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The Joy of Failure 

Glasgow Phillips’ The Royal Nonesuch

Tuesday, Mar 6 2007
{mosimage} About halfway through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck’s mountebank comrade the “duke” becomes outraged when a circus audience mocks his delivery of Hamlet. “The duke said these Arkansaw lunkheads couldn’t come up to Shakespeare; what they wanted was low comedy — and maybe something ruther worse than low comedy, he reckoned.” To accommodate them, the “duke” and “dauphin” hold a spectacle called the Royal Nonesuch, where the two swindlers gather an enormous crowd with the promise of something unfit for “ladies and children” and treat them to the sight of an elderly man “on all fours, naked... painted all over, ring-streaked-and-striped, all sorts of colors, as splendid as a rainbow.” Glasgow Phillips has swiped the name for his painfully funny memoir, and it is a particularly apt one (as it ought to be, considering that Phillips made a hefty sum of money as a professional naming consultant during the fiscally capricious 1990s). The Royal Nonesuch (both Twain’s and Phillips’) captures the giddy, discombobulating gallimaufry at the bottom rungs of show business. Both feature a great deal of “low comedy.” Both also involve a painted naked man writhing around on the ground.

Typically, memoirs are about someone who has done or accomplished something, but like Toby Young’s How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, Phillips’ is mostly about a series of colossal botched jobs. His naming business, though lucrative, never seems to actually name anything. His “content” Web site bombs. His foray into porn is traumatizing and short. His own conscience prevents him from finishing his faux snuff film, and his television pilot for Comedy Central goes awry when the star (the naked painted guy) burns his penis on an oven burner, drinks a half-gallon of turpentine, and then wanders off into the desert. Phillips’ company Certified Renegade American Product (its acronym sums up the quality of its projects) throws festivals — Lapdance and Cannes You Dig It? — that Robert Redford called “the lowest of the low.” Near the end of the memoir, the company’s offices are so flea-infested that “you could see them swarming like the air over a carbonated drink.”

Things started with such promise for Phillips. In his 20s, he published a well-received novel, Tuscaloosa. However, after several years of total writer’s block, he joined a high school friend in Los Angeles, intent on setting the place on fire with their genius. “The raconteur’s false modesty I have adopted in order to tell this story belies a very real confidence I had in myself,” Phillips tells us, “confidence that I would be not just a player, but a singular, distinctive force in American media.”

This goal does not seem completely far-fetched. Phillips’ friends Trey Parker and Matt Stone had recently turned a bunch of crudely animated and foulmouthed kids into the South Park comedy juggernaut. Matt and Trey loom large over Phillips’ life as sources of inspiration and cash. They are talented, funny, generous, and basically represent everything that Phillips and his associates would like to be — people who flipped the world the bird, and did it so cleverly that they got paid for it. Easier said than done. The Royal Nonesuch is a wicked reminder that for every Matt and Trey, there is a teeming mass of wannabes squandering their time, money and youth in the pursuit of a mostly unattainable and mostly foolish dream.

For Phillips, this dream meant finding a way to rebel in a society that has turned rebellion into a commodity. For white middle-class kids in the innocent 1990s, the easiest available authority to fight against was the pop-culture Goliath they had grown up with, loved, yet still wanted to subvert. For the first time, the tools of media were readily available to the masses, and Phillips and his generation fantasized about tweaking the formal elements of pop culture to suit their überirreverent tastes. “What was available on television and in theaters simply did not say what we felt,” Phillips writes. This is the classic call to creative arms, the same bugle that has driven many an artist to create something vaguely new. In Phillips’ case, he promptly starred in a kung fu flick in which he, as a Shaolin monk, kills ninjas with his testicles. At the time, perhaps, this smelled like revolution, but in hindsight, it just sounds like stupid fun.

Phillips has a rare talent for drawing the reader into his harebrained schemes, for capturing the frantic joy of sticking his fingers into a million pies, then ruefully admitting the absurdity of it all. At times, the book is bogged down by an exhausting litany of deals, concepts, companies, pimps, producers, hustlers, shenanigans and wingnuts. Individually, each story is bizarre and hilarious, but after a while, it feels like you’ve sat down on a bus next to a jolly speed freak who is unloading his entire arsenal of anecdotes. Phillips is at his best when he exposes the hubris and folly of the dot-com boom, a time when everyone with a DV cam or an Internet connection thought he could become a millionaire and make a movie. Looking back on his youth brings forth a powerful undercurrent of shame and humility; he simultaneously relishes the zaniness and knows that it doesn’t add up to much. Nostalgia and derision (ah, the bile of hindsight!) vie for authorship of his past.



{mosimage}There’s a cheery wretchedness to Phillips’ tale, and there’s even something oddly inspiring about the way he accepts his failure. In fact, his most heroic act is when he shuts down a particularly nasty project he had planned for the end of the millennium. Riding on the hype wave of The Blair Witch Project, he decides to film what appears to be a bloody snuff film of a psychopath torturing a young woman and broadcast it “live” online on New Year’s Eve. The buzz and terror will result in Human Number becoming a box-office smash. Things seem to be going his way: Money flies in, the clip is grotesque, and the forums on Ain’t It Cool News are sizzling with outrage and intrigue. This time, however, the roadblock is himself. His father calls the project “evil,” and the CEO of a major Internet porn company assures Phillips that “You’re going to hell for that.”

Finally, while meeting with some bigwig entertainment executives interested in buying the lucrative commodity, Phillips wonders if any deranged kids might copy the crimes and kill each other. “One of the hotshots shrugged,” Phillips writes. “ ‘Collateral damage,’ he said.” And with that, Phillips pulls the plug on the project: “Failed novelist and now failed film director. It was pathetic, but I wouldn’t have to commit suicide over it.” In America, and Hollywood in particular, making things, making anything, is considered such a sacred activity that it’s something of a shock to see someone pause at the brink, and then refuse to contribute to the general ugliness and idiocy of the culture. It’s a choice that not many people will make when there’s money and prestige on the end of the hook. And so Phillips managed to rebel, in his small way, after all.

The personal memoir, according to Phillips, is “the most self-indulgent form imaginable, with the possible exception of spoken word and interpretive dance,” and The Royal Nonesuch does teeter between self-indulgence and insight. In this sense, the book is something of a quiddity. Quiddity (the name Phillips gives his naming-consultant company) is a remarkable word that has the odd distinction of having two definitions that contradict each other. It means both “the essential nature of a thing” and also “a quibble” or “hairsplitting difference.” A quiddity is both the heart of the matter and also the hangnail, both truth and trifle. At times, Phillips brilliantly captures the artistic striving of youth, the desire and inability to make some contribution to the culture; at other times, his memoir seems to be just a collection of goofy stories about his buddies. There’s pleasure to be had from The Royal Nonesuch. But in the end, one can’t help craving some deeper synthesis between the comedic, the tragic and the truth.

Maybe he should write another novel?


THE ROYAL NONESUCH: Or What Will I Do When I Grow Up? | By GLASGOW PHILLIPS | Grove Press, Black Cat | 384 pages | $14 paperback

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