Bad to the funny bone
Sam McManis, Chronicle Deputy Living Editor, San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, October 13, 2002
An anticipatory hush falls over the Blue Room, an avant-garde art gallery in San Francisco's Mission District, transformed for one night into a performance poetry space. Plastic folding chairs creak under the weight of squirming bodies. Someone muffles a cough. A cell-phone bleat is stifled. The microphone crackles with feedback.
But it is utterly, almost uncomfortably, quiet by the time poet Dave Hadbawnik finally steps to the microphone. He is dressed up for the occasion, in a chocolate brown suit without a shred of natural fiber. This ill-fitting get-up, a '70s creation he found on the sidewalk for 2 bucks, will seem fitting attire in retrospect. No one scoffed at the shabby suit at the time, though, so engrossed were they in the artist and his "art."
Hadbawnik begins to read a free-verse masterpiece he wrote two decades ago, at age 18. Its subject, naturally, is the prom. His delivery is sincere, impassioned; the poesy earnest, wrenching, straight from the gut.
"For now let us dance across this wedding cake floor/ Knowing in the back of our dream drunk minds/ We will talk of this night/ Long after the helium has seeped out of these cheap balloons."
Nervous titters and chuckles from the audience . . .
"I will spin you round and round until we create our own gravity/ Until we can't see the lies floating up from the dance floor like signals from a satellite."
Laughter bounces off the walls . . .
"But we will stand alone, naked/ Shaded by trees of the most luscious fruit/ Hearing more truth in the silence than in the transient promises of a serpent's whisper."
Full-throated guffaws, followed by wild applause . . .
This tour de farce, by a published poet with a creative writing degree from Wayne State University in Detroit, was a highlight of a recent two-hour festival of bad poetry. Intentionally bad. The wink-wink, get-the-irony kind of bad. The expose-yourself-to-ridicule-and-laughs bad. Ten Bay Area poets, some also published novelists with high literary street cred, shared their clunky castoffs, mangled metaphors and asinine alliterations for the fun and amusement of an audience that actually paid to hear it.
Why? Because it's entertaining.
You've heard the expression "It's so bad it's good," right? Well, in this postmodern, ultra-ironic age, purposely bad performance by both professional artists and just plain folks seeking outlets of self-expression has become as hip, as de rigueur, in the Bay Area as using foreign words to feign sophistication.
Last month's "bad poetry" reading filled the seats and no doubt made scores of people log on to Amazon.com to find actress Suzanne Somers' seminal chapbook of free verse, "Touch Me."
At the Odeon bar in the Mission, Monday is Bad Karaoke Night, where the powerful combination of off-key singers and wretchedly sappy pop tunes entertains scores until last call. And, appearing somewhere unannounced on a Muni bus near you, a duo called the Sub-Standard Comix entertains riders with purposely awful stand-up material -- perhaps to make the long ride seem even longer.
There's more bad out there. Lots more.
BAD CAN BE GOOD
In Fremont, a laid off dot-commer has found her true calling -- and significant Web traffic -- by launching a site (www.miserablemelodies.com) devoted to achingly bad cover versions of popular songs. And San Jose State's annual salute to purple prose, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, receives scores of really good bad entries each year. The winners have the media calling them as if they had won a Pulitzer.
It is not a new concept, by any means. Bad art has been around since, well, art. Purposely creating it, and taking pleasure from its bitter fruits, is another matter, though.
Call it a "mirror reversal ethic," says Oakland writer Rephah Berg, this year's Bulwer-Lytton winner.
"Bad works, done the right way, are funny," Berg said. "Normally we expect people to perform adequately at whatever they're doing. If they don't, a conflict exists between expectation and reality. That conflict can be exploited for the sake of humor."
Or, put another way, it's fun to mock the talentless. Even if it's yourself.
"It's a post-irony thing," said Michael Smoler, one of the organizers of the Bad Poetry night. "You've got to get to the other side of irony because it can become too fixed. Doing a bad reading is just breaking the monolith of taste. Art and poetry aren't there to tell people what's good."
Perhaps, but people know bad when they see it.
"I asked my brother, Greg, why people knowingly seek out bad movies, etc., and he replied, 'Because people like to look at accidents,' said Sean Finney, one of the poets featured at the event. "I see it as a way for people to communicate."
THEN THERE'S JEWEL
At the start of the poetry event, Smoler pointed to a table where a copy of turgid poems by pop princess Jewel was on display. The crowd laughed, ready to mock her as they later would the Somers offering. But Smoler gave the elite audience something to think about.
"OK, Jewel's poetry -- but is it really bad?" he asked. "Maybe it saved somebody's life once. Maybe a girl didn't slit her wrists, and so that's good, right? Another question: Do we, as poets, need to be invited to be bad?"
Bad is subjective, of course. The line between sentiment and schmaltz can be thin and ever changing. Andrew Felsinger, a poet and editor of the online art magazine VeRT, devoted an entire issue to the subject of bad art. He read a few of the poems he published in his magazine, to howls of laughter from the audience. But when Felsinger told the crowd in advance that his next line was written by Walt Whitman -- "Through the scent of armpits in an aroma finer than prayer . . ." -- the audience remained respectfully quiet.
"If it had been me who had uttered those words without the Whitman (attribution), it would have almost brought the house down," Felsinger said.
It wasn't all smirking irony at the poetry event. Hadbawnik said that the event showed the "doubt and uncertainty" some of the city's best poets feel, how a well-intentioned poem can go bad. The poets can "get bogged down in the sentiment or the ego or trying too hard, which can be beautiful in its own way. "
Hadbawnik said that even bad poetry has value because it's sincere. He had to look no farther than his high-school masterpiece about prom night.
"When I wrote it, if someone had laughed at it the way people were, I would've been crushed," he said. "It was not written to be bad or funny-- which makes it even funnier, I know. . . . In the unintentional comedy of it you could also be touched or moved by the sincerity, the naivete."
GROANERS ON MUNI
Insincerity, however, oozed across town at the intentionally bad stand-up comedy gig. San Francisco resident Al Cummings, the mastermind behind the Sub- Standard Comix, says he and his anti-comedic troupe want to anger "people who are expecting a high standard and convince people that anyone can do this and this is a fun part of it, also."
Last spring, Cummings and pals, fueled by several drinks called Chernobyls (Mountain Dew and vodka), stood up in a crowded Muni 31-Balboa bus and told awful jokes that elicited groans and perverse laughter. Example: "How do crazy people go through the forest? They take the psycho path."
Cummings' art may have been lost on some Muni passengers. But he recently did a set at a nightclub on California Street, and, he said, people "got" his willful badness. Cummings pointed to the cult success of anti-comic comic Neil Hamburger -- who purposely tries to be bad and succeeds every time, and even has had a few decent-selling CDs -- as the template for awful stand-up.
"I mean, we label ourselves 'substandard' so people will know," Cummings said. "It's an ironic play on the whole stand-up thing."
At the Odeon bar, where Monday nights are dedicated to bad karaoke -- on- key singing is forbidden -- irony is scoured away. The participants are free to belt out a tune as agonizingly out of tune as they dare, without fear of mockery.
D.J. Paul DeJong has hosted the bad karaoke for the past three months, and he knows what you're thinking: Isn't all karaoke bad karaoke? Yes, but he gives people permission not to even strive for mediocrity.
"We're not mocking the people singing at all," he said. "It's more interactive. People will join in to help someone struggling through a song. It's refreshing to have someone step out of their normal role. Some karaoke singer who had really practiced and is good, that's just not as entertaining."
Karaoke crooner Scott Mary, who performed a dicey version of Elvis' "Teddy Bear," said he liked the Odeon's noncompetitive style.
"I feel intimidated at most karaoke places because everyone's going to take you seriously," Mary said. "I lived in Nashville this past summer, and you had people seriously trying to get discovered at karaoke bars. I like this type of atmosphere because it's a human performing. You see the screwups and the real emotion."
B MOVIES AND BEYOND
Amateurs such as the Odeon's singers can be excused for singing poorly and accepted as entertainment on a benign level. But when celebrities produce truly bad works, it seems more satisfying for regular folks to mock. The Internet is chock full of sites devoted to B movies and the Ed Wood oeuvre.
That was the thinking behind Fremont resident Marion Briones' Web site dedicated to butchered songs, ones that started with good intentions but ended horribly. She pores over old vinyls at Rasputin Records, looking for gems such as William Shatner "singing" the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." She's built up quite a collection, too, and shares them on her site, which she says averages about 1,000 hits a day.
"My husband asks me how I can listen to this stuff," Briones said. "I'm (a) classically trained (singer) and perfectly pitched. I don't know, it just strikes a funny nerve in me. Other people like it, too. To me, it wouldn't be funny if they were trying to be bad. But here we have pros who go into the studio and think they're producing real art."
Briones said that last year she received an e-mail from a woman in Bosnia saying she appreciated the laughs.
"Another woman went into premature labor when she heard my copy of this frail, elderly German woman named Gerty Molzen singing Lou Reed's 'Take a Walk on the Wild Side,' " Briones said. "Wait until people hear my latest find -- my father has an album of old San Francisco 49ers singing holiday songs. It's a classic."
Perhaps. But it will have a hard time beating out San Francisco fiction writer Beth Lisick's interpretation of Suzanne Somers' musings:
"Touch me in winter, when darkness comes early and softness of fur surrounds my face/ Touch me not like a cat/ Or a tree or even a flower/ For I am more than all of these, but akin to them/ Touch me, I am a poet, a woman."
Bad entertainment, it seems, can be separated into three subgenres:
-- The Elbow-in-the-Ribs Bad, wherein entertainers intentionally produce putrid performances to mock established norms of what's high and low art.
-- The Scrape-Away-Irony-and-Expectation Bad, wherein regular zhlubs liberate themselves from trying to be hip and professional and just let loose.
-- The Professionally-Bad-as-Enjoyable, wherein pretentions of celebrities are pricked and their lame attempts to cross over into a genre not their own are mercilessly mocked.