Joe Queenan (full transcript)
7/9/98, Houston, "Red Lobster, White Trash..." book tour
Q. You've gone out of your way to rip mainstream American icons and by association, their audiences. Is there something about these millions of consumers that you secretly envy?
A. No, they're dumb. I'm not saying that in the sense that they are bad people, that I wouldn't help them if their car broke down. Thirty percent of the population are dumb, and I am just happy it's not a bigger number. Thirty percent are dumb, 40 percent are like your Mom, 20 percent are pretty smart and 10 percent are really smart. I can live with that.
Q. You describe Branson as a cultural penal colony, the only place in the world that could make one feel sorry for Tony Orlando. Were you aware that right now, you're not only as close to Branson as this book tour will take you, but that today is also John Tesh's birthday?
A. That is really frightening, just a genuinely terrifying thought. Tesh will be in Branson before long -- he's tailor-made for it. A lot of the performers there are sort of would-be has-beens. Yakov Smirnov, who has a theater there, sort of went directly from near celebrity straight into obscurity without pausing for fame. It is a fact that the biggest star there is violinist Shoji Tobuchi. Branson is the second-most driven to tourist attraction in America, but you can't fly there. And this is an even more impressive statistic when you consider that they don't get much return business since most people who visit die shortly thereafter.
Q. What do you make of the recent "outing" of various high-profile media blunders such as CNN retracting its nerve gas story; Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith and New Republic/Harper's freelancer Stephen Glass having been ostracized for having passed off fabrication as fact; Stephen Brill botching the "inside story" of prosecutor Ken Starr; and internet enthusiast Matt Drudge getting his own Fox TV show.
A. What's interesting to me about all of this is Patricia Smith gets fired from the Boston Globe but PBS doesn't cancel the series she's tied in with, and Harcourt Brace is still publishing her book about slavery. So in other words, you're a liar in the newspapers but we believe you when you write books. She has only been punished slightly. Matt Drudge, who is an idiot, gets sued [by ex-journalist and White House advisor Sidney Blumenthal] for publishing malicious, outrageous lies and he gets his own television show. Steve Brill starts a magazine [Brill's Content] criticizing journalists for not being able to get anything right and then gets every single thing wrong. At CNN, two people [producers Jack Smith and April Oliver] lose their jobs but Peter Arnett, who is easily the most culpable, doesn't. So Peter Arnett gets away scot-free and poor Stephen Glass is out there, holed up in his house in Chicago. What he did is completely reprehensible and it is no worse than what any of these other people did, and he's the one who is getting punished. I think he should have his own TV show. Logically, if you're going to reward Matt Drudge, how can you punish Stephen Glass?
Q. 'Armageddon' just opened. Supposing asteroids did hit, obliterating mankind. What is the single worst possible artifact we might leave behind for future civilizations?
A. Part of me really wants to say "Cats." I would put it in a tie. The worst things that we would leave behind would be Germans, because they destroyed the entire century; and Andrew Lloyd Webber, because he single-handedly destroyed Broadway.
Q. If Reckoning Day comes now, which entertainers would you like to have pay, and pay Big Time?
A. If we had Armageddon today I would like to see it take out all the guys with the big cowboy hats. I was always brought up that when you go indoors you take off your hat, so when I see on "The Tonight Show" guys wearing huge hats I just figure, "What are you, on the old Chisholm Trail, fightin' the thievin' Comanch?" I think in their heads they think they are. I've always felt there is a Samson thing there--that if you took away Garth Brooks' and Alan Jackson's hats they wouldn't be able to sing anymore.
Q. Celebrities, you say, are always taking the moral high ground. Think of George Clooney's ironic indignation toward media, at a press conference he held just after Princess Diana's death. Whoopi Goldberg shows up in your book in a stage production you actually enjoyed, but then after the show, she "browbeat the audience into contributing to her favorite charity." Why do performers do this?
A. They actually believe that they are better people than we are. And that's what is the most annoying thing about them. They definitely believe they're better people than Republicans. There is just that infuriating streak among celebrities where there's this sense of if you're talented, you don't have to be good. So let other people be good. Let priests be good. Your job is to be talented. I remember when Van Halen trashed a concert hall because someone hadn't presorted the band's M&M's. Well good for them, because that's exactly what bands are supposed to do. They're not supposed to save the whales.
Q. Real-life tragedy in pop culture often builds careers and elevates reputations. Do you think there are any specific exceptions to this rule?
A. I'd have to think that no matter what happens to Boy George, it's over. It's an interesting question, since last year Bob Dylan was ill and none of us knows just how sick he was, and the next thing you know he got the Grammy. And that was exactly the thing that used to piss me off when I was a kid--Bob Dylan didn't get the Grammy and Steve and Edie did. And now Bob is basically Steve or Edie or both. And I buy every new Dylan album because all my friends always say that this new one is the great Dylan comeback record. But Dylan was finished after "Blood on the Tracks." He's had a few good tracks here and there since, and he's just basically making the same record over and over again. But tragedy almost struck and now he has been lifted up. It's the sort of thing that would have made the young Bob Dylan sick.
Q. You've often written about fleeting fame versus "staying power." Using examples from your book, just what is it that separates the Joe Piscopos from the Kenny G's?
A. Kenny G is insanely popular and in his strange way is a sort of one-of-a-kind guy. Joe Piscopo is one of many zombies that Saturday Night Live set loose on the nation. Like I just read that News Radio -- a show I really like because it has a pacing and a quirkiness that makes it different -- when Phil Hartman died, they got Jon Lovitz. What could be worse than Jon Lovitz, the classic, burned-out, SNL if-you-can't-get-Piscopo-get-Jon-Lovitz fill-in guy? I don't want to watch the show anymore if he's going to be on it.
Q. During your research you frequently experienced 'Scheissenbedauern' -- a feeling of "shit regret, when things you do expect to suck do suck, but not as much as you would secretly like them to suck." While writing this, did anything Not Suck so greatly that it had to be excised altogether?
A. Everything that Didn't Suck was in the chapter about Cleveland, The Sizzler, Barry Manilow and Wayne Newton. We took out a whole section about Williamsburg, but I already had it covered with the Renaissance Faire. And there was stuff in there about the Civil War because I had never visited Virginia before and I had no idea that Stonewall Jackson's body was such a big industry to that state. The only thing during my research that I did that I didn't actually write about was I went to Graceland. I had nothing really to say about Graceland except they screwed Elvis when he was alive and they are screwing him now he's dead. Graceland has nothing to do with Elvis' singing. It's about his furniture. And I felt so sorry because you could see he was a poor kid from rural Mississippi who obviously didn't think his career was going to last much longer. Graceland is the one place I am glad I went that I don't want to write about, ever.
Q. What part do you think casual attire has played in all of this?
A. It was the generation of our parents that first adopted this blase attitude, and you really do get a sense of loss sometimes without the suit and tie. That said, one of the good things about the martini culture trend is that at least those people are saying "let's have some style." I have always liked believers in style, people like David Bowie. He and others like him have always said style matters; don't wear a goddamn flannel shirt. Shave.
Q. In Austin, you sometimes see high-tech professionals in Hawaiian shirts.
A. It shows they think they have pulled a fast one. It's like, "if I dress down, it makes me different." Well, you're not fooling anyone and that black t-shirt that says "Johnny Winter" doesn't change anything.
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