Search This Blog

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Dispatches From Jerry's Impossible Hallway

At the end of a long day, sometimes there's nothing better for comfort food than revisiting an old favorite sitcom or discovering a new one. In an age in which these shows can be conjured on demand and streamed one after the other, they can be as cozy as a warm throw blanket on a cold night. Familiar faces and situations greet you on the screen, making you laugh even though you've seen the episode before and know the punchline already. So ubiquitous is this form of media, and so universal in its influence since its first inception on radio programming nearly a century ago, that the weirdness of the format often flies under the radar. So it is with weirdness- sometimes the absolute weirdest stuff is woven into the very mundane. And so it is that we turn our gaze, through the lens of our strange spectacles, toward the television screen as a familiar theme song plays- snacks at the ready, we settle in for dispatches from Jerry's Impossible Hallway.

The format of the situation comedy, or sitcom, lends itself very easily to the blandest forms of banality. All that is required is a cast of characters who the audience expects to see carried over from one episode to the next, with consistent and predictable personalities. While many shows come and go quickly, failing to hit the mark with audiences, others become the stuff of legend. The most popular shows are celebrated decades after the airing of the final episode, influencing everything from language to cultural norms. In a previous post, I alluded to the subliminal effects of The Simpsons on myself and others of my general age group- in particular, that of Homer Simpson as a sort of archetypal everyman. Homer-isms have a way of seeping in, which may in part explain the dumbening of our society broadly- the childlike oafishness of the character stands as an exaggerated exemplar of all of us at our most foolish, emotive, lazy, and, well, American. Controversial at the time, Homer and contemporary TV dad Al Bundy of Married... With Children seemed to the more conservative viewers to be corrupting influences on the media landscape. The depiction of a "dysfunctional family" was jarring to those who preferred their TV dads and their respective families to be squeaky-clean projections of the ideal household, while at the same time more realistic and appealing to other viewers. The outward presentation of the idealized TV family is of course a façade, but is no less intoxicating for the viewer who falls under the spell of scripted familiar characters and live studio audiences. When the ugliness of real life intrudes, such as with the revelations about Bill Cosby's sex crimes, a real crisis ensues. Fans can no longer see Dr. Huxtable the same way ever again- a feeling of betrayal pervades, as though the fictional character and actor were known personally and found to be a wolf in sheep's clothing.

In the current era, media such as sitcoms is consumed in a different way, but the archetypal nature of the characters still finds its expression. Long before I had ever watched a single episode of Parks and Recreation, I was familiar with the character of Ron Swanson (pictured above) based almost entirely on memes and animated GIFs used on social media. Nick Offerman's character on the show, it seemed to me at the time, had a noticeable impact around the culture of food- particularly when it came to bacon. Suddenly it seemed to me that bacon was having a renaissance, and I couldn't help but feel like the fictional character from a wildly popular sitcom had a hand in it. Whether this is true, it's hard to say- but the memeification of these cartoonish representations of people and their foibles, quirks, and catch-phrases does have a noticeable effect on the public consciousness. These effects range from dietary choices, as in the Swanson example, to more profound and impactful social changes brought about by utilizing the bigoted characterization of Archie Bunker in All in the Family. In a subtle way, they become avatars of aspects of humanity, which invariably cycle back into a feedback loop creating the world in which we live.

There is an allure to the world in which the sitcom characters live, which we only glimpse through that missing fourth wall most of the time- but upon reflection, often it doesn't add up. Another product of the internet and social media age which impacts our collective understanding of the sitcom phenomena is the endless minutiae and conjecture from fans with too much time on their hands. Forums are littered with "fan theories" about shows, sometimes connecting one program to another; other times viewers dedicate time to pointing out continuity errors and problems with the set design. Such is the case with Jerry's hallway in the show Seinfeld- according to people who have clearly put a lot of effort into proving it, Jerry's hallway can't exist as it is shown based on how his kitchen is shaped. The door through which Kramer slides into the apartment, unannounced, thus becomes a portal to a non-Euclidean realm of warped dimensions. The city of New York in the Seinfeld-verse is populated by an odd assortment of memorable and wacky characters- Soup Nazis, close-talkers and hard-nosed library detectives. Some of them, like the aforementioned Kramer and Crazy Joe Davola* are based on real people- and of course, Jerry is playing a fictionalized version of himself.  George is an exaggerated version of series co-creator Larry David, who went on to play a fictionalized version of himself in Curb Your Enthusiasm. The feedback loop for the characters, amplified through our collective embrace of their enduring qualities, subtly erases lines between the fictions and the factual basis- not just of the people involved, but their beliefs, their settings, and their attitudes. Like that missing fourth wall which allows the camera and studio audience a glimpse into the sitcom universe, the liminal bleedover from the soundstage to our living rooms reconfigures our perception of reality, however subtly. More than 20 years after the final episode of Seinfeld aired, people still reference George's father's invented holiday Festivus when it comes around- and who is to say whether it will stay a joking observation, or whether it will one day be recognized as a legitimate holiday? At the time of this writing, Curb Your Enthusiasm is ending its run with David releasing a tongue-in-cheek farewell to the version of himself that appeared on the show, saying he's looking forward to "shedding" the malignant persona. "And so, 'Larry David' I bid you farewell. Your misanthropy will not be missed." He says he can now be reached at Doctors Without Borders where he will presumably be doing humanitarian work.

*RIP to Peter Crombie, who played Crazy Joe Davola. He passed away in January of 2024 at the age of 71. For those keeping up with the clown theme on this blog, his passing seems significant.

Jerry's 1990s New York and the mysterious architecture of his apartment building serve to illustrate the weird logic of sitcom universes, which follow rules specific to ratings, fan reactions, and continuity more than any type of "canon". For a "Show about nothing", it certainly had a lot going on. For any sitcom though, and for storytelling more generally, one must employ a willing suspension of disbelief. This becomes easier when the show is funny and well-liked, but even the best shows face this kind of scrutiny in today's world of online communities. When one starts thinking in terms of multiple universes, as physicists suggest might be the case, one wonders if these sitcom worlds could actually exist in an alternate reality. Conversely, if you're of the belief we all live within a holographic, artificial world, how would we know whether we were just characters on a screen with laugh tracks added on, playing out our lives for the amusement of some supercomputer? The Marvel series WandaVision plays with this concept, illustrating how unnerving such a reality might be from an outside perspective. Using her memories of sitcoms she saw as a child, she has a traumatic break from sanity- and uses her powers to construct the idealized sitcom world around her, effectively trapping an entire town within it. 

Thinking of any particular show as its own insular universe is one thing, but others take it further- insinuating that through a network of crossover appearances, many of the sitcoms and dramas on TV all occur in the same universe. What's more, they all stem from an extended daydream from an autistic child in the series St Elsewhere. This "Grand Unification Theory" of TV, known as the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis, was originally advanced by writer Dwayne McDuffie as a way to illustrate the absurdity in insisting on continuity and canon within both TV shows and comic books. The final episode of St Elsewhere, a medical drama based in Boston, reveals the whole series to have been a daydream from a patient with autism. Thus, the reductio ad absurdum argument goes, all connected shows must also have only been a daydream, extending off of the one in the series. The list includes Cheers, The X-Files, Homocide: Life on the Streets, The Bob Newhart Show, and even The Simpsons and The Critic. The hypothesis has taken on a life of its own, despite its original premise rejecting an insistence on continuity between franchises. He writes that cross-overs are fun, but obsessing over making sense of it all is silly.

Silly though it may be, it's fun to think about how these shows could overlap. Richard Belzer's iconic detective character, John Munch, has crossed over to more shows than any other. It's amusing to think of him as some cross-dimensional detective, almost MiB-like in his affect. Munch as a character shared similarities with the actor who played him; Belzer's signature comedic delivery and mildly paranoid worldview were worked into the scripts. Munch was everywhere for a time, it seemed- and the conspiracy laden lines he delivered in character were echoes of the real Belz who would release books on such subjects- a further amplification of resonant feedback looping.

Sometimes, it's not the characters that crossover and imply a shared universe but the props and products used. An example of this is Morley Cigarettes, notably the favored brand of the enigmatic, shadowy villain of The X-Files. Morleys have a history as a fictional brand, created to avoid advertising conflicts in the early 1900s for use as props on film. The Morley-verse thus encompasses The X-Files as well as The Dick van Dyke Show, The Walking Dead, The Twilight Zone, and movies such as Psycho. Detective John Munch would of course have at least visited this universe, as he appeared in character in one episode of The X-Files. One hopes that he fared ok in the zombie apocalypse which was to come...

These fictional worlds, however you want to look at them, offer a perspective of the era in which they are produced just as they inform and influence the culture which consumes them. Going back to the earliest days of really successful sitcom programming for television, there are some surprisingly spooky origins to it all. I Love Lucy stands as one of the greatest shows of all time, and Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz built a media empire off of it. It began, Ball has said in interviews, with her friend Carole Lombard coming to her in a dream and telling her to get into television rather than movies. Lombard had died in a plane crash in 1942- and regardless of what one believes about the supernatural, it's wild to think that such a huge piece of television history was at least partly inspired by something of a ghost. Ball also traces her family history back to women who were accused during the Salem Witch Trials. It is notable that iconic series such as Star Trek and Mission: Impossible directly owe their existence to Desilu Productions, but in terms of influence and setting of standards in TV programming much more of what we've consumed in the history of sitcoms rests with those early episodes of her show.

Likewise, The Honeymooners was a landmark show which similarly influenced generations of shows that followed. Jackie Gleason, who starred as Ralph Kramden, was very much interested in all manner of weird topics. He was especially interested in UFOs, and allegedly accompanied then-sitting President Richard Nixon to view retrieved alien bodies and craft specimens. He appeared on talk shows to discuss Flying Saucers, and had an immense library of books on the paranormal which are now archived at the University of Miami, in Florida. He even had a custom built house built in New York shaped like a flying saucer.

Of course, aliens are no stranger to the sitcom multiverse. My Favorite Martian, ALF, Third Rock From the Sun, and Mork and Mindy are all examples of sitcoms with lovable alien characters. Mork and Mindy was a spinoff of an alien themed episode of Happy Days, and even shows like The Golden Girls have episodes that at least reference UFO phenomena. The 1960s in particular had other weird subjects featured, in such shows as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, which in their own way introduced and normalized magic to audiences. The Addams Family brought to life the characters from comic strips by Charles Addams, which in turn inspired the repurposing of Universal monsters for the show The Munsters. These shows proved that even the spooky, kooky, and ooky among us can be loved by audiences, and perhaps they hinted at some of the weird origins of the medium. The enduring popularity of these shows in their recent adaptations prove that it's a message that still resonates, and continues to expand.

Regardless of the type of show, the era in which it first aired, or how you consume it, for many of us the sitcom is a form of escapism. Like the theme song to Cheers says, "You want to be where you can see / our troubles are all the same / you wanna go where everybody knows your name". Whether that's a basement bar under a restaurant in Boston or the idyllic town of Mayberry, whether it's in a paper sales office in Scranton or in an apartment in New York, we find comfort in these soundstage environs as much as we do on the couch from which we view them. Wouldn't you like to get away?




Saturday, January 20, 2024

The Spooky Side of Disclosure

 The word "spook", and by extension, "spooky", has a handful of meanings. For most people, the words would conjure mental images of the Halloween season and horror movies. It derives from a Dutch word meaning specter, apparition, or ghost, and has further cognates in Old German meaning ghost or hobgoblin. It has racial connotations as well, although its use as a derogatory term is rare these days. More commonly, in addition to the aforementioned paranormal association, the term can be applied to those working in espionage. Finally, in the world of quantum physics, the term again appears in common usage after Albert Einstein's description of entangled particles as "spooky action at a distance". These multiple definitions can all be borne in mind as we discuss the modern conception of Disclosure- a loaded term in itself, which can mean various things to different groups of people. Tangled and locked within the chains and padlocks of language and the cages of psychological association, the Truth, as it were, is obscured from our view. So it is, without further ado, we look to the King of Escape Artists himself as a historical example and avatar through which we might gain some perspective.

Harry Houdini is a legendary figure in the popular imagination. The name Houdini is nearly synonymous with magic and stage magicians, although he was many things in his life- and, for that matter, after his death. The name "Houdini" was one he adopted as a way of honoring the great French conjuror Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, when he made a claim for himself as the Handcuff King. His stage shows were characterized by elaborate death-defying feats, and were sensationalized by his audacious publicity stunts. He would challenge policemen around the world to try and hold him in a cell, and none of them could. He would dive into icy rivers bound in chains in front of a gasping crowd and emerge before their unbelieving eyes. He was said to be able to walk through walls, and famously made an elephant disappear on stage. He even managed to survive inside of a coffin that was submerged in a pool for over an hour and half. He demonstrated he could survive a punch to the gut from the strongest of men.

These aspects to Houdini are widely known, while others are more obscure. He was one of the earliest pilots, for instance, with only 24 men holding the distinction of being an aviator before him. He also made a series of films, and started his own motion picture company. One of them, The Master Mystery, is notable for containing one of the earliest depictions of a robot in a movie. In his films, he played characters such as Haldane, a Secret Service man. They were loaded with action and feats of derring-do, and some Houdini biographers have suggested there may have been a reflection of truth in them. William Kalush and Larry Sloman, authors of The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero suggest that he may have been involved in spying operations all over the world, using his cover as a performer to justify his travels and connections with important figures. At a time before intelligence agencies as we know them now existed, he may well have been a valuable spook.

In addition to all of that, he was also hailed (or hated, depending on your beliefs) as an arch debunker of mediums and paranormal phenomena. He traveled the country and challenged mediums in an effort to contact his dead mother, and found them all to be frauds. So dedicated was he to revealing the cheats and trickery of the séance room, he developed a small spy ring of his own- employing his niece Julia Sawyer and investigator Rose Mackenberg to infiltrate and expose congregations of Spiritualists. Mackenberg was particularly adept, and thumbed her nose by adopting pseudonyms such as Frances Raud or Alicia Bunk when attaining credentials within these organizations- one name slyly reading F. Raud, or FRAUD, and the other a slant version of "all is a bunk". 

  These activities culminated in Houdini appearing before a select committee of Congress, in attempt to pass an anti-fortune telling bill in Washington, D.C. The idea wasn't very popular because, as he revealed publicly, many of those seated within the Senate and House of Representatives regularly consulted mediums. Spiritualists even performed séances within the Coolidge White House, he claimed. In some ways, this raucous four-day hearing was the closest thing we've had to a Disclosure of the Spirit World- but the ghosts were not the spooks on trial. Houdini's argument had as its foundation that contact with the dead was impossible, necessarily implying fraud or delusion from those claiming to offer such services. The jeering mediums in attendance thought otherwise, as did many of the seated politicians- and the sitting President at the time was not happy with being dragged into it all. Houdini even offered up $10,000 to anyone who could prove their psychic abilities right there. Madame Marcia Champney attempted to claim the money, as she had been an adviser to Warren Harding's wife and made accurate predictions about the election and his death in office- and when this was declined, she predicted Houdini himself would be dead by November. This, of course, did come to pass- Houdini died on October 31st, 1926.

Mr Houdini Goes to Washington

The spooks that Houdini was after, however, may not have been of the spectral variety. In his investigations and with intelligence gained through his proxies, the methods employed by fraudulent mediums were concerning enough to constitute a national security issue. In some cases, employees of the "marks" such as maids and chauffeurs were paid off for information that would prove useful as proof of contact from beyond- and members of these psychic circles would share notes with each other. These same tidbits might well also work for blackmail or international intelligence gathering- something Houdini would have been keenly aware of if there's any merit to the speculation that he was a spy. Some, including the aforementioned Kalush and Sloman, would even suggest that Madame Marcia's prophecy was intentionally fulfilled through the arms of this "psychic mafia". The official story, as it were, is that the master magician's appendix was ruptured because of a botched attempt at his well-known punch to the gut feat. Was it intentionally botched? Were there shady figures at the hospital who sealed the deal? We will probably never know for sure, but the point here is that there are multiple dimensions to spookiness; when we oversimplify these narratives, we risk getting sucker-punched.

  Magic and espionage are so intertwined, one might make the argument that they are kindred arts. What may broadly be described as Occultism, to distinguish from the aforementioned stage magic, has overlaps with both in this multi-dimensional Venn diagram we are exploring using the limited bounds of language. Often cited as the first book on magic tricks, The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot is a sort of spiritual forefather to Houdini's testimony before Congress. Scot was seeking to demolish superstition by exposing the conjuring tricks of alleged witches, whose executions he found to be barbaric and un-Christian. Unfortunately for Scot, this didn't sit well with the King James VI of Scotland, who would go on to take the throne of England as James I. The King wrote a response in the form of his Daemonologie which asserted that witches were very real, in consort with the Devil and various demons. The witch persecutions continued under his reign, but not just for superstitious or religious reasons- Witchcraft, and the practice of magic, brought with it the subversive connotations of poisoners, upstarts, and potential political adversaries. In other words, Witchcraft had an espionage angle to it, which makes perfect sense when one considers that James I's predecessor, Elizabeth I, employed John Dee for both purposes. Dee's polymath credentials, which included his mastery of mathematics, astrology, cryptography, various sciences, and alchemy made him an ideal candidate for international travel and intelligence gathering. Signing his letters as "007", he is honored for his place within British spycraft in the James Bond franchise.  

Dee is also remembered for his contact with Enochian Angels through the medium of Edward Kelley. Just as mediums in the early 20th century channeled spirits, and as alleged Starseeds do today, channeling has its own niche within this framework. We see all of these elements converge within the UFO question. While much has been made, justifiably, of the influence of occult traditions such as Theosophy on the culture of UFOs, one might argue that Spiritualism had just as great or a greater effect- and everywhere along the way, spooky agents from intelligence agencies employed magicians of one type or another to misdirect, glamorize, and mystify the audience that is the general public. Houdini's Spook Disclosure may not have achieved the goal of passing any particular law, but what it did accomplish was much more profound and long-lasting. Public opinion began to turn from astrology, channeling, and superstition. The narrative had changed. By the 1980s the Reagan White House was embarrassed to admit to consulting an astrologer; society changed its mind on what it expected of its elected officials... and perhaps opened a portal for Flying Saucers to fill that void. 

To return to the present day, public opinion has turned towards an openness to the UFO, er... UAP mystery. It has also reached an all-time low in its expectations for its public officials, and crazy beliefs are the order of the day. Conspiracy theory runs rampant, and gets dumber all the time. One suspects that its only natural, given just the sparse examples outlined here. One might start a corkboard and draw bits of yarn once further examples are brought in. Venturing down the rabbit hole, all manner of dumb or insightful conclusions might be wrought considering Aleister Crowley's channeled text Liber al Vel Legis and the entity known as Lam, and Crowley's intersection with British intelligence. Further they might look into Jack Parsons, the connection to L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. Going down a different tunnel they might think of Houdini a little differently when they look into Project MK ULTRA, and the declassified C.I.A. Manual of Trickery and Deception, which includes a primer by close-up magic expert John Mulholland on uses of sleight of hand in espionage. Mulholland was also assigned to investigate the Kentucky Goblin case of 1955, though little is known about that. It makes you think, doesn't it?

One might venture down such rabbit holes, but one should also be careful about that crazy turn on the way to Albuquerque- and be mindful not to let that tunnel collapse and smother them. The point here is not to encourage leaps in logic, propinquity-based allegations or simplified conspiracy narratives. Though it has a dirty name now, conspiracy theory at its best is simply an exercise in connecting disparate bits of information as a way of matrixing the known reality, mapping out landscapes of the possible without pinning our beliefs so strongly that we detach from the remotely probable and enter the Wonderland of delusion. As Houdini's impassioned testimony swayed public opinion incrementally towards materialism, logic, and structure, so might others sway it in dangerous directions. An argument could be made that they already have. It behooves us as citizens of the world to employ critical thinking, even as we entertain that which has classically been portrayed as wacky beliefs. Voltaire warned that those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. In a world where QAnon has come to typify the current crop of conspiracy nuts, and patently insane theories like Tartaria and Flat Earth allowed to gain traction, it's really no surprise that at the time of this writing a man facing 91 felony charges in part for inciting an insurrection attempt is allowed, and encouraged, to run for office again. It's so normalized that prominent UFO figures like Whitley Strieber idly opine on social media about whether we'll get Disclosure from a man who openly says he'll be a dictator, and other "leading voices" in the Disclosure movement flock to right wing media outlets to talk UAP with racists.

Disclosure "activists" on social media often scoff whenever politics are brought into the conversation. Disclosure isn't political, they say- one assumes that their vision of what will happen when the government just admits that aliens are real, and we have their technology, the world will become a heavenly Utopia overnight. Perhaps they are simply very comfortable, unbothered and not threatened by an increasingly violent and intolerant ideology that masquerades as Christian American values. For anyone to have Disclosure as their biggest concern in the face of theocratic oppression and threats to the existence of marginalized groups seems a selfish and isolated position indeed. How does one entertain an optimism about Non Human Intelligence when the basic safety of actual Humans is at stake? 

On that same note, what makes the United States so special as to be the arbiter of truth on the subject? There's a weird strain of isolationism there as well, padded with a kind of patriotic hero-worship of government figures like Elizondo. Very right-wing politicians involved in the hearings are already conflating the UAP with angels and demons, a trend which has waxed and waned for as long as the Phenomena has been observed. When bible-thumpers align with military fetishists, and the UFO question gets rolled up within a model of the world that only focuses on the U.S. we risk a turn of the tide like that of James I's England with its witch hunts. The skeptical reader may think of this as an exaggeration, or a wild claim to make. It may be speculation, but it's based on historical precedent and doesn't necessitate the machinations of a conspiratorial cabal. It only needs human nature to do what it does when it falls under the spell of the zeitgeist. Mind control for the masses is much simpler to achieve and scarier, albeit slower, than its portrayal in media.  

These aspects, all of them, are connected in ways not visible at first glance. The spooky action entangles covert intelligence operatives to public opinion, the UFOs to stage magicians from long ago, and actual wizards to politicians on the campaign trail. Espionage, Occultism, and what may broadly be referred to as the Phenomena all have one thing in common- they are by definition secret. The spookiest thing about Disclosure is how ephemeral and undefined it is. It relies on phantoms, smoke and mirrors, liars and classified documents. It is itself a spook, some intangible specter which one tries to grab hold of but which always evades capture. So much of what disclosurists seem to pursue is illusory, and perhaps that's by design. Perhaps not. The thing about the greatest magic tricks, even those in mentalism, is that the mechanism behind it is so simple that if it were explained the average person wouldn't believe it could work. But it can, and it does. The presence of so many spooks, especially when it's the same ones over and over again, should be a warning that things are not necessarily what they seem to be...

To conclude on a more upbeat and wacky note- while the question of life after death, or of what UFOs are may ever remain unanswered to us mere mortals, what did Harry Houdini have to say about flying saucers? His death was a good 20 years before the modern UFO era began with Kenneth Arnold's classic sighting, but in the 1950s it is claimed that Houdini reached out From Beyond to answer that very question. A psychic named Henry Roberts claimed in 1952 that Houdini appeared before him to give him a message from the Space Brothers- one that should sound familiar to those who have read contactee reports before. The Saucers were a sign to abandon war, the atom bomb, and "general dissension that exists on the Earth plane". This message was relayed to Joseph Dunninger, a magician and friend of Houdini's, so that he could tell the world- which Roberts claimed was of the utmost importance to the ghostly Harry. Dunninger coincidentally held $10,000 for anyone who could relay the code from the deceased legend, which would prove the contact was real. Failing to relay the code, Roberts didn't get the money; but resulting from this report Dunninger recalled a night in 1950. At the home of the improbably named Miss Banana, a call came from his deceased friend that he should take the book Paper Magic off of the shelf and turn to page 113. On the page were circles, or disks of paper, reminiscent of flying saucers.

Spooky calls to Dunninger at Miss Banana's home and spectral Houdini failing to deliver the code aside, settling things down on the Earth plane sounds like pretty solid advice. We may never know the secrets, and many of them just aren't meant for public consumption. Solving the mysteries doesn't do us any good if we destroy ourselves in the attempt. Whatever your beliefs, political persuasions, or knowledge level, thinking critically, with empathy- and perhaps even humility- seems the only way forward that this writer can offer. With those things and a sense of humor, we can move mountains- and maybe get a little of that Disclosure, whatever that stuff is, along the way.