Midnight Confessions #36: Baby Ish


Another installment of my embarrassing stories, told through audio.

One of the girls I used to nanny for graduated from college last month. She’s now headed to grad school. I’m really trying not to let this make me feel old. I’m trying to remind myself that she was already in middle school when I met her, and I was mostly there for her younger siblings. I guess that isn’t really nannying, and not really babysitting — none of them were babies. Caregiving?

Anyway, I’d like to think I was good at it. I know that once a month, I wasn’t: I had no interest in playing soccer in the hallway or walking to the park, I would keep suggesting activities that were very low-key and didn’t involve much movement and involved lots of Double Stuf Oreos. But most of the time, I was good. We played games and talked and I sang songs to the girls before they went to sleep (their brother wouldn’t stand for such things.) I wanted to be the kind of adult that had answers to kids’ questions. Usually, though, it was me asking the questions, and me leading the lessons, even when they weren’t particularly interested. Once I noticed Holden, the middle child, had given himself the name “H-Bomb” on a multiplayer game, and asked him if he knew what that meant. We got into talking about the Cold War, and I ending up trying to explain communism to him.

“That’s gross,” he said, when I was done. I had expected “That’s a dumb idea” or maybe, “That’s a good idea,” but I had not expected to hear the word “gross.” I was baffled until I realized he had taken the “sharing” part literally. As if the Communist Party were an actual party where strangers shared toothbrushes and double-dipped their chips.

Sometimes I just made dumb mistakes, though. Like all kids, they were big into whatever was on the radio at the time, and I spent a lot of time worrying about what their mom wouldn’t want them to hear. Every other song in the early 2010s was built around some terrible, belabored double entendre — “Peacock”, “Whistle”, “Animals”, all of that. One day Holden wouldn’t stop singing The Wanted’s “Glad You Came" and I told him to stop, because it wasn’t appropriate.

“What’s inappropriate about ‘I’m glad you came’?” he said, all innocence, and I couldn’t come up with an answer. Shit, I thought. I’d just inadvertently taught a nine-year-old euphemism. (It could have been worse. At my job teaching kids to wall paint in public schools, one of the middle schoolers had put a piece of painter’s tape on his chin and yelled, “Look! I have a flavor-saver!” And before I could think, I said “What’s that?” One of the high schoolers laughed at me.)

Probably the thing I’m proudest of, though not without a twinge of guilt, is the phrase I taught the youngest daughter. She, like her older siblings, was very smart, but she had a wry, dark sense of humor from a young age. She once asked me, “How do you be goth? I want to be goth!” She also said being the youngest “rocks, because I’ll be the last to die!” She spoke little a little adult, and could tell when adults were talking down to her, and hated it. That’s why I taught her to tell them, “Don’t be so condescending.”

Is this the best thing I did as a babysitter, or the worst? I’m still not sure.

Stuff I Did This Month: Yes, sorry, it’s been a month. First of all, I appeared in Newfest Pride’s all LGBTQ table read of Legally Blonde! I played two VERY different characters.

I talked about mental health and mental illness on Adult ISH, Merk and Nyge were FANTASTIC hosts, and listened to me talk about how medication changed the way I perceive time. I also got to give out advice with Matt Braunger on This Might Help, and we talked about the benefits of playing a character much smarter — or much stupider — than you are.

Fake BBC Show of the Week: Nan’s at Bingo (also, please enjoy this weird list of Bingo nicknames)

Midnight Confession #35: Class Villains and Mr. Parker


Another installment of my anecdotes told aurally!

My friends Anna Drezen and Andrew Farmer talked about the concept of the “Party Villain” on their podcast: it’s the person who, knowingly or unknowingly, brings down the mood of the party and makes everyone uncomfortable. I think there’s such a thing as the Class Villain, too. They throw off the rhythm and the mood of the classroom, and everyone shifts uncomfortably and makes panicked eye contact when the instructor calls on them. Are they going to mention the Rothschilds controlling everything again? Are they going to name-drop Truffaut for no reason, again? Are they going to snort and say, “Excuse me, what?” and “Yeah, right!” after every single break in the Sociology professor’s lecture again?

Class villains aren’t just annoying, they’re reckless. And I’ll admit I’ve been the class villain before. Probably most in high school, though high school students get a little leeway, I think, because everyone is annoying and reckless then. But I was definitely the villain of ninth grade English.

Mr. Parker was my teacher. I’d been worried I would get the very strict Mr. Campbell, who made his students memorize lists of Greek and Latin roots, and measured essay margins with a ruler. Instead, I got self-described “sensitive man” Mr. Parker, who gave us Meyers-Briggs tests on our first week, let us write short stories, and had us bring in song lyrics to analyze (I think I did Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So”, which is a pretty straightforward song about alcoholism, and I remember pitying the flustered girl who chose a Bjork song). We talked about poetry and psychology, and I wrote a paper on a biography of Sigmund Freud that he put up on his wall as a “nearly perfect” paper.

It should have been a great experience for me, but it wasn’t. I really liked Mr. Parker, but the feeling was not mutual. If anything, he seemed a little scared of me. I was loud and obnoxious, constantly blurting things out and making snide comments. My friend Lana and I were constantly passing notes, and Steven and I were constantly getting into arguments. I monopolized every class discussion and constantly went off-topic (that’s when Steven started calling me “Tangent Woman”). I even got into a fight with my best friend Melissa at one point. Everyone in that class was annoyed with me.

But every villain has a backstory. Fourteen was a hard year for me, and I was acting out. I had lost my grandfather, gained a new stepmother, and moved in the same year. Puberty had brought my film career, one of the few constants in my life, to a screeching halt. My friend group and splintered, and I was struggling with my mental health and sexuality. You’d think that with my constant fidgeting, writing romantic short stories about girls saving each other’s lives, and sometimes having to leave class early so I could go to psychiatrist appointments, he might have gathered that I was going through some stuff. But Mr. Parker never asked what was going on. Sometimes he even made snide comments back at me, like this was The Breakfast Club and I was the John Bender to his Principal Vernon. Finally, when I interrupted a fellow student’s analysis of an optical illusion to say I thought it looked like Elvis, Mr. Parker took me outside and said, “Has anyone ever told you that you rub them the wrong way?”

That hit me hard. By ninth grade, I’d been called all kinds of names, and had all kinds of teachers insult me, but something about this hit me hard. If he had called me a brat, I could have written him off. If he had just told me I needed to behave better, I would have listened. What he had told felt personal, and damning. It not only meant that he didn’t like me, but that there was nothing I could do about it, that I was beyond hope. I stayed outside of class for the rest of the period, sobbing.

I don’t know if I behaved better in Mr. Parker’s class after that, but I never saw him the same way. Still, I kept my grades up, and I do remember asking if I could give him a hug on the last day. He agreed, but when he hugged me, he said, “Well, Mara, you kept me on my toes.”

Villainy is relative. Mr. Parker saw me as Judd Nelson when I was really Ally Sheedy (although isn’t the whole point that they are all a little Ally and all a little Judd?) I saw the woman in my sketch class as the villain, but she had tons of friends. I never saw her again, and no one has told me, before or since, that I “rub them the wrong way.” Not in those words. Maybe I should have had Mr. Campbell after all. Although Mr. Parker did teach me something very important: the “sensitive” ones can be the most insensitive.

Stuff I Did Recently: I talked about cicadas, turtles, coral, and the invertebrate I’m most creeped out by on Creature Feature! And speaking of my teenage self, I also recorded the 100th episode of Come On Fhqwhpods, a podcast about my adolescent obsession, Homestar Runner! It will be out soon!

Fake BBC Show of the Week: All Out of Ice Lollies

Passover Whines

Or, Why Does This Night Suck More Than Any Other Night?

I hate Passover.

I’ve hated it for as far back as I could remember. I actually remember telling someone how much I hated it when I was about ten, and hastily adding a half-serious “Sorry, Hashem!” after, with a quick glance up at the sky. It’s been surprising to me to learn that most Jewish adults I know actually like Passover (offically known as “Pesach”). They look forward to it. They have happy memories of it.

I just can’t understand this. Are they celebrating the same holiday I’m celebrating? Here are my reasons for hating Passover.

The Food Sucks

When I ask people why they like Passover, they always say the most baffling thing: “It’s the food!” It’s true that there’s a lot of food on Passover. It’s also true that nearly all of it sucks.

I was a big carb-eater when I was a kid. I still am: bread, rice, and baked goods are some of my favorite foods. But while I eat carbs and sugar much more sparingly now, as a kid in the ‘90s, I fully bought into the Food Pyramid propaganda of six to eleven servings of grain a day. Carb-heavy foods also tend to be easier to prepare — pasta takes ten minutes, a bowl of cereal or a sandwich takes two — so they were the basis of a lot of our single father meals. Going without wheat, oat, or corn products meant going without a lot of the food we usually had in the house.

One of my earliest Passover memories is sadly eating a bowl of Kosher for Passover Cheerios, and honestly, I don’t think much has changed since then. You would think with advances in gluten-free cooking, we would have figured out how to improve Kosher for Passover foods by now. We have not. They still all taste like wet cardboard. The cereals, the baked goods, even the macaroons suck. You can’t help but compare it to the food you’re not eating; a mouthful of some good charoset does not make up for all we are missing. I imagine Passover food sucks a little less for Sephardic Jews, who still get to eat the good stuff — kitinyot! Rice and beans, Passover-style? Yes please. But we Ashkenazis are determined to make things worse for ourselves. We can’t even have hummus!

“But matzoh ball soup!” I hear you cry. Look, if you’re Ashkenazi, and Pesach is the only time you eat matzoh ball soup, what kind of horrible life are you living? Besides, matzoh meal is one thing, and matzoh itself is another. Somehow, I don’t know how or why, but matzoh itself tastes a thousand times better when it’s not Passover. I’ve eaten it other times of the year and it’s been edible, but even on the first day of Passover, it tastes like wallpaper paste.

Passover is just not good for food. The far superior big food Jewish holidays are, of course, Purim, and Sukkot. On one, you are obligated to party, and on the other, you eat lots of great fall foods and get to feel like you’re camping. Even Yom Kippur is better than Passover: it’s one day of fasting, sandwiched between one pre-fast meal and one post-past feast. Passover is seven days of eating wall paste and cardboard. It’s worse both in quality and quantity.

The Story and the Company

I should love this part. I tell a lot of long, rambling stories, and I think a lot about bad things happening to my enemies. Besides, my name literally comes from Exodus! I get a shout-out every Seder! Yes, it hurt my feelings a little as a child to be compared to horseradish, but I’ve come to appreciate my bitterness for what it is.

The Exodus story is disturbing on several levels, though. There are a lot of modern attempts to tie it to contemporary tales of justice and human rights, and I appreciate that, but to me it just feels like a rather dramatic, elaborate revenge narrative. Although, while most of the plagues seemed to me when I was a kid, but are they really any different than what’s happened in the past year? Or past few decades? Disease, death, fire… maybe not plagues of frogs, although Australia’s had them before, and they had plagues of mice this year.

The story also drags on and on, for hours. Though this is also likely due to the way I was raised: I grew up sort of on the brink of Conservative and Orthodox — “Conservadox,” as some say. We worked our way through the whole Haggadah, and our seders felt like they took all night. I have many memories of falling asleep in my chair long before they over, sometimes even before we ate. Seder conversations were mostly about the holiday, and about family; secular topics seemed to be actively discouraged, at least until the adults had a few glasses of wine. Passover was never supposed to be fun for us.

Every time I talk to someone who grew up less observant, their seder descriptions are very different. For them, it’s just a dinner with people they haven’t seen in a while. They used an abridged version of the Haggadah, sing Dayenu, eat matzoh ball soup, and have fun conversations. I even remember someone I dated calling me the day after a seder, telling me how all the Boomers had gotten drunk and said embarrassing things. When someone brought up the summer camp they all used to go to, an uncle’s friend told the table that it was the first place he ever got to second and third base with a girl, except he didn’t use the terms “second and third base.”

I’m not sure that’s really how I’d like to spend a seder, either. Consider it a fifth question: which is worse, a boring seder or an awkward seder?

Finding the Afikomen Inevitably Disappoints

As you can see, much (if not all) of my frustration and resentment against Passover goes back to my childhood. Even the attempts to make it more child-friendly backfired on me. In theory, finding the Afikomen seems like the best part, right? Give the kids some time to escape from boredom. Let them go on their very own treasure hunt! They’ll get a dollar bill or some fruit gummies if they win! But I found very quickly there is no way to win this game if you have a big family.

I have exactly two memories of playing Find the Afikomen. One is from when I was about five, when my preteen brother Jon lifted up a painting and yelled “Here it is!” approximately ten seconds into a hunt. (So much for giving the kids some time.) The second is when I was about nine, visiting East Coast cousins, none of whom were older than three. I found the afikomen in a light fixture after about two minutes, but as soon as I made eye contact with the adults, I knew that it wasn’t mine to win. Resigned, I asked my toddler cousin, “Maybe it’s up on the ceiling! Have you tried looking up?” She found it five minutes later. You’re always either too young or too old to win, I concluded.

I remember someone (I think it might have actually been Rhea Perlman) telling me once that her family had their own spin on finding the afikomen, one the kids found particularly frustrating. “Every year, my father hides the afikomen in the same place,” she told me, “Under his butt.” Every year, the kids would stare at him, expectantly, and he’d stare right back at them, arms folded, and absolutely refuse to get up off his chair. That’s so unfair, I remember thinking on their behalf. As an adult, though, I have to admit it’s really funny.

Elijah Also Disappoints

Speaking of things supposedly fun for kids, there’s also Elijah the Prophet. You leave a glass of wine out for him, and he allegedly comes by, and maybe drinks it. Being visited by Elijah should be fun for kids, but it isn’t, unless you like staring at a glass of wine to see if it looks like a ghost is drinking it. (I once had a teacher who said the adults in his family used to kick the table so it would look like the wine was moving, and yell “Look! It’s Elijah!”) You can’t explain to kids the whole complicated story behind Elijah’s cup, that the cup actually symbolizes the coming of the messiah. So Elijah, to kids, is just Santa without the presents, the Easter Bunny without the chocolate, the Tooth Fairy without the money. What’s the point?

You’re also not actually supposed to know what Elijah looks like, he could come in the guise of anyone, anywhere. There’s a cute story about Elijah in the All of a Kind Family books, a series about a Jewish family at the turn of the 20th century. They explain to their youngest brother Charlie that Elijah could look like anyone, and may be unkempt and dressed in rags. So Charlie goes out on Passover and comes back to their apartment announcing that he’s found Elijah, in the guise of Tony, the guy who sells ice on their block. Tony bemusedly drinks his glass of wine, thanks everyone, and leaves. The rest of the family is forced to admit that well, Tony the Ice Man very well could be Elijah.

Why Does This Night Suck More Than Any Other Night?

I put a poll out on Twitter the other day, asking fellow Jews if they actively enjoyed Pesach. Two-thirds of the answerers said they did, and one-third said they didn’t. Most of the people who said they didn’t shared my reasons: they didn’t like the food, found the story disturbing, and didn’t like having to spend time with extended relatives they didn’t like. I’m not as alone as I thought.

But many more people love it. They have happy memories of it. So it all comes back to personal experience, I suppose. I don’t remember fun times with relatives, because we had to spend it with relatives we didn’t like. I don’t remember good food, because I don’t come from a family of good cooks. I don’t remember a sense of community, I remember my first grade teacher explaining that Ancient Jews put blood above their doorways, and all the other kids in my class saying “Ewww!” in response. Would it have been different if I had grown up somewhere with more Jewish people, if I came from a line of people that embraced the spirituality of Judaism, rather than using it as a cudgel for their own holier-than-thou narcissism? If I actually fully believed in a God?

I’m not sure. But I know I like the idea to have a Pesach my way. To make good food, including kitinyot. To plan an actually fun collaborative scavenger hunt to find the afikomen, one that doesn’t end in ten seconds. To try to tie the story of Exodus into actual social action needed today. I just haven’t done it yet.

But there’s always next year. B'Yerushalayim.

Stuff I Did This Week: On a completely secular note, I had a great time hanging out with Irish drag queens Kiki Saint Clair and Candy Warhol on the Friends of Dorothy podcast! I talked about which county in Ireland my grandmother is from, Derry Girls, and my preteen crush on Mira Sorvino, which feels a bit awkward now that I know she follows me on Twitter.

I also had a great time with my friend Christy Carlson Romano on her YouTube channel! We watched some of my old commercials and movie clips and ate sour things! I love sour things, and Christy’s always fun, so it was a lot of fun!

Fake BBC Show of the Week: It’s Got Me in Bits

Midnight Confession #34: Peer Ears


Another installment of my embarrassing stories, told through audio!

Probably the day that I noticed something was up was when we had to demonstrate that the best way to listen was “to be like a ball, not a sponge or a wall” and I noticed my scene partner, who had recently been suspended for getting caught smoking, wasn’t taking it as seriously as I was. I think I might have thought he was just there for the food, which was usually better than the dining hall’s food. We also got caffeinated sodas, which were all but banned on campus, since we were living at high altitude and dehydration was taken very seriously.

There were definitely a few others who were as devoted as I was to Peer Counselors — or “Peer Ears,” as we called it. One was Jamie, the valedictorian, another was an opera singing major named Ashley who later came back to the school to work as an administrator, another was an interdisciplinary arts student from Japan who designed our club hoodies. One of them said “Our Ears Don’t Talk. They’re Here to Listen!” and the other said “We Listen to the Voice of Your Heart.” I wore mine at least once a week, but the thing is, I don’t think anybody ever once came to me for advice. Sometimes my friends would confide in me, but that was about it.

Not that we could ever even keep secrets at boarding school, anyway. Everyone gossiped at boarding school. At my public high school, if you asked someone what was going on with so-and-so, or why someone broke up with someone, you’d get told to mind your own business. But at Idyllwild, we all gossiped about everyone and everything. Maybe it was just because I had more friends there, but I think it was because we all lived together and we were all going to find out about everything, anyway. We knew when teachers were pregnant long before they announced it, we knew who secretly smoked or drank, who was cheating on whom. There just weren’t enough places to hide.

It was still nice to have a place to open up, though. Our school psychologist was a great guy, and I learned a lot about people I’d never really understood or never thought I could be friends with. We mostly talked about personal experiences with mental health and mental illness, but sometimes we’d submit anonymous suggestions for topics. One day the school psychologist announced that we would be talking about sex and relationships, and the girl whose suggestion it was immediately got flustered and said it was her idea, but that she hadn’t really thought we should talk about sex, she’d meant it as a joke. This was the same girl who wore a Neopets shirt sometimes, and when I asked her about it, always said, “Oh, I don’t know what it means, I got it at a thrift store.” Ironically cutesy T-shirts were something of a fad in those days, so it took me years to realize she had actually lied. I wonder what she would have said if I’d told her that I also played Neopets.

This is what I think about when people talk about having had sex in high school, by the way. I think about how I had Peer Ears and Neopets instead.

Stuff I Did This Week—uh, Month: Wow, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? There’s been a lot! First of all, if you missed it, I had a piece in The New York Times about Britney Spears and growing up in the public eye. Then I did interviews with NPR Weekend Edition and Christiane Amanpour about that article!

I also got to surprise Daisy Ridley, who is absolutely adorable and a HUGE fan of Matilda, on Comedy Central’s Stir Crazy!

On the podcast front, I was on Out with Suzi Ruffell, who was absolutely lovely. I’m also going to be on the fantastic American Hysteria (talking about my life and my article and moral panics) and the equally fantastic Low Culture Boil podcast (talking about groupie memoirs?!) very soon!

Fake BBC Show of the Week: Stuff It, Simon! (From the people who brought you Up Your Arse, Alistair!)

Stupid Things That Gave Me Nightmares as a Child #4

Fifty-Seven Minutes into the Future Edition

The newest installment of my series about things I was afraid of as a child, and if they’re still scary to me now.

The Fear

What if you gazed into the abyss, and the abyss offered you a Coke?

I’m going to be honest with you, the title here is technically a lie: I didn’t develop this fear until my late teens. Then, as now, I spent way too much time online, and someone somewhere posted something about the “Max Headroom signal hijacking.” In the ‘80s, a couple of hackers broke into a Chicago news station, and broadcast a bizarre video of themselves making fun of Chicago reporters, singing songs, and uh, getting spanked by a woman with a flyswatter. They did it twice, actually, and you can watch both videos of both hacks on YouTube. To this day, the perpetrators have never been found.

I watched the video at eighteen or nineteen, and something about it made my skin crawl. It shouldn’t have unsettled me as much as it did: I grew up with an engineer father who worked for L.A. news stations. I’ve heard all kinds of stories about bored, disgruntled technicians pulling pranks on news anchors who treated them badly, or radio DJs disrupting each others’ broadcasts. I know these kinds of things happen, and I know how they happen. What was it, then, that I found so upsetting? I think it was the mask. One of the people involved had been wearing a Max Headroom mask. I didn’t know what or who that was, but it felt familiar, in a horrifying way.

For those of you born after me, Max Headroom was a talking head character from the ‘80s that was just that, a talking head. He was played by a human being, but was meant to look like a CG creation, and his recorded segments were deliberately glitchy, sped up or slowed down, to make him seem unreal. He was supposed to be funny, but the road to hell is paved with things people thought would be funny.

As soon as I watched a Max Headroom video, I never wanted to see one again. Anything Uncanny Valley has always terrified me, as we’ve previously discussed, and Max Headroom is its apotheosis. He is from the Uncanny Valley like I am from the San Fernando Valley. He’s human, but he’s not; his existence mocks ours. Memento Masahiro Mori! If I might get pretentious for a second, and let’s be real, I always do, he’s also close to Freud’s idea of the uncanny, “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” Max Headroom felt familiar. He didn’t give me nightmares as a child, but he reminded me, very strongly, of the nightmares I had a child.

But people have been telling me for years that Max Headroom was good, actually. I was particularly inspired to revisit my fear after watching Cody Johnston’s Our Popcorn Dystopia, an opus on apocalypse and the ‘80s pop culture with larger messages we all chose to ignore. I guess I’ve been meaning to revisit it since I was twenty-five and dating the obligatory older man you date in your twenties, and he told me Max Headroom was actually super anarchic and funny and cool and not the nightmare I thought it was. I know it sounds mansplainy, but I am determined to be able to retain something good out of every relationship I’ve had, it may as well be this.

Revisiting the Fear

There’s a contradiction in Max Headroom’s very existence. He’s not just one thing. In some ways, one could argue that he kind of is the essence of the struggles of the ‘80s, punk versus corporatism, technology versus humanity, all in one. But also, he makes jokes and sometimes wears sunglasses!

To face my fear, I first watched clips from The Max Headroom Show. I hadn’t known that his whole thing was interstitials: his jerky, jokey, glitchy segments were meant to be played in between music videos. That alone makes him a little less intense. If you’re around my age and grew up in North America, you might remember Face from Nick Jr., or the weird Zoog characters from the Disney Channel, or maybe even that time there was an animated, talking “O” who introduced afternoon shows on Nickelodeon. A whole show of them would probably be a little much, but they made sense as part of a larger programming block. Max seemed a little less creepy in his proper context, and also when I realized he wasn’t actually digital: he was played by Canadian actor Matt Frewer in heavy makeup.

I don’t know why I didn’t realize that when I first saw him all those years ago. Of course they wouldn’t have had the technology to make a face look that humanoid in 1985. (The first CG-animated film to portray a human with expressions actually came out that same year: it was called Tony Del Petrie, about a dying pianist thinking back on his life. It was remarkable for that time, but these days it looks extremely dated. Poor Tony’s face looks like Richard Dreyfuss’s mashed potato sculpture in Close Encounters, and his chin looks like… well, I’ll let you see for yourself.) And while Max still has a creepily smug air about him, that was intentional. In the documentary Live on Network 23: The Story of Max Headroom, the creators of Max explain that when they were asked to create interstitials for a music video program, their idea was a “boring TV presenter, but make him computer-generated.” British artists with a soft spot for cyberpunk, they were obsessed with American “talking heads.” They’ve gone on record saying they specifically wanted a “middle-class white man in a suit,” an “Aryan,” “very sterile, arrogant, Western personification of the middle-class, male TV host” talking at people about music videos. They wanted him to be like Ted Baxter or Colbert Report-era Stephen Colbert. He’s supposed to be the worst.

“What would you do to help the world if you could spend 30,000 pounds a week for the next thousand years?” Max asks in the first episode. “Well, that’s how much the government are spending on Trident missiles. Don’t facts like that just wipe you out?” Then there’s a sound of a bowling ball hitting pins, and he smiles, creepily. “I’d rather tap dance!” He says, and does.

So that was Max’s shtick. But it wasn’t his whole story. Apparently, when the creators pitched him, the network wanted a backstory, so they teamed up with some writers who also had an interest in cyberpunk and created the film Max Headroom: Twenty Minutes into the Future. In it, Edison Carter (also played by Matt Frewer) is a hardboiled reporter working for ruthless capitalist Channel 23 in a near-future London. He exposes scandals and corruption, but then he uncovers some scandal and corruption in Channel 23 itself, namely “blipverts,” subliminal advertisements that hypnotize the viewers and in some cases, cause them to explode. But the explosions usually only happen in people with pre-existing conditions, so what’s the harm?

When Carter tries to expose this, they try to have him assassinated in a car park, but then they realize that shit, he was actually a huge draw for their channel. So they do a “we can rebuild him” and create a digital character using Carter’s consciousness and a computer generated image. Their new creation who calls himself “Max Headroom”, a after the last thing Carter saw in the car park before he ostensibly died.

Except surprise, he didn’t! He survived! And Max Headroom is too glitchy for primetime TV! The studio head discards him, only for a couple of art-punks to stumble across his broadcasts and decide, in spite of everything, that he’s somehow the perfect host for their pirate TV station. He gets them ratings, while Carter makes a miraculous recovery and goes on to expose the blipverts scandal and hold Channel 23 accountable.

Twenty Minutes into The Future, to my surprise, was a fun watch. A large part of this is Matt Frewer, one of those actors that truly disappears into a role. I’ve seen him in many things, but I almost never recognize him until I read the credits. When I was a child we had a VHS documentary about Dr. Seuss’s life, called Searching For Dr. Seuss. Matt Frewer played the Cat in the Hat as a sort of narrator. He managed to play the Cat without ever getting too creepy or weighed down by the makeup, the way Mike Meyers did in the early 2000s version. (Sorry, Mike Meyers. I still love Wayne’s World and Austin Powers.) I also saw him in the movie 50/50 about ten years ago, and he was great in that. But I don’t think I knew what he actually looked underneath a shit-ton of makeup, or when he was young.

Now I do, and I’ve realized something uncomfortable: I’m very attracted to ‘80s Matt Frewer. Damn him for his high cheekbones, the wry undertones in his voice, and his icy Canadian-ness. Seriously, people love to talk about the aloofness of Scandinavian actors like Mads Mikkelsen and the Skarsgards, but there’s something of that in Canadian actors, as well. (Must be the cold.) That kind of aloofness typically isn’t attractive to me, but there’s also a playfulness to Matt Frewer’s performances. He has a physicality can be funny, or scary, or both at once. (He also got to work with my crush Tatiana Maslany on Orphan Black, so maybe there’s some transference there.) There’s a part of the movie where Edison Carter wakes up disoriented in his even hotter co-worker (played by Amanda Pays)’s bed and damn, that is the hurt/comfort fic I didn’t know I needed.

Anyway, back to non-horny things. Watching Twenty Minutes Into the Future reminded me of something I told a friend when I was fourteen and deep in my psuedo-intellectual phase. I had realized something that I was sure no one had ever come up with before, and I tried it out on my actual-intellectual friend, Zach.

“Utopia is relative,” I told him.

“Duh!” he replied, immediately.

Duh, indeed. But dystopia is relative, too. Anything in Richard Wright’s Native Son or Elie Wiesel’s Night is as dark as anything in George Orwell or Phillip K. Dick. (Although, honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever completely understood a Phillip K. Dick book, and I’m not sure many other people have, either. I have a similar relationship with his work that I do with Paul Thomas Anderson’s, and he doesn’t even have more accessible works like Boogie Nights or Punch Drunk Love to reel me in.) “This is just like Orwell!” has been said so much it’s become a meme, and many, including myself, have pointed out the irony of raging against “socialism” by referencing lifelong democratic socialist George Orwell. Margaret Atwood may have some questionable politics now, but she has said that when she was writing The Handmaid’s Tale, “I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that humans had not already done somewhere at some time.” Dystopia is all around us.

“Duh,” you might say, echoing Zach. Of course we’re living in a dystopia. There’s a fucking pandemic on! There was an attempted coup the day I tried to start this entry. But even before Covid, before Trump, a lot of the world was living in a dystopia. The point of Max Headroom being “Twenty Minutes into The Future” is that it could happen any time now. Thatcher’s U.K. was, to many, a dystopia. People talk of people with pre-existing conditions dying of Covid like it’s no big deal in the exact same way the executives and technicians in Max Headroom talk about viewers exploding. It’s always dystopia somewhere.

Is It Still Scary?

Yes, but not in the same way.

Max Headroom himself is surface-level scary. Once I could get past the glitching and weird vector art backgrounds (which, in a way, is scary in itself—does that mean we just get used to the uncanny?), he was even kind of… funny? His Christmas special is especially so, and I was happy to see some people I knew in it. (Robin Williams had a great conversation with Max!) Twenty Minutes into the Future, on the other hand, is scary, but intentionally so. It’s a cautionary tale.

Perhaps scariest of all, though, is the real-life arc of the Max Headroom character. I highly recommend this fantastic video, On Max Headroom: The Most Misunderstood Joke on TV on the history of Max and the many ways he was misunderstood. There were layers upon layers of irony to him as a character, and more and more were added as he grew in popularity, a sort of lasagna of irony. He grew into something far beyond his creators’ control, becoming something alien to them and their values. Isn’t that every science-fiction story since Frankenstein?

See, the problem was people liked Max Headroom too much. He started out as a parody of men who were basically parodies of themselves, Bill O’Reilly yelling “WE’LL DO IT LIVE!” made into flesh. Virtual flesh. Is there such a thing? I guess there has to be, because that’s what Max was. He was a villain, or at least a shallow and amoral antihero, but he was funny. CBS tried to launch a series focused on Edison Carter, with Max Headroom basically becoming a snarky side character — an ALF, if you will. None of the original creators were involved, and the show did not last very long. I’m attracted to Edison Carter, but apparently I’m alone in that—and also apparently he’s WAY more of an asshole in that series, I haven’t watched it. It makes sense to me that it didn’t work: people didn’t want stories about investigating corporate corruption, they wanted funny lines delivered by a creepy guy in front of some funny lines. Max himself had become too popular.

This happens all the time, we’ve talked about it before. Someone makes a character who’s a real asshole, and people end up loving that character because he’s a real asshole. Maybe he’s troubled and therefore seen as “misunderstood,” like Rorschach or Draco Malfoy. Maybe he lives a life that actually seems pretty cool, like Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. Maybe he’s just funny, like Cartman or Strong Bad. (Weirdly, I can’t seem to think of any non-male examples of this type of character off the top of my head, but I’m sure they exist.) Personally, I think it’s because people are attracted to nihilistic characters. The human condition is to be afraid, to feel vulnerable, and nihilists don’t ever seem to be afraid. Max Headroom is nihilistic. Edison Carter cares too much to be a nihilist. Of course people liked Max more.

It was also the ‘80s, when people loved to reward Max’s brand of shallow mercenary behavior. (There’s a reason Gary Trudeau started drawing Ronald Reagan as a Max-lookalike in Doonesbury.) Corporate America quickly noticed Max’s popularity, and asked if they asked his creators if he could be in commercials, including one for a special new Coke drink. His creators said yes. For all the anti-corporate sentiment and appreciation for the punk DIY aesthetic in Twenty Minutes into the Future, they sold him out pretty quickly. The writer of the On Max Headroom video thinks it’s actually pretty hilarious that he was the spokesman for New Coke, a kind of “performance art” on the part of the character’s creators. He argues that the character’s downfall was the misguided attempt to make Max a “lovable scamp hero.” They should have let Max remain a villain, or at least an antihero.

I agree with him there, but I still think there’s something unsettling about the New Coke commercials, almost as unsettling to me as the TV hijacking incident. Corporate mascots and commercials have always seemed a little creepy to me (one day I will write a post about my deep horror of several McDonald’s mascots), and I think maybe it’s the uncanny again: you get that it’s trying to make you feel something, but you don’t recognize what it is. You don’t know who or what’s behind them. I wrote above that Max feels less creepy in context, and he is definitely much creepier out of it. I’m very glad I don’t remember these commercials, I would not have wanted to see him between Simpsons segments on The Tracey Ullman Show. It’s very weird to watch hundreds of people cheering him on like he’s a dictator, or listening to him comparing New Coke to… kissing? Maybe it is the lovable scamp heroification that bothers me after all.

The joke of it was that New Coke was a product that famously failed. Did the creators of Max Headroom suspect that would happen? Is that why they did it? Probably not. Probably they just wanted to make a lot of money. Most people do. I’ve always believed that you shouldn’t trust anyone whose only goal is to make money, but most people want to make money so they can live easier lives or take care of themselves and their friends and family. Most of the original punks ended up selling out, eventually. That’s life under capitalism, baby!

And I can’t lie, when I wrote “It’s always dystopia somewhere” I couldn’t help but think “that would look really cool on a t-shirt.”

Stuff I Did This Week: In case you missed it, I had a great talk with some fellow child actor friends on The Coogan Chronicles! Part one and part two are out now! And I also got to have a great conversation with Hatty Jones and Jordan Maxwell, two former child actors from across the pond, on our experiences. Listen to it here!

Last night I did a Zoom game show called “Climate (In) Jeopardy” to raise awareness about a proposal for a new fracking plant in my old neighborhood in New York. There are already serious issues with air quality and asthma in that area, and we played a game with The Sierra Club to learn some sad facts about fossil fuels and pollution in New York. You can watch the video here, and if you want to reach out to Governor Cuomo to tell him to stop NRG’s new plant, you can send a letter here!

Tomorrow night, February 11th, we are doing a Welcome to Night Vale show! We’re bringing back The Investigators, one of my favorite shows with some of my favorite ever Faceless Old Woman lines! Get your tickets here!

Fake BBC Show of the Week: Wiggin Snoggers (my friend Aaron came up with this one)

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