Waful Gets Punk’d: Irony Gets the Last Laugh
If you follow me on social media you may be aware of my love affair with coffee and bagels. It’s part of my daily ritual and I am often tweeting whilst imbibing said caffeine and starch. For a Jew living in Brooklyn, it’s not such an odd concept. But finding bagels or quality coffee on the road is not as easy. In the South for example, they look at you funny if you ask for a bagel. Even at the amazingly-named Waffle House, a chain restaurant that specializes in 24-hour breakfast, you can’t get a bagel. Last I checked you couldn’t even get an English muffin. In the Midwest you might get a plain bagel if you’re lucky, but don’t expect seeds or the good kind of cream cheese. And, would it kill Starbucks to have a toaster for that soggy, bland bagel? When Umphrey’s McGee hired tour manager Bobby Haight a couple years ago, he was warned about my “passion” for bagels. To his credit, we pretty much always have bagels on the tour bus. We very occasionally run out of water and sometimes the air conditioning fails, but we always have coffee and bagels on the bus. Always.
A few weeks ago I was chin-deep in an Everything bagel when I got an email from The Disco Biscuits. I’ve known them since the late 90’s, when I managed a young Boston-based band named Uncle Sammy, who would open for them on occasion. On this day, amidst my glorious bagel and iced French Roast, I was informed electronically that The Biscuits wanted me to produce a Camp Bisco video promo. There was no concept other than the musicians would be writing letters to each other. We started texting ideas back and forth from the various festivals we were at that weekend. Cell phone service was spotty at best. It was not the most organized creative collaboration and at one point a nervous Aron Magner asked me point-blank: “This is going to be funny, right?” I honestly had no idea.
But one thing was for sure, if we needed material, I was sure as hell going to inject some not-so-subtle jabs at my biggest pet peeve of festival season: “rage sticks”. It has come to my attention that many people outside of our little bubble are not familiar with that term. A rage stick is simply a pole adjoined to a flag or a stuffed animal or an inflatable sex doll or a fornicating monkey or a giant glowing octopus or a life-sized Nicholas Cage or an over-sized George Clooney (these are not made-up examples). Many fans claim it is a cool way to add flare to an otherwise sterile festival environment. Some fans say it’s a neat way to meet up with friends in large crowds – a tradition that began years before cell phones became the norm. Others, such as me, think it is hard to actually see the show through the back of a flag. I have made some humorous references to rage sticks on Twitter. I have also taken to Vine – the video app that has become my latest passion – but I try not be too negative to unsuspecting folks who are just looking to express themselves creatively. This Camp Bisco video was my big opportunity to really broadcast my views on rage sticks and the script was written accordingly. I certainly didn’t want the message to be too harsh, so I decided to go the route of passive aggressive irony. Perfect plan.
As luck would have it our set at Camp Bisco was slated for 6:45 pm in direct sunlight. So I spent the entire day trying to program a huge light rig in broad daylight, relying heavily on haze machines to help see our measly little manmade beams in the bright sunshine. When the show started I was in my typical zone: focussed, trying to lock in with the band and obsessively watching for the musicians’ interactive body language. If you’ve ever spotted me at my perch during a show, this is why I look so intense and why anything that blocks my view can affect my performance. “Lighten up, Waful” would be an appropriate response and also a pretty obvious pun. (Side note: I love obvious and non-obvious puns). As was to be expected, once our set started, there was a fair number of rage sticks sprouting up throughout the crowd. Then the flags started going up. Now, as much as I despise rage sticks, they are easier to see through due to their generally thin physique. They are slim and slender with a little teddy bear at the top. I can deal. But those big flags just take up way more real estate.
The first flag to emerge dead-center was an official Boston Red Sox flag. We were only a few hours away from Boston and Red Sox fans are always everywhere, so I didn’t really think anything of it. Although I had lived in Boston for 12 years, graduated from journalism school there, and had just been in town a mere 48 hours earlier for Paul McCartney’s Fenway Park concert, the Red Sox flag just seemed like a normal part of any large gathering in the Northeast. Then I saw a flag with the official “Vine” logo. That got my attention. My initial reaction was that fans from some internet message board were mocking me. Funny, guys. But before I could really react, up went another flag, this time with the word “Irony” on it. Now my mind was racing. I didn’t know if I should feel angry or amused. Then another flag went up, this one with the word “Journalism” on it. Each flag represented a different facet of my brain. The movie “The Game” came to mind, the 1997 film in which Michael Douglas is the target of an elaborate, brilliant mind-fuck, one coordinated by a mysterious entity.
So who exactly were my conspirators? Was everyone in on this? What the hell was going on and what song was this again? The next flag to wave was emblazoned with the words “Uncle Sammy”. This was an impressive feat because I know for a fact we never made Uncle Sammy flags and most of our merch items were designed by me in Microsoft Word in 1997. I started to realize that someone had really done their homework and this was a professional operation. This was not an idea that Heady420bathsalts posted about on Phantasy Tour. Someone went through a lot of time and money to orchestrate such a complex prank. By this point, the only emotion I felt was love. I felt like whoever did this really knows me and the way my brain is wired. Whoever this was preyed on my neurosis and warped sense of humor. Blocking my view with all of the things I love in life is ironic. Waving an Irony flag is already an apt enough metaphor for who I am, but blocking my sun-drenched light show with said Irony is probably the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. Funny is funny.
As I feverishly snapped photos with one hand and ran lights with the other, The Disco Biscuits lighting director, Johnny R. Goode walked up to me with a knowing smile. I said to him, “Who did this, Magner? Berko?” I knew it had to be someone with a budget, office infrastructure and a staff. If it was fans pranking me, it probably would have just been hand-drawn signs. These were professional flags. There had to have been meetings about this. There had to have been fact-checkers, proofs and conference calls. They matched the exact word processor font of our Uncle Sammy demo cassette. Some serious work had gone into this. Johnny wouldn’t give up the culprit. Then the flags started getting closer. They were moving gracefully in unison through the crowd. It was like watching synchronized swimmers. This was getting better by the minute. The flags approached the sound board area and blocked my view completely at the exact moment Umphrey’s went into their signature song, “In the Kitchen.” This was the point where I knew it had to be Berko. The comedic timing was too perfect for it to be anyone else.
Enter Dan Berkowitz, the CEO of CID Entertainment, a highly successful VIP company he founded in part because he couldn’t find a clean bathroom at a festival one time. Sometimes Dan and I spend hours on the phone talking about comedy. Sometimes we don’t speak for weeks. But he knows me as well as anyone. And he is the funniest person I know in real life. And he would definitely spend a month planning out a hoax this elaborate. Pulling something like this off is as important to him as any business deal, and I say that as the biggest compliment. I would later learn that Dan spent hours meticulously planning the content on the flags, the order in which they would pop up and the specific timing of their arrival to my line of sight.
Throughout Umphrey’s’ set, Dan was on a walkie-talkie methodically instructing his flag staff like a seasoned news director in a television control room. I imagine him saying things like “Wait for my cue, Irony…3 seconds, 2, 1…ok GO NOW” or “Uncle Sammy you’re too low! Straighten out” or “Hey Vine, I didn’t say to start moving yet…ok Journalism it’s go time.” The entire CID team worked hard to pull this one off and I am very grateful. The part that really gets me is that somewhere there are email chains about this. There are spreadsheets. Somewhere, there is a to-do list that says things like “Call Kenny Chesney’s manager. Book Coachella flight. Email Irving Azoff. Finalize 2014 Bonnaroo budget. Fuck with Waful.”
As the flags kept moving uncomfortably closer to my perch at the light board, it occurred to me that I still hadn’t actually seen Dan yet. Just where was he hiding? He had been avoiding my texts all day, which is not unlike Dan, especially at a festival when he is swamped with actual VIPs that are – by definition – more important than me saying “check out the Vine I just posted!”
As confident as I was that it was Berko who was expertly hazing me on a day I so desperately needed haze, I still had no confirmation. Then, I finally saw him, covertly emerging from the masses with the final flag, the best one of them all. It had no words, just a picture of a coffee and a bagel.
Nothing like a good inside joke in front of a crowd of 20,000, Dan.
As I cryptically tweeted to @cidentertainment the morning after Flag Day, “I love the work that you and your staff do. Best in the biz.”
Thank you, CID for giving me the worst view ever. It was the best.
Love you, Jefferson