"Here we go. This is it," said a nervous goofball with a British accent as he carried a cheap, inflatable raft through the dank, graffiti-covered tunnel beneath the Sixth Street Viaduct down to a sluice of what's possibly (but probably not) one of America's most polluted streams of water. Leading him and about a dozen of his accomplices through that tunnel on Saturday afternoon, past the stray BMXers and amateur headshot photographers, was comedian/performance artist Kurt Braunohler.
Kurt Braunohler is an idiot.
Sorry, let me rephrase that: Kurt Braunohler is the best kind of idiot. He's your fun, brilliant-idiot cousin who first shows you how to do the splashiest brand of cannonball and then convinces you to do one naked in front of the "No Splashing" sign, while all of the snobby kids are having their snobby poolside party in snobby finery at a snobby country club. In a way, that's kind of what he did this weekend with a bunch of friends, strangers and well-wishers. Sort of. Thumbing their noses at the yuppie developers who tried to shut them down, defying the snitches in their ranks and spurning absurd laws: They fucking tubed the L.A. River — all while raising cash for charity and cleaning up extra trash as they went.
Yes, the River (aka the Mother Gutter) is a classic cheap punchline. "Does L.A. even have a river?" your recent transplant is prone to ask. "You mean the L.A. storm drain?" your cynical native may ask. "You mean where the hipsters kayak to their Frogtown condos?" an even more cynical native may ask. "But yes, we do have a legit river. It is lined in concrete. It has a legit history, and yes, it has a highly regulated "recreational zone" in Gentrificationville where people tenderly kayak. However, no one in his right mind puts his limbs in it, let alone his butt. Usually.
But back in October, Braunohler and his wife, writer/actress Lauren Cook, put up a simple website and pushed out a fairly simple idea to their respective social media followers: Let's have a tubing race and party on the L.A. River when El Niño hits. L.A.-zy River, they called it. Nothing huge, they just wanted to take that classic rural/Southern/East Coast–y tradition of floating down a moving body of water and bring it to Los Angeles. "We're very aware of the drought, and this was going to be our first El Niño in L.A.," Cook explained to me. "Yeah, we were so excited about El Niño after this long summer, we just wanted to do something," Braunohler added. "I don't know what I like about dirty water, but I just like it," he said. Their initial plans involved a race of sorts where one could do his or her best to speed float wearing a race number and spectators could "cheer on their favorite idiot" from the concrete embankments. And those who survived would have a party.
And then ... nothing happened for months. When the Niño first jiggled his sweaty gut over Southern California and caused two-day downpours with dramatic, newsworthy river rescues, the L.A.-zy River race seemed like it might be too harrowing of an adventure. Braunohler's previous guerrilla performance pieces/creative enterprises have involved crowdsourcing a skywriter to scrawl "How do I land?" over L.A. and Jet Skiing from Chicago to New Orleans on the Mississippi, and they've all turned out magically, so I didn't lose all hope. But when I got the email confirming the adventure in February, I did let out an audibly ecstatic sigh. Only to be let down a week later by another email that officially canceled the event just one day before T-Day (Tube Day).
Cook and Braunohler had finks in their ranks. Rat finks, even. Someone had tipped off landlords in Frogtown, where the event was supposed to transpire. Cease-and-desist letters were sent, hackles were up across a snobby community of fun-hating squares. The perfectly legal afterparty to be DJ'd by Meltdown's Jonah Ray even got axed. Who would ax a charming, boyish face like Ray's? Sure, objective journalism demands we look at the other side of things, but fuck it, I think this all speaks for itself.
Undeterred, Cook and Braunohler emailed their flock with a proposal: Folks were to meet up on T-Day at Angel City Brewery, and bring their tubing stuff for a group photo and donate to the cause if they felt like it. The email emphatically stressed that no one will be going tubing. Thankfully, this no-tubing emphasis was just a ruse to brush off the snitches. It was Team L.A.-zy River's plan B all along. Though it trimmed their ranks from an anticipated hundreds down to a dirty dozen or so, the plan worked. At Angel City at around 4 p.m. on Saturday, a group of 20 or so volunteers and tubers had assembled. Kurt turned to me and said, "I think it's about to be go time."
Roughly 30 minutes later, after a short drive and the aforementioned tunnel march, the tubers were in the water with their numbered "Tubin' for a Bruisin'" race bibs. Starting a half-mile upstream from the finish line at the Fourth Street Bridge and sipping curious liquids from surreptitious flasks, those lovely idiots floated. "I'm glad all of you decided to trust a stranger on the Internet," Braunohler told them before they raced off.
Among their bobbing ranks were Bridgetown Comedy Festival founder Andy Wood and TV writer Scotty Landes, as well as a host of Braunohler acolytes. But, if L.A.-zy River had a mascot on Saturday, it would have been 27-year-old production assistant Allison Bryant. The Georgia native went into that concrete near-sewage canal barefoot in a bikini. She told me, "Clothes will only hold in all of the shit that would make me sick/ ... I've been in the water in Mexico, Colombia, India, Costa Rica, and I'm still here. I'm from the South, we ain't afraid of shit: We go tubin' and we love it. If L.A. water fucks me up...," she trailed off reflectively. Every event like this has to have the kind of wildcard like Bryant who throttles the needle and makes everyone question exactly how hardcore they thought they were.
Bryant, in all of her obstinate rebelliousness and enthusiasm, did not win the "race," however. That honor went to the Brits. One Brit in particular: creative director Ben Beale, the man with the cheap pool raft. When asked about his accomplishment, he mugged, "It's like the first guy to ever win a marathon, or the first guy to land on the moon. This feels pretty amazing. In 10 years' time, when this is, like, an epic, massive thing and they're like, 'This was the first guy to do it,' then, of course, there will be some other motherfucker doing like, ostrich racing down the train tracks, and he'll win that, and he'll wonder what it felt like to be me."
I think that mostly sums up Saturday's tone.
"I didn't realize how happy this would make me," Braunohler said, getting out of that unseemly water.
The LAPD did eventually show up as folks headed to their cars. But they were tracking down an actual idiot in a tiny sports car who had driven down the river and got himself and his date stuck in the middle of it. That guy didn't clean up any trash or raise more than $300 to support Friends of the L.A. River, as Braunohler and his volunteers did.
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An afterparty at nearby Villains Tavern added some of Braunohler's comedian friends, including Kristen Schaal, Kumail Nanjiani, Jonah Ray and SNL's Beck Bennett, all of whom declined to participate in the riskier part of the day. Actor Matt Hobby from The Grinder explained, gesturing to his wife, The Mindy Project's Mary Grill, "My father-in-law told my wife that if I get in the water, she should leave me." Grill nodded in serious confirmation.
"We had a furious uprising from the people who live on the recreational section of the river, and here on the totally industrial part, nobody could give a fucking shit. Our numbers were smaller, but we set out to tube the L.A. River and we tubed the L.A. River," Baunohler concluded.
As of press time, everyone was still alive and in good health, including Braunohler, who told me over email that he was "feeling great!"
Common sense be damned: Tube on, you beautiful lunatics. Tube on.