Hector Schechner had studied America Online client software since Version 1. He‘d saved every pamphlet, guide, post card, diskette and CD delivered by unrequested mail since 1985 — a 73-pound collection of some 14,000 items — and had amassed a library of just under 26 hours of AOL television commercials, almost 2,000 discreet ads, back to back, on VHS, SP. He’d rejected an offer of $14,000 for the entire collection from someone who‘d seen it installed in a group show at Bergamot Station. He’d written a book, How To Be Real Funny (SchechnerBooks), that devoted three chapters to the use of AOL promotional items (“Real Funny Props”).
Recently, it was Hector Schechner‘s fortune to survive a terrorist attack so that he could continue to watch, every day and every night, over and over and over, America Online Version 7 television commercials airing on every channel of every AOL Time Warner–owned network, which were the only stations that Schechner got. Schechner took note that, while the first version of AOL’s client software had been marketed as “easy,” the marketeers had characterized versions 2.0, 2.5 and 3.0 as “easier,” “easier than ever” and “now even easier.” Subsequently, Version 4.0 was “even easier than ever,” while versions 5.0, 6.0 and now 7.0 were “the easiest America Online yet,” “the easiest America Online yet” and “the easiest America Online yet,” respectively. Schechner also noted — in a notebook, in red ink, in bed, late at night — that in the ads for this latest version, AOL had stayed away from union actors, had instead hired clinically verifiable nincompoops disguised as actors to boast of the learning disabilities that had brought them to AOL: “If we can use it, anyone can!”
A few days after Schechner noticed AOL‘s new ad campaign for Version 7.0, terrorists attacked America, and a few weeks later America began to bomb the Taliban in Afghanistan. (Schechner was able to figure this out by watching carefully between the AOL ads.) The initial strikes of America Strikes Back, Schechner noted, were characterized by broadcast reporters as “heavy.” The next three days of attacks were dubbed “heavier,” “heavier than ever” and “now even heavier.” “Now even heavier than ever” bombing continued for the next few weeks, until just last week, when America began striking back with “the heaviest bombing yet.”
Patrons and practitioners of the comedic arts and sciences have long favored the terms killing, meaning success, and bombing, meaning failure, in standup comedy. Certainly most and probably all who have killed have also bombed, but not necessarily vice versa. Often bombing comes from trying too hard to kill. And there are those — a very small but lethal faction of comedians (e.g., Tony Clifton) — who prefer creative bombings to rote kills.
Though never funny, Hector Schechner had been a moderately successful comedian, supporting himself without a day job for about six years, until his allergies to expensive fragrances overwhelmed him into retirement. Perfumes, colognes, after-shaves, even mousses, deodorants, gels and moisturizers — all sent Schechner retching and convulsing, breaking out in fevers and chills and hives. No, Schechner’s moderate success was not due to his being, as he often described himself, “real funny,” but rather to the visually stunning device he eventually employed in his struggle against allergy attacks: a big, black fake mustache, not nearly bushy enough to conceal the Day-Glo green nose plugs that held it in place.
Based on my own experiences as a bartender at Igby‘s Comedy Cabaret and as a pedestrian who lived just up the block from the Laugh Factory, I agree with Hector Schechner’s theory — related to his grand “Theory of Scent-Based Perpetual Unlikelihood,” a small section in Chapter 9 of How To Be Real Funny — that comedy-club patrons, collectively, make up America‘s most excessively scented demographic. On weekend nights, the northerly queue of Factory patrons along Laurel Avenue still release, dependably, tsunamic, chromate-green wafts of multicolognics every bit as suffocating as the 15-gallon drums of chemicals I used to haul around while wearing a useless gas mask in the E6 photo-processing lab where I choked and died twice daily for 6 bucks an hour, fresh out of college.
On just such a weekend night a few weeks ago, Hector Schechner interviewed all 83 members of the Laurel Avenue Laugh Factory queue. Schechner reports that 100 percent of them use AOL to connect to the Internet at home, 100 percent use CNN as their primary source of news, and 100 percent apply perfume or cologne at least twice daily.
Years ago, Schechner explained his Theory of Scent-Based Perpetual Unlikelihood to me: “In times of war, anyone has the capacity to be funny,” Schechner said, almost angrily, “unless they’re wearing perfume. However, it‘s far less likely — in times of war — that anyone can be real funny, no matter what they’re wearing.”
I wondered how Schechner‘d react if I admitted dabbling with Obsession and Grey Flannel in the ’80s, a dab of Tuscany in ‘93 and again in ’95. I wanted to ask him if he‘d ever worn cologne, or been a soldier, or whether he still considered himself to be real funny. But I couldn’t think of a way to ask without sounding big-headed or snotty or something. So I just nodded. And Schechner nodded back.
Scented Products Education and Information Association of Canada (www.scentedproducts.on.ca)
“A Guy Walks Into a Bar” (www.laweekly.comink0111sitegeist-shulman.shtml)
Archive of Poems Banned by America Online (www.motley-focus.com~timberarchive.html).
“having the flu and with nothing else to do” by Charles Bukowski (www.whiskeytown.netwritersbukowskipoemshaving_the_flu_and_with_nothing_else_to_do.php) from The Night Torn Mad With Footsteps (Black Sparrow Press).