Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Potty Mouth

My first job in college was as a dogsbody backstage for the resident theater company. I was selected from among the incoming freshmen in the theater and dance programs, I learned later, because of all the boys, I had one of the few beards. The assumption made was obviously wrong. I was quite hopeless in manual skills, had never really handled tools, or even taken any "shop" classes in high school, mine being the first class in which boys were offered Home Economics. By the time my unsuitability was discovered, it was already too late, and so the rude fellows that built the scenery and such made the best use of me they could. I was then slim enough to slip into tight spaces, light enough to be sent up ladders and fearless enough to be sent up into the catwalks. I was attached to a more senior technician called "Guido," a massy fellow with a face like an uncured ham, a foul disposition and a vocabulary that would have shamed a syphilitic sailor. I liked him. I called him "sir," which he found maddening, and he called me by every filthy name his practiced invention could string from his huge store of expletive. We enjoyed each other's company; my incompetence and my gameness impressing him in roughly equal measure, his refusal to so much as hammer a nail without cursing the hammer, the nail, the wood and me, filling me with wonder.

I had not grown up in so puritan a home as to be wholly innocent of cursing, and it was fashionably employed by my whole circle of friends in high school, but I had no true exposure to the real art of it until I worked among the theatrical carpenters, electricians and set movers, all of whom cursed as they breathed. It was an education. I learned much more from those rough mechanics than I actually did from my brief experience of college proper, more, at any rate, that I still find useful.

I still curse entirely too much for someone of my encroaching dignity. I try to swear at work as little as possible, and then obscurely if I can, substituting "bugger" and "bloody" for words of more common American usage, as much to spare the sensitivities of coworkers and the locals, as to be made happy in the harmless exercise of the Anglophiliac affectations of my pretentious youth. I've tried to curb the habit of swearing here at least, but my preference, so to say, for the plain old English "fuck," for example, can not honestly be abandoned altogether, unless I am to assume all my regular readers good Methodist ladies of my grandmothers' generation. I mean to say, is there really a living soul now over the age of twelve unacquainted with that word?

In what was a more polite time, at least on the page, Mark Twain famously complained, “What a lie it is to call this a free country, where none but the unworthy and undeserving may swear.” This has changed, or perhaps the unworthy and undeserving simply have a larger share of acceptance, even celebrity, in our time. That could certainly be argued. But even as I've tried to be better about swearing in public, I must admit I feel something of the old excitement, hearing it done with an old fashioned bravado, by so accomplished a practitioner as dear Kathy Griffin. Last night her reality show, "My Life on the D List" returned for its latest season. I am a devoted fan. Kathy has made a career with the rough edge of her tongue; mocking celebrity, and her own pursuit thereof, with a ruthless and witty disregard for the reputations and pretensions of the more famous folk she claims to worship and emulate. I love the woman.

Tonight, in a premier so gay it made the Tony Awards seem staid, Kathy went to Vegas to meet with Bette Midler and get lessons in how to be "A List." Now Bette, for all her years playing the bawd, has become very much the Grand Dame at sixty-what-have-you, and it was very funny to see her disconcerted by even the hint of a fart joke at dinner in her private suite. Dear Kathy, on, as she put it, her "best princess behavior," did manage to get a "fuck 'em" or two out of Midler as they cruised in a limo to the shabby end of the strip, where Kathy took the great lady to a truly shitty -- there is no other word for it -- casino so that she might experience Kathy's favorite Vegas treat: the deep fried twinkie. Midler had the good grace to find this genuinely delicious.

After Griffin's time with Midler was done, just as the show's credits rolled, our Kath, bragging of just how well behaved she thought she'd been all evening in the company of The Divine, boasted that she had not used but hardly one bad word all night, going on then to use as many as she could, by way of example, all of them bleeped for broadcast, in what was a gloriously manic explosion of suppressed vulgarity. Very funny woman, Kathy Griffin. Fuckin' love her.

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