Tommy Wiseau, Charles Hinton, and the Non-Existance of Ironic Joy
Most of you are probably familiar with Tommy Wiseau, auteur behind The Room.
The Room is a fascinating piece of work. It’s become the defining version of the “so bad it’s good” type of thing. Loads of people come out to midnight showings, throw spoons at the screen, and engage in the sort of shenanigans normally reserved for screenings of Rocky Horror.
I didn’t think it was possible to have a “so bad it’s good” experience with books. I thought that books required too much buy-in, too much participation. Books are difficult to enjoy while you're really, really drunk.
Then I found Charles Hinton, the Tommy Wiseau of books. And now, I believe.
A Cold One
Let’s dive right into one of Hinton’s books. Full title: Agent Cold Beer On Assignment (Live It Up Mr Beer Book 2).
Beer, three-hundred pounds of muscle and fat, standing six feet tall in his late thirties was a former bouncer, a truck driver, and a security guard. Now he was a secreted agent for the government. Action, drama, adventure, humor.
300 lbs of muscle and fat. Aren't all of us some total amount of those two things? Isn't it the ratio that's really descriptive? There are a lot of people who weigh the same amount as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. It’s just that pesky muscle/fat ratio that makes most of us less eligible to relaunch the Baywatch franchise.
Normally I don't like to do plot summaries as a review, but the naked facts of Agent Cold Beer On Assignment (Live It Up Mr Beer Book 2) are necessary to explain the book’s greatness.
Here we go.
Beer (the agent, not the beverage) is tasked with taking down Jack Knife Joe, a guy who operates a bar where he holds a monthly beer drinking contest, the winner of which receives $1,000 and free drinks for a month. Jack Knife Joe, in a scheme that can only be described as either VERY complicated or MASSIVELY stupid, always wins his own beer drinking contest, pays himself $1,000, and drinks for free for a month.
Let me reiterate: Jack Knife Joe sets up a contest where the winner gets $1,000 (of Jack Knife’s money) and free drinks (from Jack Knife’s bar) and then Jack Knife wins his own contest month after month. All logic would dictate that this is, at best, a zero sum game.
Nonetheless, Agent Cold Beer is called upon to put the kibosh on Jack Knife Joe's scam. If you're skeptical about what the government has been up to in our reality, imagine a world in which a secret agent is tasked with stopping a small town scammer who's destined to be brought down by his own bad business sense inside of six months. Imagine manpower and spy gizmos being deployed to stop this non-problem.
Oh, did I forget to mention the gizmos? There are gizmos. Courtesy of Shorty.
Shorty is the Q of the Agent Cold Beer universe, the Beerniverse, if you will. Shorty arms Beer with:
Beer Can Grenades: A six-pack of grenades that look exactly like beer cans. Armed by pulling the tab.
A Knife That Shoots Bullets: Contrary to what you might be picturing, this works by the user holding the blade of the knife (which isn’t sharp), pointing the handle at the target, and firing. I think what’s most important to note here is that this is not a gun disguised as a knife and is never referred to as such. It’s a “knife that shoots bullets.”
A Recording Cigar: A cigar that records audio when lit.
Multiple Bulletproof Jean Jackets: One white, one blue, one brown, one black.
Beer then uses exactly none of these devices to win Jack Knife’s drinking contest. Which is the big scene, kinda what this whole story is building to, and it lasts for all of two sentences.
At this point the story meanders a bit. Beer has sex with a waitress near his trailer home, which explodes because Jack Knife’s goons accidentally open a beer grenade. Some cops hit Beer on the ass with their nightsticks. The recording cigar comes into play somehow. Not important.
What IS important is that Beer and Jack Knife Joe sign a contract that says Beer and Joe will have a knife fight, and the winner will get the bar forever. The legitimacy of such a document would be suspect if you weren't already reading about a guy wearing a brown, bulletproof jean jacket.
Jack Knife figures this plan is foolproof because, hey, he’s called Jack Knife Joe! Of course he’ll win a knife fight.
They square off, and then Beer shoots Joe with the knife that shoots bullets. Beer wins the bar, and he changes the name to “Beer Rock And Roll Place.”
In the end, Beer reports back to his supervisor, who gives him another assignment.
Beer: What's my new assignment?
Boss: I'm going out of town for a week. Your assignment is to babysit my nine kids.
What Is Love?
I love Charles Hinton. But I’m not totally sure why.
Many people would say I’m enjoying Charles Hinton ironically, and that might be true. But what if it’s NOT true? What if I don’t believe in ironic love?
Does anyone marry their partner out of ironic love? A love that’s really a sneering, mocking sort of thing? “Wouldn’t it be totally lame/awesome if I married this person?”
Does anyone have a favorite food that’s pure irony? A dish that tastes terrible, that they would never eat on their own, but that they claim to love because it’s so bad?
If people enjoyed things ironically, wouldn’t this work in ways other than comedy? Wouldn’t someone enjoy The Room ironically, recognizing it as a failure and then finding deep pathos in the fact that Tommy Wiseau, who is clearly passionate and trying pretty hard, is incapable of expressing himself on screen in such a way that his message can be received as he originally intended? It never works that way, ironic reception of art coming across as an ironic sense of sorrow, anger, or anything but joy.
If the definition of receiving something "ironically" meant that you received it in a way other than it was intended, or that it had an effect on you other than what was intended, wouldn't that mean that my boredom during Transformers: Revengeance Of The Moonstruck was ironic? I'm certain the intent wasn't for me to be bored, but that's how I felt. If I was aroused by a rewatch of the 90's Spider-Man cartoon, would that arousal be ironic? Hydroman was ripped, but I think it's fair to assume that it was outside the project scope of that particular cartoon to arouse a 30-something man in the year 2017. If someone prepared me a nice bowl of clean, wholesome quinoa, and if that quinoa made me super gassy, would I be farting ironically?
Nope. I'd be genuinely bored by Transformers. I'd be genuinely passing gas (it's the only way I know how to pass gas).
It's only joy that is branded ironic. Which makes me think this whole "enjoying something ironically" thing is a bunch of nonsense.
The Japan Assignment
There is another book in the Agent Cold Beer series, and its full title is Live it up, Mr. Beer (The Japan Assignment) (Agent Cold Beer.). While normal titling conventions would suggest that The Japan Assignment is the first book, the description reads:
AGENT COLD BEER IS BACK AGAIN, BUT THIS TIME IN JAPAN. HE ON A MISSION TO DESTROY THE BAD TEMPER NINJA, ACTON, DRAMA, ADVENTURE, HUMOR.
Agent Cold Beer is back, which means this is the second book, right? Because in order to be “back” one has to be “here” at some point.
This book felt a little like Charles Hinton took a trip to Japan and wrote it off as a business expense. As "research" for his next novel. Is that possible? Could this be the greatest scheme of all time, indie writers doing super-short Kindle books and then using them as a way to write off travel expenses? If that’s possible, I have to applaud Mr. Hinton. It’s a damn good scheme.
Most of the book is unimportant, “importance” being a slippery concept in this case, but it picks up steam when Beer kills his mark, Bad Temper Ninja, using a Conan-style broadsword. Which, it turns out, is actually a shotgun in disguise.
The lesson learned from Beer, for the second time, is never bring a knife to a gunfight. Instead, bring a knife that’s really a gun to a knife fight.
Epilogue: Beer flies back to the States in a private jet with a naked stewardess who brings him chicken nuggets, peanuts, and beer.
The Irony of A Fish In The Nuts
Maybe what we tend to call ironic love is more like the joy derived from this:
This is from a video of a guy water skiing, and a fish jumps out of the water and tags him right in the nuts. I saw this video, and I laughed.
I have to assume the guy didn’t set out to have a fish jump right into his testicles. I have to assume he didn't set up a camera intending to record that. But then it happened.
I have to assume that Tommy Wiseau didn’t set out to make people laugh with The Room. But laugh they did. Same thing for Charles Hinton.
There's a simplicity to the funniness behind something like The Room, a potent combination of absurdity and reality.
When something absurd happens organically, there’s a lack of construction. There's no laugh track, no narrative build to a joke, no space for anyone to gauge the joke as successful or not.
If this same clip of a guy getting hit in the nuts by a fish was from a Ben Stiller movie, it wouldn’t be funny. Because it wouldn't be real. When a clip on America's Funniest Home Videos was staged, it was never as good as the clip of a hapless dad falling off the roof. Because that hapless dad was real. A real rapping granny, if that was your grandmother, she would be funny. But the staged concept of a rapping granny isn't funny.
Absurdity alone doesn't make something funny. Absurdity + Reality = Comedy.
Something absurd is ONLY funny if it's real.
Charles Hinton's books are absurd, and I suspect they're real. Which, according to my (highly unprofessional) math, makes them funny. Not ironically funny. Actually funny.
Other Hits From Hinton
Charles Hinton has a couple dozen titles available. The adventures of Beer just scratch the surface.
Here are a few others.
The Billion Dollar Lottery
The book that best asks the question, Is Hinton a comedic genius or not?
"Son, get my life savings out of the closet."
"You mean the hundred pennies in the jar?"
Get Him Off ATTORNEY AT LAW
You thought the Twinkie defense was outrageous? What about defending your client, a shooter who killed a nun in broad daylight after shooting her, by saying the shooter was merely trying to kill a bat that was hovering above the nun when he lost control of his gun, and the gun went off on accident? Nine times.
The Racist Time Traveler
A professor decides to quit his job, buy a tractor and convert it into a time machine so he can live happily in the pre-Civil-War era. This guy REALLY dislikes black people.
Are the professor's motives impossibly flawed and stupid? Absolutely. Is it brilliant or stupid to convert a tractor into a time machine rather than building one from whole cloth? I don’t know. Does he get his comeuppance? Boy howdy.
Good And Bad Are Constructs
I think that we tend to like stuff or not. We like a piece of art or we don’t. We like a song or we don’t. And then we reverse-engineer the reasons why.
We take something we feel subjectively and then come up with objective reasons we love it. Because we feel like we have to justify our love (Madonna!).
The enjoyment of a Charles Hinton or a Tommy Wiseau is genuine. It's when we try to explain that enjoyment that we get into the idea of irony. Because enjoying something, that's difficult to explain. If you asked me to explain why a video of a fish hitting a water skier in the nuts caused a physiological reaction in me (laughter), I couldn't begin to explain the base mechanics. I don't even know HOW that works, let alone WHY.
Likewise, I can't explain why Charles Hinton is great. Or Tommy Wiseau.
All I can really say is that laughs dubbed "ironic" and laughs dubbed "real" sound a hell of a lot alike. They sure feel a hell of a lot alike.
Those laughs sure seem real to me.
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