Transcript

97:

Death to Wacky
Transcript

Originally aired 03.20.1998

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

Not long ago I went to see this movie called Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. Hadn't read any reviews, hadn't seen any ads for it. Didn't know anything about it, really. Except that it was by Errol Morris, a documentary filmmaker whose work I like. And that friends of mine enjoyed it. And it was great. It had funny moments and reflective moments and interesting characters. Totally satisfying, soulful film. And after the movie I'm walking through the theater lobby and I see the poster for the movie, which I somehow missed on my way in.

It was a bright, unnatural yellow. The main characters from the film are photographed with this fish eye lens so their heads are huge and their bodies are tiny. And there, in big print, the poster says these words, "The bizarre at its best." And I realized what was going on. Someone, somewhere thought that this film was wacky.

Or they thought they could sell it as wacky. Which, if you see the film, is astounding. It's a great film but it's not wacky. There's a whole section of the film about death, a meditation on death. It's not wacky.

Tom Bernard is one of the co-presidents of Sony Picture Classics. He saw what a great film Fast, Cheap & Out of Control was and bought the distribution rights from Errol Morris in a bathroom, at the Sundance film festival. It was, he says, the only quiet place to get anything done without competitors overhearing.

And he says they market the film as wacky for a simple reason. Wacky sells. Market a film as wacky and people come to see it.

Tom Bernard

Well, I mean, to me one of the ultimate wacky sells on a movie was Brazil.

Ira Glass

And what was the sell? I don't even remember that. What was the ad campaign?

Tom Bernard

It was just a bizarre campaign with sort of South American lettering style, you know?

Ira Glass

Right.

Tom Bernard

It had Brazil and a lot of wacky lines and colors. We had a movie, Crumb, which was a very, very moving film but to talk about R. Crumb, the guy's a wacky guy.

Even In the Company of Men was a very dark comedy and wacky to some extent. That's a movie we released and I think the campaign is a bit strange, a bit wacky.

Ira Glass

I don't know if you've seen any of these films, but they are-- every single one of them-- they are very dark films. These are bleak films, really. I suggested to Mr. Bernard that wacky seems to miss a lot of what these films are about. He said, no no no no. Look at the four characters in Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. Two of them are scientists. One's an expert on robots. One, the world's leading authority on naked mole rats. There's a lion tamer. There's a guy who carves trees and bushes into the shapes of animals.

And, said Mr. Bernard, that is, by most people's objective standards, actually kind of wacky.

Tom Bernard

The film is a very strange film. The people are very strange. I think, in word of mouth, people would talk about it and they'd say, look at these crazy guys, let's go see what they're up to.

Ira Glass

You know what I realized, as we talk, is that I guess I just don't think of people as wacky. I guess some people just think of people as wacky and some don't. I mean, when I think of all the people in this Errol Morris film, or I think of R. Crumb, I think of them as being people who are fundamentally very, very serious.

Do you see them as crazy guys? Or eccentric guys? Or wacky guys?

Tom Bernard

I think they're very eccentric and very wacky. And I think that if you know people in your world that you consider genius, and I think these guys are all geniuses at what they do, they sort of have a view that is so focused and so-- would people call Albert Einstein eccentric?

Ira Glass

With all respect to Mr. Bernard, who, as far as I'm concerned is doing God's work, distributing these unusual, interesting, amazing films, with all respect I have a different point of view about this. Wacky to me seems to miss the point of everything interesting. Wacky eradicates empathy and thoughtfulness and feeling. Wacky is what people say when they're too polite to say freak. Wacky is what people say when they don't want to feel anything or think anything. Wacky is what people say when they don't know what else to say.

When you call somebody wacky you're ignoring who they are and painting a big smiley face on top of their real face. I didn't used to have an opinion about wackiness, one way or another. But after I saw Fast, Cheap & Out of Control I did. And that opinion is death to wacky. Death to wacky.

And then we started putting this week's program together, this week's radio program. And everything I thought about wacky got thrown up in the air again.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International it's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, 13 ways of looking at wacky. Act One, Negative. Writer David Sedaris faces a sheet of glass, a glass of milk, a floor of carpet tacks, and a photographer with big, big ideas.

Act Two, The Good, the Bad, and the Wacky. We squint our eyes and try to distinguish good kitsch from bad kitsch, good wacky from bad wacky.

Act Three, The Politics of Wacky. A conversation with Michael Lewis about republicans, the press, and, of course, wackiness.

Acts Four through Ten, well, you'll see about those.

Act Eleven, Self-Proclaimed Wacky. We find someone who is not called wacky by marketers or promoters, she calls herself wacky.

Act Twelve, Sidestepping Wackiness and Seriousness and Embracing Both.

Act Thirteen, Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Wacky. That story from our own Sarah Vowel. Stay with us.

Act One. Negative.

Ira Glass

Act one, "Negative." David Sedaris is a regular contributor here on This American Life. A Morning Edition commentator. Author of the books Naked and Barrel Fever. His stories are the sort of complicated mix of seriousness and funny that is easy to love but comes nowhere near, I have to say, nowhere near to wacky.

What follows is a set of true stories plus a fictional story inspired by the true ones.

David Sedaris

I wore my new tie to this afternoon's photo shoot. It was an extravagant purchase but I justified it thinking of all the money I would have spent on ties if I'd had a real job. I thought the magazine would want a picture of me standing with my book, so I packed a copy along with an extra shirt in case they had something against white. I arrived in the studio where the photographer said, "I'm not loving that tie much at all." He didn't care for the shirt, either and called out to his assistant, "Brian, hey Brian, do we still have that t-shirt from last week?"

The t-shirt was produced and I explained that I'm incapable of wearing anything with words on it, especially the words "Deliveries in Rear." "You are gay, aren't you?" the photographer asked. "It says right here in your press kit. Have I got the wrong person?" When it came to wearing that t-shirt he most definitely had the wrong person.

"Well, maybe you can turn it inside out," he said. "We won't be seeing much of it anyway since I'd like to get you crouched down on your hands and knees. Seeing as you're an author and all, I thought it might be fun if we shot you cleaning the bathroom floor, the black and white tiles are going to look great. So what do you say you change out of that shirt and we get started?"

Then he called for his assistant to fill up a bucket of sudsy water, adding that the bubbles on top should be as fat as possible.

Photographer

As a professional photographer, I have to say that my two greatest assets are my tenacity and my sense of humor. These are the tools I use on a daily basis because it's not just knowing how to operate a camera, it's also knowing how to get into a person's head, really camp out for a while. I'm not saying this right. So let me give you a little example.

After she won the Pulitzer Prize, everyone thought of Bobby Fingerton as some sort of a genius. Which is fine, but you could tell she'd really let it go to her head. It wasn't physically huge, not like a medicine ball, but you could see that she had this, um, this, uh, false idea of her own value or whatever. This is something a person like me can spot right off the bat. It's a gift I have. Just like my sense of humor and my tenacity.

I'd seen her picture in a few of the weeklies and she was always, um, and she was always enthroned, you know what I mean? Just sitting there, propped up against the sofa cushions with a quill in her hands. Terrible pictures. They put you right to sleep but that's how it is when the photographer caves in to someone who's clinging to this very, very antique-y, destructive sense of dignity.

She clearly likes to play the grand duchess, but me? I'm looking for something wacky. Something nutty that will jump off the page saying, hey, is this person crazy or what? I mean, people like that. It's a kick.

It's easy when you're taking a picture of an actor because they'll just do anything for attention. I'm like, excuse me Mr. Cutahey but do you think you could maybe dip your head into this cauldron of steaming cocoa? And before I can tell him we need to wait a while and let it cool down, I look up and guy's already done it. I mean, there he is, his skin peeling off in sheets and he's there asking if he should do it again because that's the way actors are.

They're not calling out the hounds or blubbering to their publicists, because they know how to cooperate and have a little fun.

Actors are no problem, whatsoever. But get yourself a politician or anyone owning a typewriter and you're in for a first class headache because these people have egos like you wouldn't believe. And you can quote me on that. Can we get another round here? Yeah, thank you. You're a lovely individual.

David Sedaris

I told myself I'd try to be more aggressive and stand up to these photographers, but so far it isn't working. I'd like to ask if they've read or even seen my new book, but the question sounds snotty. I understand that they're busy people, I'd just like to know why they think I should be pictured drinking tea with a stuffed squirrel, or cradling an oversized can of fruit cocktail. I've never written about either of those things.

My theory is that if you're good looking, they'll dress you up in embarrassingly trendy clothes but at least allow you stand upright. If you happen to be on the plain side they'll come up with a gimmick designed to make you look even worse than you already do. To complain is to insist against all reason that you're good looking, and that's even more embarrassing than going along with the humiliating little scenarios these people always seem so proud of.

Today's photographer studied me for a few moments before asking if I'd brought another change of clothes. With the help of his assistant he then proceeded to clamp a large sheet of glass to a standing metal frame. Once the window was securely in place, he asked his assistant for a carton of milk. Then he looked at me, took a sip of the milk, and spat it out onto the glass.

"What I want you do," he said, "is to press your face again that milk stain. Really smash it up against there as hard as you can." When I hesitated he said, "Don't worry, the glass isn't going to fall. We've made sure of that."

In his mind, this was my only concern. That the glass might break.

Photographer

So a servant leads me into the house and I walk into this paneled office where Bobby Fingerton raised her fat head and lowers those little half glasses people wear when they want to look smart or something. Now, I don't know what she's thinking, but I'm wondering, how can we turn this thing around and have a little fun with it? Because, hey, I'm a professional too. I deserve a little respect.

But when I very playfully suggested it might be funny shoot her dressed as Aunt Jemima, I swear to God, the woman bit my head right off my shoulders. Not literally, but, you know, as a figure of speech. And I'm a smart person so when she refused the Aunt Jemima bit I figured she had some sort of a weight issue, which, OK, I'm as sensitive as the next guy. I can deal with that.

So I said, all right, what if we shoot you as Prissy from Gone With the Wind or maybe, I don't know, Moms Mabley, she was thin.

I was trying to work with her. Maybe, you know, have some laughs but she automatically assumed this, this expression. I don't know what else to call it. She looked like she was sucking on a handful of change. Just horrible. Hateful face and for no reason whatsoever. But me, see, I've been at this a long time and I knew there was no way I was going to back off, not on this one. Because if nothing else this business has taught me how to read people. Not their books or whatever. But their inner, inner stuff. You know what I mean?

All the psychological crap that makes them tick or whatever. So when Bobby Fingerton refused to dress like Aunt Jemima or Moms Mabely I suddenly got the message. That underneath all the praise, all the hoopla, she was ashamed of being black. And it was like, like a light went on in my head. It was like, bingo.

David Sedaris

I always thought there was nothing worse than a tech rehearsal but that was before I met today's photographer. Because we're busy trying to open this play, I asked if he would mind coming to the theater. He set up his lights in the basement and greeted me saying, "You're a smoker aren't you? Do I have the right person?" I said, "Yes. I smoke." And he handed me a package of novelty cigarettes designed to look as though they were lit.

"I want you to put these in your mouth," he said. "Not the individual cigarettes, but the whole package."

There were maybe three cigarettes altogether but what with the cardboard backing and the plastic cover, the package was the size of one of those soap carriers children sometimes take to camp. It was a tight and nasty tasting fit, but whenever you complain the photographers act like you're ruining not just their day but their entire life. This is their livelihood and here you are, spoiling it with your vanity.

The underlying message is that they're doing you a favor. Here you'll be in a magazine, people will read about you and maybe buy the book, shouldn't you be grateful? I thought of the people who might buy the book based on this picture, and then I withdrew the package from my mouth saying that it felt silly to me.

I thought I explained myself fairly well. The photographer crossed his arms and nodded in all the right places before saying, "What if we get you lying on the ground with an extension cord in your mouth? That might be fun. What do you say?"

Photographer

So Bobby Fingerton gave me three options. She said I could either photograph her standing beside the window, seated at what I thought was a very pretentious desk made from the hatch of an old slave ship, or else I could leave. I mean, can you beat that? She's telling me what to do. Now, I wasn't about to lower myself to her level so I let her think that oh, she'd really busted my balls. Like, oh, I'm really hurting now. And I said, very formal like, I said, "All right then Ms. Fingerton, let's try you standing by the window."

So she takes her post and I knocked off maybe two or three rolls. And then I had my assistant sneak outside and toss an M80 into her window box just to see what would happen. Talk about that a good hunch. What with the noise of the shattered glass her eyes, I swear on my mother's grave, the size of [LAUGHTER] coasters, and her mouth closed up into this perfect little circle that was just, that was just-- I mean, the word priceless doesn't even begin to do it justice. It was one of those moments when you know for certain that there is indeed a God and he's actually playing on your team. No questions asked.

So, I got the whole thing on film, which was just an absolute gas. I still-- just last night I looked at it and gave myself a stomach ache I was laughing so hard. After the shot I took the best picture back to the studio and-- we have computers and so forth. So what I did was darken her skin a little and erase the view from her window. There's some flowering trees or whatever, but I blotted them out and replaced them with this field of watermelons that just stretched on and on forever. Because the whole thing just screamed Mammy. But in a good way, because-- I don't know when the last time you saw that movie, but Mammy was actually a very nurturing person.

The shot was-- I don't mean to brag or anything-- but it was pretty amazing in terms of being out there, approaching that line between funny and maybe too funny for certain kinds of people. The magazine decided to put it on the cover and once it came out the Fingerton crowed went absolutely bananas. I mean, her majesty wrote me a five page hate letter just teaming with spelling errors.

If she wants to continue publishing these books of hers, she really needs to lighten up and have some fun. To see her take this too seriously would actually cause me pain. You know what I mean? Stuff like this just tears me up. I swear it does.

Ira Glass

David Sedaris read from his diaries. [? Toby Warey ?] played the photographer. Amy Sedaris played the woman silently listening at the bar.

Act Two. The Good, The Bad, And The Wacky.

Ira Glass

Act Two, The Good, the Bad and the Wacky. Wacky sells and wacky is being sold to us. From the new Carrot Top movie to reissues of 1950s lounge music to Nick at Night, souvenir lunch boxes from old TV shows, and lava lamps, and anything at all having to do with The Brady Bunch, there is a mass merchandising of pre-digestive kitsch in our American culture right now. And is that always a bad thing? Is it always somebody's cynical marketing idea? Is there good wackiness out there?

Josh Glenn

I mean, there are things that are wacky. I do believe in the concept of wacky but I agree with you that it's being misused horribly.

Ira Glass

Josh Glenn is editor of Hermenaut, a magazine that analyzes pop culture in all sorts of ways. And we asked him for guidance in distinguishing in the flood of wacky that surrounds us, between good wacky and bad wacky. Glenn says if we want to understand this we have to begin with the way that things are made, the intent behind them. Some products and films and books which end up classified as wacky are things that were created without any kind of wacky intent.

Objects in films and songs that were created in pure earnestness, meant to be taken seriously. And then, at the other end of the scale, there are things that are created from the outset with the intention of being wacky.

Josh Glenn

The daffy, the zany. Like Bugs Bunny cartoons, Jim Carrey movies, Adam Sandler. Stuff that, you know, it was created wackily and it's meant to be received wackily. I don't have a problem with that.

Ira Glass

You don't have a problem with that?

Josh Glenn

No. I mean, I like Adam Sandler movies a lot. I hate Jim Carrey, but Adam Sandler is great. That's wackiness done really well. Three Stooges I used to watch a lot when I was a kid. Vaudeville stuff, that's wacky.

Ira Glass

It's interesting because I never thought about it this way before, but there simply is wacky which is done better and wacky which is done worse.

Josh Glenn

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Josh Glenn

Now, here's the thing. And here's where I think the out of whack is confused with the wacky in our culture, if you will. The way these cultural products are created and the way they are received obviously don't always line up just right. Something that was created with a great deal of earnestness might completely fail at what it was trying to do.

Ira Glass

Let's take an example.

Josh Glenn

If you think of, like, Ed Wood movies as a classic example. He wasn't joking when he made Plan 9 From Outer Space He was trying to make a science fiction movie. He thought it was a good movie. I'm not saying that he was in earnest in the sense that he was trying to uplift us or anything, he was just trying to entertain us. But it was a very in earnest attempt to make a good science fiction movie. He failed completely because he's a terrible director.

However, he had a really original vision and he wasn't being wacky. he wasn't just trying to make us split our sides at watching his movies. Like Jim Carrey's movies. Everything that's out of whack is not wacky. If you see what I'm saying. So when I go into a video store and I see an Ed Wood movie and it's package wackily and they talk about the wacky vision of Ed Wood on the back cover, that's aggravating.

And Plan 9 From Outer Space is just wacky. and if you rent it all, which you probably wouldn't, you'd rent it when you feel like laughing at something. Having a sort of hipper than thou evening, I guess. It's great that they found some way to sell them, get them in the stores. You know, whatever. I'm happy to rent a movie that's package is wacky if that's what it takes to get it in the store.

However, I think you could also talk about the wackification of American culture, where we are really not allowed to see anything that's between earnest and silly. When, of course, you can look at all kinds of cultural products that were meant to be taken very seriously and find them funny. Yet, at the same time, have a lot of respect for them or find them beautiful or find them moving. There's all kinds of more emotionally engaged ways you can deal with failed seriousness.

Ira Glass

Like for example you, what would be something like that?

Josh Glenn

For me, like ABBA for instance. ABBA is an example of failed seriousness. Their music is not intended to be funny. It's extremely overly passionate, overly dripping with emotion and sentimentality in a way that we find hilarious now. Yet, at the same time, they meant it. And if can sort of engage with what they were trying to do, you can both laugh in it, and be very moved by it.

Ira Glass

And that's your relation to it. That's what you feel about ABBA.

Josh Glenn. His essay in the latest issue of Hermenaut distinguishes between two reactions to wackiness or kitsch. Those two reactions, camp, a kind of loving, emotionally engaged response, and cheese, which sneers at it.

Act Three. The Politics Of Wacky.

Ira Glass

Act Three, The Politics of Wackiness. Some of the most interesting reporting in the 1996 presidential election was by Michael Lewis, who published his campaign diaries in the New Republic magazine and then wrote a book, Trail Fever, from those diaries. Before that he wrote a book called Liar's Poker about his years working on Wall Street.

On the campaign trail he noticed that the candidates who tended to have any original ideas at all, the candidates who were the most interesting, were usually pegged by the media as being, guess, wacky.

Michael Lewis

I think that it's not just in politics but also in big business. I think you find that anybody who's got the ring of authenticity, anybody who behaves the way real human beings behave in a context where powerful men are engaged in their epic struggle for power, gets tagged with being wacky, or being offbeat or oddball. I mean, there's nothing more alarming or dissonant in national politics than a politician that tells the truth and talks like a ordinary human being talks. As opposed to the way a national politician talks.

Ira Glass

So let me ask you to give an example of a candidate like this.

Michael Lewis

Probably the best example is Morry Taylor. He was this guy who'd come out of the midwest who ran a, what? A billion and a half dollar company and whose workers adored him and who was qualified in every way really to be talking about some of the big problems that faced the country. But because he was funny and because he didn't take himself or the process all too seriously, he got tagged as being kind of odd and offbeat and not serious.

He talked-- he was the only guy I met on the whole campaign trail who was running for office who talked to me the way normal people talk. And who made sense to me in some ways. And yet, precisely for that reason, he was marginalized. And considered wacky, considered not to be a serious contender, not to be the sort of person who could get elected president.

Ira Glass

And he had serious ideas as well, right?

Michael Lewis

Oh, very serious ideas. In fact, when you took his ideas, when you stripped them away from the man and you just pulled the ideas, he routinely beat Clinton and Dole. I mean, people would say, we want that platform as opposed to the Clinton platform or the Dole platform. His platform was perfectly respectable. It was that it was being presented-- the problem wasn't the message, it was the messenger. That the messenger was a real person. And that was not, that's not what you do in politics.

You're not allowed to be funny. You're not allowed to be funny, I'll put in another way, you're not allowed to be funny when you're also serious at the same time. The jokes have a certain place. But funny serious doesn't really work.

Ira Glass

Like, what's the place of the jokes?

Michael Lewis

A joke is, in politics, something you tell at the beginning of your serious speech and everybody knows it's the joke because it's the beginning of the speech and it's the one about the three farmers in Iowa. It's not actually funny. It's a ritual joke. But to be actually funny, that's dangerous. To use humor as a way of conveying ideas, that's not so good. It makes people nervous.

Ira Glass

I remember one of the most memorable scenes in Trail Fever, when you were out there, is that you had heard about Alan Keyes, Republican candidate, very serious guy. And you'd heard about him and you were anticipating he was going to be completely wacky, from what you had heard.

Michael Lewis

Wacky is putting it kindly. I thought he was possibly insane. All you heard about this guy was there's this crazy black man running for the Republican nomination. And nobody takes him seriously. But when you actually got out there with him--

Ira Glass

Then you actually went and saw one of his speeches.

Michael Lewis

And it was the most extraordinary thing. I mean, he was in the middle of the dead of a winner, in the middle of a snowstorm, in the middle of Iowa. 500 farmers turn out hear Alan Keyes say what he has to say. And it turns out that he's speaking very sincerely to what people want to hear. He had a single message. And the message was, look America, all you want to talk about is money and money problems, the deficit, taxes, so on and so forth. But the real problems in this country are moral problems, not money problems. He was genuinely a moralist.

And the way he presented his views was pulpit thumping. I mean, he would burn the paint off the walls when he talked. It was the most extraordinary display of oratorical skill. But even that, in fact, doesn't really have its place in presidential politics anymore because it's extreme, it's entertaining. That's not what you do.

I mean, the phoniest candidates in some ways were taken the most serious simply because they were phony. Lamar Alexander was taken seriously for no reason other than he was a great phony and people assume that great phonies succeed in that process. Anybody who was authentic, or had any kind of integrity started with one strike against them because people just assumed, or reporters just assumed, that this character isn't suited for the process.

Ira Glass

It's interesting because the same thing-- I'm just thinking about what you're saying about how serious and funny aren't allowed to coexist in the same person. In the news itself, in a certain way, like in the way the news media covers things, series and funny are segregated usually. In mainstream news, think about the network news.

Michael Lewis

Oh yes. The anchors, if you really look at them, they will tell you, oh, now we-- every now and then they might do something that's a joke, and they tell the joke about the spaghetti harvest in Italy where people are actually getting spaghetti off of trees, or whatever it is they're doing, some joke story. But it's a joke story. If you're doing a serious story, humor is never allowed to creep into it.

You ask why that is. I mean, it's a great question why that is. I think it's because the people who are in the seriousness business, big businessmen, national politicians, national news reporters, one of their great fears is to be taken unseriously. That they're seriousness what they're selling. And they can never let that guard down, because if they let it down then all of a sudden they open themselves to a different kind of criticism. Oh, he's not a serious person.

Ira Glass

Do you think we actually pay a political price as a nation for this kind of segregation that we do between seriousness on the one hand and wackiness on the other? That is, everybody gets classified or seems to get classified in political life-- you're either one or the other and there's very little middle ground. You're either the super serious candidate, a little pompous, or you're just discarded as the kind of wacky goofball. Including people who are very serious like Pat Buchanan.

Michael Lewis

It's very clear that the price you pay is you don't get a very honest public debate. There are lots of things you can't say just because it doesn't sound right. And sounding right is all important. And sounding right means being serious all the time.

The second price you pay, and it's hard to measure, is that no one is interested. It doesn't ring true the way issues are discussed. It does seem like people just posturing. And the reason it seems that way is because that's what they're doing.

Ira Glass

Michael Lewis. Author of the book Trail Fever.

Coming up, what the truly wacky do with the nation's leading business newspaper. How Peter Jennings can help you evade wackiness and seriousness. And Sarah Vowel, A Streetcar Named Desire, and William Shatner together in the same story. That's in a minute. From Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Four. Self-made Wacky.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Death to Wacky. Or, rather, 13 ways to describe wacky. And in our irrepressible, madcap style, we've now skipped to Act Eleven. This program goes to 11. Self-Made Wacky.

Not all wackiness is, of course, created by marketers and merchandisers. No, no, no, no, no. It occurs in nature. Some people simply see themselves as wacky. Take this personals ad from the Chicago Reader. "Joining the firm. Fun, sensual, buxom, brilliant blond SWF seeks never married SWM, 34-41, exercise partner who also has adipose tissue to melt and would enjoy burning calories, regaining fitness, with wacky, warm, enthusiastic partner. A definite physical fitness relationship. Maybe more? Sincere replies only." So we gave her a call.

Maria

I think maybe I'm just a little bit unconventional. My friends do call me wacky. I mean, they think I'm pretty open-minded and just a very spontaneous kind of person. And I think that's what they really consider wacky to be. And maybe also just the different things that I'm involved with, like, perhaps, I know how to speak six foreign languages.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Maria

So, you know, I'll start with a language, or I'll be listening to somebody with a conversation, and then I'll just kind of like, slide right in, not even knowing the people. And they think it's very, they think it's kind of a wacky kind of a thing to do. And maybe sometimes, not all the time, in college once I pretended to be a foreign exchange student.

And different maybe parties I've thrown in the past. Like, you know, bring your favorite wig or Wall Street Journal party. Some kind of--

Ira Glass

Bring your favorite wig or Wall Street Journal. That the choice? A wig or the Wall Street Journal?

Maria

No, no, no, no. Bring your favorite wig party or a Wall Street Journal party or something like that.

Ira Glass

What happens at a Wall Street Journal party?

Maria

You have everybody bring the Wall Street Journal, the Wall Street Journals, and you put them all over the floor and the walls and everything. It's just, you know, one of the Wall Street Journal parties, that's all.

Ira Glass

And then what happens?

Maria

And that's it. That's all. Just something fun and maybe out of the ordinary instead of, you know, just having a regular party, just tell everybody, bring a copy of the Wall Street Journal and you have a Wall Street Journal party.

Ira Glass

And then you just tape it up to the walls--

Maria

Yeah, tape it up to the the walls or around the floor.

Ira Glass

And you put it on the floor--

Maria

Whatever. You know, that's it.

Ira Glass

What happens after a few hours at a Wall Street Journal party? Do people talk about the Wall Street Journal?

Maria

Yeah, they'll talk about what they've read or what's been happening. They'll give different critiques and different things and the current events that have been happening or something like that.

Ira Glass

You know, I've got to say, you know, that is wacky.

Maria

Yeah.

Ira Glass

You know there's a kind of person who likes being called wacky and a kind of person who doesn't. It seems like you're pretty comfortable with it.

Maria

Yeah. It doesn't bother me. I don't take it as a negative thing and I don't take it as a positive thing. I think it's just an observation.

Ira Glass

And do you think it's wackiness when people call you back for the personalize ads?

Maria

Hm-mmm.

Ira Glass

One of the things that we've been told by marketing people in this week's show is that wacky sells.

Maria

Yeah, wacky sells, right.

Ira Glass

And are you finding that's true with you?

Maria

I think that wacky does sell. I think that wacky sells because people are so afraid to be wacky and so they want to tap into that thing that makes them curious about what wacky is all about. And that wacky people do things that unwacky people are too frightened or too conservative to do.

Ira Glass

So how many responses have you gotten to your ad?

Maria

I have gotten probably about 30 responses, which I think is pretty good.

Ira Glass

And of those have any of them mentioned the wackiness?

Maria

Some have mentioned the wackiness, yes.

Ira Glass

They have?

Maria

Hm-mmm.

Ira Glass

Because I guess I was wondering if you think that it's wacky that's selling, or if you think it's more like, you know, fun, sensual, buxom, brilliant blond.

Maria

Oh, come on. What do you think? I think the wacky puts them at ease. My intention with wacky is, number one, it was very-- it's an honest description. And number two, I think it kind of puts people at ease, too, to not think that I'm some kind of fashion model or some very serious person that only perfect GQ men must apply to my ad and I won't consider anybody else.

Ira Glass

Right. Sensual, buxom, brilliant blonde might be a little intimidating.

Maria

Right. Exactly. So you know, wacky and warm is part of my package too.

Ira Glass

And it's selling.

Maria

Yeah. Exactly.

Ira Glass

Maria. And advertiser in the Chicago Reader.

Act Five. Evading Wacky And Serious.

Ira Glass

Act Twelve, Evading Wacky and Serious. As we've said in this show, if you're in certain kinds of jobs, business, politics, the news, there are lots of jobs actually, and you're funny, you're encouraged to either suppress that side of yourself or simply become the wacky guy. You can either be Edward R. Murrow or Andy Rooney. And of course nobody is going to send Andy Rooney to cover the Oklahoma City bombing or something serious.

But in that landscape there are all sorts of people who avoid being pushed into either box, people whose work has serious intent and humor and lots else besides. Robert Krulwich is somebody like that. His news stories on NPR, and CBS, and ABC are surprising and like no one else's. I still remember today a fake opera called Grosso Interesa that he must have staged-- it must have been 15 years ago on NPR'S All Things Considered using the voice of the chairman of the federal reserve laced into actual operatic music to explain and analyze Reaganomics.

Krulwich says the thing about trying to occupy this territory that is neither super serious nor wacky, this middle territory, is that sometimes people simply do not know what to make of it. And you stumble into all these unexpected responses.

Robert Krulwich

For example, one time on the Peter Jennings program on ABC News I decided and he decided, he agreed, we'd do a series during one of the Olympics seasons, we'd do a series in which I created something called the Insect Olympics. Where I chose I think five insects who could outperform the human champion by a multiple of at least 20, as I recall. And it was done with pure joy and we took it very seriously. So we were very careful to select the strongest or the fastest or the best in whatever category it was insect and then choose the equivalent human being.

So what happened the first night of this series is I had chosen speed, there was going to be a sprint. And the fastest sprinter in the world was an American, a black American. And the fastest insect in the world-- and we had a real runoff here between the entomology departments at Cornell, University Illinois, and I think the winner was out on the west coast, between two different insects, but the one that one was the cockroach.

Cockroaches go incredibly fast. We set up this elaborate system where we had a treadmill, and there was this cockroach going an incredibly fast speed, jumping over little-- it was wonderful to see. And, by the way, when cockroaches go really fast, they go up on their back legs, their front legs are up in the air so they're bipedal, just like we are. So there's even like an equivalency. Anyway, I was totally enraptured by this thing. I thought it had great teacherlyness, it had great humor, it had great wisdom, and all the things you flatter yourself about.

We put it on television and the lights on the switchboard started lighting up almost immediately on Peter's desk, at my desk, in my office, and all over the newsroom. Black Americans all over the country look at this thing, and they're thinking we have this champion human being, who happens to be our race, and this [BLEEP] on television goes up and compares us to vermin. That's how they see the cockroach.

Of course, if you think about it, of course cockroaches have a very bad reputation. But I'd gotten so into the insect world I'd lost the sense that cockroaches are bad news, or have a bad reputation. So I'm picking up the phone and one person after another is accusing me. And here you are in the joy of the moment. You've created this thing that you're so proud of. And then you're so ashamed by the second call. So ashamed. And it was awful.

Then Peter Jennings did this amazing thing, I thought, which gives you a sense of how subtle television can get when it wants to. He said, well, what's on tomorrow night? I was worried he was going to say, let's chuck the whole thing I can't take the heat. But instead he said, what's on tomorrow night? I said, well, we have a rhinoceros beetle who is going to outperform a Chinese weight lifter. He says, OK.

Then he says to me, I'm going to really like tomorrow's piece. Then he walks away. I have no idea what that means. Really like? He kind of liked this one. So I tune on the TV the next night and he's sitting there and he says-- first, when it comes to the end of the show, and this is going be the piece, he lights up, his face just turns like all happy. And he says and now something really special. A lot of you called yesterday, we share your fascination-- I mean, I was just thinking-- with the human relations between the species and blah blah blah.

And then he says, like almost licking his lips, now let's watch this. It had the effect of somebody stepping up at their own dinner table and saying, I cooked this meatloaf, let's taste this. I mean, it would have been very bad manners at that moment not to like what followed. But after it was over he did a non-verbal act which was very interesting. The piece ends and he just sits there silently glowing. It's the only way I could describe it.

And then he sucks in his breath and he goes on. In other news, blah blah blah. And that act by the anchor, and this has happened to me with Susan Stamberg at NPR, other anchors too who just-- If they insist that this isn't wacky. If they say, no, I'm the man in the center, I'm the center of gravity here, the center likes this, then you do. Then you do. The calls went 180 degrees the other direction. Wonderful, marvelous.

And I have to assign it, I think, mostly not to the substance of the two pieces but to Peter's display.

Ira Glass

Robert Krulwich is a correspondent for ABC News. He is currently working on a serious history of the United States told from the point of view of Barbie.

Act Six. Dr. Jeckyl And Mr. Wacky.

Ira Glass

Act Thirteen, Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Wacky. Now with this examination of the split in our culture that creates wacky, the split that demands that things either be totally serious or totally goofy, we have this story from our contributing editor Sarah Vowel.

Sarah Vowel

One of the most gut wrenching half hours of public radio each week is a program produced in Chicago called Magnificent Obsession. It listens in on recovering drug and alcohol addicts telling their stories. Some are hopeful, some are funny, but many are just harrowing. The drunken mother crawling, literally crawling, out of stores with her children in tow. The teenager whose parents find her lying in her own vomit.

Woman

She said, my dad said, oh we should we should clean her up. And my mom said, no, let her lie in it. Maybe she'll learn something. Well I did. I learned to try to throw up before I passed out.

Woman

I decided that my husband should be dead. And I planned what I call today, the perfect murder. I've got to tell you that I was on Valiums at the time. That I was going to put the Valiums in the beer. I was going to have him drink it and I was going to cut him in little bitty pieces with a Black and Decker saw and throw Humpty Dumpty all over Illinois.

Sarah Vowel

I'm looking at a photograph of the producer of that program. His name is Jim Nayder. It's in People magazine. He's mugging for the camera.

Jim Nayder

I have cotton in my ears and I'm just sort of making a face that, sort of nauseous look.

Sarah Vowel

And was it their idea to put cotton in your ears?

Jim Nayder

It was my idea for the cotton, but not the nauseous look.

Sarah Vowel

Jim Nader is the Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Wacky of public radio. He divides his time between documenting the horror stories of addicts and spinning grand pop mistakes on his nationally syndicated three-minute-long Annoying Music Show. I heard about this show before I actually heard it. And the idea sounds awful, disingenuous. What's easier than taking potshots at the musical oeuvre of the Brady Bunch?

Then I actually listened to it. It turns out that Nayder's work is not the nadir of civilization I anticipated. The show is actually pleasurable and real, partly because of Nayder's deadpan announcing. He's not a wacky guy spinning another wacky disk. He does the show straight, as if he were a classical music announcer riffing on the significance of the post neo whatchamacallit.

Jim Nayder

Hi, I'm Jim Nayder and welcome to The Annoying Music Show. Often the very best annoying music is produced went two great forms of music are combined, creating music so annoying it's almost dangerous. Today we have the perfect annoying example. It's a mix of bluegrass and soul performed by the Burns Brothers.

Most of my passion, I think, goes into Magnificent Obsession. The experience of Magnificent Obsession in a week to me is much more moving on a bunch of levels. Number one, someone will make contact with me to be on the show. I'll go to their office or their kitchen or they'll come to my little studio, and in the course of a couple of hours they'll have sit there and told me their deepest, darkest, funniest, most uplifting experience. And I've never met this person before.

I think that's why that's more my passion. It feels more important work.

Sarah Vowel

Guess which show's more popular. The emotionally gruesome alcoholic adventure or Mae West singing "When a Man Loves a Woman?" Magnificent Obsession airs on 47 stations. The Annoying Music Show is on 123. On WBEZ, Nayder's home station, The Annoying Music Show is heard on Saturday afternoons by loads of listeners. Magnificent Obsession is on at 4:30 in the morning. Even Nayder sleeps through it.

You might think that Nayder would be, well, annoyed by The Annoying Show's Darwinian lead considering that he says magnificent obsession is his true passion. But no matter how many times you ask him how he feels about that, his answer is that it makes sense. Which is so mature. He understands that that's the way the world works.

Jim Nayder

Yeah. I don't want to over analyze it. I think people just need a good laugh. You know? I think people are desperate for a good laugh.

Sarah Vowel

So both shows actually are kind of a response to human pain in a way, if you describe it that way.

Jim Nayder

Absolutely.

Sarah Vowel

Maybe this is way too obvious, but I was thinking about where your two worlds collide. The annoying music and drugs. And I was thinking, of course, it is William Shatner's "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." You know, you've got LSD, you've got this Beatles' butchering. I mean, it's like one of those things where, you know, some people remember where they were when Kennedy was shot. I remember where I was when I heard that song the first time. I was like, you know, my world turned around. And, you know, I prefer it to the Beatles now. I mean, it is like the most joyous, most humbling, most magnificent piece of music I could imagine and I can't even imagine doing it.

And it's a complete mystery to me why that is. Like, why do you think that song is so powerful? And people agree. Someone told me that when William Shatner was on Conan O'Brien the other week, that they played "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" when he came out. So it's like, oh, it's not just me.

Jim Nayder

I think a lot of that is the power of Captain Kirk, William Shatner.

Sarah Vowel

Or even when he does, when Shatner does "Mr. Tambourine Man." You know how it goes out, where he's screaming, "Mr. Tambourine Man." And it's like, you know, Marlon Brando yelling "Stella."

Which brings us to the fundamental problem of wackiness. Is it OK to like it? What if it can't be helped?

Sarah Vowel

Sometimes when I listen to The Annoying Music Show, a show that I really love and yet I find myself questioning that love. And I feel like the part of me that loves it is sort of dead inside. Like, there's something--

Jim Nayder

Cynical, you're cynical?

Sarah Vowel

Is that it? Is it, like, the guilt of irony? Do you see it as an ironic show?

Jim Nayder

Yeah. And and it pains me sometimes to think that there are artists that I really like that the only chance I'll get to play their music is to highlight an annoying song. I just sort of grew up buying 78s and old records and I love Kate Smith and Bing Crosby and all those people. And there's-- Kate Smith singing "The Ballad of the Green Beret" is an instant hit on The Annoying Music Show. And that's the only chance I'll get to play Kate Smith on there. So there is a twinge of I'm really knocking this artist in some way.

Sarah Vowel

The problem with doing a supposedly wacky show, or a deadly serious one, is that all the other parts of your personality never get expressed. Nayder's two shows must require a fairly schizophrenic to do list. Like one minute he's looking for the best possible worst version of Rod Stewart's "Do You Think i'm Sexy?" and the next minute he's editing the cautionary tale of a drunk who lived in alleys.

But if his psyche has dual citizenship his pocketbook has pledged allegiance to the wacky flag. The Annoying Music Show is his moneymaker.

Jim Nayder

Prostitution. Income and getting my daughter through college. Go ahead and laugh, but in two years The Annoying Music Show will gross enough that Nayder won't need another source of income. There will be CDs, there will be paraphernalia. Yes, this paraphernalia will be wacky. His daughter's college tuition will be paid for through the sale of hats equipped with ear plugs, and barf bags.

It is a tribute to the power of wackiness that with millions of people in recovery programs all over this great nation, Nayder won't be financing his daughter's education with profits from Magnificent Obsession coffee thermoses or souvenir nicotine patches. Wacky sells.

And we at This American Life are not above cashing in. Pledge drive's coming up, so let's take it out with a song. Maestro.

Ira Glass

Sarah Vowell is the author of Radio On and a columnist for Salon magazine online.

Credits.

Maria

Wacky and warm is part of my package too.

Ira Glass

Indeed it is. I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Male Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.