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Borderline Humor

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By Michael Miner

Tapping away at the radio buttons during a drive through southern Ontario last year, I came across a yokel's rant against NAFTA and the Multilateral Agreement on Investments. God knows why I listened.

"Just as soon as all the parts of NAFTA and MAI are in place," the crank lectured, "corporations won't have to actually pollute the environment or poison people. All they have to do is threaten to do something nasty. And when the country steps in and tells them that they can't do it, the corporation will be able to sue the country for countless millions."

A woman's voice broke in: "Brilliant and foolproof."

"And that's why today's Captain Dead Dog Award goes to the visionaries who thought up NAFTA and MAI and sold the idea to the brain trusts in Canada and Mexico," the crank went on. "OK, let's have a few enthusiastic puppy-boy woofs for NAFTA and MAI." Then he said, "Ruff, ruff, ruff."

"Woof, woof, woof, woof," went the woman.

What the hell was this?

"You know what I like best about corporations?" he said.

"Their ability to make obscene profits?" she guessed.

"That goes without saying, of course. No, it's their strategy of hiding behind government flunkies, private-sector stooges, and statistics so that the disparities between the rich and the poor appear to be a part of some natural law rather than a well-designed scheme to maintain the wealth and influence of a small elite."

Their names turned out to be Jasper Friendly Bear and Gracie Heavy Hand, and they and a whiner named Tom King were coming to us from a joint called the Dead Dog Cafe in a place called Blossom, Alberta. Reaching into the mailbag, they produced a letter from two women on Vancouver Island who'd sent them handcrafted pens.

"Look, they're made out of tree branches, and each pen says 'Dead Dog Cafe,'" said Tom. "And there's one for each of us!"

"That's what it looks like, all right," Jasper mused. "But in actual fact, while one of these pens is for Gracie and of course one of them is for me, the third pen is a backup."

"Backup?" said Tom.

"In case mine runs out of ink."

"Wha-what about me?"

"If you don't have a pen," Jasper explained, "you don't need a backup."

With that, they had me. Here was a show no more angry than absurd, and set at a comic pitch that brought back Bob and Ray.

"I would go with Burns and Allen, who had that deadpan delivery," said Tom King, when I called him the other day. "They never broke a sweat delivering their lines. They made humor conversational."

Jasper and Gracie are played by Floyd Favel Starr, a Cree Indian with a background in theater, and Edna Rain, a Stoney hide tanner and traditional dancer. Tom King is Thomas King, and the rage and humor of the Dead Dog Cafe Comedy Hour are his own. A few years ago he wrote a novel, Green Grass, Running Water, that's a rambling, hilarious masterpiece of magic realism, judged last year by a panel of the usual types as one of the greatest Canadian novels of the century--ahead of anything by Michael Ondaatje, Malcolm Lowry, or Margaret Atwood. One of King's locales was the Dead Dog Cafe, on which busloads of American tourists descended to observe genuine Indians in a natural habitat, which they knew it had to be because of the dog-meat dishes on the menu. When the Canadian Broadcasting Company put out a call for new programming a few years ago, King decided the cafe was too neat a place to go to waste.

Who's listening? I asked him.

"I'll be honest with you--I don't have a clue," he said from his home in Guelph, Ontario, where he teaches college English. "I just sit in front of my computer and churn this stuff out, and where it goes I have no idea. It's sort of like working in the dark. That's what radio's about anyway."

I guessed he gets fan mail from Americans who can pick up Canadian stations.

"We do get some, as a matter of fact. That surprises me. We got enough mail from the border states to prompt me to do a show for our American listeners. It's the one with gunfire in the background."

Produced in Edmonton for the CBC, Dead Dog Cafe can be heard on exactly one American station, KVMR FM in Nevada City, California. A tape of old Dead Dog Cafe shows came program director Steve Baker's way, and he immediately put them on the air.

"I was knocked out," he tells me. "I have a hard time with a lot of so-called humor, especially things that try too hard. Dead Dog doesn't." Baker broadcast the tape illegally, but when he saw the reaction "we fessed up and came clean and obtained the rights from CBC. It's been getting extraordinary listener response. Today somebody called and said, 'I changed my dental appointment so I can listen to the show.'"

It's obvious where I'm headed. But no, Torey Malatia, general manager of WBEZ, which has carried plenty of Canadian programs from time to time, isn't thinking about picking up Dead Dog Cafe. He told me he'd never heard of it. Which could be, though King and Steve Baker both say the show has been waved under the nose of National Public Radio. "NPR turned it down, saying it was too Canadian," says Baker. "Which harks back to 25 years ago when NPR turned down a show from the midwest because it was too midwestern and it went on to become Prairie Home Companion."

But Barbara Brown, who handles licensing for the CBC (and gave me tapes of most of the old shows), says the network has never seriously pitched Dead Dog Cafe to NPR, and diffidence being central to the Canadian psyche, that's probably true. At any rate, the Dead Dog Cafe Comedy Hour is no Prairie Home Companion. For one thing, it's just 15 minutes long. It deserves to be slipped without fanfare into an obscure time slot, to be discovered serendipitously by an audience that slowly grows into a cult.

But hey, once the new season begins on September 28, CBC's Radio One stations will all be broadcasting it at about 10:30 each Thursday morning, their local time. Go to the network's Web site, cbc.ca, and follow the audio prompts.

King is a study in ethnic confusion. He was born outside Sacramento and raised there by his Greek mother after his Cherokee dad took off. "But," he says, "the part of me that stimulates my imagination is the native side." After kicking around Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand, he was doing graduate work in Utah when a buddy, Leroy Littlebear, offered him a job at the university in Lethbridge, Alberta. "It's dusty, windy high prairie," says King, and he turned the job down three or four times before he decided he needed to eat. "I went up in 1980, and I really liked it," he says. "The native people up here are great." Now he's a Canadian citizen who writes as a Canadian Indian, as someone to whom national borders are completely artificial but who is nevertheless separated by two degrees of alienation from the colossus to the south.

"I'm as pessimistic as hell," he says, at least until he sits down to write. "Pessimists really can't write. My novels tend to have a kind of optimistic quality that I don't believe in in real life, so I create these fictional worlds I can be in for a while. That's why it takes me a long time to finish these novels. I don't want to stop."

For a taste of Dead Dog Cafe, follow a search engine to its Web site. You can turn the same three wheels Jasper spins on the radio to provide envious white folk with "authentic Indian names"--Fudge Lounging Turtle, Belinda Yellow Rabbitglue--or brush up on your conversational Cree ("Could you tell the maid to start the laundry before she cleans the toilet?"), or, if you're really adventurous, tackle the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (each week on "Fireside Friendly Bear," Jasper solemnly reads a selection from "this great Canadian literary work," and no end is in sight).

King's latest novel, Truth & Bright Water, published in Canada over a year ago, is set out west in a Canadian reservation and the small American town that faces it across the border. The American edition was supposed to come out this month, but publication has been pushed back to November. He suggested a call to Grove/Atlantic. "If they put it back any more we'll miss the Christmas trade completely."

News Bites

After 27 years at the Tribune, John McCarron hopes he isn't disappearing entirely from its pages. But this is his last week on the payroll. The paper's top urbanologist is leaving its editorial board to fill a new position with the Metropolitan Planning Council--vice president for strategy and communication. "I realize being a vice president of a 25-person shop is sort of like being a corporal in a platoon," he says.

McCarron considers MPC the most principled and effective of the private groups that attempt to order Chicago's future. "I've always admired their ability to be the central gathering point for the better angels of our civic endeavor," he says. Twelve years ago he made himself notorious to many reformers by writing about lesser angels; his series "Chicago on Hold: The New Politics of Poverty" described a city he deemed paralyzed by "a riot of community input and no leadership to direct it." More recently, he says, he's the one who turned the Tribune against Mayor Daley's plan to make a park of Meigs Field: "I convinced them you wouldn't put an airport there if it wasn't one, but you'd be crazy to rip it up if you're serious about making Chicago a postindustrial service center. Yeah, it's an elitist convenience for time-is-money executives, but that's a vital constituency a city like Chicago has to service. And its benefits will trickle down."

These liberally unfashionable positions notwithstanding, McCarron felt a little bit like an odd man out on the Tribune editorial board, which he describes as "very conservative, maybe libertarian in some respects, certainly very Republican." He expects to find himself among "more like-minded individuals" at MPC. But he leaves the Tribune praising the editors he worked under, and he hopes they'll publish the op-ed essays he intends to send them once he's gone.

After weeks of dickering, Tracy Baim's Lambda Publications has acquired the rights to the name of the late Windy City Times and intends to restore it to Chicago's streets next week. Baim says former owner and publisher Jeff McCourt has licensed her the name, and in a couple more weeks she expects to own it outright. Outlines, the weekly she launched in 1987 after leading a staff walkout from Windy City Times, will be reduced to a feature section in the new WCT that Baim compares to the Tribune's Tempo.

The new WCT is certain to be different from the old. McCourt benefited from staff reporters, while Baim, at least at the beginning, will be wholly dependent on freelancers. And she promises a "new logo and fresher look"--not that the old WCT needed one. One thing that won't change is the paper's membership in the National Gay Newspaper Guild, which markets 12 papers in 12 cities to national advertisers. "It wasn't automatic," says Baim. "There was a vote, and it wasn't unanimous."

The history of the gay press in Chicago keeps winding back onto itself. Baim was managing editor of the old Gay Life in 1985 when sales manager Bob Bearden led a walkout and with McCourt, his lover, launched Windy City Times. Baim, who considered Bearden "an ally and friend," followed him out the door.

But Bearden almost immediately became mortally ill, and McCourt, an options trader, found himself taking over the paper by default. In 1987 Baim led a staff walkout of her own--it would never have happened under Bearden, she says--and started Outlines. McCourt survived that desertion, but history repeated itself yet again last summer, and after a year of brutal competition from the new Chicago Free Press as well as Outlines, he folded his tent in July.

Thirteen years after she left, Baim can say she's back running the paper where, under happier circumstances, she might have been working all along.

It was decision time for editors when George W. Bush was caught by a microphone in Naperville tilting his head toward Dick Cheney and snickering about New York Times reporter Adam Clymer. The frequently overwrought Sun-Times gave the incident banner treatment--simply waiting until the story had jumped from page one to page four to report that Bush had called Clymer a "major-league asshole."

Unlike the Sun-Times, the Tribune didn't tell us what Bush said. It simply noted, in the course of coverage that stressed Bush's "straight talk" and "feisty attitude," that in an aside to Cheney "Bush used an expletive to refer to a newspaper reporter in the crowd." There's a time-honored way of employing initials, dots, and dashes to precisely convey language one is too demure to repeat, but the Tribune didn't use it. Keeping its readers in a state of maximum ignorance, it assured them that "the tenor of Bush's remark...was reflective of the newfound aggressiveness in the Texas governor's rhetoric."

In the Tribune's view it's apparently a mark of aggressiveness to call someone a name behind his back.

Hot Type reader Tom McClurg of Lakeview sent me a copy of his so-far-unpublished letter to the Tribune commenting on the paper's coverage. It concluded, "Among local news sources, only the Tribune chose to write a story which, instead of embarrassing Mr. Bush, flattered him."

Colleagues looking for free ink know better than to come anywhere near this office, and I'm sure the Reader's Neal Pollack understood from the get-go that he'd have to find someone else to flog the Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. But while it's inconceivable that I'd write a word on any book of his, it's clearly within the realm of my obligations to critique Rolling Stone's coverage of a major Chicago and international literary event and to question whether that journal's assessment of Pollack's tome as "one of the greatest satires of authorial vanity to come along since the actual career of Norman Mailer" misses completely the author's winning sincerity.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dean Palmer-The Scenario.

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