I remember what a shock it was to hear that the Sesame Street characters, Ernie and Bert, were 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, 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 Ernie and Bert a good start. I remember wanting to convince the world, through repetition, that Mr. Snuffleupagus was stoned on the set of Sesame Street. I remember wanting 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 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 with a pot-smoking, lesbian enriched Brady Bunch movie that dealt with the realities we purported to be our existence.
“I’m serious. I can’t stand Big Bird. He’s an (expletive)!”
I couldn’t tell if the person saying this was being serious or not, but that’s what made this insidious provocation so delicious. If it wasn’t serious, it was funny in a serious, seditious manner. If it was serious, it was funny in an unserious manner. Whatever the case was, this artful joke teller left it as a standalone. They did not offer any of the qualifiers that most insurgents offered when they characterized a child’s beloved creature with an adult expletive, in the gestation period of this movement, to make it more acceptable. Refraining from qualifiers, signaled to the rest of us that the age of qualifiers was over, and an insurgency was under way.
Charles Bukowski wasn’t the first to speak out against the authority figures of the sociopolitical world, and he will not be the last. This mindset might date back to the Greeks, the Romans, and beyond, but to my knowledge no one had ever attacked the soft underbelly of authority, through 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.”
“For us to get back to real America,” a friend of mine said, paraphrasing Bukowski. “We have to destroy Mickey Mouse. 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 friend gained panache, and chicks dug panache. Someone else said that he was an angry young man, and chicks dug angry. We dug angry. His provocative statement was 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.
Yeah, that’s the stuff! Suck it Mickey!
If you have read Charles Bukowski, you already know that this horrible thing called Cute America began with an institution called Disney, which started with the institution created by a cartoon character called Mickey Mouse. “It all started with institutions for those that need to be institutionalized,” was the 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. A life of Mickey will lead to an uncomplicated life of laughter, frivolity, and fun, and soullessness. It will lead to a generation of Mickey fans, children and otherwise, to live without knowledge of the stark realities of poverty, drugs, disease, prostitution and porn. It will lead to the brick-by-brick abolishment of cute America.
“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 fellas would watch such cool, hep cats walk away from such conversations, with their insurgent words trailing them, and we would see laughter, open-mouthed awe, and the elongated stares such statements caused chicks, 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 might be able to use. I don’t know if others ever managed to use this technique, but any flirtations I may 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 intending to be insurgent. Instead, the shirts said kind, 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 whole insurgent humor formula. “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 points can be funny, in that it sent a greater message that we weren’t just being funny, we had a greater narrative 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 it 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 his statements to be a launching point. I’m sure that if he 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 become 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 a 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 Steven Wright tones and deadpan expressions, and they would say it so often that their audience began to believe that this wasn’t shtick to them. It wasn’t a bit. 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 the subtle, Steven Wright-smile to break free.
“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 their agenda, they might turn to their children to have them to mimic the hatred: “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 elicits laughter and “awws” from everyone at the table.
It’s at this point, or some points in between, that the 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 may giggle, on occasion at the humorous actions of a person in a Barney outfit. On the off chance that it happens, that their child forgets and laughs at a man in the costume, one has to wonder if these types look around their newspaper to say, “What do we say about Barney?” to put their children back in check.
“He sucks,” they say.
“That’s right,” the true believer might 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 initial the back and forth reaches a crescendo, the casual observer says, “I think this is all funny, don’t get me wrong, but you don’t actually believe it do you?”
It’s been my experience with such types that such acts are more than just an exchange between parents and children to prompt children into cute, sophisticated responses to elicit laughter. They want their children more prepared for the stark reality of the world. They may even indoctrinate their children into a world of John Waters movies and Martin Scorsese movies, to contradict all that Mickey and Barney cute stuff, so their children can understand violence and sexual identities better, so that they are more conscious of differences in people, and so that they won’t stare, or ostracize, and hate. One has to wonder if one of their kids goes through a laughing spell at something Elmo did, if those parents 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 that 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 these miserable parents, and if there is anything, anyone could do to prepare them for a life of that.
Bukowski’s goal was to be the Anti-Disney. Anti-Disney was, to Bukowski’s mind, stark reality. By implication, one 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, “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 the 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 turned adults. We do need to recognize that some adults have some unusual, and unhealthy, propensities 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, there was something that all of these entertainment vehicles tapped into that have 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, can one 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 that has read 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 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, he may have done it better than those that preceded him, for few people have relayed the unhappy mindset in such a fundamental 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 it was never their goal to win, or to achieve some ultimate form of happiness. No, this whole thing 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.