How a Comedy Article Got Me Placed On the No-Fly List
I wrote a book about president fighting called How to Fight Presidents. It's a comedic nonfiction book that teaches you, appropriately enough, how to beat the crap out of every single lunatic who ran this country.
Do you really want to be unprepared if/when this psycho gets kicked out of the afterlife?
Or not every president. People who buy the book (which you can do right here or here) might notice that I've curiously left out every president that's still alive currently. Well, when you do the kind of research associated with this subject matter (Google "Bill+Clinton+weaknesses"), certain flags are raised, flags that the government takes notice of. Flags I know intimately. While working on this book, I made the very misguided decision to write and publish a (satirical) article on Cracked advocating committing certain crimes against the president. (I'm going to pause briefly to say that I, Daniel O'Brien, in my capacity as an Internet role model, in no way endorse committing any crimes against presidents. Non-presidents, too. I'm a really swell guy!)
I won't get into the specifics of the article, but it was sort of a "how to" guide and has since been taken down (I've no doubt someone in the comments will clarify which article I'm talking about). In addition to having to take the article down, I also get stopped and pulled aside at airports five out of six times that I fly. I get "randomly stopped," which might truly be random, or maybe my passport gets flagged because I'm on some government list and I have to go through an additional round of questioning. It's THAT level of serious.
So, if longtime readers remember a now-invisible article from years ago that could be described as "lightheartedly treasonous," this is, for the first time ever, the true story of why that article no longer exists and why I didn't include guides on beating up living presidents in my new book.
That was the first thing I saw when I booted up my computer one morning. The first thing I heard was a knock on my office door. The second thing I saw was the bottom of my desk, as I'd ducked underneath it to hide like a man. I guess I had a hunch it was only a matter of time before the Secret Service investigated me for my stupid articles and various violence-against-presidents-related research. I just always assumed they'd drag their feet and wouldn't track me down until jet packs were a thing. I keep a lot of eggs in the jet pack basket. The knocking continued.
"No thank you," I shouted at the door. It was early. The part of my brain that rules at lying was still asleep.
"Dan, it's Jack. Do you have a second?"
"Only if it's about a really cool joke you played on me involving a fake email from HR. Or I mean, wait, shit, no, I'm not here. Daniel is dead. I've never even heard of presidents."
I then tried to convince him that I was actually Jack O'Brien, and he was really Dan O'Brien.
It was early, I told you. Jack walked in with a woman I didn't recognize at his side.
"The government gave us a subpoena. We have to take down your article and you're going to have to talk to the Secret Service. What are you doing down there?"
I crawled out from underneath my desk and addressed the woman whom I assumed was a representative of the Secret Service.
"Getting so close to my country I could kiss it, which I did with my whole mouth!" I realized my mistake and started scrambling. "But, uh, not against the country's will, obviously, it was totally consensual. Country was super into it. Country was all 'Never had it so good, more like Star Spangled Danner.'"
"Did I ever mention that my father is actually a bald eagle?"
"Dan-" Jack started.
"I'm not a crazy person, if that was your next question. Unless following unconditionally the words of my president is a form of mental illness, in which case lock me up. Although please don't actually lock me up; I'm aware that prospect is probably on the table for a completely different treason that I'm altogether unfamiliar with. Yes, I know that I said 'treason' when I meant 'reason,' and I understand in this context how that might be problematic, if that was your next question, and if you think that it was some kind of Freudian slip, you should know that Freud was a cocaine addict, and that I am not. What was your first question, by the way? Can I pee first, please, before whatever the next thing is happens? I'm sorry I'm so sweaty."
"Dan. This is Janice from HR."
I crawled back under my desk.
I then tried to convince her that I was actually Janice from HR, and she was really Dan O'Brien.
"I wouldn't worry too much, Daniel," Janice said. "The Secret Service just wants to ask you a few questions. They gave me a number they'd like you to use. Should I ..."
"Leave it on the floor. The floor is fine."
"Wow, you're calling already? That was fast," Special Agent Mike Powell said with a laugh. There was nothing sinister in his voice. He sounded warm and kind and goofy, like a fun uncle. He told me to call him Mike and told me about his job while I idly wondered if using the phone while underneath a desk had any kind of weird echo effect.
"Special Agent Powell, I'm really sorry that I wrote a thing the government hates," I said when he finished talking, "but you have to believe me that it was for comedic purposes, and I actually think legally it falls under the category of what we in my industry call 'satire,' which is a word that I know, and here is its definition, which is-"
"Daniel, listen," Special Agent Powell interrupted. "I'm not a robot."
"That wasn't actually a concern of mine until right now."
And forever more.
"I just mean I'm not some, I don't know, government dud. Believe it or not, I've got a sense of humor; most of us do around here. I know it's a comedy website, I know you're doing jokes. It just so happens that it's my job to pay attention when certain ... concepts are brought up online. That article, combined with your fascination with fighting presidents ... well, that's the kind of thing I need to know about."
"You just go around the Internet tracking down people who say potentially threatening things about the president?"
"Unfortunately yes. Doesn't matter how big or small the website is, I gotta follow up on everything."
They have two subdepartments for Free Republic alone.
"On the whole Internet? That sounds just awful."
Special Agent Powell laughed. "It sure is. What happens next is you've got to go to our downtown LA office for an interview. I won't be there, my office isn't in California. You'll be meeting with two other guys, Agents ... I don't know their names offhand. Whatever."
"Agent I-Don't-Know and Agent Whatever. Got it, I'll remember that."
We shared a good little laugh about that and said our goodbyes. I had, for the first time all morning, stopped having a panic attack. What seemed like a life- or at least career-ruining prospect a few hours ago suddenly looked like a walk in the park. Sit down with a few guys like Mike and shoot the shit about comedy and the Internet? Sign me up.
Then we'd get some beers and they'd give me a dope code name like "The Spider."
Once I got to the Secret Service's LA office, it didn't take long to realize that I'd been completely set up. Agent Powell's job was to lull me into a false sense of security to ensure that I'd go to the office with my guard down. I went there assuming I'd hang out with some cool agents, B.S. for a while, maybe one of them would let me hold their gun, I don't know. No such luck. The two agents I met with were nothing like Agent Powell. If there's an opposite of fun uncle, it was these two guys.
I sat at one end of a very long table across from the two most humorless and terrifying people I've ever met: square jaws, frozen eyes, buzz cuts, and the kind of presence that can only be cultivated by people who know they're allowed two freebie kills every year. I've forgotten their names at this point because my brain must be worried that if I accidentally remember them I'll get subpoenaed again. Let's call them Agents Hardass and EatShit.
My feeling was that at some point in their career they'd used their hair to "neutralize" a threat.
"Are you going to be punished professionally for writing this article?" Agent Hardass asked. It should be noted that I'm not dropping you into the middle of this "scene." That was the first question asked. That happened before we even introduced ourselves. That was the icebreaker.
"No. I mean ... hello. But, no, probably not. Cracked is a very small operation, we don't really have a ... 'discipline guy.' I mean, I'll tell my boss that I won't do it again, but otherwise ... everyone's really busy."
The agents exchanged a "that was the wrong answer" look (a look I would come to know very well by the end of our two-hour interview) and took notes. All of their notes lived on a printout of my article. Or, I should clarify, articles. We weren't here to talk about one article; these guys had done their research and were going over my whole career. I've been writing professionally since I was 21 years old, and most of that writing lived on Cracked. Do you remember the thoughts you had when you were 21? They were useless, right? Well, imagine if those thoughts that you had were preserved online forever and ended up in the hands of two government agents. I didn't audibly say "I'm fucked," but I'm pretty sure I stress-farted it in Morse code.
"This article is funny," Agent Hardass said.
I smiled humbly and bowed my head a bit, pleased to see that once again the piercing and universal language of comedy had managed to break through to even the hardest among us. If a joke is good enough, we set aside titles, uniforms, and political and religious affiliations and laugh together as one voice. Ah, the life of a jokesmith, I mused internally, the burden and joy of making the world a more magical place, one laugh at a time. Truly we, the comedians, the makers of mirth, the champions of chortle, the weavers of waughter, truly WE are real heroes of-
"That was my question," Agent Hardass said sharply. "Was this article supposed to be funny?"
Oh ... great ...
"Oh, uh, yes. Yeah. I'm- That's my job. Comedy writer. Champion of ch-"
"Funny. I don't know. Humor's subjective," Agent EatShit said. He would know, right?
"I just mean that it pretty clearly wasn't designed to be a practical guide to endangering or detaining anyone, presidential or otherwise. No one could read that article and take away any useful advice. There's nothing useful in any of my articles, in fact, I promise."
"Moving on. In this section you mentioned that you once kidnapped President Carter's daughter, Amy, but that she escaped because you underestimated her ability to swim. You claim you had her on your boat and was astonished to see her, quote, slice through the ocean like a dolphin, like a goddamn dolphin, I swear, end quote. Why did you say that?"
Because "like a burrito" would have been a terrible analogy?
"Say what? Which part?"
Their silence gave me my answer: all the parts.
"OK, well, I was worried that some readers might think the article was serious, so I wanted to sprinkle in a few super-obviously-fake details to drive that home, so I mentioned owning a boat, which isn't true, and kidnapping Amy Carter, which given my age would have been impossible, and even though I know that sailfish are technically the fastest swimmers I went with dolphin because it's more accessible and because 'dolphin' as a word is funnier than 'sailfish.' And like I wanted people to be invested in the article, I didn't want them to have to stop reading to Google 'sailfish' and get on my level. I don't actually know if Amy Carter is a skilled swimmer or not, but I just thought the idea of a president's daughter speeding through the ocean at superhuman, faster-than-boat speeds was a funny visual. Like can you even imagine it?"
"Just think about it for a second, though."
So much funnier than stupid-ass sailfish.
"You said earlier that all of the advice in this article was impractical. That implies that you know the difference and in fact are aware of practical advice for this kind of act."
"Not firsthand, or secondhand, or any hands at all. I don't even have hands. I'm not gonna get away with that; I lied, I have hands. My point is I just know that the things I advocate doing in my column are so patently dumb that they couldn't possibly work. Is Amy Carter a good swimmer, by the way? I never followed up."
"In entry #2," Agent Hardass began, "you point out a number of common mistakes people make when breaking into the White House, including, quote, leaving either too much or not enough semen around, end quote. Why did you say that?"
"Because Past-Dan hates Future-Dan; is this room going to be my home from now on?"
It went on like this for a while. The agents would pull out jokes from the article and ask me what I meant and why I chose certain words. If you've ever wondered what it's like to watch comedy as a concept die, I can assure you it's me sitting in a freezing room explaining to two angry government agents why "murder-boner" is an inherently more richly comedic pairing of words than "death-erection." When we finished effectively making me hate every single joke in the article, we moved on to the lightning round, where the agents took turns firing off questions about my life and other articles I'd written.
"Are you a terrorist?"
They weren't all subtle.
"Definitely not a terrorist; ask my mom."
"Did I ever mention that my mother is actually the Statue of Liberty?"
"OK, I will. Please write down her number."
"Shit, really? OK, she's going to freak out when she hears about this, so if you could also mention that I look very healthy and I clearly haven't been smoking, I think it'd really-"
"Were you affiliated with any terrorist organizations in college?"
That's a stupid question. Who would answer yes? I answered this question as I did most questions: with a joke, because I'm pretty sure I have a learning disability.
"No, sir, no terrorist organizations. The edgiest thing I was a member of in college was my all-male a cappella group. But don't you go ahead and start calling us 'The Tone Gunmen' or anything like that, haha-"
"We're going to need the name of that group," Agent EatShit said, his pen poised. He gave me the steely look of a man not to be fucked with. He was going to treat my answer as seriously as if I'd said "al-Qaida."
"C-Casual Harmony," I offered sheepishly.
"Will you guys at least give me a bucket before you lock the door? I don't want to mess up your floors."
"What kind of name is that? What does that name mean?" Agent Hardass demanded. Here we go.
"Well you see, most college a cappella groups are named for music puns, like 'Here Comes Treble' or 'Deep Treble' or 'The Treblemakers' or- you know what, it's actually mostly just swapping out 'treble' with 'trouble,' I realize now, the musical pun pool is a shallow one, turns out. But anyway we picked 'Casual Harmony.' It wasn't a pun, it was just ... You know how 'casual sex' is a thing, like people have casual sex with no strings attached? We thought, 'Oh, there's no strings in our band because it's a cappella, so it fits, and also when we say our name it'll make people think of sex,' and we wanted to put sex in the minds of our audience because we were edgy. Because we were the ... cool a cappella group. Those other groups were lame, but we were ... very cool."
Two agents for the Secret Service wrote down every word I had just said. Let's call that the low point of my life.
"In November of 2008," Agent Hardass began, "you wrote about having Pocahontas' actual skeleton stored in your pantry."
That actually wasn't the only time I mentioned that. Your research is slipping, The Government.
"Is that true?" Agent Hardass continued.
"What? It's true that I said that, but do you mean is it- no, no, for the record, I do not have Pocahontas' bones in my pantry. Obviously." I thought for a second. "Wait, why do you ask? Holy shit, do you guys not know where Pocahontas' bones are?! Did you lose them?!"
"Is that why I'm really here? To help you get back something he stole from you?"
"Hey," Agent EatShit said, "that's not what we're here to discuss today. That isn't really your concern."
There was a beat of silence and the three of us shared a look, the kind of look used when discussing the bones of an Indian princess like men.
The questions continued for another hour or so before they finally released me after asking again if I'd get punished or disciplined for this in any way and then again being shocked and disappointed when my answer was a resounding "Probs not." I returned to my car, checked my phone, and noticed that I had 37 missed calls from my mom.
"Daniel, please call back. We're worried."
"Don't know what that could be about," I said to no one in particular while turning my phone off forever.
Once I'd gotten back to the office, I used my office phone to call Agent Powell, the cool agent who started this whole thing. High on the list of things wrong with me is my inability to know when to quit while I'm ahead or, failing that, quit while I'm not-exactly-ahead-but-at-least-not-in-a-federal-prison. So I asked Agent Powell what I'd been thinking about all day.
No, not that.
"This might sound crazy, but can I please please please write about this entire experience? For Cracked? Please? I promise I'll change your name to something cool." Special Agent Dangerbus Hugecockasaurus scratched his chin and thought about this.
"Legally, I obviously can't stop you from writing about this," he began. "But, c'mon, kid, no. Don't."
"Sure thing, 'Special' Agent Churl Poopstoomuch. I promise I will never write about the time the United States Secret Service made us take down an article and brought me in for questioning. I promise."
I neglected to add "unless I have a book to promote that you can buy right now everywhere books are sold," but I'm pretty sure that was implied.