Standard procedure says to start this article with a quote attributed to H.L. Mencken: "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public." But "underestimating" is too big a word for the American public, so let me tell you about five performing artists who beat the odds and achieved their dreams ... however weird those dreams turned out to be.
#5. Opera's Greatest Failure Outlasts Her Critics
Some are born to greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them, and some pry greatness' jaws open to stick their tongue down its mewling throat. Florence Foster Jenkins was one of the last group. It's a good thing her chosen path was opera, because if she'd picked politics, we'd probably still be toiling under statues of her that blot out the sun.
Despite making her name in the cavernous opera halls of America, Flo-Fo* never showed an aptitude for music in her youth or adolescence or adulthood or ... crikey, Florence, will you pack it in already?
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No. She never did pack it in.
The problem was that Florence Foster Jenkins was a TERRIBLE singer. If the world of opera were the city of Springfield, Ms. Jenkins would be Ralph Wiggum with his head stuck in a bucket. She was the only woman in the performing arts whose voice could strip paint. She made Yoko Ono stubbing her toe sound like Regina Spektor having an orgasm. But don't take my brilliant words for it; listen for yourself:
Even though her parents forbade this child of luxury to pursue her creative calling (which you might recognize as both the plot of Frozen and the life story of every theater nut obsessed with Frozen), she never quit her dream, no matter how horrifying it was to see her practice it (again -- Frozen). She bucked their condemnations when she got engaged to a much older doctor -- which they also condemned -- and there her musical journey pauses, but does not end.
Fate was apparently an opera fan and did all it could to keep her off the stage. Florence divorced Dr. Jenkins, but not before he gave her syphilis. She took a mercury "cure" that left her bald. But giving up is for lesser souls, like the Denver Broncos. You kick Flo-Fo when she's down, she'll only rise up taller and further off-key. Life gave her syphilis, and she made syphil-opera-ade.
Like many successful socialites (Bruce Wayne, Cinderella, the Walton family), the deaths of her parents were her launchpad to success. And just like those examples, she believed with all her heart she was destined for something greater than the rest of us.
For 32 years, the Rebecca Black of opera refused to believe she didn't have what it takes, and gave it to music regardless. She was so bad that being injured in a car crash actually improved her voice.
Truly she was the anti-D.O.C.
But if that wasn't embarrassing enough, she made her own (crappy) costumes, was mocked by her pianist while she performed, and tossed flowers to the crowd during her acts and then took them back for the next show.
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"We're not laughing at you. Really. Just everything about you."
Why She's a Success:
Everybody knows that the only watchable episode of American Idol is the first one of the season. Therein all the self-delusional idiots fly off the handle when the judges tell them what their hearts already whisper: You are terribly ordinary. That was three whole decades of her life. She was basically the William Hung of her time, but instead of a chipper attitude you had to admire, she pioneered new trails in denial.
The world isn't short of people who think anyone scoffing at them is a jealous hater, but very few continue to pursue a career in it for 32 years with the entire field begging her to listen to reason. And only Foster Jenkins shot the moon on public opinion. She went from freak show to beloved entertainer as crowds of people forgot they came there to laugh at her.
She did to opera criticism what opera singers normally do to wineglasses.
And if you've ever been to an opera (presumably with my dad, because that's the only way anybody under 50 attends the opera), you know that the audience is the worst kind of fans. Depending on the performance, they either leap from their seats to prove who can clap the most demonstratively or else fling the stinkiest, most self-righteous disdain.
Florence Foster Jenkins understood that risk back when opera was mainstream, and she did it anyway. Maybe her singing was weak because the atmosphere was much heavier than Earth's on the colossal ovaries it took her to brave that stage.
She did what she loved and didn't let anyone tell her to leave. She even patronized a sculptor to make a bust for the Verdi Club, an Italian-American social club (which in 1916 might as well have been the same thing as an operatic society). How many statues have you commissioned for your passion?
If you really want to sum up why Flo-Fo deserved her acclaim, let the reason be in her own words: "People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing."
#4. Frenchman Farts in King's General Direction
You probably think the 19th century was a time of prim manners that makes Downton Abbey look like Woodstock. And you'd think right, except it was also a big ol' whore rodeo full of men pissing on the sidewalk and orphans getting themselves crushed to death by carthorses at the rate of two a day. So in that context, you may understand the success of Le Petomane, Joseph Pujol.
This was a man whose entire career was based on his ability to inhale air through his sphincter and let it out in whatever fashion he so desired. He was sort of like your friend who can burp the alphabet, if she were doing a handstand.
That's right: Your gross friend's a lady. EQUALITY!
As a child, Pujol went swimming, only to discover he had the special ability to inhale through his rectum. And while you're sitting there saying that's scientifically impossible, the ghost of Joseph Pujol is suctioning a grape out of a jar of carpenter's glue and spitting it 10 feet to the tune of "La Marseillaise." And even if ghosts aren't real and the grape thing never happened, isn't the deeper truth that it did happen in our hearts, where Santa Claus is also real but hopefully does not have the butt-song ability?
Yes, Joseph Pujol was a born fartiste whose impressive anal prowess enabled him to emit ass-music so dexterously that he convinced the customers at his bakery that he was playing musical instruments behind the counter. That means he also holds the distinction of owning history's only bakery where shopgoers held their noses.
His talents came to light in the army when he demonstrated his talent to his fellow soldiers. If the odds are your guts will be shot out later that day, odorless farts are the least mortifying air that's going to pass through them.
Everyone loves a fart joke, so our hollow-hinded baker was able to parlay his talents into a full performing career. He even starred in a silent film, which ... defeats the entire point. Shoot, anyone can claim to be a fartsmith on mere video. Look, I'll do it right now:
This is exactly what Vintagio was made for.
Why He's a Success:
His was no mere carnival act. Pujol played for royalty, meaning at some point a high-ranking courtier had to gently approach the throne and inquire "if his majesty would be so pleased as to witness a man of iron colon, who could expel, in great force, from his mighty buttocks, a gust of air so as to resemble to the ear the works of Handel."
As Geoffrey Chaucer proved and Pujol confirmed, nobody appreciates a fart joke more than kings ... probably because they spend their entire life surrounded by people holding in their farts.
He was featured in Le Moulin Rouge, which would make -- you guys -- the BEST sequel in the history of movies. The female lead wouldn't even have to die of tuberculosis. She could asphyxiate, contract cholera, or get her eye shot out by an errant fart ... the possibilities are numerous.
Four. The number of possibilities is four.
Sadly, World War I ended Pujol's career. (So thanks for that, Gavrilo Princip, you fucking pile of moist dicks.) Since it was the most horrifying war in human history, Pujol quite rightly discerned that it was not a time for precision farting. Gone were the gassy, compressed days of youth, when halcyon clouds of common air belched forth into the hungry world at standard temperature and pressure to again join their brother molecules. No! This was a world at war, and it had no need for any more pressurized explosions, thank you.
Pujol retired and opened a biscuit factory. Upon his death, his family declined monetary offers to study his body. He went out with way more dignity and respect than you'd ever expect of a man who farted for a living. His legacy amounts to one man, Mr. Methane.
But we can dream, can't we? Of a world where the performing farts flourished and prospered? Where terms like "flatuliste," "farteur," "fartmancer," and "gasophonic" are part of the common parlance? Oh, friends! Think upon't with me! For what are men, if they do not (g)aspire to greatness?
#3. Flesh-Sock Puppets Delight the Populace
Here are a few general facts about a man and his relationship to his penis.
1) It is probably big enough
2) This won't stop him from worrying it's not
3) It looks like a rabbit
If that third one is new to you, then you've obviously never masturbated by flashlight. Or sat through an awkward dinner at my house.
It's awkward because I have a booth in the dining room.
You've also never seen the international stage show Puppetry of the Penis. I wasn't sure I should include this one, because creator Simon Morley knows exactly what you think of his art. Just check out his kickass website (turn your speakers up), which is replete with power chords, a prawn, a ram, a pineapple, and folk hero Ned Kelly. Personally, I will be very impressed if he can twist his penis into an accurate likeness of Ned Kelly (although both do have helmets).
Penile puppetry is much like playing bass or dating an alcoholic. It takes a week to become an expert, but several years to become a grandmaster. The question is why anyone would choose to in the first place when you could use those skills to get laid faster in different circumstances. There are only two ways manipulating your penis for a crowd becomes an idea.
The first involves a pretty good party, and the other is born of desperation when masturbation becomes boring. That said, these guys are Australian, and that country considers a headbutt fine art. By Australia's manly but upside-down standards, turning your donger into sculpture is an application for a federal arts grant.
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Although in Australia, federal grants are plump koalas, which may be utilized as meat, fur, or personal assistants.
But it turns out the origin of this craft was Morley's younger brother trying to gross him out. It should be noted that this happened as kids, when it was more acceptable for him to do, though less acceptable for me to talk about. Anyway, the two developed a whole repertoire of "genital origami," although I'm guessing they quit when they got old enough to branch out into the much more rewarding field of gently manipulating vaginas.
Why They're a Success:
Any man who can get hundreds of women at a time to pay for the privilege of watching him flaunt his junk is some kind of success. But that's secondary to the point. Morley has toured the world with collaborator David Friend, impressing tens of thousands with their "hanging art," and the co-creators now command an international cadre of tricky dicks. He has successfully franchised his dick puppetry.
You can probably go see a show in whatever English-speaking language you have wisely chosen to live in and platonically admire men touching their genitals.
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Good luck going to sleep tonight thinking of anything other than evil clown penis puppetry.
So yes, by any measure, Puppetry of the Penis is a smash hit, except one, and no, it's not a ruler. Its inherent failure is that it will never replicate the perfection that is Cheryl Tiegs circa 1982. Say you even figured out a way to arrange your junk in such a tribute: The entire time, you're thinking about the nuances of Cheryl Tiegs. No man can create such a portrait faster than his rising member renders it a failure.
Cheryl, if you're reading this, call me. I can get us tickets to Puppetry of the Penis, whether or not it's playing.