Tuesday, September 09, 2008


I want to get the fuck out of New York City.
No, wait, I think I can handle it. Yeah, I’m going to make it.
No, that’s wrong. Get the fuck out of here while you still have a chance.
No, give it time. It’s going to be okay. Stay. You’ll see.
What am I crazy? This place is a fucking money pit. What’s the point?

This has been the sound of my head for the last two weeks. And yes, as you might have guessed, it’s financially related.

I used to be financially secure a long time ago, back before I decided to try and make a living off of my comedy. Now, I’m in my mid-thirties and I have to do mental subtraction every time I think about buying a bagel.

I have a day job now. I know I should be grateful. But I’m not. Because I know I can have a day job somewhere else in this country where the food is cheaper, the cigarettes are cheaper, and the rent is cheaper.

It’s hard to feel funny and creative when you can’t help but wince every time you check your balance at the ATM. Or when you look at your pay stub and see how much New York City thinks you owe it just for living here.

When I think of the hour and fifteen minutes I spend on a subway every morning and the hour and fifteen minutes I spend coming back every night, I really miss having a car. Names of rural places I’ve been to throughout my life spring to my mind when the wheels of the electric train screech to halt somewhere underneath the East River:

North Carolina, Missouri, Utah, Texas. . .where do I go? What are my options?

This panic got really intense a week ago when I did the “honorable” thing and paid up my back rent to my landlord instead of using it to split town like I really wanted to do. So I have a place to stay for the month, but that’s about it. I eat once a day now and try to convince myself that being hungry is like being on low-grade acid. The only significant currency I have for the next two weeks is, ironically, only redeemable for the purposes of escape: a collection of flight vouchers from Jet Blue as compensation for a seven-hour delay I had to endure last month.

But hey, Will, what about all the comedy opportunities in New York City? Won’t you miss those?

Yeah, that’s the hard part. Determining the validity of the opportunities. Are there really any opportunities in this city? I got yelled at for passing a hat at an underground theatre last winter. They wanted an apology (and probably the money, too) but I wouldn’t give them either. Unlike the UCB, the Sidewalk Cafe allows performers to pass the hat and make a pretty good chunk for the evening. Every now and then I’ll score a gig out here that pays fifty bucks.

To be sure, the Ars Nova show last week was excellent. The house was full, the staff was amazing, and the tech crew kicked ass. But since it's a non-profit theatre, that makes me a non-profit performer.

As I’ve said before, the best way to make money in New York City is to leave New York City.

It would be difficult to completely leave comedy behind, which is probably how I would opt to leave it. Completely. It would hurt too much to leave the door open. No lingering promises of soldiering on--just disappearing entirely from the scene (as well as the internet while I'm at it). Going somewhere out west and working with my hands. Living out the rest of my years as a decent, hardworking man that neighbors might speak kindly of when I’m dead and buried. Getting a house, a car, a DVD player. That’s all I’d really need. Also, it’d be cool to have a dog again. Big backyard for him to play around in. I could buy some ice cream and soda pop when I felt like it. Watch old movies and listen to the sound of coyotes howling outside my window.

The people I really enjoy hanging out with in New York are grizzled New York guys in their fifties and sixties who were born and raised in the outer boroughs. The kind of men that have a hard time understanding why New York City looks more and more like Los Angeles every day. The kind of men who would never entertain the notion that the US Government might have been somehow involved in 9-11. Men with the same sort of working-class background that I had growing up in Missouri--only with a cooler accent.

A couple of days ago, I was convinced I was going to leave. I just knew it. I finished work uptown, got my paycheck, had a slight heart attack after seeing the amount, and deposited it with a prolonged sigh.

I was so depressed and felt like such a failure that I started to hatch a plan that I knew wasn’t going to provide any real long-lasting psychological relief, but it sure felt nice to fantasize.

I was going to take those Jet Blue vouchers and buy a ticket to Alaska. I was going to end up there just like I ended up in San Francisco; no job, no home, no idea what I was going to do with my life--and just let things happen. Whatever God willed for me, so be it. It was desperate thinking which, truth be told, characterizes the bulk of my thinking nowadays. Even when there’s a little money in the bank, I still feel like my back’s against the wall and it’s time for fight. . . or flight.

The only difference this time would be that I wouldn’t have a car. In San Francisco I lived in my car for almost three months. That was a godsend. Even though I’m six foot five, I somehow managed to get eight hours of sleep a night in that Oldsmobile. I didn’t even have any intentions of pursuing comedy back then. That was just a cosmic fluke. I was walking around downtown Oakland one afternoon and saw a poster taped to a coffee shop window that said “Comedy Open Mike Tonight”. I went in and as they say, the rest was history.

Or has it even happened yet? History? My god, it’s so confusing. I never had any idea that it was possible to “have a name” and be poor. Or do I even have a name? I think I do. I guess on a cult level, perhaps. This narcissism is just like this poverty, I desperately want to be rid of both.

But why Alaska? Well, I think it’s pretty obvious from my recent blogs. Alaska has been very much in the news lately. And very much in my heart. I have never been there, but have always wanted to see it. I love the cold. I love the snow. And I love disappearing.

What I feel for Sarah Palin is not sexual. As strange as it may sound to many who know of my lustful desires for brunettes with glasses, what I feel for Sarah is a feeling of love, respect, and kinship. Understand that I’m not a fundamentalist Christian. In fact, I’m probably not even a Christian. My family members weren’t even practicing Christians in any real sense of the word. My father was a lapsed Roman Catholic and my mother window-shopped denominations for a few years when I was younger before finally declaring Sunday a day of rest for herself. Lutheran one week, Baptist the next. . .and that was enough for her.

However, I cannot deny having sympathies for fundamentalist Christians. You see, coming from rural Missouri, that’s my geographical background. I’ve lived most of my adult life in large cities and I was often reminded by community do-gooders that it’s important for minorities to remember their roots. To keep it real, as it were. To signify.

Well, I do the same thing--in my heart. Though I haven’t lived in Missouri for a very long time, I’ve never let it be corrupted by those claiming to be diverse and multicultural, when in reality, they are anything but.

When I was younger, I used to say that I “hated” fundamentalist Christians. When I arrived in New York the first time, I didn’t want anyone to know that I had come from the Midwest. As far as they were concerned, I was a New Yorker. Or British. Or Jewish. It didn’t matter. As long as they didn’t associate me with where I really came from. I was embarrassed. Because I always wanted to be a member of the New York elite. Hell, even in Missouri, my family wasn’t elite. My dad was a freelance construction worker that built fancy houses for the Walnut Hills country club set that we weren’t even allowed to join. My father worked hard. That’s how he showed his love. In fact, that was the only way he could show his love. I hated him for his workaholism growing up. But I love him for it now.

One day perhaps we'll speak to each other again.

So I said that I “hated” fundamentalist Christians, that I “hated” Missouri, that I “hated” being from a small town. But that wasn’t true. I was just bored. That’s why I left and went to New York the first time. I wanted to expand my horizons. And expand them I did. My life has been much the better for leaving. But I can’t hate fundamentalist Christians, I can’t hate Missouri and I can’t hate coming from a small town. I can’t call them evil. I can’t call them war-mongering. I can’t call them advocates for slavery. I can’t consider them a threat to basic individual freedoms. And, surprising as it may seem, I can’t even call them all anti-abortion and anti-homosexuality. Because having lived among them, I know that’s not true. We are a diverse people. Despite what the snobs in the media would have you believe.

Sometimes I endure the lies that are told about my people. Oftentimes, I do not. Invariably I try to correct people’s false perceptions of rural America. Which leads to frustrating arguments like the one I had yesterday with an acquaintance in Greenwich Village.

“You seem happy, Will. What’s up?” asked my acquaintance.

“Well, I’m thinking about Sarah Palin,” I said.

What? How can you like her? She’s totally conservative! She’s going to take this country back to the dark ages!”

“I know it sounds crazy, but she speaks directly to my heart,” I smiled, “I’ve been waiting for someone like her to come along and remind Americans that it’s okay to be from a small town and have small town ideas about things. But I got even more than I wanted with Sarah Palin. She called the elitist media on their bullshit and fired some nasty barbs at Obama while she was at it. Yessir, she’s electrified us ex-small towners. It’s like our own cultural awakening.”

“But Will,” he asks, “Why are you here? Why are you here in New York?”

“Cause I wanted to make something happen with my comedy.”

“But you’re in the belly of the beast,” he gasped, inadvertently revealing the exact truth of the matter, “This is Manhattan. Everybody’s liberal here.”

“So does that mean I should leave?”

“If you like conservative people like Sarah Palin, it doesn’t make sense that you would live here!”

“Well, I don’t live in Manhattan anyway. I couldn’t afford to. I live out in Woodhaven.”

“Where’s that?”

“On the J line.”

“Ooh,” he winced, “I don’t know that train.”

“Not many Manhattanites do” I said, “Sometimes people used to ask me that in San Francisco: Why are you here if you’re not a liberal? And I would say, ‘well, I’m here as a representative of middle America to make sure we don't get slandered’”.

My friend kept shaking his head in disbelief, “But Sarah Palin? How could you like her? That would just be four more years of Bush.”

I started to get upset. Jesus, why can’t I like Sarah Palin if I want to? Why should I have to leave New York to come out of the closet and openly like Sarah Palin? I pressed on, despite my frustration, “Hey man, that’s all Obama’s been talking about: McCain and Palin would be four more years of Bush and so on. Obama should be grateful to George Bush because without him, Obama wouldn’t have a political identity of his own. Did you know that after Russia invaded Georgia, three politicians spoke out on the subject? George Bush, Barack Obama, and John McCain. George Bush and Barack Obama said the same thing, that both countries should show restraint. Only John McCain called for a clear demonstration against Russia. Bush and Obama gave us moral equivalence. So in that instance,wasn’t Barack Obama more closely aligned with the foreign policies of George Bush than John McCain?”

Just then, an old Jewish lady walking by stopped in her tracks and interrupted the conversation, “Who did you say was more closely aligned with the foreign policies of George Bush?”

“Barack Obama,” I said, “In the case of Russia’s invasion of Georgia.”

She sneered and, even though I was much taller than her, still managed to look down her nose at me, “Are you out of your fucking mind?”

“Of course not. I’m voting for John McCain.”

“You’re a lunatic!” she screeched.

“Look, I’m not the one saying it. Obama himself is even starting to concede some of Bush’s talking points.”

“You’re a goddamn crazy person!” she screeched again.

“Come on,” I said, “Obama himself admitted last night that we’re in a war on terror against Al Qaeda and the Taliban and that the surge worked. All sounds like stuff George Bush has already said, doesn’t it?”

“Barack Obama didn’t say that!”

“Yes he fucking did!”

“Where the hell did you see that?” she demanded.

“He was on Bill O’Reilly!”

With a haughty sniff, she continued in a conspiratorial tone, “Bill O’Reilly? Hmm. Well, if that’s where you’re getting your news from, that's the problem--”

“I got it from Barack fucking Obama! He said it!”

”But you just said it was on Bill O’Reilly!”

“Yes! Barack Obama was on Bill O’Reilly!”

“But Bill O’Reillly is on Fox!”

“I fucking know that!” I bellowed, “Jesus, give me a goddamned break! Where the hell else am I supposed to get any fucking news about Barack Obama other than what’s on his iPod and how his wife likes to shop at Target?”

“You’re a goddamn crazy person!” she reiterated, “A goddamn crazy person voting for a dried up old war hero!”

“Shame on you, lady,” It was my turn to huff and sniff, “You’re old enough to remember Pearl Harbor. Dried up old war hero? The only thing that’s dried up and old around here is you. Run along, little raisin. Get back to your rent-controlled Greenwich Village apartment.”

After she left, my friend (remember him?) picked up where we had left off: “But, Will. . .the flag, the apple pie, nobody believes in that stuff anymore.”

That’s when I got misty-eyed. For during the few times over the past week that I’ve been challenged on the intrinsic glory and beauty of American history, I don’t get as angry as I used to. Instead, I think of Sarah Palin’s speech and receive a strength nobler and more direct in focus than the unbridled contrarian rage that has marked my rabid personality in political discussions for far too long before this. “But I believe in them. Because I have to. I have to believe in something besides that letter-O decal with the red stripes in the middle. Sarah Palin is going to save America from its self-loathing and restore our nation to its God-given dignity.”

Manhattan unto Queens. The Berkeley Hills unto Oakland. Both of these regional partnerships are indicative of the same ideological/geographical fusion. Upper-crust white guilters from the affluent neighborhoods shake ideological hands with the disgruntled minority opportunists from less-affluent neighborhoods that they would NEVER in a thousand lifetimes deign to visit firsthand for themselves.

Yes, Will Franken has always been an outsider. He has been for many years now. A sketch-comedian among stand-ups, a libertarian among liberals, an individual among communities, a small-town boy looking for that big break in the big city--dreaming of that glorious day when he might finally look around and discover that he belongs somewhere after all. As an outsider, I can never be a slave to the self-destroying dogmas of the place and time in which I, as one wearing the mantle of “artist”, must adhere. I am not a community that needs to be organized. I am individual possessed of cherished liberties: freedoms of speech, choice, and thought.

Would I belong in Alaska? Could I start all over and write a new chapter on that vast blank slate of heavenly snow?

If I have not succeeded in my dreams, what audaciousness it would be to blame my nation. The guilt falls equally upon myself as an inept businessman with a product to sell and no knowledge of how to sell it and an entertainment industry that has grown too monolithic with greed and too weak with cultural relativism to discern legitimate talent.

Not to mention, too flagrantly partisan to appreciate intelligent satire.

Jon Stewart? Please. A multi-million dollar circle jerk.

People are confused as to why Barack Obama is struggling with white working class voters. The obtuse and unimaginative declare that this gap is race-related. Race has nothing to do with it. Make no mistake about it. Simply put, Barack Hussein Obama does not speak the language of the Salt of the Earth.

Sarah Palin does.

Barack Obama speaks the lofty language of community activism--a language forged in the fast-talking street-hustle of the big cities, slick words preying on those who thirst for victimhood, a language that is not so much language as it is business; for if community activism were to truly achieve its stated goals, the activists themselves would become superfluous. It is a game without end. Diversity, empowerment, and environmentalism--three of the thematic mainstays of government-subsidized community organizing--are big businesses, the same as big oil. The only difference is, when you purchase oil, you get something tangible. Something that a hockey mom can put in a car to drive her children to school.

When Barack Obama argued that Don Imus should be fired for engaging in free speech, when he spoke in his memoir about standing with the Muslims “should the political winds shift in an ugly direction”, when it came out that his pastor Jeremiah Wright was screaming “goddamn America, that’s in the Bible, for killing black people”, and when Obama appeared at a high-dollar San Francisco fund raiser and characterized working class Americans as uneducated rubes who “bitterly cling to guns and religion”, he demonstrated to all Midwesterners and expatriate Midwesterners, like myself, just how much of a special interest candidate he really is.

Out there in the simple small towns of the “Show-Me” state, it’s highly doubtful that the citizens will be fooled come November.

If white working class voters can’t connect with Obama come election time, it won’t have anything to do with a hypothetical return to the days of slavery. It’s because, out there in those bumpkin Red States, they’ve always taken a great pride in hating snobs.

As for me, well, I’m tired now. And I’m still in Queens. Maybe tomorrow I will go to Alaska.

But for now, I must say goodnight.

And God Bless America.