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It's Heretic Week! Penn & Teller cry "Bullshit" on circumcision, a former commie youth talks dirty, and Dee Dee Ramone resists the urge to bust a tunic!


Heather Havrilesky
April 26, 2005 1:58AM (UTC)

"In reality, we have a radical need to survive and not to lose the vision of God, if we want human dignity not to disappear." -- Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, three weeks before being named pope

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Unthinkable as it might seem that the future pope would address the challenges facing reality TV in general and "Survivor" in particular, well, whoop, there it is! Naturally His Holiness enjoys reality programming, as he readily admitted, but feels that a vision of God is necessary if we have any interest at all in preserving human dignity.

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Personally, though, I think human dignity is overrated. As the doctrinal enforcer of televised entertainment, I can tell you that the most delectable and inspired moments in recent television history usually involved some sacrifice of human dignity. No matter what denomination, color or creed, we all recognize that such sacrifices are clearly for the greater good of humankind.

After all, if we held fast to a vision of God, would we still be able to sneer as Rebecca tried to fake a sexy pillow fight with a sexy man-thing on "America's Next Top Model"? If the preservation of human dignity were on our minds, would we be free to drool over the greased-up meat Chiclets on that male model, and then grunt, "Let Mommy cop a little feel, monkey boy!"

I think not. But for true wisdom and understanding, we turn to the book of Old Navy. Here's a passage I often return to when I'm seeking solace in times of trouble:

This is a jam for all the ladies out there,
Lookin' for something chic you can wear
on the beach so the fellas will stare:
Get this tunic, it's almost not fair!
Wear it with pants, built to dance,
Bustin' out style like you in a trance
Wear it over that tiny bathing suit,
Flow with the tunic and look wicked cute!

There are so many layers of meaning to dissect here! Still, let's limit ourselves to examining these memorable verses through the new pope's formidable rhetorical lens, shall we? While Benedict XVI would surely assert that this passage endorses the kind of utopian world order and separation of man from God that the pontiff has heretofore discouraged, you'll note that only women are portrayed here, and the Church, quite frankly, couldn't care less about women.

If the little harlots are going to force the pontiff's hand on the matter, of course, His Holiness might very well dictate that, whether or not a woman chooses to bust a tunic, she should do so at home under the guidance of a patriarchal figure -- preferably one who's not also busting a tunic. This is clearly understood by the prophets of Old Navy; the reference to "on the beach" is, of course, metaphorical. Despite the peppy dancing and scintillating references to "tiny bathing suits," we're to understand that tunics are for medium- to large-size ladies looking for something that's not too restrictive, scratchy or revealing to wear while changing diapers and Swiffering the floors this summer.

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Tellingly, the book of Old Navy continues:

If you want it, we've got it!
If you want it, Old Navy's got it!
Just bust a tunic!

Needless to say, this passage is likely to raise eyebrows around the Sistine pool table, since it recognizes nothing definitive beyond low-cost clothing and adds up to no more than ego and desire. Instead of a vision of God, the prophets of Old Navy are promoting themselves as the shortest, quickest route to instant gratification.

Bust a boob!
Fox took a similar stance in marketing its brand-new sitcom, "Stacked," starring Pamela Anderson. During promos for the show, we see quick cuts of Pamela's Andersons, bouncing along next to two nondescript, geeky, bookish types and one extremely large, brash, scratchy-voiced woman, the sort for which the Old Navy tunic was custom-made.

Please don't get me wrong, here: I dig Old Navy and I'm positively aching to bust a tunic. In fact, I'd be busting a tunic right now if I didn't spend every penny of my disposable income on dog treats. I'm just trying to paint a clear picture of what such promos told us to expect on "Stacked":

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1. A bookstore
2. Two boobies
3. Two boobs
4. One big woman with a scratchy voice

But this is just a snapshot, remember? A quick glance to persuade you to tune in later. When you do tune in later, many more layers are revealed, and a much richer, more detailed picture unfolds:

1. A privately owned bookstore
2. Two really big, huge, really really round boobies
3. Two horny, pathetic boobs
4. One big, fat, obnoxious woman with a scratchy voice who can't get laid to save her life and is angry about it

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Here's why "Stacked" will fail: It adds up to no more than desire, minus the ego. Note to Fox: Never, ever forget the ego part. Disgusting and scratchy-voiced and desperate as we all are, we still like to imagine ourselves as perky and delicious and full of pep like those girls busting a tunic in the Old Navy commercial. We know, of course, that we'd only bust a tunic while doing the dishes or while lying in bed eating chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream out of the carton, but we still like to picture ourselves hanging out on a yacht with our tiny, adorable friends, stylish mini-girls with better attitudes than most waitresses at T.G.I. Friday's. No matter how big and sweaty and unwieldy we become, we prefer to imagine ourselves in tiny bathing suits and savor the line that goes "It's almost not fair!" as if we're still the smug little self-obsessed bitches we were back in high school.

But easy as it is to picture yourself as young and smug and busting a tunic, you could never imagine yourself as a disembodied pair of tits. Not possible. That would be like imagining yourself as a plate of beans.

So, since the tits are out of the question, we're forced to see ourselves as nondescript, desperate, neurotic bookstore owners who drool over big, huge, round boobies that are entirely out of their league. That sounds fun. Or, we can picture ourselves as a big, angry, bellowing girl who would trade every ounce of her biting wit to be a disembodied pair of tits instead. Delightful!

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For this reason and this reason alone, "Stacked" will fail. Oh yeah, and also: It's not funny. But you already knew that.

I wanna be sedated!
I think we can put safe money on the fact that Sheena, who was a punk rocker cool enough to be in a song by the Ramones, never busted a tunic. The Ramones never busted a tunic either -- they stuck to black leather jackets and T-shirts and bowl haircuts, with a sneer as the finishing touch. It's almost not fair how cool they were!

Sure, the Ramones were a little geeky and awkward underneath it all, and they couldn't really play their instruments all that well, and their songs were really just loud, fast versions of slightly predictable tunes that, if you slowed them down, all sound a little bit like something by Bobby Darin. No, snobwinder, I'm not denying their place in rock history, as the forefathers of punk rock, blah blah blah. I'm just saying, they were such gooney misfits. And yet, how can you deny the Ramones?

Plenty of people did, as it turned out. The PBS documentary "End of the Century: The Ramones" (Saturday, April 30, on PBS; check listings) details every beat in their story, from the early days in Queens to their ultimate breakup, after more than 20 years together. Even though Johnny hated Joey and stole his girlfriend and married her, even though Dee Dee allegedly was a heroin addict and tried to be a white rapper in the '80s, even though the band eventually teamed up with Phil Spector and he allegedly locked them in and threatened them at gun point ... Through all of these hard times, the Ramones stayed together, endlessly shaking their long bangs in little clubs across the states while, in South America, they were bigger than the Beatles. (If you doubt their status abroad, don't miss the footage of kids throwing themselves in front of the band's van in Brazil or the members of the Clash recounting how they clamored to meet the Ramones back in the day.)

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Most of all, you'd assume that the guys who wrote "Rock 'n' Roll High School" would be a barrel of laughs to hang out with. Um, not really. Aside from their spirited antics onstage and the way they busted out style as if they were in a trance, it seems the Ramones didn't get along all that well and were always frustrated with their inability to reach a wider audience.

But then, what's better, reaching a wider audience and eventually selling your song to Old Navy for some tall dollars, or never reaching a wider audience and not having very much fun at all, but remaining perpetual icons of cool?

Commie chameleon
I think I have a pretty good guess which option monologist Josh Kornbluth would choose. His performance piece "Red Diaper Baby" (Sunday, May 1, at 9 p.m. EDT on the Sundance Channel) is all about suffering quietly in the dark for the sake of a greater good, whether it be to lead the communist revolution, or just to get laid.

I've always enjoyed Kornbluth's performances. At first I was forced to enjoy them, because I was dating his younger brother, Jake. And to be honest, in the beginning, I wondered how I could possibly make it through his entire monologue with the appropriate look of chuckly appreciation plastered on my face. I mean, do any of us really care to listen to another Jewish guy with a slightly jittery, nervous delivery, telling us about his crazy parents? We've read plenty of Philip Roth and seen every Woody Allen movie ever made. We know all about your crazy parents, guy!

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But trust me: Kornbluth's parents are a little different from the other crazy Jewish parents you've met, read about and/or loved dearly. When he's not torturing himself with his responsibilities as a future revolutionary, Kornbluth is suffering at the hands of his nutso communist dad or his wacko erotic-fiction-writing mom or her crazy crocheting friend who had a hankering for teenage boys (hell, who doesn't?). That sounds a little too exaggerated and zany, I know, but these people are quite clearly real: They're that palpable, unpredictable form of crazy that comes from being just overconfident and over-smart enough to basically choose how to see the world, utterly untethered to social norms. These are people who invent concepts, then treat them as unimpeachable truths -- sort of like the Old Navy advertising team, except without the pricey lunches. Or, sort of like the pope, except without the Vatican and the guys in red and the funny hats and the 2,000 years of privileged history. You know, just picture an old guy on the street, screeching at the top of his lungs about what happens when your worldview amounts to nothing but ego and desire.

And like any other good Jewish comic, Kornbluth is relentlessly self-deprecating and has a sense of the absurd, but he also has a very odd logic, and a strangely concrete, almost mathematical way of handling problems, like, say, when you're 17 and your mom's friend seduces you. Even though he's just one big, balding guy onstage for 90 minutes, you'll feel, in the end, as if you've lived another life, the life of a kid with crazy New York City communist bohemians for parents.

Money talks, bullshit squawks!
Of course, all of these heretics will naturally have you champing at the bit to create your own private dictatorship of relativism. But before you start drawing up plans, you're going to want to check in with those wacky dictators of relativism, Penn & Teller. Tonight is the premiere of the third season of their show, "Penn & Teller: Bullshit!" (Monday April 25, at 10 p.m. EDT on Showtime), so all of you card-carrying foul-mouthed, anti-establishment skeptics can relax and enjoy something on TV for a change.

Once you get over the fact that you're watching the two most openly anti-establishment types ever to be granted their own TV show, then you'll have to get past the nasty, dirty language that tumbles out of Penn Jillette's mouth throughout the entire show. (For those of you who watch "Deadwood" and "Six Feet Under," this shouldn't be too much of a challenge.) Then, you'll have to steel yourself against the steady flow of penis-themed jokes -- remember, they're talking about circumcision. You can't talk about circumcision without mentioning the penis! And finally, you may have to turn away when the elderly doctor pulls down his pants and demonstrates how he's managed to renew his foreskin by attaching weights to his -- you guessed it! -- penis. Also: Penis. Did I mention penis?

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The point is, Penn & Teller are brutally, unflinchingly honest. You may never see anyone on TV speak this honestly about sex, unless you're in Japan, or the Netherlands, or France or pretty much anywhere but here. Sometimes they're a little grating, true, and they're -- as they put it themselves -- "biased as all fuck." But this is actually somewhat refreshing, like when they marvel, directly to the camera, about what assholes the guest experts on their show are.

On the second show of the season, which takes aim at the supposed sanctity of the traditional heterosexual family, the duo addresses the oft-posed question of why, exactly, the so-called assholes agree to appear on the show at all, even though they know that they'll get called assholes. "We do not lie to them. We make sure they know all about the show," Penn says. "We give them copies of past shows, and it's always pretty clear which side of the issue we're gonna be on. The long answer is that people who come on this show generally consider themselves to be bulletproof. Most of them have never talked to anyone with a dissenting view and certainly no one with a real research team, like ours." Still, Penn says, they never take any of the assholes out of context.

As if to demonstrate, they next introduce us to Richard Cohen, who teaches people how not to be gay, so that they can marry someone of the opposite sex and have the families they've always dreamed of. Penn immediately refers to Cohen as "Dick," and when Cohen says that his book "Coming Out Straight" has been translated into four languages, Penn adds, "Oh, right. English, Bullshittish, Crapanese and French." So let's see, now: Challenges to conventional wisdom, profanity, irreverence, name calling and mean-spirited, juvenile jokes. Yes, that's right. "Penn & Teller: Bullshit!" will make human dignity disappear faster than you can say, "Let Mommy cop a little feel, monkey boy!"

In conclusion
You may feel at times like skinny little self-pitying Janu of "Survivor," stranded on an island with nothing but ego and desire to get through it all. But take heart in the immortal words of the prophet, outlined in Old Navy 3:42-43, "Hit this tunic, it's almost not fair!" Indeed, with all of the wondrous gifts given to you, your life is just like an Old Navy commercial ... except without the perky chicks or the yachts or the great background music or the brightly colored tunics or really, anything. Now let's check to see what you've learned.

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1. What would you rather be?

a. A shy boy raised by nutty communist bohemians
b. A linguistic scholar charged with translating "Coming Out Straight" into Crapanese
c. An uncircumcised penis
d. A Ramone
e. A disembodied pair of tits

Answer Key: 1. d

Next week: Are your vowel trays overturned and the like? Have you considered putting some stink on your johnson? Is "Deadwood" past hope, past kindness, past consideration? Tune in and find out!

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Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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