I was in sixth grade when I started writing my pass-around-the-classroom colored-pencil-and-crayon humor magazine — if we agree to call six or seven sheets of stapled-together notebook paper a magazine — titled Reader’s Disgust. I took my inspiration (and much of my material, at least at first) from MAD magazine, from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, from The Saturday Evening Post, from the Steve Allen Show, and even from my mom’s trove of Better Homes & Gardens. Hey, I had a grade-school imagination (and a like audience), so I did what I could with the materials at hand.
My homeroom teacher Mr. Smith also read my magazine, but he was more bemused than amused. The most memorable thing Mr. Smith taught me in sixth grade was the meaning of the word plagiarism. After his admonishment to me about copying other’s material and passing it off as my own, I did try to produce more original content — but the name of my magazine, lifted from MAD (right), stuck for its 16-year life.
Over the rest of my school-years, it became clear to me that the road to nerd-acceptance was paved with jokes, especially those at the expense of authority figures like teachers and principals or mocking the rust-belt city we lived in. My magazine’s popularity was in no small part enhanced by the facts that (a) our small-town school was stiflingly boring and (b) the Reader’s Disgust was, by definition, contraband and thus carried an aura of taboo. I did let a few trusted high-school teachers read the magazine, but I have no idea what was ever said about it in the teachers’ lounge. That said, there was undoubtedly some talk.*
At any rate, when I retired from engineering and started writing this blog, I pretty much picked up where Reader’s Disgust left off in 1980. (Lest you wonder, by then I had long given up crayons and had moved onto ink splats, pages with torn corners, and poems that did not rhyme, clear signals of my artistic maturity.) Trouble is, The 100 Billionth Person did not start out with a captive, receptive audience of utterly bored high-school students; instead, my readership would comprise a handful or so of my and my spouse’s friends with, presumably, more refined tastes.
Bear with me for this tangent: I’ve always needed two reasons to be creative. The first is to entertain myself while at the same time imagining the adulation I might get from those who grok (yes, I used that 60s word!) what I create as much as I do. The second reason involves actually entertaining people without the ego-feeding element, i.e., creating good work for the sake and worth of doing so. This aspect is always a lot harder, at least for me, as it usually feels like work. But if I bear down, stick to business and do things carefully, the results are (well, sometimes, almost) as satisfying as raw adulation.
Often, my spouse (also my biggest fan) has encouraged me to do something to increase the size of my audience, because she apparently thinks I deserve a larger one. I have no idea what the something I could do would be, as I have no connections… but more importantly, I’ve decided that I’m OK with the way things are. A classroom-sized audience is probably best for me: it keeps things personal, and I’m comfortable. Why strive to be famous?
If I were famous, things would be a lot different around here:
★ I would have to hire an agent to find lucrative opportunities. My agent would insist on being paid. To pay the agent, I would have to run ads on this site and pay Google to invade your privacy. Then, bingo, you would be stalked everywhere you went on the internet. But I wouldn’t care, because I was famous. So that would sort of be bad.
★ I would have to be careful what I say. If I were famous and I inevitably said something the wrong way (and as we know, the definition of wrong is always evolving), I could get canceled. I would get hate mail. I would lose subscribers and advertisers. In other words, it would be just like now, except I would be famous and hated. That would be bad too.
★ Everything I ever said or did in the past would also be scrutinized. All those salacious details of my school years and professional career would be unearthed. (Plagiarism, you say? Aha!) While I would lose my core subscribers – sorry to see you go, dear friends! — the notoriety and unjustice of my situation would no doubt attract an anti-PC following, likely the very libertarians I now deride. I would get a call from Joe Rogan asking me to be on his show, or maybe just get together for an energy drink. I’d have to think about that.
★ I would have to develop my own line of luxe products and promote them on the blog. CHColors — designer crayons in trendy fashion shades. (Hot Dog Pink is the new black.) Flames ReLit — scented candles that automatically regift themselves as thank-you items. The 100 Billionth Bar — a chocolate bar sort of like the 100 Grand bar, only it would be a million times better, and much more expensive, because I was famous. All these items would feature the now-heavily-marketed logo of this blog along with a highly flattering near-likeness of me painted by a celebrity-turned-artist (Tony Bennett? George W. Bush?) done for me as a personal favor. I would return his favor by giving him a Flames ReLit.
★ If I were famous, only my closest friends would know my phone number; no one could just email me. (You kidding? Me read emails? That’s what an agent is for.) My network would be the people I meet at parties or promotional tours (boring!) or awards ceremonies (also boring but a great opportunity to virtue-signal) but that’s the way it is when you’re famous. Once you have a million followers, who cares about the 1,000,001st — as long as you all keep checking my Twitter feed and buying my stuff. That’s what friends are for.
When I add it all up, it’s much easier just being a legend in one’s own mind. I’m glad I’m not famous. Thank you for helping me stay that way.
* Now, the mandatory footnote to the story. The events took place in our high-school newspaper room in the Springtime of Eleventh Grade (wasn’t that a Schubert sonata?) as the latest issue of Reader’s Disgust was being circulated. The magazine had landed in the hands of our Clubs Editor, Saundra Chiarini, when the newspaper’s teacher-advisor Patrick J. Panella suddenly swooped in, snatched the magazine from her and headed out the door. Uh-oh, thought I, witnessing the Great Confiscation from just a few feet away.
I can’t remember whether it was that day or the next when I was called into to see Miss Jessica Jenkins, our high-school Guidance Counselor (who, as far as I recall, neither guided or counseled). Jenkins had obviously been assigned the task to (a) lecture me along the lines of, do you think this is funny? (uh, yes) and (b) inform me that I was fired from the newspaper staff. I remember having the temerity to ask her to return the confiscated magazine to me. I was denied. So someone out there has a valuable memento.
In retrospect, it seems Panella must have been tipped off, maybe by someone in the teacher’s lounge, but we will never know. What I do know is that my subversive activities cost me the National Honor Society Award that year (true), the stain of which darkened the rest of my life. Hey, I might have been famous.