The Awful Truth: Show Us Your Ugly Pancreas

When performers reveal just a little more of themselves than you want to see.

Published April 22, 1997 9:39AM (EDT)

there is something truly paralyzing about a bad performance onstage. When you are in an audience, and the performer is lousy with joylessness and fuming with some illness that makes them stultifyingly ignorant of the rules of human entertainment, there is an odd stasis that sets in. You just sit there and take it, and some iron cloud of gravity cools your blood into a slowly metabolizing reptile anxiety, pushing you further and deeper into the chair, rendering you mute and so motionless you can barely drink. It's kind of an addictive sensation, akin to the sealed-ears-underwater-feeling one associates with wandering around all-night drug stores staring at the bright packages with no comprehension of their texts.

I've been seeing a lot of bad comedy and bad performance art lately. It provides a kind of easy, brainless pain, like chewing all the skin off my thumbs.

Here in New York, most of the comics and performance artists have taken an extreme swerve and become grossly confessional. Their acts are infused with the black, acrid electrical fire of gruesome personal details: bewilderingly complicated sexual deviance and crushing failures of personality, shameful emotional handicaps and live wounds. The object seems to be to peel back every layer of self-preservation and privacy that their egos could attempt to shelter them with, and EXPOSE, forcing themselves inside-out and training the prison floodlight of stage attention on their Darker Selves. An interesting purging, sort of like a self-exorcism. Sometimes it works. And sometimes you feel compelled, as an audience member, to assist the person in finally finishing their slow suicide project.

Spy is a nightclub in New York where models and all the people who want to be around models go. There is always a sampling of very young, mercenarily beautiful young women in strappy, unlikely clothing -- shoes you need three of to balance in, shirts with no arm holes, pants that require the help of two friends in order to get the tiny array of hooks between the thighs fastened. The girls all look professionally, dangerously, erotically jaded: eyes
buried in layers of frosty grime, no subcutaneous fat or muscle, cigarettes. They all look abusable and overly sensitive. It occurred to me that almost everybody hates models, and they hate themselves just as much, and Spy offers a nurturing place for the hatred between the models stuck to its walls and the comics who perform there on select evenings.

The comics the evening I was there started in on the models with a viciousness that bordered on restraining-order alarming. "I can think of plenty of things I'd like to do with a model before I cave her head in with a shovel," said the first of the ugly little brutes on the show ticket. The only people who hate themselves more than models are, naturally, comics, and I suppose this lends a kind of competitive urgency to the banter.

The second guy had a terrible, real meltdown. The first few minutes of his act were all about cocaine abuse, and his psychotically animated energy was so sweaty and blurred and frightening that it was pretty obvious that he'd just smoked an 8-ball and then done something unforgivable, like shooting his girlfriend in the neck. He spoke of mental illness and nihilistic masturbating with such intensity that he actually cut his hand very deeply on the microphone and began bleeding very visibly all over his white pants, much to the dismay of the cameramen who were supposed to be shooting this event in order to show his talents to HBO. He was going for a jaw-breaking Lenny Bruce-in-the-final-years type of intellectual horror show, but completely neglected to have any content, and stomped fearsomely over his 10-minute time limit with the savage abandon of a Hun rapist, finally forsaking his entire act to scream, "Fuck you motherfuckers! I don't give a fuck if I'm supposed to get off the stage! I'm not leaving!" as the emcee went off to get the bouncers. The emcee came to our table after the show and personally apologized for the gentleman's act. Shaking his head, he said, "I'll never work with that guy again, man. He just cracked. He just fucking cracked."

Later in the week I dropped by Fez to see Jonathan Ames and Amy Sohn, who are a sweet couple. Both of them write for the New York Press, they're in love, they both have book deals. Amy Sohn does readings of articles she wrote, which are like Penthouse Forum letters if Penthouse Forum were taken over by trendy intellectual grad-school girls who wear vintage clothes. She talks exclusively about fairly lurid sexual encounters with a kind of cute, no-frills style, something along the lines of "He was real tall and his khaki pants had big ink stains on the pocket and he wasn't wearing any socks, so I decided to give him a hand job right there on the park bench!" She squeaks cutely but smartly, like Gracie Allen turned into a very matter-of-fact nymphomaniac.

Ames was the real crowning glory, the epitome of NYC Confessional. A great speaker with a thin bald head and huge, alien-doe eyes, Ames gratified the audience with a pathologically detailed account of his delayed journey into puberty, which included startling admissions about his penis that were so painful that most men would rather have theirs removed than repeat such information in front of 200 strangers. Ames first discussed enjoying his molestation by a camp counselor, then froze us all in shocked wonder when he talked about the first time he ever ejaculated, at the age of 15, when he ran into his mother's bedroom naked to give her a repeat performance. "Look Mom!
Stuff shot out of my penis just like you said! Watch, I'll do it again!" She gently suggested that he do that in his own room. This was squirm-inducing enough, but then his actual mother, amid gapes and mild heart-attacks and awed silences, came out from the audience and actually GOT ONSTAGE next to her son and read a POEM she wrote about the same incident. In front of everybody, including Ames' real-life dad.

I am considering getting onstage again soon, with my little one-person show. Annie Sprinkle has already shown everybody her cervix, so I'm trying to think of a new angle. God help me.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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