As a licensed associate of God, with a Master of Divinity degree from Seton Hall and a Certificate in Screenwriting from UCLA Extension, Father Martin Tartan could legally marry pretty much any heterosexual couple over the age of 17, and often did so as part of the Saturday-night comedy show in the back room at the now-defunct Cinema Cafe. It was 10 years ago, on August 9, 1992, that Father Tartan married Hector Schechner to fellow standup comedian Vanessa Nava, then of Hollywood, now of Tibet.
”Shortest ceremony on record,“ Schechner told me as we sipped our lemonade on Tartan‘s front porch, in the shade, with a view of the lake. ”We were supposed to get 15 minutes, but, I swear, five minutes into the thing the fuckers gave us the red light! So we ripped through the closer — Do you take this so-and-so to be your exclusively fornicating whatever-the-fuck? I do! I do! — and got the hell off the stage. If you went on more than 30 seconds after your red light, they wouldn’t ask you back the next week.“
As anyone who‘s been forced to look at National Enquirer covers while standing in line for groceries knows, Schechner and Nava divorced in 1994, when Nava announced she was quitting comedy to pursue the less abstract challenges of Himalayan agriculture. Around the same time, Tartan moved to this quiet small house on the southwestern shores of Lake Shelbyville, Illinois, a few hours south of his hometown of Aurora. When he’s not performing for packed churches in St. Louis (Thurs.–8 p.m.), Chicago (Fri.-Sat.–8 & 10 p.m.) and Indianapolis (Sun.–Call for late bookings), Tartan spends his time fishing, masturbating and writing terrible jokes (about fish and masturbation, mostly), which he sells to downstate broadcast journalists (meteorologists, mostly) and Midwestern corporate-circuit comedians.
”Fish appreciate that orgasm is not the vile, unintentional byproduct of otherwise wholesome procreational intent that the church makes it out to be,“ Tartan explained, as if we‘d been wondering, as he pushed open the rusty screen door and joined Schechner and me on the porch. ”Orgasm is in fact what motivates us to work. And to go fishing.“ Tartan pulled up a third rotting pine chair and lit a hand-rolled cigarette of vanillafied pipe tobacco. ”But not,“ he added, after three concentric rings of smoke, ”the other way around.“
I felt the urge to panic. Tartan is, incidentally, a terrifically huge person — close to 3 feet in diameter and well over twice that in height — and in his smoke rings I’d sensed the divisive hostility Schechner had warned me about: a general enmity toward writer-types, as if we were a centrally governed organization, like The Jews, The Gay Community or The Homeless. Take us to your leader!
”This guy,“ Schechner, sensing my discomfort, sought to distract, ”when this guy was 16 — 16 years old — he and his friend Richie Livingston would literally sneak out of their bedrooms and drive the Tartan family‘s 1959 Nash Metropolitan convertible all the way to Uptown Chicago, to sign up and wait two hours to do 10 minutes at an after-hours open-mike. Richie — the guy wasn’t really very funny; dead now, heart attack — Richie gave up after high school. But Marty, this guy sticks it out! Next thing you know, he‘s in Vegas with his name on the marquee, a week before he turned 18.“ Schechner shook his head, rose, grumbled and went in the house, to the bathroom.
In his early 20s, Tartan suffered bouts of severe depression attributed to repetitive-punch-line disorder. On an MAO-inhibited daze, he enrolled in the M.Div. program at Seton Hall and gained several hundred pounds and a personal relationship with God. He’d had a fascinating life, and I couldn‘t resist one of my faux-journalistic impulses to give a damn.
”So you met Schechner at the Cinema Cafe?“ I asked.
”No,“ Tartan replied, tersely, holding his cigarette vertically, centered in the path between our eyes. ”It was at the Cinema Cafe that Schechner met me.“
”Schechner met you? Uhh . . .“
”He’s just fuckin‘ around,“ said Schechner, returning suddenly from apparently not the bathroom. ”That’s what this guy does. He fucks around.“
”I‘m not fucking around,“ said Father Tartan. ”Columbus did not discover the Indians; the Indians discovered Columbus.“
For two more days we fished for large-mouth bass, ate bass and eggs for breakfast, bass sandwiches for lunch and bass stew for dinner. I slept on the living-room floor, my head five feet from a bass-stocked refrigerator with several loose nuts and an indecisive thermostat. On the final day of our trip, the three of us drove that same 1959 Nash Metropolitan convertible (no back seat; barely one in the front) three and a half hours up to Chicago, where Tartan was headlining at the Blessed Church of Reasonable Expectations. The sign out front read, ”The Glory of Unfruitful Multiplication: Orgasm for Beginners With Father Martin Tartan, 8 p.m.“ Schechner and I hung out backstage, drinking coffee and checking out the audience. (Schechner incognito, sans toupee and false mustache, remained safe from autograph hounds.) By 7:45, the place was packed. All seats filled, about 400 of them; a dozen or so people stood just inside the doorway, a few sat cross-legged in the aisles. From the looks of them, it was a typical Tartan crowd: Half knew he was a comedian, half did not.
”Quote tough crowd unquote,“ Schechner and I mumbled in unison.
Tartan’s act — sermonperformances, he called them (pronounced as if crude French: Sairre-mon-pair-for-mhawnss) — went well. Half the audience laughed, and half resented the others‘ laughter. Then Father Tartan’s act went even better. The laughter grew loud, the resentment deep. Fights broke out. War was declared. Lives lost, planets divided. Schechner and I snuck out the back and went looking for a taxi.
Big Bass Book at Shenandoah Christian Bass Club (http:myweb.ecomplanet.comturn1109PageAlbumBIG+BASS+BOOKPageNumber1.htm)