Never mind the Poochies

13Feb07

I used to really like the world’s greatest living writer, particularly that time when he bought me a steak.

No, he really did. I wasn’t greatly familiar with Neal Pollack per se when he was touring to promote his Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, but I did enjoy reading McSweeney’s, the magazine he wrote for, so Jay and I stopped by the This Ain’t The Rosedale Library bookstore, where Pollack was giving a reading. [Update: Actually, it was probably actually Tyler who was with me at this time.] Actually, it turned out not to be a reading, but rather, a scavenger hunt in which three copies of his book were hidden around the store. As his tour diary tells it, the first one found was a premium edition of his book, by which I mean it was a normal copy with the price jacked up to $30 instead of $22. The second was a free copy. The third, which I found, cost the regular $22 but came with a bonus of a free dinner with Pollack. I’m not sure finding the book obligated me to actually buy it, but then, you don’t really go to a book signing without expecting to buy the book, and you definitely shouldn’t expect to cop a free dinner off the author without buying it. So I bought it. And I made sure that I got at least $22 worth of dinner out him by ordering a steak. That way, even if the book sucked, I’d still have made a net gain.

Fortunately, the book was awesome. It was so awesome that I lent it to Jay immediately after I finished it, and he and I made sure to catch the next McSweeney’s author who rolled into town, Lawrence Krauser, who did a one-man reading of his play “Horrible Child”. It was a Horrible Performance, basically consisting of Krauser screeching at the audience in a Howie Mandel baby voice for a half hour.1 But, that had nothing to do with Pollack, right? That said, Pollack had a falling-out with McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers, and went on to front a rock band — The Neal Pollack Invasion — as his next project. Oddly enough, it started to seem that Pollack, whose comic persona was founded on his incredibly pompous self-regard as the world’s greatest living writer, was starting to take himself too seriously.

I wasn’t convinced that Pollack was losing it, though, until the release of his new book, Alternadad, a memoir of his life as a new father. The second-worst thing a humorist can do to blunt his comedic edge is to fall in love. the worst is to reproduce. Once a comedian puts on the Cosby sweater, he might as well be slipping into his funeral suit. First he makes the rounds on the talk-show circuit, sharing dull anecdotes about his precious offspring as though the entire business of child-rearing was a brand-new thing that no one had ever attempted before. Eventually, he’s Dana Carvey making Master of Disguise for his children. It’s a sad thing — well, happy for him, sad for the rest of us. Conversely, if you want to keep the rest of us happy, stay sad yourself. Comedy comes from pain, after all. If you want to stay funny, remain single and childless.

Still, I was trying to keep an open mind about Alternadad. I hadn’t actually read it, so maybe it really was a wittily observed account with something to say about parenting. The whole hipster parenting movement seems a little misguided, mind you. If you dress your toddler in Hüsker Dü onesies in an attempt to instill your impeccable tastes on him, he’s probably more likely to react against that by growing up listening to the crassest, shittiest pop music available just to spite you. A decade from now, the sound of teen rebellion is going to be some sissy pop punk/emo band that makes Fall Out Boy sound like Black Flag.

But what sent me over the edge was this excerpt from Alternadad that I read in Salon, about how he allowed his Jewish parents to bully him into getting his son circumsized, against his wife’s wishes. As a reader, a man, a grown-up, and a person who’s actually sat across a table from Pollack and his wife, I was appalled. His poor kid may have lost the tip of his penis, but it’s only because somewhere along the line, Pollack lost his balls. And he’s lost my respect along with them. It’s not about circumcision. It’s about the fact that if you can’t stand up to your parents and stand by your woman, you’re not a grown-up. You’re a gutless punk. If either of my parents ever threatened, as Pollack’s did, that if my kid didn’t get his junk snipped, he wouldn’t have grandparents, my response would be, “Fine. Then he won’t have grandparents. And I won’t have parents. You’re gone. You’re out. Butt out and, by the way, fuck off.”2

Tonight, though, I got the final piece of the puzzle — photographic evidence that Neal Pollack has jumped the proverbial shark. Check out the profile photo from this Babble article he wrote defending Alternadad:

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Tell me: Does that look at all familiar?

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I hope to God Pollack’s trying for some sort of parody of hipster irony with that picture, because it’s one of the most hilariously terrible examples of what John Kricfalusi calls ‘tude that I’ve seen since Macaulay Culkin was in the video for Michael Jackson’s “Black or White”. If he really walks around looking like that, he’s going to wish he had that steak I got off him — for his eye, after someone punches his smug face.

1. It did, however, lead to our long-running “Bowl of Soup” gag. After sitting there appalled as Krauser sprayed spittle all over us for a half hour and becoming steadily more incredulous that the hipster crowd was rapt with attention at this horrible act, we considered how we could possibly take this dynamic to an extreme. We figured we could hijack some open-mic night at a comedy club. One of us could put on the most deliberately terrible performance possible, while the other sat in the back of the audience and exclaimed in reverent tones what a genius performance was taking place. “Holy shit!” he’d say. “You’re a genius! I mean, holy fuck! What a genius!”

But what should the actual act be? After much deliberation, we came up with the persona of a Catskills comic whose act consisted entirely of an impression of a bowl of soup. At least, it was supposed to be a Catskills comic; the actual voice we came up with sounded more like Wolfman Jack. He’d hold out both arms in front of him, making a circle. “I’m a bowl of soup!” he’d announce. Then he’d lower his mouth and loudly pretend to slurp himself out of the bowl. “Mmmm!” he’d say with a satisfied smack of his lips. “Cream of mushroom.” Slurp. “Ahh! Tomato!” Slurp, slurp, slurp. Chicken noodle, minestrone, beef and barley, and so on, naming as many soups as possible. (Obviously, borscht.) And that was it. We figured that stupid routine would turn any audience against us.

Except, over the years, each of us has occasionally pulled the old routine out and used it on some hapless soul who had happened to mention a bowl of soup. And for some reason, it has never failed to kill.

2. Of course, if, by some wonder, I produced a child, it would never come to this. Partly that’s because my mom hasn’t spoken to her own mother in 25 years (which is why I don’t have grandparents myself), and given that and the fact that I barely ever call home even though I like my parents, they’ve got to be perfectly aware that I’m capable of following through on something like this. And partly it’s because my parents simply aren’t insane control freaks or religious zealots. My dad would be mildly pleased to see the child once a year at Christmas, and my mom would be teary-eyed with relief that I’d had a relationship of demonstrable substance with a woman.



4 Responses to “Never mind the Poochies”

  1. 1 Scott

    I’m incredibly sad that you’ve never told me the “bowl of soup” story before today.

  2. James Poniewozik just wrote an article about hipster parents (and Alternadad) in this week’s Time Magazine and I just kept thinking, “If you’re forcing your kids to listen to the Ramones, they’re not going to like them.” I know from experience: my parents tried their damnedest to raise me on Gordon Lightfoot and to this day I can’t listen to him without feeling incredibly annoyed. Although that could just as easily be due to the unusual amount of pirate-themed songs.

  3. Sorry, Scotty — I swear all my other running jokes are with you! By the way, Jay tells me that he’d somehow never done the bit for Karla until this morning. Once again, it killed.)

    Tinabellina: When I was a kid, the only music I was forced to listen to was country music, because my dad played it all the time. I hated it, although I’ve come to develop a grudging taste for it (the suckitude of new country made me nostalgic for the old stuff). But my dad had all these old albums just laying around that he never played, like Buddy Holly and the Beach Boys, so I’d pop them on the turntable and give them a listen. I still love that music (and it now makes me wonder if my kids are really going to dig those old Extreme and Yngwie Malmsteen CDs that I just shoved out of sight into a drawer during the grunge era instead of selling second-hand).

    I think that’s the way to turn your kids on to something: Rather than cram it down their throats, just leave it laying around like it’s no big deal or even discourage them from going near it, and then let their curiosity get the better of them. (It’s kind of like how I’m pretty sure my mom got out of giving the talk about the birds and the bees by leaving a copy of The Carpetbaggers laying around and telling me not to read it.) So the way to turn your kids on to the Ramones is probably to say, “Kids, I’m going out to mow the lawn for slightly more than a half hour. I forbid you to listen to this copy of Rocket to Russia while I’m gone.” Then go outside, shout “1-2-3-4!” before you yank the mower’s pull-cord, and congratulate yourself on a well-played bit of reverse psychology.

  4. 4 hilly

    Yikes. This is going to be a interesting post for me.

    This isn’t to defend Pollack, who I haven’t read or even care much about, but more to (maybe) explain how circumcision is really central in Judaism. This is coming from someone who is already circumcised, grew up with almost no religious background, and is essentially converting to please his soon-to-be wife.

    To put it very simply, circumcision is the external sign of the Covenant for the Jewish male and, even for very secular Jews, is almost always observed. It’s one of the very very few things that almost every branch of Judaism follows. More than the fact that his wife isn’t Jewish, this is (to the grandparents) in essence depriving the child of his Jewish heritage.

    Now, granted, I feel that Abraham himself would probably want to plant a sandal up some grandparent ass for even contemplating that kind of reaction, but it’s at least somewhat comprehensible. Jews, even very secular ones, can be EXTREMELY touchy about matters of form. However, I don’t think this is about religious zealotry as much as it is about control freakiness.

    As for whether circumcision causes sexual dysfunction and psychological trauma — well, it’s hard to prove a negative. I take antidepressants and have to be sprayed with a hose every once in a while to keep me from humping someone’s leg. I attribute all of that to a lot of things, but circumcision ranks way down the list.


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