It was a shock for me to hear that some thought the Sesame Street characters, Ernie and Bert, might be gay. I remember thinking that the statement, whether true or not, was provocative, insurgent, and hilarious. I don’t remember the first person to say it, but I remember thinking that that person was on the cusp of something new, something insidious, and transcendent. I remember thinking that this person was part of an insurgent generation that revolted against civil authority, through pop culture, in a manner that was not belligerent. I remember wanting to be at the forefront of that which didn’t just break down societal barriers, but left a wasteland in its wake. I remember being unconcerned with collateral damage. Children be damned, I thought. I wanted to be one of those that shook this whole two-liter bottle up, and I considered this characterization of Ernie and Bert a good start. I remember wanting to convince the world, through repetition, that the reason Mr. Snuffleupagus talked and moved slow on the set of Sesame Street was that he was stoned. I wanted to inform anyone that would listen that the Bradys were all stoned, gay, and involved in incest and anything else we might be able to come up with, to poke holes in the traditional wholesomeness that led my fellow, broken home brethren to feel estranged. We were suffering on the other side of the tube, in our reality, and we found it disgusting that 60’s and 70’s TV should portray an idyllic image of a family that left the rest of feeling ostracized. I remember wanting to join these fights, until Hollywood vindicated us by producing The Brady Bunch Movie that had characters dealing with pot smoking, lesbians, and the realities we purported to be more in line with our experiences.
“I’m serious. I can’t stand Big Bird. He’s an (expletive)!” someone said.
I don’t know if the person said this in a serious vein, but that’s what made the insidious provocation so delicious. If it wasn’t serious, it was funny in a serious, seditious manner. If it was serious, on the other hand, it was funny in an unserious manner. Whatever the case was, this artful joke teller left it as a standalone. They did not preface their comment with the qualifiers that most insurgents I encountered were almost required to offer in the gestation period of the movement, when characterizing a child’s beloved creature in such a manner. Refraining from qualifiers, signaled to the rest of us that the age of qualifiers was over, and an insurgency was under way.
Charles Bukowski was not the first to speak out against the authority figures of the sociopolitical world, nor will he be the last. This mindset might date back to the Romans, the ancient Greeks, and beyond, but to my knowledge no one had ever attacked the soft underbelly of authority, through the pop culture staples of children’s entertainment as successfully as Charles Bukowski had. If Bukowski didn’t start this insurgent movement against pop culture, on a nation-wide scale, he did exert tremendous influence on my insurgent brethren. We raised our fist high with a scream, when we learned that the writer had the temerity to come out against the cultural icon that many believed to be the standard-bearer of cutesy America: Mickey Mouse.
“Mickey Mouse is a three-fingered son of a bitch with no soul,” Charles Bukowski once said.
“For us to get back to real America,” a friend of mine said, paraphrasing Bukowski I assumed. “We have to destroy Mickey Mouse, because Mickey Mouse destroyed the soul of America.” This statement was so provocative. It was a plane of thought crashing into what I considered the foundation of America. By saying what he said, those that I socialized with said that my friend gained panache, and the women around us dug panache. Someone else said that he was an angry young man, and these women dug angry. We dug angry. His angry statement was so provocative, and so Rage Against the Machine. Knowing nothing of Bukowski or any other insurgent thoughts at the time, we thought this guy had anger without causation, and we thought that was the essence of cool.
“What are you rebelling against?” a female actor asked Marlon Brando in the movie The Wild Ones.
“Whaddya got?” Brando replied.
That’s the stuff! Suck it Mickey!
Those that have read Charles Bukowski already know that Cute America began with an institution called Disney, which started with the institution created by the cartoon character called Mickey Mouse. “It all started with institutions for those that need to be institutionalized,” was a refrain of retro-hip haters. “Those that seek Mickey Mouse, as their form of entertainment, live in a soulless and philosophy free form of hell,” they said. They believed that a life of Mickey would lead to an uncomplicated life of laughter, frivolity, and fun, and soullessness. They thought it would lead a generation of Mickey fans, children and otherwise, to live without knowledge of the stark realities of poverty, drugs, disease, prostitution, and porn. They thought it would lead to a generation that wouldn’t understand the harsh realities of life.
“Mickey Mouse?” the aghast would ask. “What could you possibly have against Mickey Mouse?”
“Nothing,” the cool, hep cats would say, “Except that he is a three-fingered son of a bitch with no soul.”
We would watch such cool, retro-hip cats walk away from such conversations, with laughter, open-mouthed awe, and elongated stares trailing behind them. We didn’t know if the women believed them, but we saw that the women loved them, and we knew we had to get some of that.
These people appeared to have a formula for intriguing otherwise unattainable women, when they delivered such lines in a subtle and suave manner. The formula also appeared to be something we uncool fellas thought we might be able to use. I don’t know if others ever managed to use this technique, but any flirtations I might have had with using this tool ended when the retro-funny-nerd types stepped in with their “Elmo rocks!” and “Grover is a dude!” T-shirts. They would walk around the building with Sesame Street T-Shirts on that weren’t insurgent. Their T-shirts said genuinely funny things like, “Big Bird is my homeboy!” and “I was raised on The Street”, and they got laughs. Girls wanted to ask them about their T-shirt, and they got a ticket to ride. This left the rest of us confused. We were just learning how to use this insurgent humor formula. “We thought we had a formula here,” we wanted to say to the retro-funny-nerd types. “And you’re messing up the dynamic of what we just started to understand.”
Even if we had been able to use those insurgent statements, we would’ve intended them to be funny, quasi-funny, and serious to the point that women took us serious as a Rage Against the Machine soldier. We intended to be funny in a way that some strong, intellectual themes can be funny, in that it sends a greater message that we aren’t just trying to be funny. We wanted them to think we had a point that we wanted to transmit through comedy. I don’t know if every contra insurgent rebel was like me, and they just wanted to reach a higher plane of funny, but I did run across a few –and there are always a few– that took this insurgent movement a little too serious, and they didn’t seek humorous underpinnings.
I don’t know if Bukowski was one of them, or if he used the insurgent formula to rise to the throne of the insurgent rebels in a capitalistic venture, but the standup comedians took Bukowski’s fundamentals to the stratosphere. I don’t know if Bukowski would have found this a little unsettling, or if he intended these statements to be a launching point, but I’m sure that if Bukowski would’ve lived long enough to witness the insurgency permeate the culture to the degree that little old ladies began saying “Barney sucks!” at Applebee’s, he would’ve been proud. If it wasn’t pride, he felt, the idea that his insurgency became such a pop culture institution might have embarrassed him. Whatever the case was with Bukowski, his acolytes took this message a little more serious than the rest of us.
Few can pinpoint where movements such as these begin, and few can pinpoint their demise. We only know what happens in our inner circles. In my inner circle, the insurgent institution began to wane, but the Bukowski acolytes held true. “Barney still sucks!” they would say in dry tones and deadpan expressions, and they said it so often that some in their audience began to believe that this wasn’t some form of comedic shtick to them. They were true believers, and it was either the retro-funny-nerd types, or the little old ladies at Applebee’s repeating this mantra, that exposed these true believers as ludicrous, and a little too serious and self-righteous, to a point where we layman began to back away from our attempts to achieve orthodoxy.
“You do realize that Barney the Dinosaur wasn’t written for middle-aged men right?” we asked these ultra-serious types, waiting for dry tones and deadpan expressions to break into a smile.
“I don’t care,” they would say. “He’s created a soulless America that seeks the cute mindset with the horrible songs he sings. He has no soul.” Then, to further this insurgent agenda, they might turn to their children, “What do we think of Barney the Dinosaur, Miss Mary?”
“He sucks!” Miss Mary says. “He should have a hypodermic needle hanging from his arm, a mohawk, and the world would be a much better place if his father had been taught him the proper use of a condom.” Miss Mary’s learned version of cute sophistication often elicited laughter and “awws” from everyone at the table.
It’s at this point, or some points in between, that this observer began to realize that the true believer, insurgent has a bona fide opinion on the matter that he thinks is consequential. He is angry that any individual, of any age, seeks the soft entertainment that a Mickey, or a Barney, can provide.
They cannot abide by the fact that their children might giggle, on occasion at the humorous actions of a person in a Barney outfit. On the off chance that it happens, and their child accidentally laughs at a person in the costume, we can only guess that these types peer around their newspaper at Miss Mary and say, “What do we say about Barney?”
“He sucks,” they say.
“That’s right,” they say before going back to their newspaper.
At this point, or some points in between, the casual observer can’t help but question the parent’s motives. After the initial the back and forth reaches a crescendo, the casual observer says, “I think this is all very humorous, don’t get me wrong, but you don’t actually believe it do you?”
It’s been my experience with such types that such actions are more than just an exchange between parents and children to deter children from laughing at cute things. They want their children more prepared for the stark reality of the world. They might even indoctrinate their children into a world of violent and obscene movies to counterbalance all that cute Mickey and Barney material, so their children can understand violence and sexual identities better. They may do so under the guise of believing that this will lead to their children being less inclined to ostracize and hate differences in people. One has to wonder if one of their kids goes through a laughing spell at something Elmo did, if those parents might go so far as to sit these children down and remind them of the misery in the world. One has to wonder if those children cry as a result, and if that parent feels a sense of satisfaction by preparing their children for the misery that waits for them on the other side of their lives. One has to wonder if these children are more miserable based on the efforts of miserable parents, and if there is anything, anyone could do to prepare them for a life of that.
Bukowski’s goal was to create an Anti-Disney America that was awash in stark reality. By implication, we could say that if Bukowski were in charge of America, he would have her children awash in alcohol, sex, and violence. He would want America’s children to know the country he knew, and wrote about in his poems and books. He would want them to know the stark reality of abusive fathers, and the idea that alcohol is the only form of escapist entertainment that has any soul. “And the track,” Bukowski acolytes would remind us, “Don’t forget about Bukowski’s routine trips to the track.” We can be sure that the gospel according to Bukowski would include the belief that horses, not Mickey Mouse, can make all of your dreams come true, and if any child doubts that, they can look at the cast of characters at their local track.
Screw childhood, Bukowski appears to be saying. Screw wholesome Americans, born and bred on Disney, that believe that childhood should last as long as possible. It’s not realistic. Childhood is the very essence of cutesy America. It’s farcical, and it has no soul.
To support our counter argument, we must cede to the fact that Disney has damaged some vulnerable children that became adults. We do need to recognize that some adults have an unusual, and unhealthy, propensity for fantasy, but what Bukowski, and his acolytes, don’t account for when they make provocative, insurgent statements against Disney is that if Disney never existed, there would be a need to create it. If Barney the Dinosaur, or Sesame Street never existed, there would be a need for them. Whether that need is institutional in America, financial, capitalistic, emotional, or fundamental, these entertainment vehicles tapped into something that made a generation of children a little happier as a result. AY! There’s the rub, the nut-core of it all, happy. Bukowski types hate happy, and if they were in control, America would be a Happy-Free zone.
Bukowski had a dream, a dream in which all children could one day live in a world where they were judged not by the smiles on their faces, but by the spiritual, or spirited, lights of their soul. He had a dream in which all Americans, black and white, could one day join hands in a happy-free, cute-free, and Disney-free America.
Most would say that America is a better, happier place for having Disney in it, but the true believer, the Bukowski acolyte, insurgent types, believe it made America much worse, because fewer people drank, fewer people went to the track on a routine basis, and fewer people had miserable childhoods, at least for the one day they spent at Disneyland.
If Disney represents happy, cute America, as Bukowski suggests, could we suggest that Bukowski is miserable America’s ambassador? If Disney brought uncomplicated happiness to America’s shore, and laughter, and joy, what did Bukowski bring? Anyone knows anything about Bukowski knows that he had an abusive, alcoholic father, and he had a clinical case of acne in his youth that led him to a degree of misery that he mined to carve out a niche in the market that brought him fame and fortune. We know that while Bukowski may not have been the first to tap into this market, but he might have done it better than those that preceded him, for few people have relayed the unhappy mindset in such a comprehensive manner, and very few could express their hatred for happy people with such vigor.
Some believe that Bukowski created the current manifestation of anti-happy that led to a hierarchical web of minions displaying near-visceral hatred for The Brady Bunch, Leave it to Beaver, Disney, and all that is wholesome. These wholesome ideals, portrayed on screen, represented something that irritated these types so much that it revealed something about them they didn’t want others to see. Their anger hung out from beneath their skirt for all the world to see and it did nothing for them to learn that in many quarters of America it’s become popular and chic to hate happy and wholesome America, because it’s too cutesy. It does nothing for them to know they’ve won in some quarters, because their goal was never about winning, or achieving some form of satisfaction that led to happiness. No, the insurgent movement that I once considered attractive was about spreading the misery, so that they wouldn’t feel so much of it, percolating under their skin, while they sat on the other side of the tube seething in the juices of their reality.