Anybody can be an amateur white asshole. But it takes a particular combination of luck and talent to become a professional.
First, of course, I am born white. Lots of white people don’t understand just how privileged they are to be born white. I do. Plus, my people are lily-skinned, Church of England Episcopalian-white.
But my parents are immigrants, outsiders, and my mom taught me to judge people by what they do and who they are, rather than by the color of their skin. I’m 8 when we move to Hueytown, Alabama, during the roiling, boiling, festering racial cauldron of the mid-1960s. Men like Bear Bryant and George Wallace set the bar high for White Assholes. I see Governor Wallace being hailed a hero, his picture on the front page of the newspaper as he blocks black students from entering the University of Alabama, proudly proclaiming, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The mating call of the Alpha White Asshole. My mom despises those men who long nostalgically for the return of slavery.
As soon as I can, I escape this clenched-tight, uber-polite, post-puritanical, repression-twisted world. I seek out radicals, subversives and revolutionaries. Like so many young Caucasoids over the last 50 years, I aspire to be black, without taking on any of the inconveniences. I adapt black language, style and strut. Or try to anyway. Because they are cool. And I am not.
After receiving a very expensive education reserved for people like me, and moving up the ranks in show business from extra to actor, I find myself in Hollywood. Thirty-three and booking commercials as a pitchman for companies like AT&T, Publishers Clearing House and McDonald’s. My agent calls with an audition at Paramount for Eddie Murphy’s production company. They’re doing a TV pilot for a sketch comedy show called Bust a Move. It’s a black Saturday Night Live, for ABC. They’re trying to duplicate the success Fox has had with a black sketch comedy show called In Living Color. Naturally the cast is mostly black, with a sprinkling of other ethnicities, one of whom is provocative comic Margaret Cho.
White shows from a certain era needed a token Black Idiot to laugh at, with his bug-eyed, shiftless, shuffling exaggeration of the worst characteristics of a race as seen by a ruling class that wanted to subjugate them. Bust a Move needs a token White Asshole to mock, with his entitled, pompous, bullying arrogance, his tiny brain and even smaller penis. I’m perfect for the role.
The token White Asshole on In Living Color is an obscure comic named Jim Carrey. He has become a huge star and will go on to get $20 million a movie. So I’m excited.
The sketch I audition with is like a copy of a copy of a copy. It’s bad, empty, hollow. But against all odds I alchemize raw straw into comedy gold. I kill. Destroy. Drop a comedy WMD on the room.
For days I wait. You spend a lot of time as an actor waiting. Waiting to get auditions. Waiting at auditions. Waiting for callbacks. Waiting at callbacks. Waiting to hear about callbacks. Waiting and waiting and waiting on sets. Waiting to get paid. Waiting for the unemployment check. Waiting on tables.
Finally, ABC offers me a contract.
Before an actor makes a TV pilot with a network, they sign a seven-year contract. My contract is standard, yet completely incomprehensible. I keep looking for the part that states how much I get paid. After wading through 17 tons of party-of-the-first-parts and heretofore-in-perpetuities gobbledygook, there it is.
My eyes pop out of my head. My payoff for a million rejections, a decade of toiling away in flop-sweaty comedy club/toilets in front of bitter, twisted comics, sadsack drunks and subhuman bookers. Portraying Employee #1 in Sexual Harassment: Don’t Do It. Doing two years of hard time as the MC at Chippendales wearing a tux and roller skates: $500,000. An episode. $11 million. A year.
That’s what I’m scheduled to make in year seven. I see myself at the top of the White Asshole Mountain, with a mansion in Malibu, the best drugs money can buy and a smoking hot supermodel girlfriend.
I am now officially a Professional White Asshole.
But Bust a Move is a hot mess. ABC wants to make Eddie Murphy happy. And they know that there is money to be made from black comedy. But they, like America, are terrified of all that blackness. Word on the set is that the title Bust a Move tested “too urban.” That’s Hollywood speak for black. And the sad fact is, the show’s a lame, watered-down pseudo comedy. It’s White Assholes trying to make bank off blackness. There’s nothing revolutionary, political, or even overtly black about it. Apart from the color of everyone’s skin. Except mine. So they change the name to Move the Crowd. Which, besides being steeped in more lameness, doesn’t even make sense. It’s announced that Move the Crowd will be on ABC’s fall schedule. I rejoice.
Then Rodney King is savagely beaten with billy clubs by Los Angeles Police Department officers. It’s hard to remember, now that this kind of horror has become so normalized, but this was really the first time that many Americans saw the raw brutally that police have inflicted on undefended black men every day throughout the history of our country.
Even though Mr. King, a black man, is seen on tape in the fetal position being pummeled like a piece of meat being tenderized, the officers are found not guilty. Hours after the acquittals, angry black people storm through Los Angeles, burning and looting while the rich White Assholes who run L.A. sip martinis and watch in horror, secluded in their opulence and terrified that they’ve just started the apocalypse. When the smoke finally clears, ABC quickly and quietly moves Move the Crowd off the fall schedule, shoving it into the great Hollywood black hole, where TV pilots go to die. A producer tells me that ABC is terrified of “blacklash.” I argue that maybe they killed the show because it sucks. He smirks and says, “That never stopped ’em before.”
Kiss your $11 million goodbye.
So I don’t get to be the token Professional White Asshole on the hit black show. But the casting director of Bust a Move/Move the Crowd (who happens to be black) takes a shine to me. Soon thereafter a show called Roc, starring the black actor Charles “Roc” Dutton, puts out a call for a token White Asshole sports fan who shares a Lamaze class with Roc and the pregnant Mrs. Roc. The casting director brings me in to audition. Destiny calls. I answer.
I get the part and continue my climb up Professional White Asshole Mountain!
I’m dead nervous when I step onto the set of Roc, expecting the worst and hoping for the best, afraid I’ll accidentally let my sick need to be liked force me to call somebody bro or brother or homie. They’ll see right through me, to the rotten, twisted scumbucket I really am. Word will spread and I’ll be drummed out of the business in disgrace.
But I’m really looking forward to acting with the Roc. He comes packing a big mythology. He’s served time in the Big House, and whilst there he’d learned to act Shakespeare. Then on to Yale Drama, and straight to Broadway where he’s lauded and kudized robustly. In typical Hollywood fashion, he’s rewarded with his own shitty TV show.
When I show up, Roc isn’t there yet. This is not unusual. They bring the peons, peasants and technicians in early, and the royalty often doesn’t show up ’til after lunch. But everyone’s very nice to me. They seem to easily distinguish between the White Asshole I’m playing on the show, and the tolerant, inclusive, racially-blind White Mensch I believe I am.
Finally Roc shows up. Scowling, growling, sour and foul. I figure this is his Shakespeare ex-con persona. At the table-read, he mumbles and mutters his lines, wrapped in a cocoon of ill humor. He never talks to or acknowledges me. Trying to act in a scene with someone who refuses to look at you is very, very hard. I’m attacked by panic. I desperately want to break the fourth wall between us. I want to tell him that I’m not a PWA; I just play one on TV. But he’s the star, and I’m the 12th banana. So I suffer in silence.
On the show, Roc plays a straight-talking, gruff-but-big-hearted, fair-minded man. The real Roc turns out to be a surly churl. He keeps snapping at people, bitching and moaning about what a drag it is to do his lame show. Meanwhile, I’m making union minimum, while a crew member tells me he’s pulling in $500,000 an episode. In terms of black and white, at this moment I’m the underpaid, underprivileged, underrepresented man, in a country where 99.9% of the time, it’s the opposite. It sucks.
Turns out Roc doesn’t dislike me. Turns out he doesn’t notice me at all. Turns out he’s a Black Asshole. It frees me actually. When we tape the show, I’m able to bloom like a hothouse flower, and make everyone laugh at the pampered, petulant, entitled, arrogant bombasticity of my Professional White Asshole.
Thus fortified, I dedicate myself to becoming the best token White Asshole I can be. I audition for and win roles as White Asshole Cop, White Asshole Record Producer, White Asshole TV Producer, White Asshole Book Editor, White Asshole Con Man and White Asshole Dad. My versatility is staggering. Eventually I become convinced that there is no White Asshole beyond my grasp. I see myself playing White Asshole celebrities, congressmen, maybe even a White Asshole Supreme Court Judge.
While I’m rising to the top of Hollywood’s Professional White Asshole food chain, I end up pitching in a softball tournament in West L.A. against a big-balling team called the Black Barons. I shut them down. After the game, they ask me to pitch for their team. I happily agree to be the token white pitcher. Turns out they’re cool dudes to boot. We win a ton of games.
The Black Barons have an annual summer picnic. It’s a gorgeous L.A. day, everybody’s chilling with their ladies and kids and moms and dads, Marvin Gaye playing on the boombox, barbeque and potato salad, biscuits, chips and beer.
I show up a little late. I’m the only white person.
I have a huge watermelon on my shoulder.
“Hey,” I flash a big white smile, “who wants some watermelon?”
Dead silence falls. Wide eyes and open mouths confront me. Sweat busts out on my pasty-faced forehead, and I can hear my lily skin sizzle in the Southern California sun. At the grocery store, staring at the watermelons, the comic Muse had poked my funny bone. It had seemed like such a hysterical, postmodern joke-in-a-joke, a surefire way of lampooning myself as the White Asshole. Driving to the picnic, I waffled furiously back and forth, trying to decide whether this was a good idea, or a bad, offensive joke that only a privileged White Asshole would think was funny.
What’s worse, being a Professional White Asshole or a real one?
After what seems like a month, Big Bubba, all 300 pounds of him, busts into a silly, high-pitched giggle. This is all it takes for the Black Barons to crack up laughing. Suddenly I’m everybody’s BFF, getting my balls lovingly busted, offered meat and mead, toasted and feted. We eat. We hang. We party.
By lampooning myself as a White Asshole, did I prove that the Professional White Asshole is not an actual White Asshole after all? I hope so, but I’m still not so sure.
June 17, 1994. I’m playing with the Black Barons in Culver City in the shadow of the 405 freeway. A guy in the stands shouts at the top of his lungs, “Holy shit, they’re coming this way! They’re coming this way!” A crowd gathers around his portable TV, straining to see. On the tiny screen is some kind of chase, with helicopters, and a long line of police cars.
The sound of choppers fills the air, as the whirlybirds appear overhead. A maelstrom of cars and howling siren wails straight toward us from the San Diego Freeway.
It’s OJ Simpson. In the White Bronco.
He’s leading a snaking cadre of cops on a grim goose chase. The crowd, the players, even the umps are mesmerized by this epic Greek tragedy unfolding right before our eyes. Someone starts yelling: “GO OJ, GO!”
This is a tagline from a series of rental car commercials starring the all-American football hero, back when corporations used to hire the murderer-to-be as their spokesman. The cry goes up from the largely black crowd, which chants, waves fists, and punches the air with crazy jubilation: “GO OJ, GO! GO OJ, GO! GO OJ, GO!”
The Black Barons and spectators go nuts, high-fiving, celebrating and congratulating. “GO OJ, GO! GO OJ, GO! GO OJ, GO!”
I shout and chant and high-five along with my black brothers. It’s intoxicating. As I take a step back and watch, it hits me. For centuries black people in America have watched White Assholes chase down, torture and lynch them and theirs. Just once, maybe the black guy gets to win.
Later I shiver when I find out what everyone had been celebrating.
The call comes in. I’m going to the Mecca of Professional White Assholes.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
I see myself tearing it up on the set with Will Smith, our spellbinding chemistry blowing everybody away. I’ll become the white Jazzy Jeff. Me and Will, we’ll golf. Go to Lakers games. We’ll star together in my Defiant Ones-meets-Beverly Hills Cop-meets-Trading Places screenplay. Me and Will will show everybody: Yes, we can all get along.
The writer appearing on an episode of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
Before the show, the whole cast gathers in Will’s dressing room. He leads us in a mad group-chant/warm-up that’s equal parts street corner freestyle rap and old-timey Baptist call-and-response revival. Will is a staggering, world-class riffer, ranter and rhymer. He gets us all jacked up, laughing, feeling good, and never resorts to mean-spirited ugliness. It’s inspiring, feels like we’re doing something important and uplifting and holy. It doesn’t seem white or black. It seems FUN! And we’re getting P-A-I-D!
Will warms up the crowd before the show, getting everybody all jiggy ’til the whole joint is jumping. And when all those lights, cameras, technicians, crew and hyped-up audience are focused on me, it’s electromagnetic, pulse-raising, adrenalizing. I’ve never felt more alive.
There’s a problem though. At the table-read and the run-throughs I’d reach into my bag of tricks and pull out comedy bits, shticks and ad-libs. My stock-in-trade. But toward the end of the week, new pages are slid under my door. My bits, shticks and ad-libs are now Will’s bits, shticks and ad-libs. When we finally do the scenes, I end up just standing there with my dumb thumb up my White Asshole ass while Will does my shtick back at me. All the best acting I did was in tiny theaters and films that no one ever saw. I think of what all those old-time black actors, singers and dancers had to endure, when they finally got to be on the big stage and had to play token black folk, all their talent poured into buffoonery. Mammy and gangster. Field hand and whore. Rapist and doofus. Then I realize my white assholeness is again making me a guest at my own pity party. Because I get to go back to my entitled white life. While those black performers had to return to a world where they were automatically second-class citizens.
When I finish my time on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, I’m consumed with deep melancholy. I realize that as a PWA in black sitcoms, there is no place to go but down. And frankly, I didn’t like it at the top of White Asshole Mountain. Or rather, I liked the rush, the recognition, and the money. But it left a bad aftertaste. Felt too much like high-end whoring and not enough like using my talents to create art that would make the world a better place.
My Professional White Asshole swan song is in a truly wretched sitcom called Minor Adjustments, starring Rondell Sheridan. I’d actually worked with him before. My first job in New York City was at the New York Renaissance Fair, portraying the Plagueman, a peasant who went around with a cart picking up the bodies of dead plague victims. Rondell Sheridan was the sheriff, a coveted star role. I tried to improvise with Rondell a few times. He acted like an Arrogant Narcissistic Asshole. But I thought maybe that was just him really committing to playing the sheriff. But whenever I saw him hanging out after working hours, he seemed the same way. Still, I thought, that could just be me being me, assuming that everybody thinks they’re better than me. And then realizing they’re right.
I’m actually looking forward to renewing acquaintances with Rondell. Although I suppose it wouldn’t be renewing, since we never really actually were acquainted. But I imagine we can have a good time chewing the fat about how weird it is that we both acted in the Renaissance Fair and now we’re in Hollywood acting in his lame sitcom.
But when I step on the set, the thrill is gone. I realize with a sad, world-weary smile that I am now officially a jaded Professional White Asshole. Turns out Rondell is exactly the same Arrogant Narcissistic Asshole, only now he’s in an expensive suit instead of a spiffy Renaissance sheriff’s outfit. And the script is so bad. There aren’t any jokes in it. Call me old-fashioned, but I like my comedy to have jokes. That are actually funny. So I do what I do. Only I don’t care anymore, so I’m letting loose, truly liberating my inner White Asshole and giving him free reign to display his arrogance, privilege, entitlement on a whole new level. I’m slinging comedy knives everywhere, and they’re cutting people up.
The day of the taping I get an urgent message from my agent. When I call her, she barks harshly into the phone as only a furious Hollywood agent can: “What the hell are you doing?”
Panic grips its bony fingers around my neck, chokes my throat as PTSD grabs my guts and nuts and squeezes hard.
“What do you, uh … mean?” I hate how thin and weak my voice sounds.
“I just got a call from one of the producers,” venom spits into my ear, “they say you keep improvising and stealing focus.”
“What?” I’m shocked and terrified.
“Were you making up lines and stealing focus?” she sounds like a district attorney grilling a serial killer of nuns and puppies.
“NO!” I say too fast and frantic. Wait a minute. Was I making up lines? Was I stealing focus? I suppose. “Well, I, uh —”
“Well, CUT IT OUT!” she shouts.
“I, uh … I was just trying to do my job, and —”
“Just hit your mark, say your lines, then keep your mouth shut. What is wrong with you?”
“Uh —” I have no idea how to answer that question. What is wrong with me?
“The producer told me, and I quote, ‘Tell your boy to quit being such an asshole.’”
OH NO! I’ve been a Professional White Asshole for so long that I’ve actually turned into a real-life one too.
The rest of my time on set, I hit my marks. I say my lines. Then I keep my mouth shut. No more bits, shticks or ad-libs. When we tape the show, and all the focus of all the cameras and technicians and audience is looking at me, the thrill is gone. I find myself watching myself going through the motions of phoning in this lame, pseudo-comedy. Comedy lite. A third fewer calories than regular comedy. With none of the laughs.
I don’t want to be a Professional White Asshole anymore.
For a long time after I retire from the PWA business, I’m bitter. I feel like the universe never gives me what I deserve. How come I’m not Ace Ventura, Pet Detective? Starring with Cameron Diaz in The Mask? Getting filthy rich being Dumb and Dumber? I used to ache in freakish agony, drowning myself in sex and drugs to turn off that faucet gushing rivers of poor-poor-pitiful-me-ness that always ended up asking: Why did the stupid L.A. riots have to happen, and ruin everything for me?
It takes a while to realize that my personal tragedy — not getting to be a big shiny star so everybody in the whole wide world would love me — was more White Asshole privilege. And with this realization comes another: I was proud not to be a token, portraying intolerant, hateful, color-challenged idiots. Proud not to be a tiny cog in a system that convinces people that their genitals smell bad, that they’re too fat, too old, too dumb, too unlovable, that if they just buy a bigger screen TV, lease a larger car, lose enough weight, take enough Viagra, and spray enough chemicals under their arms and up their vaginas, they’ll finally be happy.
And I realize looking back that if I’d gotten all that TV blood money, I probably would’ve killed myself with relentless intoxicating self-medication. Or become a bitter, unloved and unlovable hack. Leaving the lush lure of Hollywood fool’s gold helps me hit bottom. And it isn’t until I hit bottom that I know all this. And it isn’t until I know all this that I become lovable. And loved. And become a writer, find a line of work that feeds my soul instead of sucking it out, and leaves the world a better place instead of making it worse. And find a partner who does the same.
After I retire from the Professional White Asshole business, it seems like a new day is dawning in America. A black man becomes President of the United States. Black television shows and movies are more popular than ever. Black music is everywhere, all over the world. As an ex-PWA, I am excited about the possibility of moving into a post-racial era where humans really are judged by their ability, actions and character, not by their race, creed or color.
But of course the pendulum must swing. The White Assholes have made a remarkable comeback. They’re marching in the streets with tiki torches, forming family-friendly hate clubs on the internet, engaging in dog-whistle racist politics, invading college campuses with white supremacist groups, and gunning down unarmed black folks like they’ve always done.
They’re so popular they even got their very own President.