Humor in Iowa

(Note: This originally appeared in 2014 on the defunct Des Mean website, to which I guest contributed anonymously on occasion).

Does Iowa rank number one on Forbes’ list of “Top 10 Most Humorless States in America”?

This is the question that I pondered with the three founding members of The Des Mean Editorial Board late one night last summer at our favorite neighborhood bar in Des Moines — which I am not naming here, because we all dread the thought of the Young Professionals discovering it and yup-yup-yupping the locals away by imposing signature cocktails and trivia nights.

That conversation prompted some other conversations, and then they put on their successful business-people hats to think about whether there was money to be made through exploring (and exploiting) the original silly question in a serious fashion. It didn’t really seem to be a “goer,” as they say in the biz, so they considered a nonprofit model instead — because Iowa is definitely the Number One State in America for Half-Assed Charities, according to any number of click-bait websites and a casual look at where the big philanthropic money flows around the State.

That avenue seemed promising, since they already knew of more than a dozen hucksters in Central Iowa with cushy “Executive Director” (heh heh!) jobs at “nonprofit” (giggle!), “charitable” (snnrrk!) “cultural organizations” (haw haw haw!!) that they founded themselves, filling no discernible needs, for no apparent benefit, and raising big bucks (for themselves) in the process.

Oh, wait, we’re sorry. Did we say “hucksters”? We meant “community engagement entrepreneurs.” (Pffftt!!)

The original Des Mean folks had decided that they’d be happy to declare themselves community engagement entrepreneurs too so they could slop at that bountiful trough, too, so last fall they organized the Des Mean Foundation for Humor in Education as a 501(c)3 charitable corporation and anointed themselves as the founding Board of Directors. (Note: I didn’t join them on the board, since I thought it would conflict with my real nonprofit job, and I didn’t want to bite any hands that fed me in my real job; it’s a small state, y’know?). The trio then collected some seed tax-exempt “gifts” (pfffbbbttttt!!!!) from their friends, hired crazy Swede Konrad Yüngermann to be their roving curator and man on the ground in Iowa, and got down to the serious business of being funny, for educational purposes. Which are charitable. Seriously. No smirking this time. All straight faces.

How do they satisfy their charitable mission nearly a year on? By offering five blog posts each week on the Des Mean website (Note: now defunct), Monday to Friday, with no advertising or any other commercial interests, plus regularly populating their popular Twitter feed and then analyzing the ways in which native Iowans interact with the information they present to them. It’s a lot of work, and it takes a lot of time, but they run a tight ship, in keeping with their 501(c)3 status, and I am happy to help out in a volunteer capacity as I am able.

They pay Konrad for his work (Swedes are not charitable, despite being Socialists), but they donate our time to the charity as volunteer board members, only claiming reimbursement for such necessary business expenses as lunch interviews, road trips to look at funny stuff (one of them drives a hybrid car, so that keeps costs down, though it’s a little embarrassing in some parts of the state they visit), phone bills, late night pizza orders, transcription services for their oral history project, and other similar office incidentals.

They’ve been serious and consistent about their output, and they’ve got a higher website update rate that the lion’s share of cultural organizations hereabouts, so I think they’re doing a good job on that front. They’re also carefully and thoroughly monitoring, analyzing, and processing traffic flows, referrals, and other social media buzz-word thingies in real time as they work through our ongoing search to divine the answer to the original formative question: Are Iowa and Iowans inherently funny or humorless?

What have they learned so far?

Executive Committee Meeting.

Executive Committee Meeting.

Since the Foundation Board members are all native Iowans, and Konrad the Swede has lived here long enough to have lost his native accent and to say things like “please put my pop in the sack” to the Hy-Vee bag girls, they have concluded that they collectively embody one key variable in the analytical work: They are all Iowans, trying to be funny. Can they do it?

Their traffic logs and targeted marketing campaigns make it clear that over 90% of their readership lives in the State of Iowa, so their followers embody the other key variable as they explore our their original core hypothesis: Are Iowans capable of laughing at themselves, and their home state?

Using an adaptation of simple Mendelian Inheritance principles, they posit that there are four possible humor interfaces between their Iowa writers and their Iowa readers here:

  1. Des Mean is not funny, and Iowans are humorous enough to know that.
  2. Des Mean is not funny, but Iowans are humor impaired and think that it is.
  3. Des Mean is funny, but Iowans are humor impaired and don’t get it.
  4. Des Mean is funny, and Iowans are humorous enough to laugh along.

They are desperately hoping that Scenario Number Four is the one that will be sustained by their research, but they will probably need a few big federal grants and a some more humor writers and a lot more late night pizza parties at Young Professional-free bars before they can state that confidently.

Let them know what you’re thinking. Let them know what you’re laughing at.

Most of all: let them know if Iowa and Iowans are funny.

2016 Iowa State Fair Improvements

The State Fair is the largest gathering of human beings in Iowa each year (though we’re still out-numbered seven to one by the hogs), and it truly is one of those “you have to see it to believe it” types of experiences. That being said, you can always make a good thing better, so The State Fair Trust will be rolling out the following improvements to make the 2016 edition the biggest and the bestest and the Iowa-est-est edition ever:

  • Open Carry Night: first 10,000 admissions packing visible heat receive commemorative shoulder holsters, available in either Hawkeye or Cyclone colors.
  • Caucus Candidate Octagon Death Matches will be staged in the new Joni Ernst Castratorium.
  • Pole dancing is officially qualified for its own “Varied Industry” booth.
  • An animatronic Terry Branstad will greet visitors at the Iowa Craft Beer Tent.
  • The Sheep Barn will be replaced with the Rhino Barn.
  • The Des Moines Register’s Tattoo Pavilion will provide free tramp stamps with each validated Fairgrounds parking ticket; no henna here, but real, permanent ink!
  • Cannibal Corpse and Insane Clown Posse will headline at the Grandstand for East Side Night.
  • All food booths will offer cheese-wrapped, bacon-filled, batter-dipped, deep-fried Cavatelli de Burgo. On a stick.
  • There will be Big Boar rides at the Kid’s Activity Center.
  • A Lion’s Den Adult Entertainment Pavilion will be located adjacent to the Campgrounds.
  • The Sky Glider has been turned into a thrill ride by increasing its speed ten-fold and requiring running mounts and dismounts.
  • The Butter Cow has been replaced with an anatomically correct Butter Bull.
East Side Night in the Grandstand.

East Side Night in the Grandstand.

Why Iowa First?

As the Nation gears up for its globally-admired quadrennial Presidential election process, the spotlight has turned toward Iowa and its inordinately influential “first out of the gate” Presidential Caucus. Of course, haters gotta hate, so there’s plenty of pundits out there at the Crazy Town Press and Courier (or similar rags) who will deny Iowa’s God-given right to bestow its potent blessings upon the most worthy of the competing candidates. Just in case you find yourself locked in an elevator with an Iowaphobe who fails to see the glorious logic and sensibility of this system, I offer the following ten inarguable answers to the question: “Why Iowa First?”

  1. Because Iowa Looks Like America when you watch FOX News.
  2. Because the weather would just be too damn hot and sticky in Alabama that day.
  3. Because an “uncommitted” result in 1976 so presciently launched Jimmy Carter toward a spot on Mount Rushmore.
  4. It’s the best way to fast track President Joni Ernst’s election, an important Biblical precursor to the Rapture.
  5. Because Iowans were the only people in America willing to stand in line to listen to Rick Santorum.
  6. Because Iowa guards the nation’s Strategic Bacon Reserve from invasion by hostile foreign powers, and should be rewarded for its vigilance.
  7. Because it’s important for the President to be able to put a face on all of the Federal subsidies that Iowa collects, while complaining about Federal subsidies.
  8. Because Iowans have clearly demonstrated superior political acuity and discernment each of the six times that they have elected Terry Branstad to be their governor.
  9. Because America could probably use another Bush or Clinton presidency, maybe, and Iowans are pretty okay, sort of, at picking those, sometimes.
  10. Because it would be hard and expensive to re-create another State-wide mass delusion of superior political intelligence.

Iowa Infrastructure Initiatives

Iowa’s legislators are back at work after a refreshing seven-month break from their elected duties, which most of them spent fundraising so they could get elected again in time for next year’s seven-month sabbatical.

One of the legislature’s most pressing annual duties is figuring out how to quickly distribute the tens of billions of dollars worth of Federal subsidies that will quietly flow into the State this year, as they did last year, and as they will next year.

A large portion will typically be doled out to farmers to grow certain crops, while another portion will be doled out to other farmers to not grow certain other crops.

But the best way to tie up the big bucks is to allocate them to massive infrastructure projects that stimulate the economy by generating jobs for campaign contributors, who then underwrite advertising in which our elected officials complain about Washington subsidies to fire up their voter bases.

It’s the Political Circle of Life, writ large. Hakuna Matata!

Here are eight Iowa infrastructure initiatives we can expect to see pulled from this year’s barrel of pork tenderloins:

quadcollider1. The Lamoni Skywalk: Will connect the Iowa Visitors Center at Exit 4 on I-35 to Maid Rite, Kum n’ Go, and the Super 8 Motel. Future appropriations will be earmarked for expansion to Quilt Country and Hardee’s.

2. Grease Trap Pipeline XL: A vast network of plumbing designed to capture all the grease from the State’s fried tenderloin industry and funnel it to Keokuk, where it will be loaded onto container ships, ferried to the Gulf of Mexico, and dumped at sea — thereby assuring that it cannot be recycled to undermine the State’s corn oil production quotas.

3. The Great Wall of Clive: A 10-foot high barricade will be erected around Clive City Limits to clearly identify — for the first time in State history — exactly where the city is located. Future appropriations will be earmarked to build a similar containment around Waukee.

4. The Cedar Rapids El: A raised roadway system that will ensure soy, hog and corn truckers have unimpeded access from Waterloo and points north to the Iowa 80 Truck Stop whenever Cedar Rapids is underwater.

5. The Burj Fort Dodge: A 635-foot office and residential tower in Webster County that will become Iowa’s tallest building. The Arabic name honors the strong cultural ties between Fort Dodge and Al-Shuwaib, its sister city in the United Arab Emirates. Future appropriations will be earmarked to house the Terry Brandstad Gubernatorial Library and Mausoleum in the tower. The Governor for Life will be embalmed after his passing and will lie in public display on the highest floor for 1,000 years.

6. Tinywood: A vast, Branson-style family entertainment complex designed to celebrate the life of Tiny Tim, who lived in Iowa for five years — making him a local son per the same statutes that allow John Wayne, Mamie Eisenhower, Johnny Carson, and countless others to be honored as Great Temporary Iowans.

7. Loess Hills Slope Easement: An important civil engineering project running from Sioux City to Council Bluffs that will bulldoze the steep, sandy hills on the State’s western border, thereby eliminating early inconveniences faced by RAGBRAI riders. Future appropriations will be earmarked for the Black Squirrel Golf and Recreation Complex, honoring the memory of the unique rodents that will unfortunately have to be exterminated as part of this project.

8. Quad Cities Super Collider: A massive proton smasher will be erected alongside I-80 and I-280 around the Quad Cities, taking advantage of gravitational pull exerted by the high speed traffic that already circles that route, never stopping within it.

Iowa Art Crisis 3: Afterglow

Voice-over: And now Des Mean After School Specials proudly presents the tear-jerking third and final episode of “Iowa Art Crisis.”

Flash Screen Links to Part One and Part Two.

Scene: A grubby but comfortable East Village bar in the shadow of Iowa’s Capitol Building.

Fade in with piano music and singing over credits:

Making your way in the arts today
Takes everything you’ve got
Taking a break from all your critics
Sure would help a lot
Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you wanna go
Where everybody knows your name
And they’re always glad you paint
You wanna be where people see
Artists are all the same
You wanna go where everybody knows your name

Bode P. Chatsworth, COO of Cardinal Mutual Casualty Company, walks in.

Barflies: BODE!

Lovilia (polishing a glass behind the bar): How’s it going there tonight, Mr. C?

Bode P. Chatsworth: Not too bad, Lovilia. Quite a day at the office, helping out some traumatized artists. My bunions are killing me again. But it’s good to be here.

terryplayaTerry Branstad, Governor of Iowa (dressed in a postman’s suit, stands up, wobbles over to Bode P. Chatsworth, sits on the stool beside him): That’s good, Bode. We’re all glad to be here. Let’s chat about our favorite Emerson, Lake and Palmer albums to get your mind off your bunions.

Lovilia (Slings towel over shoulder): I tell you what, y’all keep chatting about E.L.P. all night and this bar’s gonna get shut down real quick.

Barflies: LAUGHTER!

Rufus Dunn Leakey, D.Phil., Voice of Wisdom (from a table in the corner): Aww come on, Lovilia, let’ em talk about what they want. I personally don’t care for E.L.P., but it’s a free world, and learning a little bit more about stuff we don’t think we like might just make us better, more tolerant people when all’s said and done, right?

Bode P. Chatsworth: That’s what I think, Rufus. (Sips from beer). Ah, nothing like sipping back a cold one and criticizing E.L.P. albums with pals.

Terry Branstad (increasingly wobbly): Yep, their third arlbum wars tha’ one ta have. Hic! It’s er, eh undeniable. Hey bahrkeep, how’s about parrin’ me anather one?

Lovilia: Just a minute there, Governor B. Hey, Mallard, why so glum tonight?

Mallard Meservey, Art Critic (in sports coat with beard): Oh I don’t know, Lovilia, I suppose it’s just so unreal, isn’t it?

Lovilia (Leans against bar): Well how d’ya figure that, Mr. M?

Mallard Meservey: Well, it’s the whole idea of criticism and community these days, I suppose. I mean, here we are, in a public space, similar to the way it used to be, talking about Emerson, Lake and Palmer albums. Some we like, some we hate. We explain our reasons why, people nod or shake their heads, and Lovilia pours us another beer. Simple! However, on another plane it’s completely different than it used to be, since our minds are all really far, far away, as we slyly check our phones under the bar for tweets about the latest art and music happenings elsewhere that we’ll never actually experience, or excuse ourselves to sit on the crapper with our pants up behind a closed stall door to read real time criticism from people we don’t know, with no training or qualifications, sitting in places we’ve never seen, anonymously savaging artists we’ve never heard of, about work we’ll never experience. And then we flush and Lovilia pours us another beer. Fifteen years ago, Putman was right, we were “bowling alone.” However, now, we’re not even actually bowling (and nor are we, I might add, in virtual reality helmets, literally). We’re just clacking away, 140 characters at a time, in public, privately. The least effort possible short of watching television, yet this is the proverbial and current public sphere!

Lovilia: What are you getting at, Mr. M?

Mallard Meservey: Oh nothing I suppose, nothing. It’s just depressing is all.

Rufus Dunn Leakey, D.Phil. (from a table in the corner): I hear that.

Terry Branstad (Raises glass): Hic! Tahr dahpressions!

Barflies (All raise glasses): DEPRESSION!

Mallard Meservey: Don’t understand me too quickly, people! I’m talking about atomization, the individualistic, privatized tendencies of man gone too far! I’m talking about alienation, and anomie only against one’s self, the cause of that depression! I’m speaking of ennui, a lack of feeling, a numbing of our emotional senses, caused by a lack of real, public interaction, that can’t help but leave one feeling empty and unfulfilled in the end! I’m talking about the ways in which criticism comes easier than craftsmanship, and how bullies no longer need playgrounds to wreak havoc on the souls of those who are judged weak and wanting! Most of all, I’m talking about the fact that I’m pretending to be talking in public while I’m actually typing in private, and yet all of this private scribbling and sniping and clattering is, in some surreal sense, considered public discourse! And that’s acceptable to us all!!

Barflies: AWKWARD SILENCE!

Bode P. Chatsworth (Turns away from Mallard Meservey and towards Terry Brandstad): Yeah, so that third E.L.P. album is definitely the one to have. You know, the one with the giant armadillo tank on the cover?

Terry Branstad: Hic!

Fade to black over piano music.

Iowa Art Crisis 2: The Creative Rehabilitation Program

Continued from yesterday’s story: Central Iowa’s arts community continues to roil in the aftermath of the Bad Art Reviews Blog’s (ed. since shut down) violent disregard for the State’s Code of Niceness. In an effort to preemptively ward off an epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder among the region’s creative caste, the newly-empowered Iowa Ministry of Artistic Compliance has established The Creative Rehabilitation Program to nurse wounded artists back to health. The program mirrors a “Big Brothers/Big Sisters” model, with struggling, disenfranchised artists receiving hands-on mentoring from wealthy arts patrons, all of them hand-selected by Governor Brandstad from among his wide circle of friendly GOP arts enthusiasts. Let’s drop in on a session as Cardinal Mutual Casualty Company’s Chief Operating Officer, Bode P. Chatsworth — a well-known collector of large metal objects and signed sports memorabilia — meets with two artists fished from the wreckage of their heretofore peaceful cultural pond:

whitemanartElliot Gruver, Graduate Student in the Arts: I don’t want to get too heavy on you, Mr. Chatsworth, but I’ve never been more confused in my life.

Bode P. Chatsworth, COO, Cardinal Mutual Casualty Company: What’s on your mind, kid? Go ahead and spill it. You know that we love to be entertained by others’ misery here. That’s what this whole “Big Rich Art Brothers” thing is all about, yes?

Elliot Gruver: Well, I guess you sort of put your finger right on the heart of my problem, Mr. Chatsworth. My issue is that I’m just a little put off by the whole notion of what makes for “good art.” It often seems that “good art” means exactly what you just said: comfortable people getting off on other people’s misery. That makes me think that in order to make “good art” for the people who have the time to appreciate and afford it, then I have to take a vow of misery and angst. But, you know, Mom and Dad are paying a pretty penny for me to be in a Master of Fine Arts program, and I really just don’t have much to be sad about. So is my art worthless? And do I need to find things to be unhappy about if I want it to have value?

Bode P. Chatsworth: Nonsense, kid! You’re just showing your youthful naiveté when you say things like that. Look, back before I became a successful insurance executive and collector of large metal objects and signed sports memorabilia, I was a wannabe artist too, and like you, I thought that my misery made for better art. But when I look at my stuff from back then, it’s generally not better or worse than anything else, it’s just more miserable. Misery doesn’t equal quality. It’s just that when people are miserable, perhaps they invest more value and import in their art than they do when they’re not. The art symbolizes their struggle, and maybe they fight harder for their art because of that. But that’s an issue of promotion, not of quality. And, frankly, sometimes the stuff people do that isn’t based on struggle can be far more profound and less obvious than the more angst-ridden stuff tends to be.

Elliot Gruver: But does angst-ridden art always have to be obvious? Can’t art be angst-ridden and subtle at the same time?

Bode P. Chatsworth: Well, what the hell would be the point of “angst-ridden and subtle”? Sure, you can be angst-ridden in your life, and subtle about it in your work, but who would be able to tell the difference? Would you have to code it into your titles: “Still Life with Fruit and Yarn (Composed While Suffering an Existential Crisis in a Sioux City Squat)” or “Sunrise Over Dubuque (Where Some Immigrant Somalian Babies Suffer from Worms)”? If you believe that suffering leads to angst, which then leads to “great art,” then you can’t make “great art” without such suffering, and you should just move out to a nice cardboard box now and have your folks send your tuition checks directly to me. But that’s a false model. You really don’t have to choose between art and happiness. Comfort level is not tied to how profound someone’s work can be.

Charlotte Mondamin, Working Artist: Oh, I can’t take it any more! Listen to you two go on about angst and art! What a pair of pretentious poseurs you are! And you’re missing the big picture completely. Listen: angst is an emotion that’s exclusive to the privileged class. When you are hungry, homeless, sick or poor, you don’t have time or energy to feel sorry for yourself because you don’t feel like the world understands or appreciates you. So buck up and quit wallowing. Go spend a night in a dumpster without a coat and see how bad your petty boo-hoos feel tomorrow.

Elliot Gruver: Don’t dismiss my feelings just because I’m a child of privilege! I didn’t choose to be born in comfort!

Bode P. Chatsworth: C’mon, Charlotte, you’re not really going to trot out that stale old canard, are you? I mean, sure, we should all be doing cartwheels because we’re not in a labor camp in North Korea waiting for a rat to jump out of the hole in the ground where we shit so we can kill it and eat it, even though we’ll be beaten by the guards for doing so. I’m convinced! Life is suddenly beautiful to me! Thanks for the wisdom!

Charlotte Mondamin: It is not a stale argument, you creep. Life’s what you make of it. If you’ve got a house, a family who loves you, and money for food, then you’re doing better than 90% of the human beings living in the world right now, including me. If you choose to be a spoiled crybaby because nobody understands your art, Elliot, then that’s your problem, not society’s, not your parents’, not anybody else’s. It’s just wrong to try to find things in life to be unhappy about just so that you can make “better” art that allows well-off boobs to feel even better about themselves because they embrace your false suffering. What do your type have to be unhappy about anyway?

Bode P. Chatsworth: Please, Charlotte. That’s just dumb. People with all of those things can be unhappy if their jobs are not fulfilling, their personal lives are in disarray, or their financial futures are uncertain. Having stuff doesn’t make you happy. If it did, celebrity gossip columns would be far more boring than they already are. Do you really think there’s some sort of happiness line, where if you make over a certain amount per year, you’re not allowed to be sad?

Charlotte Mondamin: Look, the more you make, the more you can do whatever you want with fewer and fewer consequences. I’d certainly rather be sad and rich than sad and poor, because sad and poor means that you also have the pressure of basic survival while being unhappy. So, yes, once you have your basic survival needs met, you really shouldn’t be whining about being sad. Your sadness becomes meaningless. You can buy something to make it better. Or you can use your ample spare time to make some art, in which you subtly embrace the fantasy angst that eats at your comfortable, benumbed brains.

Bode P. Chatsworth: Gah, you bore me! Enough! I don’t need all of this misdirected anger and needless confrontation from the likes of you! I’d much prefer to spend time with comfortable people in search of a little angst to fire their creative furnaces. C’mon, Elliot, let’s head over to the corporate canteen and see what they’ve got stashed away there behind the bar, crack a bottle of somethin’ somethin’, smoke a couple of cigars and figure out how best to balance your emotional and artistic aspirations. The keys to the Jaguar are on the end-table there. You can go warm it up for Old Uncle Chatsworth, since it’s a nippy night out tonight. And be careful not to step on any hobos. There’s a good kid. You got a future.

CONTINUES IN PART THREE