Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
This piece was performed on January 7, 2017 at The Green Mill for The Paper Machete, a weekly live magazine featuring writers, comedians, musicians, and a host of other artists commenting on current events and other topics.
To my great delight, this was also an afternoon that I was fortunate enough to share a bill with Janeane Garofalo, whose work on stage and screen I’ve been a fan of since my teenage years.
Everything is science fiction until it becomes science fact, so imagine that you wake up on the couch one morning, your mind still foggy from rum cocktails and half-binged Netflix Original Series, to find yourself looking at the oscillating exterior of a large, translucent bubble.
Because it’s early and you haven’t had your cup of coffee yet, it feels like the right decision to reach out with your fingers and touch the bubble. It ripples and pulsates gently, with a low glissando hum that sounds like a college a cappella group rehearsing an ill-advised medley of new jack swing ballads. You push harder. The wall of the bubble resists. You push again, and now your hand has gone through the bubble, which does not burst but simply re-forms around your wrist. Like all such decisions, going in for a penny is followed swiftly by going in for a pound, and now you’re plunging your arm in past the elbow, past the shoulder; you’re pushing your other arm through the bubble and you hesitate for a fraction of a second before your face, your chest, your legs, and the rest of you have gone through the barrier.
And it’s still your living room, but you know this isn’t your living room. You feel it in every nerve ending; your eyes perceive the air through a polarizing filter. This is new. This is alternate. You half-smile as you wonder which alternate this is, if this is the one where the South won the Civil War, or the one where the first plague rats died in a fire, the ones where Castro was a better ballplayer and Hitler a better painter. You stand in the living room of the apartment of the universe next door, waiting to live out every Sliders fan fiction you never sat down to write.
Except the sad truth about multiverse theory is this: It isn’t an art gallery. You don’t get to curate the most interesting realities and then walk from frame to frame, admiring the use of color and light. If you accept the idea that one might exist within an infinite number of timelines you also have to accept that an unknowable number of those timelines provide you with nothing worth experiencing. This isn’t the reality where Christopher Columbus dies of dysentery halfway across the Atlantic. This is the reality where Joey Mackintosh, a 25 year-old auto mechanic in Erie, Pennsylvania, decides to buy a Big Mac instead of a Quarter Pounder for lunch on August 11, 1986.
And absolutely nothing else about it is different.
After all, not every butterfly in Venezuela flaps its wings and produces a tsunami in Japan. Sometimes a butterfly flaps its wings and is promptly devoured by a passing sparrow.
But for this moment in our speculation let us be generous with ourselves—let us say that the reality you stepped into when you emerged through the mysterious bubble in your living room includes a change that is noticeable, even if not especially dramatic. This could be the reality where a lace Roman Originals dress was in fact white and gold. This could be the reality where a pair of noted children’s authors really spelled their names Beren-S-T-E-I-N instead of Beren-S-T-A-I-N. Or this could be the reality where stand-up comedian David Adkins, better known by the stage name Sinbad, appeared as a magical genie in a light little comedy titled Shazaam.
In our reality, there is no such movie. There is instead a film called Kazaam, in which erstwhile Los Angeles Laker and present-day deodorant pitchman Shaquille O’Neal plays the titular character, a 5,000 year-old genie who has been trapped inside an abandoned boombox. Through a series of misadventures, Kazaam helps a lonely young boy reconnect with his mother and father, while beginning a rap career, finding love, and slam-dunking a villainous nightclub owner into a garbage disposal. I myself have never seen the film, but now that I have read its synopsis I doubt I will ever forget it.
Yet for the past month one of the internet wildfires du jour has revolved around this question of which universe we live in, the one in which Sinbad starred in Shazaam or Shaq in Kazaam. A cursory glance at debates on Reddit or Twitter reveals a diaspora of emotions, from indignance to amusement to outright panic as people interrogate their own memories, as they try to understand how their brains executed an act of gaslighting upon itself. They do research that meets the basic requirements of doctoral studies; they are buffaloed time and again by mischievous Photoshop; they find themselves traveling the five grim cobblestones of the Kubler-Ross grief spectrum. Some of them discover they’ve been given a harsh lesson in their own prejudices, as it occurs to them how many years they may have spent confusing one distinctive black man for an entirely different yet no less distinctive black man.
Meanwhile, in the Shazaam reality, one can imagine the denizens of that alternate internet are having the same crises of faith in the opposite direction. One can imagine this because the heart of this nightmare is not about which mid-90s vanity project was undertaken to squeeze every last possible dollar out of a popular celebrity brand. The heart of the nightmare is about the death of one’s certainty, the brash and confident voice in your head that ever insists it knows true north. The Shazaam/Kazaam argument may feel slight and inconsequential on its surface, but it has arrived within a zeitgeist of fake news and false promises, an era of opinions stated as facts and facts derided as opinion. It is not only shattering to discover that a movie you believed you saw never existed, it is shattering to discover that such a revelation about a movie one barely cares about could be shattering at all.
Because what happens to you when something that is important to you—the reasons you had for voting a certain way, for reacting with aggression, for supporting positions that resulted in harm to others—what happens to you when you discover these didn’t exist either?
What reality would you wish to live in then? What choices would you wish you had made instead?
And who will the genie look like, when you make those wishes?