Hot Tub Time Machine
It was September 2, 2008 at 730pm, an hour after I got voted off America’s Got Talent (AGT) on live television. I was soaking in the hot tub of the Sheraton Universal Hotel, where the show put the contestants up, in shock. Realizing I was flying out of LA back home to NY the next day, I wanted to finally experience the hot tub. When I competed on the show, I only let myself gaze at the bubbly cauldron from my hotel window, enviously and hungrily watching all the hot young contestants frolicking about. Still, smugly I thought they weren’t keeping their head in the game while I did yoga in my hotel room alone. But the joke was on me. I was one of the first to get kicked off from the Semifinals. Alone in the hot tub (everyone else was watching the rest of the show in the hotel lobby) I called my parents and told them “I can’t do this anymore. I don’t know what I’m going to do now but I can’t keep being this joke.”
They never showed the hours of footage of my talking and crying, dedicating the performance to my dead sister who had been murdered, and to my mother’s school, founded in her memory. Instead, they introduced me as a “classically trained trombonist” and aired random comments of me describing how music takes me to a “happy place” and that I was “good at what I do.” They obviously wanted to play up the innocent angle before I started playing Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” and then busted out with some old school funk and disco dancing. Yes, dancing. The kind of dancing most do not expect from an innocent looking 5 foot 7 inch, skinny, blond hair, blue eyed, white guy.
Many have said that it was the trombone that made my act so funny and “entertaining”. But my whole life I always got the same reaction when I simply danced. The trombone just seemed to add to the unassuming look. As a NYC freelance musician, many bands hire me because aside from getting a competent trombonist they know I can always get the crowd going with my dancing.
Before AGT I appeared on eight other national and international tv shows doing the same bit. But it wasn’t until I was put into the “novelty” category in the semifinals of AGT that it really hit me. Contestants on these shows rarely know how their story will be told after taping because they sign their rights away to say anything about it in exchange for the exposure. No longer a “musician” like the black hip hop violinists that season or a “dancer” like the many who appeared, I was put under the “novelty” category. Why was I really such a novelty? My whole life people always brought up race and sexuality after I performed. The majority of comments on my youtube clips include “white boy” and “gay”. While those things were never addressed outright on the television shows I appeared, perhaps it was those implied taboo issues that made my (trombone) dancing so funny and novel.
A woman once emailed me after my first television clip went viral from a show called Steve Harvey’s Big Time in 2003 saying that she thought what I did was “modern day minstrelsy”. Others often compared me to the movie character, “Napoleon Dynamite”, or the “Evolution of Dance Guy” much to my chagrin. If you are white and don’t look like Channing Tatum, Justin Timberlake, or dressed like a b-boy, if often seems people think you are funny to watch. Jimmy Fallon’s dance off/lip sync skits on The Tonight Show, Andy Sandberg and Jason Sudeikis Saturday Night Live skits during the 2000’s, and even Jim Carrey dancing on In Living Color in the 90’s all come to mind. Why did average looking whiteness translate into a joke, or into such an automatic surprise if you proved to be a halfway decent dancer?
Frustrated with my career not going further, I wanted to openly confront the racial and sexual issues I felt kept me being taken more seriously. Not many want to hear from a middle class straight white male about this topic because as a group we are thought to have every desirable privilege. I rarely ever had the privilege, however, to be taken seriously as one who dances to black popular music, or one who could equally participate in expressions about personal oppression. Most of all, I had never heard anyone speak or write about what I have witnessed as a taboo link between white privilege and a penchant for bad dancing.
I want to explain the joke SO much that people won’t think it’s that funny anymore. People can see the popular stereotype of silly dancing white guys the way I see it, a sorry compensation for white guilt, and a seemingly brainwashed soulful cuckoldry exchanged for perceived economic privilege. I wanted to offer new insight into deeper power issues of our society, instead of leaving it to an established system of politically corrected talking heads and comedians. Maybe self-empowerment from an untold perspective could show how universal, overcoming obstacles can be while respecting the different semantics and urgencies of each person’s process.
A month later after stewing that night in the hot tub I started writing this book. It started out as an autobiography, but then I found myself asking questions like, “where did the concept of race come from?” and “why do we look so differently from each other anyway?” After reading a number of books on evolutionary biology, anthropology, history, power dynamics and philosophy from a variety of perspectives I found that a lot of people today hold on to very conflicted assertions about race, heritage, and entitlement. After three years, I finished a first draft of this book that was way too scattered, preachy, and overly analytical in its scope. Too many broad strokes for someone not established in academia, and too much intellectualizing for the average person to be interested.
After many starts and stops I hope this final version strikes a palatable balance between personal anecdotes, ideas, and academic reference. While police shootings, profiling, economic and educational opportunity require our utmost urgent attention, it would be foolish to overlook the little things. Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote in Sherlock Holmes, “It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important”. Similarly I hope I can show how something as small and petty as white people’s silly dancing to black music represent much bigger dynamics in the exchange of power in America and even the rest of humanity.
Most importantly I felt it was important to write this book from a performer’s perspective. As performing artists we are well familiar and have witnessed first hand that at the end of all the rhetoric, energy trumps everything. Openness, selfless joy, and shared pain affect all people, disarming us. It’s that energy that can be useful at the bargaining table for exchanging power. Welcome to Uncle Tim’s Condo. Make yourself at home.