Mall art by committee 


(The scene is a conference room located inside a shopping mall. A circular table dominates the room; atop it are several copies of a tabloid newspaper. Three people are seated around the table. TONÉ is a muscular black man dressed in a pink dance leotard. BONNIE is a morbidly obese white woman; her hair is done up in curlers and her T-shirt depicts Hello Kitty as a New York City firefighter. SETH has baggy, thrift-store clothing swathed across his teenage body, and is slumped in his chair, his arms folded across his chest. Standing before them is a 30-ish gentleman; from his Armani suit and confident air, we can tell he is a MARKETING PROFESSIONAL.)

MARKETING PROFESSIONAL: OK, everybody. I want to thank you all for giving up some of your valuable shopping time to take part in this little focus group we've put together. I really appreciate it.

SETH: Right back at ya. Where's my dollar?

MP: (chuckles) It's comin', chief. It's comin'. I know I told you all that I wanted your help in fine-tuning a product that could use it. Well, here's what we're going to be doing. I want you to take a look at a column that's been running in one of the local newspapers and tell me how you think they could make it better.

BONNIE: (confused and a bit angry) A what?

MP: A column. You, know, a page in a newspaper where a writer gets to go nuts, have a good time and say whatever's on his mind.

SETH: (barely interested) It's like a blog, right?

MP: Kind of, except less people see it. Anyway, this one's called Dog Playing Poker.

TONÉ: (brightening) Like those pitchers what hang in the dentist's office?

MP: Exactly. We're off to a great start. Now, each of you take a copy and give it a skim, all right?

(They grab the newspapers and begin to read. The MARKETING PROFESSIONAL notices that BONNIE's head is moving from right to left, indicating that she is merely feigning reading. But he is too much of a PROFESSIONAL to comment. Soon, they tire of the activity and put their papers down.)

MP: OK, who has thoughts?

TONÉ: Well, I thought it was really negative.

MP: What in particular didn't you like?

TONÉ: Oh, all those horrible jokes at the expense of the African Americans, the Gay Americans, the Franco Americans … what kind of person spends his time thinking up new ways to viciously denigrate poor, hardworking minorities? What have they ever done to him that he has to make fun of them in a public forum where they have no chance to fight back? Anyway, it's the Cubans who cause all the real trouble.

BONNIE: Me, I thought the frame was ugly.

TONÉ: Excuse me?

BONNIE: The pitcher frame. The big ol' frame they drew around all the funny words. It's ugly. Not like the good stuff you see at Thomas KIN-kade.

MP: Don't worry, we can lose the frame. Anybody want to talk about consistency?

SETH: Huh?

MP: A column is supposed to have a consistent voice. You're supposed to be able to pick it up week after week and know that you're reading the same person's thoughts, no matter the topic. It's something journalistic societies look for when they're giving out awards. This particular column has never won anything, and the writer is starting to worry that he's trying to do too much.

TONÉ: If he thinks that's his only problem, he's living in cloud cuckoo land, sweetheart. But I do grasp the point. (picks up newspaper) In this one, he's writing as himself, but he says he's applying for a job selling black-market lube at Guantanamo Bay. (picks up other issue) In this one, he's pretending he's some girl named Noelle, only she's a drug-sniffing dog at the Orlando International Airport. Excuse me? Where I come from, we have a remedy for that kind of focus problem. And we spell her "R-I-T-A-L-I-N!"

(SETH says nothing, just sits there fuming silently.)

MP: So you're saying you'd like to see him pick one approach and stick with it?

TONÉ: Precisely. Maybe he could focus in on the silly things people do when we think no one is looking, or how funny haircuts looked in the '80s. You know, something I could repeat to friends so we could all have a good giggle while we're getting pedicures.

BONNIE: (excited) And what about fishin'? Folks 'round these parts love to read jokes about fishin'. My Earl's got a whole book full of 'em out in the garage. Tell me: Does this Dog guy have a wife he could tell us about, or maybe some kids?

MP: Heaven forbid. But what I think I hear you saying is that you'd prefer humor closer to your own experiences. Any other suggestions?

TONÉ: Shorter sentences. Brevity, as the man said, is the soul of wit. This fellow's sentences just go on and on. He prattles away in needless and annoying circumlocution, as if he's trying to impress his readership with his grandiose vocabulary but only forestalling the depressing realization that the conclusion of said sentence will, sadly, tender no punch line to speak of.

BONNIE: Fuckin' A.

MP: (to SETH) Chief, we haven't heard from you in quite a while. You've got to have something you want to say.

SETH: (looks slowly around and then speaks) Yeah, I do. I think you're all fucked in the head. You don't evaluate a piece of writing like it's a diet soda that'll sell better if you make the logo on the can bigger. It's not a "product." It's goddamn creative expression, you morons! It's supposed to represent one person's vision and one person's vision alone. So what if it "offends" you? So what if you don't understand every word, or know what the point is going to be even before you've started reading? Maybe you could learn to enjoy a surprise once in a while. Maybe you could respect the guy for talking about what he wants to talk about and writing the way he feels he's supposed to. And maybe, just maybe, you could realize that life isn't a cable makeover show. When you stumble across something you don't appreciate, you can just say, "It's not for me," and move on, instead of trying to change it to fit it into your own narrow, vacuous lifestyle. Jesus!

TONÉ: (excited) I know! How about a jumble? People love to do the jumble.

MP: Well, we've taken enough of your time. Thanks so much for helping us out. Here's that dollar I promised you.

BONNIE: Hee! Mine's got the Monopoly guy on 'er!


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