Ever since I read George Plimpton’s Paper Lion in high school, I’ve been a huge fan of “stunt journalism.” This is the type of feisty reportage where a writer tries out for a professional football team, or takes a crack at conducting a symphony orchestra, and then writes a lighthearted article about his experiences.
The trajectory of these stories never varies: Ever since he was a kid the writer always wondered what it would be like to (fly an F-16/belt out “Nessun Dorma” at La Scala/hand-feed famished tiger sharks); but now that he’s finally gotten the opportunity to play (jai-alai/the viola da gamba/King Lear), he realizes how much talent and hard work go into (sumo wrestling/ aesthetic dentistry/repossessing cars in Detroit). And so, he comes away from his experience with heightened respect for (wheelchair samurai/door-to-door Torah repairmen/one-armed baristas).
The authors of these articles always portray themselves as earnest klutzes, and never fail to describe the despair they felt when they couldn’t get the bandilleras to stick in el toro’s flank, or when they realized they could never return Maria Sharapova’s serve even if she was blindfolded and playing with a teacup. But at some point, there occurs the moment when the writer gloats that, while he would never be mistaken for Picasso or Mike Tyson, he still feels that he acquitted himself reasonably well in the Comedy Store/Ecole des Beaux-Arts/Navy Seals, and has nothing to be ashamed of.
Obviously, there is no way for the reader to ascertain whether this is true.
Over the years, I’ve done quite a few stunts of my own; in fact, it’s long been a source of considerable income. I once spent an entire day impersonating Mickey Rourke; another passing myself off as Hugh Grant in South Philly; and spent another ordering Frappucinos at Starbuck’s while dressed up as Yoda. I also attended a crash course in Vermont in an effort to realize my lifelong goal of passing myself off as a falconer. I rehearsed for three months before doing a stand-up comedy routine at The Improv in New York; consulted with Frank Caliendo and Gilbert Gottfried prior to a stint as an impressionist at a dingy Gotham club; and spent 168 consecutive hours roller-blading, listening to rap music, wearing polyester loungewear, playing Myst, complaining about my parents, and being pointedly ironic in an effort to pass myself off as a member of Gen X.
But recently I noticed that everybody seems to be doing this sort of thing. First, Ben Cheever wrote a condescending book about being an upper-middle-class person who took crummy jobs at CompUSA just to see if he could crack the starting lineup as a member of the hoi polloi. Then Barbara Ehrenreich masqueraded as a factory worker, as if that was going to make anyone feel better. The reporter impersonating a dancer or bouncer or day trader is now a staple of the tabloids; the New York Times even has a guy named Harry Hurt III who writes a regular feature about attending clown school or learning the cello.
Concerned that the field was getting way too cluttered, and that younger writers poaching on my territory might one day put me out of work, I decided to up the ante in my own forays into stunt journalism. The first such undertaking was when I joined a veteran doo-wop group called The Coasters and filled in for backup singer Levi Perkins. Blessed with good pipes, and a reasonably competent dancer, I pulled this one off without a hitch, and while I’m not going to pretend that I would ever be confused with Sam Cooke or James Brown, I acquitted myself reasonably well.
While I was on tour, the bus driver for the group said that his brother-in-law ran a company that specialized in handling security for washed-up musicians. This led to the story “I Was A Bodyguard for Grand Funk Railroad” in Rolling Stone. While on tour with the men of funk, I fell in with an elderly gent at the Mohegan Sun Casino who asked if I would like to spend a month in the jungles of Colombia training as a Communist guerrilla with his cousin Esteban. He said that the guerrillas liked having journalists around, not only because their chipper stories would prove to the public that it wasn’t all gloom and doom out there in the barrancas and arroyos, but also because it reassured kids that anyone could be a guerrilla. That was the most fun I ever had as a journalist, and while I won’t go so far as to say that I would ever be confused with Ché Guevara or Comandante Zero, I’m no slouch when it comes to working a Kalashnikov or posing as an agrarian reformer and an implacable enemy of democracy. No slouch at all.