Few would dispute that the worker-drones in the contemporary entertainment industry have become exceedingly lazy. In the old Hollywood factory system, the movie studios cranked out hundreds of titles a year, fare that ranged from ornate costume epics to one-reelers featuring schnauzers in pie fights. If a shoot was behind schedule, all concerned simply grabbed a handful of Benzedrine from the big Benzedrine jar by the front gate and made sure they didn’t sleep until the premiere. Now we are supposed to be impressed that it took ten years to create the wonder of Avatar, or grateful that Jennifer Aniston descends from her Malibu compound each solstice to unveil that year’s romantic-like approximation of comedy.
The situation is equally bad in television. The standard order for a season used to be 32 episodes. At some point this got whittled down to 28, then 26, then 22. In the time it takes a current TV writer to wake-up, walk over to Starbucks, call his agent, pick through some melons and kale at Whole Foods, and then finally sit down at his computer, Rod Serling would have churned out a half-season of The Twilight Zone. Sure, he dropped dead at 51, but his legacy is The Twilight Zone, not 2 or 3 episodes of CSI: Doesitevenmatteranymore, but the entirety of a world beyond time and space.
Still, one might ask, isn’t it better to focus on a few high-quality projects each year rather than simply strip the gears on a conveyor belt of crap? Isn’t it better to have 10 episodes of John Adams or Treme rather than 32 episodes of Alf?
No…it isn’t. And here’s why.
One of the few benefits afforded by the mass production of culture is the opportunity for odd, bizarre, and otherwise demented “filler.” If a production company must by contract cough up 32 hours of television each year—even if one hour involves little more than all the characters sitting around remembering clips from the previous 31 hours—there is almost an iron-clad guarantee that at least one or two of the episodes will go off the rails in some interesting fashion. Remember when Beaver Cleaver made friends with the son of the garbage-man, causing June to freak out about class-mixing and the possibility of junkyard rat bites? Or when Kramer accidentally mocked the Puerto Rican Pride parade on Seinfeld? Or when Danny Bonaduce joined the Black Panthers on The Partridge Family? None of these jaw-dropping moments in our televisual heritage would have been possible without the crushing demands of sheer volume. Each required a harried producer or show runner to look at his watch and say, “To hell with it….I have Dodgers tickets for tonight. Just get it in the can by next week.”
The Beatles’ White Album is another great example. The White Album is at once 100% genius and 50% crap. How can that be? The 50% crap—"Rocky Raccoon," "Honey Pie," "Wild Honey Pie," "Bungalow Bill," etc.—helps put the genius of "Prudence," "Long Long Long," "Cry Baby Cry," and "Helter Skelter" into relief, serving as a type of sonic compost that allows the brighter flowers to flourish. If you simply edited the record down to one disc—excising this “filler”—it would be a great elpee, but lost in the surgery would be the fascinating documentation of an increasingly dysfunctional band commiting every half-assed idea to tape and hoping no one would be too embarrassed in the end. How else would that creepy song about McCartney’s dog ever have seen the light of day?
And so it is with comic books as well. Imagine you are a young man living in the greater New York City area in the late sixties. As a staff writer/artist for Eerie publications, you are charged with the responsibility of generating monthly content—not only for Eerie Comics—but also for all the other jewels in the Eerie crown: Terror Tales, Weird, Tales of Voodoo, etc. Thirteen-year old boys across the nation are depending on you, waiting eagerly at the Five and Dime with their bubblegum money in the hopes you will shock and/or spook them for an hour or two.
A year into your job, you’ve plagiarized just about everything you can remember from Poe, Lovecraft, and assorted Victorian ghost stories. There are few bloody folktales, urban legends, or B-movie monsters that have yet to appear in the magazine. But the July 1969 issue of Witches’ Tales is fast approaching deadline and you need five more pages, only five more pages. “The Telltale Spleen?” Nope, did that a couple issues back with a pair of blood-soaked eyeballs that appear to stare through the guilty killer's lead safe. Perhaps a “July 4th” version of A Christmas Carol with the ghosts of Uncle Sam past, present and…no, even 13-year-old boys will think that’s super-retarded.
Then you think back to your last vacation. Driving home at twilight through the Sonora desert. Your wife sees a saguaro cactus and says aloud, “Why, they almost look human.” And thus is born, “Green Horror,” Witches' Tales (July 1969): 19-23: a truly inspired example of demented filler, the odd brilliance that comes from running out of ideas, time, and patience.
We open with a young couple driving across the desert. Martha wants to stop and take a cutting from one of the saguaros for the garden back home. Her husband thinks she’s nuts, but does nothing to stop her.
Months later the cactus flourishes in the garden, but the husband harbors only loathing and suspicion. “Filthy thing!...I simply hate that obscene plant!” Strange invective to hurl at a cactus, but as we will see later, this is indeed an “obscene” succulent. Oddly, the husband doesn’t seem to notice that this cactus appears to have sprouted eyes and a fearsome scowl; still, he is unnerved enough by the plant to attack it with his garden hoe. But Martha emerges from the house just in time to stop him.
More time passes and the husband cannot get the creepy cactus out of his mind. “It’s like some strange force in me, driving me! Somehow I know that either the cactus goes or something terrible is going to happen!" Even though he realizes it might mean divorce, he sneaks out one night when Martha is asleep and begins wailing on the cactus with an ax. I’ll chop you up and burn the pieces! he screams.
There follows a most extraordinary high-wire act of exquisite bullshittery wherein the cactus seizes the ax and exacts its revenge.
Ax in head, hubbie is dead. Story over, right? But no. There are still two more pages to kill, and so our hard-working and hard-pressed writer must forge ahead and find some way to add more resonance and nuance to this tale.
Confronted with the husband's head cleved in two, the police hypothesize that a prowler must have overpowered him and attacked him with his own axe. Certainly, no one suspects the saguaro. Time passes and Martha meets a new man. Standing in the garden one night directly in front of the homicidal cactus, he implores Martha to marry him. At first she hesitates, but with a little persuasion, finally agrees. But, observes our narrator, “How can either one of them see the evil leer on the ‘face’ of the cactus?” Martha goes inside to make some celebratory cocktails, and before you know it, the cactus sucker-punches her fiancé right in the kisser. “With a horrible screeching sound of living roots being torn from the ground, the cactus pounces on the amazed man…”
Two important bits of narrative information are now in place: (1) the cactus is motivated by lust for Martha and jealousy over other suitors; (2) in addition to having mastered carnival-style ax throwing, the cactus is now no longer bound by the ordinary rules of roots and irrigation.
Inside, Martha continues to mix the drinks unaware that her new love has been pummeled into hamburger helper. A knock on the door. It’s the cactus—enraged enough to murder, and yet polite enough to knock before entering. The final confrontation unfolds:
The cactus pulls her into a jealous embrace, crushing her against its sharp spines! And at the last moment Martha realizes the truth! It wants her…
I’m not exactly sure what “It wants her…” would mean to a 13-year old boy in 1969, especially as an index of cactus-on-woman desire. Undoubtedly there is some perverse and highly overdetermined Oedipal anxiety at work here. Martha, after all, gave “birth” to the cactus by harvesting and planting him as a young cutting, and it is Martha that protects him from castrating ax-husband #1.
At any rate, the story should be over with this fatal embrace. But something, guilt perhaps, forces our desperate scribe to add one more panel. The police arrive on scene to find Martha and her fiancé dead. Interestingly, while the cops were wholly unable to decipher the previous scene of cactile horror, this time everything makes perfect sense to them. “Figure this one Mike! A cactus plant rips out its roots and walks and grabs the woman and crushes her to death! It can’t be…,” says Cop #1. “Can’t be is right, only it is!” offers his partner. “And the man dead too! Brother, how are we ever going to explain this one to the commissioner?”
This final frame, I imagine, is actually a displacement of the conversation the writer imagined having with his editor once the ink dried on this prickly masterpiece. Brother, how am I ever going to explain this piece of crap to the boss? Four years at Brown and the best I can come up with is a horny cactus on a murderous rampage. Another year like this and I'll be living on the streets.
In a perfect world, all “above-the-line” personnel in the entertainment industry--comic book writers and otherwise-- would be compelled, by federal law if necessary, to work to the point of absolute exhaustion, to struggle against deadlines and consequences so unforgiving that they would be forced to move beyond a certain comfort zone, ushered into the hallucinatory panic of free-form improvisation. There would be no “sleeping on it,” no month-after-month of careful franchise-honing, only the raw crisis of compulsory creativity--in the moment, by midnight, before anyone in this room can go home tonight. I want to see a Law and Order episode or Final Destination sequel written by someone in just under two hours with absolutely no rewrites. I want to see an entire season of Mad Men outlined on a napkin and faxed without revision from a strung-out story editor in Cancun who forgot principle photography begins on Monday. It might not achieve genius, but I’m sure it would at least avoid the predictable mediocrity of measured competence.