Peak Bullshit: Getting Herky With Jerky

People, we have reached Peak Bullshit. I present to you this package of Jack Link’s Small Batch Handcrafted* Beef Jerky.

Several things about that: One, “small batch.” Along with “artisinal,” a term of increasing ubiquity and decreasing meaning, if any there ever was. For instance, an entire shopping rack of something professing to be of limited quantity found prominently displayed in one of the largest grocery chains in the country seems a bit of a stretch vis-a-vis small batchness. Further calling this notion of limited availability into question, the company, Jack Links, claims to be the “leading U.S. meat snack brand.” And you know how Americans love their meat snacks. Small batches will just not do.

But “handcrafted”? Before one pictures a lone yet rugged country farm hand tenderly stroking and pulling his sweet tendrils of beef flesh (or whatever; I’ve just made myself ill), please note the asterisk. Which is to say, the product immediately runs away from its own ad claim. However, trying to find the companion asterisk for the expected disclaimer proved suspiciously difficult. But when it was finally found — in nearly invisible ink almost off the package — there was only more confusion: “*Authentically prepared and hand selected.”

What the what? How does one claim relate to the other? An asterisk traditionally means to look for more information or a caveat. Aren’t all foods, nay, all products, authentically prepared? What does authenticity mean when we’re talking about beef jerky? Or is hand selection what qualifies the handcraft boast? Is to merely select something to also craft it? Meaning, somewhere in the factory a hand was involved? Pulled a lever, pointed a finger, flipped a bird? Who knows? Again, picture that lone, loving farm boy craftsman surrounded by his cherished shards of meat. Ah, can you smell the America?

And teriyaki flavor? Jack Links corporate PR says this small handcrafted batch “celebrates the brand’s rich heritage.” The company was founded in the north woods of Wisconsin in the 1880s, while Japan was barely coming out of its seclusion. Where, please, is this longstanding Wisconsin/Japanese flavored-jerky tradition? I’m generally a fan of the teriyaki, but this jerky flavor, however achieved, was not entirely apparent.

But is there really a market for upscale beef jerky? Or, to put it in the current lingo: Are there opportunities in the jerky space?

Perhaps so. My cat likes it.

That Was the Year That Was: 1995

Was going through my storage locker and found my datebook from 1995. I’m pretty sure I have datebooks from even farther back in history, all in boxes that I’ve been paying a monthly fee to keep safe and secure. Almost since 1995. Sigh.

Instead of doing the sensible thing and just tossing this relic out, I opened the pages to see what I was doing 20 years ago.

Rehearsals and gigs, mostly with my oldies band. Some visits to friends in New York City. I reviewed a lot of comedy shows for the Washington Post. And days and days — and a couple solid weeks worth — of video shoots for The Learning Channel show, Neat Stuff. Almost none of which was used. That’s another story.

Here are some highlights, as best I can tell from my horrible handwriting.

Jan. 7
“7:30 Ken Cen.”
I think this was some kind of Latino multi-culti performance art thing I was reviewing for the Post. There were songs about how the word “Hispanic” was insulting. Other than being mostly confused, I enjoyed the show.

Friday, Jan 13.
Jake Johannsen Comedy Cafe.”
For some reason, the Post really liked Jake Johannsen. I was sent to review him three times. I like Jake, too. But it’s no reflection on him to say that finding something fresh to write for that third review was pretty tough.

Jan 22
“Film Pat Rehearse”
My friends Pat, Jeff, and Dick sold a TV show to The Learning Channel, back when that network was actually about learning. I was offered an equity share, which I declined because I thought nobody is gonna buy a show about crazy toy collectors. I was wrong, but they were kind enough to bring me in as one of the players in various skits about collecting, which is how I came to ride in the Weinermobile. So my bucket list is pretty much complete.

Wednesday, Feb 1
“Improv 8:30”
No idea who. Back then, there were several comedy clubs, the Improv being one of the newer spots. And now basically the only comedy club in town.

Feb 10
Jeff Foxworthy Warner Theater”
I do not remember this.

Feb 17
Kevin Meaney Comedy Cafe.”
I do remember this show. Very funny fellow, Mr. Meaney. Whatever happened to him? I do remember the Comedy Cafe, which I kinda liked, even though the layout was ridiculous. Tiny, long, thin room on the third floor of a rowhouse on K Street. The stage was in the middle of the room, facing a mirror on the opposite wall, so performers would be staring at themselves all night. And the ceiling was low enough that acts could reach up and touch the acoustic tiles. The place was much like the Grog & Tankard. But a lot of good comics played there. And after the show, you go down one flight to the strip club. Or so I heard.

Sat March 4
Rich Hall Comedy Cafe.”
Another very funny fellow who dropped out of sight.

Friday March 24
Steven Wright Lisner.”
And yet another singular voice we don’t hear from enough anymore.

March 25
“Howard U”
Not sure what this was.

April 24
“MPAA film 10:30”
No idea what movie I was reviewing, but I will say that the Motion Picture Association of America screening room is a lousy place to watch motion pictures. Irony, eh? No popcorn, no ambiance. Plus, screenings are early in the morning. One reason critics hate so many movies is that they have to endure such crummy presentation.

May 13
“Headliners 8:30.”
Headliners was one of the other comedy clubs in the area. Was it at the Bethesda Holiday Inn? Greenbelt?

May 29 to April 7
“Pat shoot”
Pat is Pat Carroll, the noted cineaste, Travesty Films founder, and co-creator of Neat Stuff. We shot hours of comedy material for Neat Stuff and almost none of it was used. As I said, that’s another story.

August 3
Hoyt Curtin
Interviewed the man who wrote the Flintstones theme song, the Jetsons theme song, the Johnny Quest theme song — all of the great Hanna-Barbera music. Lovely man. Shame on me because I never got around to publishing it. Still have the cassette tape. Must transcribe.

Sept 1-3
“Neat Stuff.
Wasted time.

Sept 29
“Rosie 7pm KenCen.”
Rosie O’Donnell. I was reviewing for the Post and the pressure was on, as Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn were seated a few rows ahead of me.

October 8
“Write Chappelle”
The Post assigned me to interview Dave Chappelle as the once-local comic was starting to catch fire. Caught his show at the Comedy Cafe, the place where he first got onstage. His mother and grandmother were in the audience, which did not seem to impact his material. After the show, we had a rather rambling conversation in the stairwell. I’m not going to suggest that Mr. Chappelle was totally stoned, but, uh, yeah, Half-Baked.

The day after I turned my piece in, the Style section ran a full feature on the other black comic from D.C., Martin Lawrence, So my piece ran later in the week, trimmed extensively. A not uncommon occurrence when the paper was so large that one desk didn’t seem to know what the others were doing. Once I was assigned to review Lewis Black, another once-local funnyman. I spoke with him on the phone during the day, then found myself seated at the Improv next to a Post reporter who was doing a full profile of the man. As she was a staffer, I knew I was out-ranked. So I enjoyed the show — great seeing Black spew spittle at such close range — and gave her a ride home. My review never ran.

Oct. 27
Bill Maher Improv.”
I had recently read Maher’s funny book, True Story, which is a roman á clef about the comedy boom of the ’80s. After the show, I asked him if he was going to write another. He snorted, saying, “Too much work.”

Saturday, Nov. 4
This may have been my second Bill Cosby review, at the Kennedy Center. The first was his appearance at GW, just as the first Iraq war began. The second was shortly after his son was killed. Both times, Cosby allowed those elephants in the room to slumber until the very last moment, when he finally offered some of his typical professorial, paternal, Cosby-esque comforting words.

And now…

And now saying his name brings no comfort. On Twitter, Judd Apatow has been leading the charge to bring Cos to justice. (Marc Maron talks with Apatow on his latest WTF podcast and it is absolutely worth a listen.) My former colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates penned a brutal essay about Cosby. Coates and my former editor David Carr also chimed in. Along with every damn person on social media.

And I keep getting madder and sadder, at the same time.

I get mad at the people who seem so eager to attack Cosby because unlike them I grew up with the comedian. I don’t feel that they know him like I do. They don’t have the right to judge. It’s easy outrage.

But, uh, thirty-three women….

But I knew Cosby long before he both saved NBC and restored the sitcom format with The Cosby Show. Back when Cosby was merely a comedian, though he was never “merely” a comedian. I go back to elementary school with Bill Cosby. I spent many an afternoon as a kid, sitting on the floor at Scott Miller‘s house, or Mickey Hager‘s house or my own living room, listening and laughing to “Noah,” or “Why Is There Air?” or “Wonderfulness.” Then came I, Spy, which was almost as cool as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Bill Cosby was not only one of the funniest people alive, but also the coolest. He hung around the Playboy Mansion, he dug jazz, he had style. He was a champion for the African-American cause, donating millions to Temple University and Spellman College. What’s not to love?

Cosby was a hero, a comedy hero, a role model. Watch him in Jerry Seinfeld‘s film Comedian. Toward the end of the film, Seinfeld makes a pilgrimage to the master and we see Cosby sitting, in very unflattering light, looking like both Buddha and Yoda. Which, in comedy circles, he was.

But apparently he was also a serial rapist of the worst sort. Not that there’s a best sort of rapist, but Cosby seems to have been particularly heinous.

And there is no excuse. Thirty-three women can’t all be wrong. And to admit that is to toss not only Cosby, but so many of my happy childhood memories under the bus. Deep under the bus. Is this how children of criminals feel? “I love you, dad, but you’re a horrible person so stay in jail?” Like I said, mad and sad, but mostly sad.

Anyway, let’s wrap up 1995.

Friday, Dec. 1
Richard Lewis 10:30.”
The late show Friday is notorious among standups as being just the worst. I won’t say Lewis was phoning it in at this Improv show, but he did have lots of legal note pads and kept checking and reading from them. I’ve always enjoyed Lewis and his hyper-neurotic performing style. In 1978, I was in the audience at the Improv in Los Angeles for the taping of Lewis’ cruelly forgotten late-night TV movie, Diary of a Young Comic. (Featuring a terrific theme song by Loudon Wainwright III.) It’s only available as part of a Richard Lewis box set, but I wish it were available on its own.

Writing the standup reviews was a trying task. The shows were usually enjoyable, but the deadlines came quickly after the lights came up. In addition to the pressure of trying to find a couple hundred intelligent words to type, I had to send copy to the desk using ancient dial-up technology. Maybe not even a 14.4 baud modem. The DOS text had to be formatted in a particular way, with indents and double carets at the end: >>. Or maybe: < <. I had a bulky Toshiba laptop and I'd unplug the telephone and plug the line into the computer and call up a strange telecom program, type some codes, and whisk my words away into the aether. The next morning, there was my byline in a great metropolitan daily.

Good times.