On June 7, 2005, comedian Joe Wilson, a small camcorder and a 32-ounce Mason jar stood together as one, about eight feet from where two famous actors worked the red carpet at a Hollywood movie premiere. At just the right moment, Wilson’s camera captured Wilson’s jar capturing almost 58 cubic inches of star-adjacent air. Then Wilson returned home and put “Jar of Celebrity Air Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie” up for auction on eBay. The auction led to international press coverage, hate mail and proposals of marriage as eBay rejected seven-figure bogus bids. The jar was eventually purchased by GoldenPalace.com, owners of the one true Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich, and a year later, Wilson performed a one-man show, A Jar of Celebrity Air, at the Fake Gallery in Hollywood.
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“Dumbest way to get into performing,” Wilson advises: “Write a 90-minute one-man show, having never done a 90-minute one-man show before.” Wilson’s in his kitchen, talking about a different one-man show he’d written and performed long ago in Boston. “Got horrible reviews, but would sell out. Got grants. Got to take it to other places.” Upon returning from the other places, Wilson co-wrote a play called Subject to Stress, which got some national attention. “A production company called, and our publicist was like, ‘Hey, some lady from Carsey-Werner in Studio City, California, just called and wants to talk to you.’
“I’m like, ‘Where’s Studio City, Califor — What’s Carsey-Werner?’”
But Wilson decided to take the call, which led to moving to Los Angeles, acting in a pilot, more standup, writing unproduced (but award-winning) screenplays, shooting short videos — including Tickle Me Harder, the original Elmo (Sesame Street) porn — and becoming a private investigator who specializes in intellectual-property disputes.
“It’s all trademarks, patents, that kind of thing,” says Wilson. “Trying to find some logical reason why I could be from somewhere and be someone who could possibly ask all the stupid fuckin’ questions that lawyers need asked. It’s like long-form improv.”
Standup comedian, producer of Dr. Mardozo’s Traveling Sideshow (TravelingSideShow.com), co-founder, with Jackie Kashian, of the Dork Forest (DorkForestRadio.com), Joe Wilson’s reached the point in his career where he owns a microwave. “Spicy kung pao chicken with white meat?” he offers. “From Trader Joe’s?” As it nukes, Wilson pulls a wide, flat box down from a high shelf and semi-clears a space for it on the kitchen table. “This is some of the shit that I …” Wilson trails off as he opens the box. Inside is a stack of photographic prints of exposures he shot in the ’80s, when he was a photojournalist, formally trained at “some shit school with some great teachers from MIT.”
First photo: Woman in a wheelchair, protesting, in a crowd. “This lady … she’d go to all the demonstrations. At some point she would get off her fuckin’ wheelchair and do this high-pitched kind of like sing-screaming to the sky. That was the first time I saw her do it, when I shot that. After you see her do it a bunch of times, it becomes a lot less effective.”
Wilson selects another print. “This is that same morning, behind the Boston Public Library. This guy, he was like six-four, had no toes. From Canada. And would tell me multiple stories. And in every story, one character would say [big and booming, but in a Matthau/Durante kind of way], ‘Jonesy! You’re a big man! You’re a scary man!’ Every fuckin’ story.”
The microwave beeps. Wilson talks while I eat.
“So I wanted to do save-the-world photography. Eugene Smith was my fuckin’ hero. He was the guy who shot — in Minimata, Japan, a manufacturer was putting mercury into the water, which was getting into the fish, which was causing all these horrible birth defects. It was a big corporation, and they’d just crush people. Eugene Smith got wind of it, got out there … and he got beat to shit by corporate thugs. They’d literally beat him up. But he just kept shooting, and the pictures came out. And he literally stopped this corporation with what he did.”
“Mnrf,” I nod, and wipe. Wilson closes the box and returns it to the high shelf.
“Anyway,” Wilson continues, “I went from the photojournalism thing to doing these photo installations, to doing funny performance art. I was part of the Mobius Artists Group — [announcer voice] Boston’s artist-run center for experimental work in all media! I was slowly working my way out from the two-dimensional, starting to use other things. But the performance stuff: I really didn’t know it was funny. I had no idea. I didn’t sit down and say, ‘This is gonna be fuckin’ hilarious.’ But then you start getting laughs …”
We spend a solid five minutes lamenting fratboy-style physical comedy and praising the undersung good.
“Like Louis CK,” says Wilson. “Louis CK on paper? I could give a fuck about his topics. But he finds a way in that is fuckin’ genius, that’s hilarious. And nobody knows who he is, but they’re fuckin’ digging holes for more places for Dane Cook to play. Standup is not for 18,000 people. It’s not. Period. It was never meant for that.”