Unfortunately, I am in no position to refuse $75 for an hour of my time no matter what the the contents of that hour. They could have asked me to drink six bottles of catsup (ketchup?). They could have asked me to have tea with Glen Beck and soothe his uniquely bruised ego with prefabricated whispers about the peaceful forces at the center of the conservative universe (you are a child of the marketplace… the invisible hand will always lead you towards the light of the DOW…). I would have mowed lawns, bagged leaves (though I imagine the going rate of yard maintenance is somewhat lower), run backwards into the weird smelling basin at the end of the Salt River. But, alas, all they wanted was that I watch some movie trailers and tell them, no matter what I really thought, that the Rock was just the actor to breathe renewed life into that excalibur of cinematic roles, the Tooth Fairy.
I got to the industrial park fifteen minutes early and drove, as the instructions dictated, to the Southwest corner. There were others milling about the door aimlessly all with the same green sheet of paper that I had been given.
“You here for the market testing?” Asked a man in an LSU football jersey.
“Yeah.” Answered a girl with a nose ring that seemed misplaced by a few centimeters.
“How we get in?”
That static sort of quiet that accompanies strangers in a crowd ensued until finally, LSU man broke it with a loud exhale that was clearly meant to be communicative of a desire to communicate. His lips fluttered from the force of the air he’d pushed out.
“Geez, breathe much?” Said a middle aged woman clinging to her purse as if she’d just cleaned out her bank account and accidently stumbled onto the yard of a maximum security prison. She giggled, indicating that what had seemed like a rude comment had really been intended as playful banter.
“Sorry. Deviated septum.” Said the LSU man.
“I dreamed I was eaten by a crocodile last night,” said the purse clinging lady. “But, I guess that’s not the same.”
LSU man smiled, nodded and waited exactly long enough to seem as though he had made the decision to move away from her subsequent and unrelated to the comment.
Just then another man, a teen really, wearing a fedora and All Stars, approached nervous purse clinging lady. “I dreamed the supermarket was out of clam chowder.”
I switched my attention to another conversation which was midstream. “… Mormon.” This would be good.
“So how many heavens are there, like, for you all?” It was nose ring girl talking to a mormon in a Linkin Park shirt.
“A lot. I dunno exactly like, but a lot.”
“Don’t you, like, believe in other planets and stuff?”
Mars, Venus, Saturn all those fictitious orbs.
Just a bunch of average Americans going to rate movie trailers.
The door opened and we were ushered in, given name tags and assigned tables in rooms with two way mirrors, white boards and conference tables. There were pictures of a Phoenix past on the wall. City Hall 1888. It was wrapped in a bow leading me to believe this was some sort of inaugural. There were carriages parked out front. The streets were otherwise mostly empty. Just this one municipal building asserting itself in the center of this arid expansion of sand and brittle fauna that we call desert.
It reminded me of the violence that is involved in creating a shaped something from an amoebic nothing. Forgive my blatant Eurocentrism here (I am, emphatically, aware that there was not ‘nothing’ here), but I am speaking of perceptions, and for the European consciousness (which could be thought of as a lack of consciousness) this motion westward was involved in creating and defining an area that had not existed, almost like making a movie, or painting. Of course, they were painting over someone else’s painting, and painting in Neons that clashed with landscape instead of the more appropriate pallet of their predecessors.
There was a sandwich tray. Nose ring girl quickly folded two slices of square ham, two cherry tomatoes and a Kraft single freed from its cellophane wallet into a Miracle Whip slathered slice of Wonder Bread, and then just as quickly folded all of that into her mouth never ceasing her conversation with the Mormon.
“So, how do you get into the best heaven?” She asked him, her voice muffled by the mass of partially chewed sandwich.
He cringed just a little, but seemed to gauge that this mortal soul related info was more important than his own offended sense of etiquette. “Well, I dunno exactly, but I know you have to be Mormon.”
She stopped mid chew to frown, and her shoulders sagged. “Balls.”
Then our leader, Jan as her name tag indicated, arrived. She asked us to name our favorite comedians: Farell, Sandler, Rogan, Carey, Gervais, Carell, Black, Gallafenekis, Rock… The list went on and was no more or less surprising than you might expect.
We were asked why we thought one was funny and another not… A question that I imagine as more the grounds of philosophers than market researchers.
The point here, I guess, is that this exploration into the why is in itself so cynical, so scientific, so disgustingly clinical, that by the end of the session I had a hard time thinking of any of them as funny. Funny is spontaneous. Funny is the incorruptable corrupt at the center of a humans anarchisticly oriented wildly giggling self.
And the saddest thing: this is a moment indicative of our compulsion to capitalize every last tendril of our giggly human innards.
Funny is putting a big stone building in the middle of the desert, tying a bow around it, claiming that you have somehow carved this space from the meaty mass of reality into the tasty steak of a cultured locale, and convincing people to gather around it. Just look at all the sweaty Phoenicians on a 93 degree November afternoon, walking through one of a thousand recently converted ‘lifestyle centers’, long tracks of spritzers running along the facades of stores, keeping people from panting like dogs as they gait along the window lined corridor as if storefronts were fire hydrants.
That gives me an interesting new concept for debit.
So, myself, purse clinging lady, nose ring girl, LSU fan man, Mormon boy and a few unexceptional others sat around a table and ventured to carve out a theory of humor that could help these people better sell Adam Sandler’s newest excretion of reductive homophobia (Chuck and Larry anyone?).
I kept thinking of the weird Mormon heaven hierarchy, which I have not researched and know nothing about. I wondered if it would be better than Phoenix. Salt Lake City is not such a great place and if it is at all indicative of the Mormon architectural imagination, which could really in some pre-symbolic way be based in nothing but their conception of paradise, then it would probably have pretty crappy transit and be generally unfriendly to the pedestrian.
Jan shook me from my contemplation. “Mr. Day, would you find a film about the Tooth Fairy more or less attractive because it starred the Rock?”
“…Ummmm. I think I would probably scrap the film and invest in public transit.”
“Less. I would be less interested.”
I took my $75, multiplied it by 12, the number of people in my group, then by 5 the number of groups that day, then by 14, the number of days this research would be conducted to arrive at the conclusion that I haven’t done math since my Freshman year in college. Nonetheless, I was convinced that whatever number I would have calculated would have disgusted me.
Driving home past downtown Phoenix I didn’t see the lonely City Hall building from the photo. I saw the arching metal beams of a modern stadium, the glossy black windows of high rises, the crawling chrome worm that is Phoenix’s first line in a new rapid transit system, people sitting in front of cafes and bars the walls of which were lined with local artwork.
I thought about how we are still in control of these communities, these ’somethings’ that we are carving from ‘nothings’, from deserts, forests, plains, mountains…
If only someone would have offered us $75 to talk about about that.