by Stuart Wade
Joe Queenan is this country's top character assassin. In Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon: Joe Queenan's America (Hyperion, $21.95 hard), he spends 18 months devouring American staples such as Branson, Missouri, Planet Hollywood, Geraldo Rivera, and Cats. His findings: "Mainstream culture is infinitely more idiotic than I had ever suspected."
When he and his son turn up at a Red Lobster in T-shirts and shorts, the author detects an "aura of proletarian snootiness" from the regular patrons. "'Next time show some respect,' their expressions seemed to say. 'This is not some goddamn Wendy's.'" Unflinchingly wicked, Queenan is both a superior wit and a master of the media stunt. In 1995, he set out to shoot a full-length film for $6,998 (two dollars fewer than Robert Rodriguez's much-ballyhooed El Mariachi). His subsequent book about the independent film experience, The Unkindest Cut, was both clever and pointed. Queenan's searing prose regularly appears in numerous publications, including The New York Times, GQ, TV Guide, and Movieline. When he's behind the rifle scope, no one is safe. Regarding Oscar-winning actress Helen Hunt, he has stated, "She has three facial expressions, and I think to be a movie star you need four. It's like being a pitcher, she has three and now she needs the slider."
In Red Lobster he squeezes off one-liners like some mad sniper from a clock tower:
- "[John] Tesh is given to ... thrusting his fists in the air to signify some triumph he has not in fact achieved."
- "Cats is what Grease would look like if the cast dressed up like KISS."
- "Until I saw Adam Sandler I'd always thought the three scariest words in the English language were 'starring Dan Aykroyd.'"
Because Queenan's new title began as a magazine article, this book-length version occasionally feels thin. So it helps immeasurably that Queenan is a highly entertaining observer. Actually, Red Lobster misfires only in the sense that its prey tend to be so obviously and inherently rotten. Make no mistake, however: The results are still lethal. During a recent Houston stopover, Joe Queenan spoke with Austin Chronicle reviewer Stuart Wade:
Austin Chronicle: You've gone out of your way to rip mainstream American icons and by association, their audiences. Is there something about these millions of consumers that you secretly envy?
Joe Queenan: No, they're dumb. I'm not saying that in the sense that they are bad people, that I wouldn't help them if their car broke down. Thirty percent of the population are dumb, and I am just happy it's not a bigger number. Thirty percent are dumb, 40% are like your mom, 20% are pretty smart and 10% are really smart. I can live with that.
AC: You describe Branson as a cultural penal colony, the only place in the world that could make one feel sorry for Tony Orlando. Were you aware that right now, you're not only as close to Branson as this book tour will take you, but that today is also John Tesh's birthday?
JQ: That is really frightening, just a genuinely terrifying thought. Tesh will be in Branson before long — he's tailor-made for it. A lot of the performers there are sort of would-be has-beens. Yakov Smirnov, who has a theatre there, sort of went directly from near-celebrity straight into obscurity without pausing for fame. It is a fact that the biggest star there is violinist Shoji Tobuchi. Branson is the second-most driven-to tourist attraction in America, but you can't fly there. And this is an even more impressive statistic when you consider that they don't get much return business since most people who visit die shortly thereafter.
AC: Armageddon opened in theatres this summer. Supposing asteroids did hit, obliterating mankind. What is the single worst possible artifact we might leave behind for future civilizations?
JQ: Part of me really wants to say Cats. I would put it in a tie. The worst things that we would leave behind would be Germans, because they destroyed the entire century; and Andrew Lloyd Webber, because he single-handedly destroyed Broadway.
AC: If Reckoning Day comes now, which entertainers would you like to have pay, and pay Big Time?
JQ: If we had Armageddon today I would like to see it take out all the guys with the big cowboy hats. I was always brought up that when you go indoors you take off your hat, so when I see on The Tonight Show guys wearing huge hats I just figure, "What are you, on the old Chisholm Trail, fightin' the thievin' Comanch?" I think in their heads they think they are. I've always felt there is a Samson thing there — that if you took away Garth Brooks' and Alan Jackson's hats they wouldn't be able to sing anymore.
AC: Celebrities, you say, are always taking the moral high ground. Think of George Clooney's ironic indignation toward the media, at a press conference he held just after Princess Diana's death. Whoopi Goldberg shows up in your book in a stage production you actually enjoyed, but then after the show, she "browbeat the audience into contributing to her favorite charity." Why do celebrities do this?
JQ: They actually believe that they are better people than we are. And that's what is the most annoying thing about them. There is just that infuriating streak among celebrities where there's this sense of if you're talented, you don't have to be good. So let other people be good. Let priests be good. Your job is to be talented.
I remember when Van Halen trashed a concert hall because someone hadn't presorted the band's M&M's. Well good for them, because that's exactly what bands are supposed to do. They're not supposed to save the whales.
AC: Real-life tragedy in pop culture often builds careers and elevates reputations. Do you think there are any specific exceptions to this rule?
JQ: I'd have to think that no matter what happens to Boy George, it's over. It's an interesting question, since last year Bob Dylan was ill and none of us knows just how sick he was, and the next thing you know he got the Grammy. And that was exactly the thing that used to piss me off when I was a kid — Bob Dylan didn't get the Grammy and Steve and Edie did. And now Bob is basically Steve or Edie or both.
And I buy every new Dylan album because all my friends always say that this new one is the great Dylan comeback record. But Dylan was finished after "Blood on the Tracks." He's had a few good tracks here and there since, and he's just basically making the same record over and over again. But tragedy almost struck and now he has been lifted up. It's the sort of thing that would have made the young Bob Dylan sick.
AC: You've often written about fleeting fame versus "staying power." Using examples from your book, just what is it that separates the Joe Piscopos from the Kenny G's?
JQ: Kenny G is insanely popular and in his strange way is a sort of one-of-a-kind guy. Joe Piscopo is one of many zombies that Saturday Night Live set loose on the nation. Like I just read that News Radio — a show I really like because it has a pacing and a quirkiness that makes it different — when Phil Hartman died, they got Jon Lovitz. What could be worse than Jon Lovitz, the classic, burned-out, SNL if-you-can't-get-Piscopo-get-Jon-Lovitz fill-in guy? I don't want to watch the show anymore if he's going to be on it.
AC:During your research you frequently experienced "Scheissenbedauern" — a feeling of "shit regret," when things you do expect to suck do suck, but not as much as you would secretly like them to suck. While writing this, did anything Not Suck so greatly that it had to be excised altogether?
JQ: Everything that Didn't Suck was in the chapter about Cleveland, The Sizzler, Barry Manilow, and Wayne Newton. We took out a whole section about Williamsburg, but I already had it covered with the Renaissance Faire. And there was stuff in there about the Civil War because I had never visited Virginia before and I had no idea that Stonewall Jackson's body was such a big industry to that state.