Monday, April 1, 2013

One Step Beyond (1997)

One Step Beyond
Photo: Tony Gray

April fools’ day. Back in the day, urban legends were all the rage. The TV program The X-Files wove them through their storylines, and that was great fun. The 90s was cottage industry for the telling and retelling of classic tales of fiancees sold into white slavery, bugs found in food products, and celebrities helping (or snubbing) helpless motorists.

The vast majority of these tales are patently false. As Thomas Edison once said, “if something sounds unbelievable, it probably is.” Actually, Edison didn’t say that, but saying that he did makes the quote sound better. When we told these stories at camp, or hiking in the dump behind the train tracks, or spelunking under the elementary school, they added a sense of rich history of weirdness to our care-free, suburban lives.

Around the time the internet went mainstream, Barbara and David Mikkelson started their urban legends database, I found it in 1996 and for reasons I cannot remember, but they involved searching for horrible events which have occured in Disney theme parks. What made unique, and endearing it to me, was not that it perpetuated urban legends, but that they researched them and stove to determine their veracity.

For the 1997-98 season of Dobama's Night Kitchen (my third) we decided to revisit the long-form improvisation scenario developed our first season. Our first attempt was The Realistic World, which was more like an onstage soap opera than "reality TV". The company developed stock Gen-X characters who bounced off of each other in a common setting, with the result more often insult humor than say romance or drama, and no real plot to speak of.

 Unexplained Phenomenon

This new endeavor, One Step Beyond, would be inspired by (ta-da) urban legends, part X-Files, part Twilight Zone. Each hour long scenario was based on (and around) one urban legend or bizarre historical news event -- the molepeople, suicide cults -- with a few recurring characters which gave anyone paying attention (was anyone paying attention?) the idea that everything was interconnected like some Illuminati/Gray Alien conspiracy. There was more plot, but also more opportunities for humor, than  in The Realistic World. We scoured the internet for source material, much of it from snopes.

I have been visiting for so many years now, that I trust it, and like many, use it to put the lie to certain vicious internet rumors which circulate from time to time. Because with the internet, urban legends have gone from tales of collective spoken myth, into outright lies told simply through infographics posted on Facebook. In this way, “a lie gets halfway round the world before the truth can check its inbox,” as Mary Todd Lincoln once told William Seward. At a party. A friend of my brother heard her say it.

The other day I saw (again) a graphic explaining how wearing pants that sag halfway down your ass so that your boxers show is an old prison trick, to show how available and interested you are to engage in sodomy in exchange for safety. There’s another term for this, but you know what that is.

This “urban legend” has rubbed me the wrong way for some time. People from certain walks of life hate the sagging pants thing. They aren’t racist or anything, but why can’t those boys pull up their pants, it’s ridiculous. The fact that a cultural thing that so irritates certain people would have what is obviously supposed to be a humiliating origin story seemed far too convenient.

Checking snopes I found that this fashion does in fact originate from prison life. Prison togs are often the wrong size, so ex-cons began wearing pants that were too big, and that need to be hiked up every couple of steps. And so became a fashion trend. End of story.

But why perpetuate the man-on-man sex myth?

Or more to the point, what are you saying when you “SHARE” this particular item on Facebook?
That if you wear pants that sag, what you are really saying is that you are gay?

That if you wear pants that sag, you are really saying is that you want a man to fuck you up the ass?

Is that what you are saying? Is it? That you're gay? You're gay right now? Are you?

In the case of this particular legend, the "f-word" lurks next to the “n-word” in the expression of disgust or contempt generated by the person who shares/tells it. Because you can’t attempt to shame someone out of a certain behavior without making judgement about that behavior.

In a week that my Facebook page has been covered from top to bottom with messages of support for Marriage Equality, and pictures of happy, gay couples, receiving this other kind of message, one which expresses open contempt for and fear of sexual activity between men (mocking, inarguably, one certain race of men - infographic of a Caucasian notwithstanding) was jarring and disappointing.

"Gone Bad"

Near the end of our first, tumultuous year producing and performing You Have The Right To Remain Silent, one of the new guys wrote a piece which I assumed was true, because he had heard it somewhere, and we performed it. It was a very funny piece, where I played a down-and-out member of the Little Rascals trying to mug a young couple, but the crime falls apart because they recognize me and feel sorry for me. Seems Bill Cosby had bought the rights to all the old Little Rascals shorts and wouldn't let anyone see them anymore because of its negative depiction of African-Americans.

It's a trope that comes around every now and again, how some member of some minority group who has attained a certain amount of wealth or power has made things sad for everyone else due to some politically correct action on their part.

These stories are rarely true, subtly or in some cases obviously racist or sexist, though what they convey is not obvious. But they are based in fear, or hate, or certainly disrespect. I have always hated the fact that I participated in that sketch and helped perpetuate this kind of lie.

(Click here to purchase The Little Rascals: The Complete Collection, because it is a shame Bill Cosby owns the rights and won't let anyone see them anymore.)


  1. This post is awesome on several levels. Thanks.

    But I do have to say, everything you have to say about the Realistic World notwithstanding, I experienced one of the funniest theatrical moments of my life watching that show. Not clever or sophisticated or in service to plot or concept or anything else, but "Where'd you get that ring? It's, like ... gi-normous" still to this day cracks me up on a regular basis.

    But you knew that.

  2. Good Lord, I still have that on video somewhere. Taken completely out of context, it is impossible to appropriately convey my favorite line, which was when Cantwell said, "I LOVE you, Ann!"

  3. Best post in months.