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.
The stunt in Colombia led to one of my most successful ventures ever when a money-launderer in Bogota hooked me up with an IMF official in Zurich and I landed an assignment to work for a month at the federal reserve in Zimbabwe. Initially, President Mugabe’s people only wanted to see if I could cut the mustard as an interest-rate forecaster. Like Plimpton, when he’d gotten smacked around good and proper years earlier at training camp with the Detroit Lions, I expected to get my head handed to me. But no, I turned out to be pretty darned good at the sub-Saharan rate-forecasting game, and even helped bring down the Zimbabwean inflation rate to around 130,000 percent a week when I suggested that the government stop printing money on Thursdays and periodically move the decimal point three places to the left.
“That way, you can keep the public guessing,” I explained. I’m not saying that anyone would ever confuse me with John Maynard Keynes or Milton Friedman, but I certainly didn’t make a fool of myself, either.
After I plugged my story on the Colbert Report, I was slated to spend a month training as a bag man for the yakuza and write a story about it for AARP under the title “Overseas Retirement Options.” But then I got a call from the Treasury Department. Tim Geithner was really upset about the way his TARP program was being vilified by folks on the right and said that, provided I could guarantee major national exposure for my story, he would be willing to let me come down to Washington and work in his office for a month. That way, I could show the public that rescuing the global financial system wasn’t a piece of cake, that it wasn’t just a bunch of bozos from Dartmouth making all this stuff up on the spot.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that it was smooth sailing from the get-go. The first few days on the job I kept forgetting the difference between a run-of-the-mill credit swap and a reverse collateralized mortgage obligation—which really ticked off Larry Summers. “Get it straight, douche!” he snapped.
Let me tell you, that was a humbling experience. It was even worse when I admitted to Paul Volcker that I didn’t know what BofA stood for, and couldn’t entirely grasp the concept of “capital structure.” Then one day it all clicked. Just like the time I’d taken the crash golf course at the Grand Cypress Resort for GQ, and managed to land on the green in two after triple-bogeying the first two holes. I had my eureka moment at Treasury when Geithner stopped by and asked if I was starting to learn the ropes. For whatever reason, I suggested that the major U.S. banks be subjected to a stress test, that the policy of marking toxic assets to market henceforth be abolished, as it was spooking the public, and that the government immediately take over General Motors.
“Forcing Wagoner to walk the plank would send a positive message to Main Street that you’re serious about clearing up this mess,” I said. “And if Citigroup doesn’t get its act together, I’d ice that putz Pandit, too.”
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I knocked the ball out of the park every time during my brief stint at the Treasury. Heck, I was working with the best and the brightest; these people were scary-smart; they didn’t need a knucklehead like me to tell them how to fix the economy. But because I’d spent so many years as a stunt journalist, I got the hang of things pretty quickly. Moreover, restructuring the American economy is a whole lot easier than posing as a bloodthirsty Maoist guerrilla. To tell you the truth, it’s a whole lot easier than golf.
So in the end I didn’t do so badly. True, I screwed up when I told the Chinese ambassador that if he wasn’t happy with the dollar’s recent performance, he could take his own jerkwater currency and stick it where the sun don’t shine. And I probably could have come up with a better acronym than TARP if I’d really set my mind to it. But for the most part I did what I set out to do and I’m reasonably happy with the results. Geithner himself paid me the highest compliment when he told Barack Obama, “This guy picks things up so fast we should ship him to Pyongyang to negotiate with Kim Jong-Il.”
But I know my limitations—and besides, I already had my next assignment lined up. Maxim is sending me out to the foothills of Pakistan to learn how to flog pint-sized teenaged girls. Luckily, it’s the moderate wing of the Taliban I’ll be working with out there. You know, the guys who can take a joke.
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Closing Time: A Memoir.