, actually’s” your opinion that “The River” is Springsteen’s best album.
The bro who argued with you on the street last year when you were wearing a Planned Parenthood T-shirt and a Hillary button, because, according to him, Hillary and Planned Parenthood were part of “the establishment” and you need to get over your identity politics. Oh, wait — that was Bernie.
The guy in the comments section of ESPN.com who complains about the tone of Jessica Mendoza’s voice.
The New York Times writers still bravely clinging to the idea that Hillary was unlikeable and didn’t connect with “people.”
The progressive bro who would vote for a woman, just not “this” woman. Or that one. Or that other one.
How do you keep yourself together when everything around you is broken? I’m not the only writer who hasn’t been able to focus on writing ever since the election. I’m not the only person on permanent high anxiety, who wakes up everyday dreading the fresh hell the news will bring, who compulsively checks Twitter, while hating Twitter (and Facebook) for its complicity in installing a monstrous right-wing/Christian fascist/white nationalist/oligarchic puppet regime in the White House. Everything is broken, and I can’t fix it. I want my life back, I want my country back, I want my kid’s future back, I want all our kids’ futures back. Like everybody else, I’m tired of fighting on so many simultaneous fronts. I’m tired of seeing that loathsome piggish face and reading his imbecilic tweets. I’m tired of watching cowards sell our democracy down the river. I’m tired of being tired.
But yesterday was a pretty good day, because for a couple of hours, I managed to get lost in the joyful, brilliant and deeply, satisfyingly eccentric world of interdisciplinary artist NinaKatchadourian. Her various works and projects span photography, performance, sound installations, taxonomies and charts, sculpture and video. But the unifying theme is, well, unity. She takes broken things and repairs them; she sorts, orders and categorizes; she tries to make sense of what might at first appear to be nonsense. Wandering through her solo survey show “Curiouser,” at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center, is like entering a lost Eden, where everything is whole again, and nothing is inexplicable or out of our control.
I (belatedly, I know) first came across Katchadourian a year or so ago when photos from her “Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style” were being shared around Twitter. For this series, Katchadourian photographed herself in airplane bathrooms, using her phone’s camera, the available harsh bathroom light and whatever props were on hand to turn herself into a Flemish master’s subject. (See photo above.) Toilet paper became a frilled collar, a black scarf became a depth-adding background, a neck cushion became a merchant’s headdress. The wittiness and astonishing creativity of these portraits stopped me in my tracks on Twitter. Seeing Katchadourian’s deadpan, dignified gaze hanging in stately rows on the Cantor’s walls magnified both the humor and the singular vision of those photos. Looking around at the handful of my fellow museum-goers, I could see that everyone’s delight matched my own. (If you get to this show, watch the accompanying “Flemish Style” music videos. I won’t spoil them. Enjoy.)
“Lavatory Self-Portraits” is part of the ongoing project “Seat Assignments,” in which Katchadourian uses her in-flight time to make and photograph mixed-media works out of materials at hand, which include in-flight magazines, snack food bits, sugar, salt, and pepper from dinner tray packets, etc. Some of the results are dreamy, like the white puff of sugar sprinkled onto a magazine photo of a wolf, so that it becomes frosted breath or the visual representation of a howl. Others are giddy, like those in which she pokes her finger through magazine photos, so that the digit becomes an ominous part of the composition. As a nervous, claustrophobic flyer, I love Katchadourian’s in-flight work, because it’s all about grabbing back control of an uncontrollable situation through carry-on-bag self-sufficiency; there’s also a healthy undertone of mockery at (and transcendence of) the dehumanizing aspects of flight.
Repairing brokenness is a recurring theme throughout “Curiouser.” The poignant photo series “Mended Spiderwebs” documents Katchadourian’s efforts to fix holes in webs using red thread, efforts that were always rejected by the spiders. Elsewhere in the show, a moving, yet often darkly hilarious video tells the story of Katchadourian and her younger brother’s elaborate fantasy life centering on Playmobil figures; as we hear audio from one of these childhood play tableaus, which the adult Nina has spliced into a re-creation of the doll-centric scene, we realize that what we’re watching is the kids’ attempt to make sense of their own terrifying, Playmobil-related near-drowning experience.
My favorite piece on the “broken” theme was the breathtaking “Songs of the Island: Concrete Music from New York” (1996-98), for which Katchadourian collected bits of discarded, unraveled cassette tapes found littering gutters and caught in subway grates, then cleaned them up and spliced them together. The final work is a mix tape which you listen to through headphones while consulting the large map of New York City upon which Katchadourian has numbered and pinned the bits of tape to the places they were found. The mix tape is hypnotic and vibrant, a scratchy melting pot of snippets of reggae, salsa, Indian pop, punk, R&B, country-rock, old-school rap, metal, Vietnamese, all unidentified (though I think I caught James Brown and Gladys Knight). There’s also a bit of an NPR interview with a psychic and a strange recording of an “All in the Family” episode with what sounds like a parakeet chirping in the background. The jumble of music, noise and cultures, and the lives it conjures, felt comfortable to me. Here was my world. It hasn’t disappeared.
I loved all of “Curiouser,” but the half-hour my companion and I spent raptly giggling over “TheGenealogy of the Supermarket” was probably the happiest I’ve been in a long time. This ongoing work, begun in 2005, is a family tree of advertising characters, some instantly recognizable, others obscure, that takes up an entire red-flocked wallpaper wall. Here are faces that have greeted generations from supermarket aisles and kitchen cupboards, faces that are so familiar as people that you sometimes have to stop and think about which product they represent, all thoughtfully ordered by marriage and offspring. In Katchadourian’s reasoning, Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima are siblings, the Green Giant and the Land o’ Lakes Butter Maiden are married and the parents of the Argo Corn Starch maiden, and Mr. Clean and the Brawny paper towel guy got married and adopted the Gerber Baby and the Sunbeam Bread girl.
In “The Genealogy of the Supermarket,”as in “Songs of the Island,” Katchadourian links objects that join us as modern humans, even though we might think that our daily experiences of them are uniquely intimate and personal. And in doing that, she reassuringly shows us the connecting lines across race and culture, class and era, that make us family.
Maybe we’re not beyond repair after all.
(“Curiouser,” which was curated by Austin’s Blanton Museum, runs through Jan. 7, 2018, then moves to the Institute of Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA in April, 2018. Nina Katchadourian will appear on Oct. 19 at 6:30 at CEMEX Auditorium at Stanford, followed at 9 p.m. by an “On-Hold Dance Party,” audio made by Katchadourian from music played while waiting on-hold. For more information on “Curiouser” at the Cantor Arts Center, click here.)