Tricksters in Myth and Reality
This week’s post celebrates the fifth anniversary of Wryly Coyote. I’d like to express my sincere thanks to my long-suffering webmaster, Obi-John Kenobi, and to my seven or eight readers. I do it all for you guys! Anyway, I felt that this occasion called for an appropriate theme.
In ancient mythologies the trickster plays pranks either on humans, the other gods, or otherwise disobeys the rules of conventional behavior. We find this being, or archetype, in most all ancient cultures. They’re always very clever, sometimes too clever for their own good. What I find intriguing is they’re usually associated with creativity, and even in the creation of mankind. In the Northwest U.S. it was Raven, in the Southwest it was Coyote. The Scandinavians had Loki, the fire deity (the one of the four ancient elements symbolizing creativity). Often their antics got them in trouble with the authorities, the chief gods. The trickster archetype is necessary in a healthy society, to question, or cause us to ask questions, rather than accepting things blindly. It can also represent the possibility of surprise or the unexpected, the opposite of order. A close relation is the clown or jester, about whom I wrote in “Clown Syndrome” (Archives, Sep 2013), the only one allowed to speak truth to power. The Trickster seems to exist inside and outside of time, of our world yet not of it. He was known to use unorthodox methods to survive obstacles and dangers; in other words, thinking outside the box.
The trickster spirit runs all through American history and folklore, going back to P.T. Barnum’s famous sign: “This way to the Egress.” People thought they were about to see yet another anomaly of nature, only to find themselves outside. I remember very well how my dad and I laughed at the hoax perpetrated in the 1960s by Alan Abel. He railed about animals’ nakedness, and that they should be clothed. He started S.I.N.A., the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, and using skillful conservative rhetoric, got much network publicity (despite the obvious contradiction in the group’s name).
Pranksters can also do the work of the Devil, represented in the context by the Republican Party. Nixon had Lee Atwater, who taught them how to couch their racism and bigotry in dog-whistle language. Another master of dirty tricks is Roger Stone, presently working with the Trump Campaign. Then there’s Kansas Secretary of State Chris Kobach, who has compiled a list of 35 million like sounding names — likely voting for Democrats — for different states to use for purging their voter rolls. A couple years ago James O’Keefe used heavily doctored video encounters with ACORN, an organization involved in helping the poor and minorities register to vote. ACORN was brought down. Last year similar heavily edited video of Planned Parenthood tried to accomplish the same thing. Republicans are forced to engage in these deceptions because all their ideas are bad ones, and it’s the only way they can ever win elections. That’s why all 33 states under their control have voter suppression laws, their solution to the imaginary voter fraud bogeyman.
Fortunately, there are more pranksters working on the side of good, Luke Skywalkers in the rebel alliance, foremost among them The Yes Men. They came in around the new millennium, and have taken the art of prankery to new horizons. They are Andy Bichlbaum (an alias) and Mike Bonnano (also an alias), and bill themselves as cultural activists. Along with a network of supporters, using fake websites and press releases, they pose as representatives of powerful entities, often to hilarious results. Their satiric targets are giant corporations’ greed and sociopathy. They once gave a professional power point presentation by which the poor could be fed recycled human waste. In 2009, posing as U.S. Chamber of Commerce executives, they fooled the National Press Club into allowing a press conference, where they outlined how the Chamber was revising their position and now support climate change legislation. The presentation was interrupted by a real guy from the Chamber who challenged them: “Show me your business card.” Andy, their usual front man, replied, “Show me yours.” They were sued, and were represented by the EFF, Electronic Frontier Foundation. Later the suit was dropped.
After Hurricane Katrina, they gave another fake press conference in New Orleans, where they debuted the Survivibal, a goofy looking suit making the wearer look like a white, morbidly obese grape with six hands (or maybe teats) protruding. Of course, they were so expensive only the wealthy could afford them. One of their more controversial stunts was an attempt to shame Dow Chemical on the twentieth anniversary of the Bhopal disaster. In 1954 a Union Carbide chemical plant blew up in Bhopal, India, killing over 5,000 and condemning another 100,000 to a life of pain and misery. Union Carbide gave no indication of paying reparations, and was later bought by Dow in 2000. Andy posed as a Dow Chemical official, promising to pay $12 billion to the victims. He even got a live interview on the BBC. Dow denied the whole thing, but it brought back the atrocity and irresponsibility of both companies. They were criticized by some, how could they callously give the victims false hope? Andy replied that the harm they may have caused doesn’t compare to the original crime, and many Indians agreed with and supported them.
I’m guessing these guys have an attorney or two on permanent retainer. There are laws against copyright and trademark infringement, but there’s also a legal right to parody. You can use a company’s logo in a parody; it’s called free use. I would classify the Yes Men as political theater, another subject on which I’ve written (see “The Value of Political Theater,” Archives, Mar 2012). There are three films by and about them; “The Yes Men” (2003), “The Yes Men Fix the World” (2009), and “The Yes Men Are Revolting” (2014).
Another group started about the same time. They are Improv Everywhere, a New York City organization founded in 2001 by Charlie Todd. He’d been taking classes from a performing group, Upright Citizens Brigade, where he got his inspiration. He calls his group’s activities “missions,” and the performers are “agents.” All missions are benevolent. Imagine you’re on a subway car, and at a stop someone gets on, but they’re wearing no pants. Another comes on, no pants, and another, and another. Then at a certain stop, someone gets on with an armload of trousers for sale. Or you’re enjoying a meal in a restaurant, and suddenly someone breaks into a Broadway tune, and is joined by others to form a fabulous musical performance. A group of groundskeepers drop their tools and become a troupe of skilled acrobats. Remember what I said in the beginning about one of the functions of the Trickster: to introduce the element of surprise, and the joy of the unexpected.
Charlie Todd explains his motivation: “I want to live in a world where magic can happen,” saying that what he does is “the greatest gig ever.” There are dozens and dozens of videos of their pranks on You Tube, each usually a few minutes in length. Look at the surprise and joy on the faces of innocent onlookers. Their ordinary, possibly humdrum day has just received a jolt of wonder and possibility. They’ll also have a helluva story to tell that night. If you want to check them out, I have a couple recommendations. “Ballroom Crosswalk” begins with pedestrians crossing a street, until music comes on and a guy and a gal do a great ballroom routine for a few seconds, and go their separate ways. This happens a half dozen times. My favorite so far is “Time Travel Subway Car,” involving increasing appearances of a twin of someone on the car, each claiming to be the future self of the other. They’re all agents of course, but it’s a very clever script.
There are other pranksters out there, plenty of them (I’m dismissing TV shows like “Punk’d,” basically “Candid Camera” for a new age. They’re tricks alright, but on a lower order, and I like them more high concept). A group called The Royal Stampede has a video, “Grandpa Dancing.” A young man pushes his ancient-looking grandpa’s wheelchair up to a stranger. Can you please watch him for a couple minutes while I run into the store? After the grandson leaves, gramps springs out of his chair and begins an amazing and acrobatic break dance, to the delight of all.
I wasn’t going to add my own experience, but what the heck. When I go to bed each night I like tuning into George Noory’s radio show, “Coast to Coast AM.” When it’s not boring me with ghosts, UFOs, or Bigfoot, it can be entertaining. This was Friday, April 1st, and George introduced the world’s only three-headed person. Walter, Elvira, and Bobo were born in Indianapolis, IN, in 1963, but now live in small town. They are greeters at the local Wal-Mart and everyone is used to them. I’m thinking, wait a minute. Wouldn’t the spine of the fetus have had to branch into three, each forming a head, each with a brain? That seemed pretty unlikely. I also kept in mind it was April Fools’ Day, but I listened on. Then Elvira sadly told us that a few weeks ago Walter, the middle head, had died of an aneurism in his sleep. Okay, this is bizarre. It was too late to turn on the computer, but I did so next morning. There they are, looking at us, Elvira on the right, very attractive. Walter’s head is hanging and lolling to one side, and it looks like the head is starting to, you know, decompose. Then I spot Bobo — and he’s a young black guy! Well, because their parents were bi-racial.
Why did I let myself get taken along on a ride when I knew better? I don’t think it was the freak factor, but my shared belief with Charlie Todd. I think back to “The X-Files,” and the poster above Fox Mulder’s desk: I want to believe. I too, want to live in a world where magic is possible.