"I know the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, but can't the vigilantes take a break once in a while?"
"We use up cute fads in this country the way we use up Kleenex, and it's a phenomenon I've never quite understood. Maybe when we buy a little fuzzy stuffed puppy with a tag 'I Wuv Oo,' it's a kind of psychic sneeze, a way to rid the collective unconscious of consciousness-blocking mucus. I don't know. I do know there's a constant flow of cute in America: troll dolls. Repulsive aliens from outer space. Little two-dimensional dot gobblers. I can understand the fertility rites of certain South American tribes, but the American concept of cute is as slippery as Mississippi mud and as elusive as the butterfly of love. The neighborhood shopping mall--the 20th-Century equivalent of of the medieval village unit--has entire stores that sell nothing but E.T. dolls, Snoopy-dog dolls, Garfields, Smurfs, Strawberry Shortcakes and proud unicorns flying over rainbows."
(If a thief is in your house) "Call the cops. Cops may be rude, they may be slow, but they know how to use a gun, and that's a lot more than you can say about gun owners. Gun owners make a habit of keeping a gun in a night table by the bed, where it's found by curious youngsters or by couples who kill each other in arguments about who loves each other the most. . . . A nation on a hair-trigger is a well-protected nation. A well-protected nation doesn't need Valium, just more emergency rooms. And a nation without people doesn't need any protection at all."
The above segments are from essays on current history and pop culture by Ian Shoales, the acidulous rapid-fire rock 'n' roll and film critic manque who can be heard periodically on radio's "All Things Considered" and who has occasionally appeared on ABC's "Nightline" in a few minutes of bile-letting.
In reality, Shoales is the creation of 37-year-old Merle Kessler, who is one of the performers with the touring comedy troupe, Duck's Breath Mystery Theater. Shoales isn't the only character Kessler does, and Kessler has been careful to keep him tightly bound to a kind of nouveau Philip Marlowe seediness (Shoales subsists on temp jobs). But he's one of the very few comic creations who works in the field of social commentary and who would understand Mort Sahl's line, "It used to be that everybody worried about selling out. Now everybody's looking to buy in."
Shoales is perpetually broke, romantically unaligned and permanently at odds with everything. He uses churlishness the way Rodney Dangerfield uses the device of disrespect. That would be amusing enough in itself, particularly since Kessler never lets Shoales' peevishness degenerate into spite.
What raises his material above the level of attitude or gimmickry is an unusually penetrating view of contemporary American society's insatiable lust for faddishness and its growing distance from any traditional sense of meaning or content. (In a recent interview, Kessler mentioned that it was amusing to see how David Letterman succeeded in his show by hating its format--a tacit comment on the bankruptcy of talk shows.)
On star autobiographies whose subject now wears his (or her) sins like an escutcheon, where once he hired a ghost writer to gloss over the dubious elements of the star's life, Shoales notes, "If you're a celebrity . . . your mistakes could earn you a People magazine cover, just in time to plug your network special. On the network special, your mistakes will be called embarrassing moments or bloopers and can get you up to an hour of prime time, throwing your mistakes out for the viewing enjoyment of millions. If you become addicted to drugs or alcohol, kick the habit. If you can kick the habit, the world is your oyster--best sellers, seminars, speaking engagements, all to help people learn from your mistakes. But first you have to make them.
"In a bizarre parody of evolution, human error these days is rewarded handsomely. Everybody takes the credit for success, but only one person takes the blame. In any bureaucracy there is always a scapegoat. If you're the scapegoat, write a book about it, or sue somebody. This is the trickle-down theory of punishment and blame. This is post-Watergate morality. The fittest are the unfit. Take responsibility for your mistakes, and you can make a quick buck." There's a distinct late-'70s, early-'80s feel to Shoales' maunderings (one of his wittiest and most devastating critiques is of the movie "The Big Chill), as though his anger had run out of steam in the endless and exhaustive variety of topics that promiscuously clamor for public attention and then drop out of sight (Chernobyl today, a hostage crisis tomorrow, Joan and Johnny are no longer speaking).
Or maybe he paints himself into a corner with this confession, "There's Brook Shields on the all-night movie looking like some Pre-Raphaelite Madonna. She's writing on the floor, she says 'Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.' Nobody wants to come between her and her Calvins. Least of all me. That's what entropy is all about. We all get what we want in America, but what we want is so boring."
But at bottom, the sensation he conveys is of a sensibility affronted, a notion of culture and civilization trashed by trivia and buried in stupefying hype. In Shoales, Kessler not only offers us the comedian's standard stock-in-trade, the personal reaction, he also offers up a point of view. You might disagree with it, you might pick it apart--these essays are, after all, intended as radio spots or short comedy bits and are often shot from the hip. But at least there's a social perspective here that not many people have the courage or the cleverness to bring into what is ostensibly an entertainment.
Except that he doesn't speak nearly as rapidly as Shoales, Kessler's appearance doesn't contravene our radio image of the pasty aesthete angrily snapping at a world that has lost the innocent joie de vivre of rock 'n' roll. Kessler is slender, with an appropriately funereal pallor. He was born in South Dakota and raised in Brainerd, Minn., where his father was superintendent of grade schools (Kessler has two MFA's, in film and playwrighting). At the University of Iowa in 1975, he tied in with Steve Baker, Dan Coffey, Jim Turner, Bill Allard and Leon Martel, all of whom make up the Duck's Breath company ("We formed out of a sense of disillusion over the way things are being done"). Centered in San Francisco, they've been touring annually ever since, and return to Santa Monica's At My Place in mid-December.
"I've done other characters, such as Mel Egypt, a film critic who is confused by every film he sees; a restaurant critic who talks like Elmer Fudd, and, with Leon, one of a set of transvestite farmers, Waylon and Willie in drag," Kessler said. "Mencken, Thurber, Benchley and S. J. Perelman were all great influences on me when I was a kid. Ian Shoales started as a parody of outlaw journalists who take themselves too seriously. We're a spoiled nation. Shoales is spoiled, but he's not ashamed of it, and he gives me a chance to sound off on things I've observed, such as how there seems to be such a lack of perspective on public events, and how we cling to the illusion that human beings are rational. I'm also concerned how, in the media, attitude has become a substitute for content."
"I Gotta Go," Shoales' sign-off, is the title of his book, which has been put out by Perigee. He's also co-written a new Dr. Science book with Coffey, and a Duck's Breath Mystery Theater record has just been released. Kessler, who is married and has two children, is at work on another volume called "Perfect World," "a fantasy of the future where everyone loves Shoales, or at least pays attention to him." Pray it never happens, if it costs him his bite.