The professor of smoochology

How a nebbishy ex-academic who keeps changing his name wound up traveling around the country convincing total strangers to kiss onstage.


Jason Feifer
February 27, 2004 2:00AM (UTC)

It is one hour to showtime, the lips have not arrived, and Michael Christian is starting to pace. "We need couples!" he keeps saying, his voice getting ever more insistent, almost threatening. What he really needs is a group of college students willing to kiss each other onstage -- or rather, willing to demonstrate 30 different kisses with perfect strangers in an hour-long comedic performance. Instead, he only has three willing participants, and they're all from the student group that brought him here, to the University of Connecticut at Storrs. They are two girls and a guy -- and the guy will be kissing his girlfriend, who will be arriving late. Therefore, as far as Christian is concerned, he has nothing. The students are getting nervous.

One suggests that the entourage go down to the cafeteria to recruit people, and Christian thinks this is a fine idea. So off they go, stampeding down the stairs, rushing through the cafeteria doors as the cashier asks them to pay, and approaching random students with a hopelessly sketchy request. Christian takes the lead, but he is no salesman. "We need one boy and one girl to be in a show," he says to nobody in particular, his arms flailing. Students treat him as they would a homeless person, averting their eyes and walking around him. Eventually, he starts going table by table, where he is greeted skeptically.

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This is what kissing has done to Michael Christian. Once an English professor at Boston College, he has devoted his life to teaching college students the science of spit-swapping. "It has taken over my life," he says later, and he's not joking. In 1991, he wrote "The Art of Kissing," which has since been translated into 19 languages and sold 250,000 copies. When it first came out, some B.C. students asked him to give a lecture about the book. He was afraid it would be too boring, so he asked the students to find people willing to demonstrate the kisses he wrote about. The show, which was seen by a small group of B.C. students, was a hit, and he soon took it on the road.

Years later, his English students talked him into performing it in lieu of the day's regular curriculum, and they volunteered themselves for the demonstration. Apparently, though, simulated oral sex and the "spanking kiss" -- a kiss whose description does it full justice -- was a bit too much for some of the students, and they complained to the administration. Christian was put on a tight leash after that. Two years ago, he quit to do the presentation full-time.

Christian's life is dictated by impulse. He has no casual interests, but only deep, wholly consuming curiosity, and so he heaves himself at everything he likes. Before teaching, he spent years in law school -- but after he passed the bar, he practiced law for six weeks and then quit. Just recently, he read a book about legendary Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, and is now preparing to tour the country doing a one-man Shackleton show. When Christian redefines himself, he does it completely. In his 50 years of life, he's legally changed his name five times, although he can't really offer a plausible explanation for it.

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"I must be a very confused person. On some level, I don't know who I am. That's a problem," he says. He wrote "The Art of Kissing" as William Cane, and now goes by Michael Christian. When he was introduced at the beginning of the UConn show, the student at the microphone called him "Michael Christianson." Christian said he didn't mind. He'll probably be changing his name again soon anyway.

Christian is perhaps the least likely figure to give sex advice. He looks a bit like a grown-up Harry Potter, complete with a bowl haircut and black-rimmed circular glasses, and he talks like Woody Allen. When he says the word "crazy" -- and he says it often, about his life, his profession, the kissing show in general -- the similarity with Allen is startling. On the night at UConn, he was dressed in oversize khaki pants and a giant long-sleeved shirt, and it seemed as if he had lost 80 pounds but hadn't had time to buy a new wardrobe.

When Christian checked in to the on-campus Nathan Hale Inn, he asked the desk clerk about the Revolutionary War figure's famous quotes, and soon became the first person in the hotel's history to actually accept its printout biography of Hale. Twice when we were talking in the hotel lobby, he picked up a promotional magazine and flipped the pages under his nose. When I asked what he was doing, he laughed as if he wasn't consciously aware of his actions, and told me he loves the smell of ink. In fact, he says, he can usually identify the publisher of a book by the smell of its ink. He quotes philosophers and psychologists. He analyzes people by their birth order. He is an academic overwhelmed by his idiosyncrasies, a genius savant.

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But get him talking about kissing, and it's clear that he's done his homework. For the book, he had thousands of people take an online survey, and learned from the trends. As a quiz, I ask him what men want from women, and he rattles off a list: "They want French kisses, they want to open mouth more, they want them to be more aggressive with the tongue, they want them to bite them gently on the mouth, the earlobe, and they want them to be aggressive by pulling their hair when they're excited." What do women want from men? "They want less invasive French kisses, they want more in the front of the mouth with the tongue, they want more romantic kisses, they want kisses for the sake of kissing, they also love the neck and ears. It will pay you rich dividends to remember that if you're a guy."

A few minutes pass in the cafeteria, and the group has found a volunteer. Amanda James, one of the students that brought Christian here, called her friend Hector and talked him into it. She wasn't one of the girls initially in the show, but she's decided to take one for the team, so to speak.

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"Have you ever kissed Hector before?" I ask her.

"No!" she says, clearly already nervous about it.

"Do you want to kiss him?"

"No!"

But the show must go on.

By the time the group gets back upstairs, Hector has arrived, as has a guy named Jay. Christian quickly ushers everybody into a nearby dining hall, carrying a purple notebook on which he's written the words "Closed Rehearsal." He has about 45 minutes to teach the students his 30 kisses, each of which is peppered with cheesy gags and the occasional punch line. He runs through the segments at a ferocious speed, barely stopping to explain their meaning, and the students giggle as they awkwardly press their faces together. He wants them to kiss to the beat of music, to act like dentists, to wiggle and writhe, to faux-French-kiss (this is, after all, a no-tongue show).

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Christian spends a lot of time telling them what will be funny, and at one point instructs them on how to wait for the audience's laughter to die down before delivering the next punch line. The gags are so corny that I almost cringe, and I wonder what the kissers are thinking. During the vacuum kiss, in which the guys are sucking the breath from the girl in mid-kiss -- the gag being that the girls act like they're being deflated in the chair -- Christian is enthused. "Keep doing it!" he says as he jabs his pointer finger at them. "It's hysterical if you keep doing it."

There are supposed to be four couples rehearsing, but Felix, the guy waiting for his girlfriend, is sitting by himself, miming kisses and looking only slightly sillier than the guys actually kissing girls. Then, unbelievably, a girl from the cafeteria shows up. Christian welcomes her and sits her down next to Felix, who begins to squirm. "She's not my partner!" he says, but Christian doesn't hear him. Amanda does, however, and quickly takes the opportunity to leave her friend Hector and switch with the cafeteria girl.

There are risks involved in putting on a live show based around kissing strangers, and Christian has seen almost everything go wrong. He's seen students freak out, gay and feminist protests, couples get paired up but refuse to kiss, claiming the other is unworthy of their lips. But strangely, the only lawsuit to arise from all this has come from Christian's former girlfriend, with whom he practiced the most bizarre kiss of the presentation: the Trobriand Islands kiss.

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This kiss, which is performed during sex, is animalistic, involving a flurry of biting, blood drawing and hair pulling. He found it in an old book about the Pacific islands, and believes it can teach Americans something -- not necessarily due to the violence, but because he says Americans don't kiss during sex as much as many cultures, and therefore people aren't achieving the level of intimacy that they could. After he tried the kiss on his ex-girlfriend, though, she sued him, claiming that her eardrum had been permanently damaged. "I swear to God, my life is a tragedy, and I've turned it into a joke in 'The Art of Kissing,'" Christian says.

Mercifully, Christian has also seen things go right. Audience members regularly ask his advice after the show, and he gets dozens of e-mails every day from people seeking kissing assistance. They're always asking the same few questions, he says: how to French-kiss, how to lean in for a first kiss, how to get rid of hickeys. Some of the people who met on his stage have pursued relationships, and a few even got married. During the rehearsal at UConn, in fact, some sparks seemed to be flying. Three out of the four couples went through the motions with their arms limp and puppetlike, but Nina and Jay, two total strangers, kept their arms tenderly around each other.

I normally hate couples that kiss in public, because I feel as if they're dragging me into their bedroom, imposing their intimacy by creating a private space in a public arena. But here, the couples are so rigid, so completely not in the mood, that they are genuinely funny. This, of course, is what Christian is banking on. It's why he always prefers strangers to real couples, and why he says the best shows are done on the fly. Indeed, when Felix's girlfriend finally shows up, and she joins him in the rehearsal, their bodies are so familiar with each other that I feel dirty watching them.

With the rehearsal over, the group walks toward the ballroom as Christian mutters nervously to himself. They arrive to find 250 students eagerly waiting, and Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel" is blasting from a stereo Christian set up so the audience "feels like they're at a party." The whole thing sort of feels like a train wreck waiting to happen. There's no way those students will remember an hour's worth of rushed cues, and Christian's jokes are simply too childish for a sexually experienced college audience.

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But when he gets up onstage, Christian redefines himself once again. He's still goofy and flamboyant, but he's managed to regress the audience, to undercut all their knowledge about sex and talk about something so basic that it brings them back to a time before clothes ever came off. He is suddenly the perfect man for this job: unassuming, unintimidating, so simultaneously unpredictable and on-message that it's not just endearing, it's captivating. At one point, he jumps up on the stage and declares that after this show, "You're going to have a lifelong advantage over any partner you're with!" The crowd cheers, and two girls in the front row high-five each other.

During the show, Christian rides what is essentially an hour of nervous energy. The crowd knows these volunteers are unprepared. They can sense it. And when it becomes evident that these students are going to be kissing each other for the benefit of the audience, everyone is enthralled. During the first scene, in which the girls pretend to be barbers by faux-cutting the guys' hair and leaning in seductively, mouths in the audience are literally agape.

Later, people applaud as two volunteers put red pillowcases over their heads to represent tongues, and Christian moves them around to illustrate the three proper French-kiss tongue maneuvers: flicker, rotate and chase back-and-forth. These college students have seen kissing before, but they've, well, never seen it like this. It catches them off-guard, and even Christian's jokes work perfectly. At one point, with the volunteers ready for another smooch, he points to them and says, "When you're this close, don't worry about if you're unattractive. You're out of focus!" The crowd howls.

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"It's just something about my mind that I'm interested in romance," he tells me after the show. "I always wanted to know what my girlfriend was thinking when I was kissing her, and I never found out. So, in response to that desire, I surveyed 100,000 people, and I found out." It turns out, they're thinking a lot of things. They're thinking about how it's too slobbery or there's too much tongue. If they're one of the 8 percent of men that responded to his survey in this way, they're thinking about how good a woman's lipstick tastes.

Christian's interest in kissing was spawned by a 1936 pamphlet called "The Art of Kissing," which he became enamored of because, he says, "It was romantic, it had nice drawings and it was unique." He started passing it around to friends, but soon felt it lacked depth and detail, and so he resolved to fill in the blanks himself. That project led to the book, which led to the presentation, which led to tapes and DVDs and an all-encompassing career.

Now, he says, he gets paid to sleep in nice hotel rooms and make people laugh, and that makes it pretty difficult to regret ever leaving Boston College. At this point, he's even completely immune to the sight of people kissing. "I have a dual feeling about it. You want to give people privacy, but on the other hand, you want to pick up tips, so it's OK." Still, he's hesitant to tell people what he does for a living, and often feels like "a pervert." So, to make himself feel better, he's put into his performance contract that he will, in no way, make lip contact with the student volunteers.

After the show ends, a girl from the crowd approaches Christian and asks why her kissing method influences boys in such a predictable way. When she French-kisses a guy, she says, he wants to sleep with her. When she keeps her mouth closed, he's content to just kiss. Christian tells her that French-kissing often signals an interest in more intimacy. If she can, she should try to talk her kissing partners into a night of nothing more than kissing. He says people often overlook the pleasures of kissing by rushing toward sex, and that unless they consciously take a step back, they'll miss a lot. As he talks, he falls into professor mode, fostering a professor-student discussion on a topic his former career could have never supported. Christian may trade interests and goals at whim, but he is undeniably a sum of his experiences.

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The success of his book, he says, means that people always carry some self-doubt about their ability to kiss. I ask him if a detailed book such as his might make the act of kissing too complicated or overwhelming for people, and he says he prefers to think of it as a list of suggestions, not guidelines. There is no right or wrong way to kiss, but there is documentation of what most people like and dislike. He hopes that's helpful.

Christian does 40 shows a year, and spends the rest of his time researching and pursuing new projects. He's stuck with the kissing program for 12 years -- a monumental amount of time, considering his life's short attention span. And even with the Ernest Shackleton shows starting, he expects this is something he'll stick with. Even if he changes his name again, even if he finds a new career, he'll be lip-locked with kissing because it's an inexhaustible topic, he says. People never stop being curious. They want answers, and regardless of what his name is, he'll always have them. "Even if I do retire from this, I'll still get calls," he says. "I could never retire from it. It's caught me up. I could never retire from it. Never."


Jason Feifer

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