The network where we had that glorious second meeting called. They want to make a commitment, have another date, move to the next step. No word yet from anyone else.
I flew back to Chicago on the red-eye, got into work late, met with the staff about whether we should construct an entirely new Father’s Day show this year, or build one out of a combination of new and old stories. We have nine days to get it together, whichever we decide.
Then we had a half-hour meeting where I talked with everyone about what happened in California. I ran down, in even more detail than you’ve suffered through here, what happened in each meeting.
The biggest change for me, frankly, is that I went out to Los Angeles thinking perhaps we’d do a one-hour pilot-slash-special, and if it went well, we’d do two to four specials a year and keep doing the radio program every week. I return home considering seriously the option of doing the pilot-slash-special and then if it does well and if we like the show, then we might put the radio show on hiatus for a year and instead do a weekly TV show.
This, of course, wouldn’t happen for another year, if we ever get to that point at all. The reasons to do it this way seem clear: Every exec in every meeting told us it’d be difficult to build an audience for specials. Specials are expensive to promote, and it’s hard to do effectively. Most networks are moving away from them. My feeling is, if we’re going to go to the trouble to make a TV show, we should do it in a way that it can build an audience and be successful. What’s the point otherwise? That’s why we designed This American Life as a weekly series instead of doing it as two to four specials a year. It’s the only way to be a real presence in people’s lives, to give people who might like the program a chance to discover it.
Also, television has evolved to the point where it may be possible to do a limited-run series, perhaps a summer replacement series of just 12 shows (like The Sopranos) or perhaps even fewer episodes, and that would allow us all to keep doing the radio show. A few execs told us that launching this as a summer replacement series would be a smart introduction in any case. Summer shows get more attention; it’s easier to build numbers.
I hope other networks call.
Tonight I moderated an event at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago featuring Lawrence Weschler and J.S.G. Boggs. Weschler’s a friend; Boggs is the subject of his new book. Boggs is an artist who draws money. He draws only one side of a bill. But he doesn’t sell these drawings. Instead, he takes a drawing of, say, a $20 bill out with him to a restaurant, and when it comes time to pay the check, he tries to talk the waitress into accepting the drawing of $20 as his payment. He explains that the value of any work of art is set arbitrarily, so he’s decided to set the value of the drawing of a $20 bill at $20. If she accepts the drawing she’ll have to give him change and a receipt.
Many people don’t accept the drawing. Some do. If they do, the next day Boggs provides a copy of the receipt to one of the many people who collect his work, and that person will come hunting down the drawing. The collector will pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for the little drawing. The waitress will clean up.
What I love about this is that it’s a con game, run in reverse. If the person falls for the game, they come out of it far wealthier than they went in. As Weschler puts it in his joyous little book, Boggs operates “a sort of floating aesthetical ethical crap game. Or else a sort of fairy-tale virtue test, in which the worthy agreed to sacrifice and [are] subsequently rewarded a hundredfold.”
At the beginning of our presentation at the Art Institute, Boggs produced a copy of the Chicago yellow pages. He asked the audience for the name of a local pizza place. On his cell phone he called and ordered some pizzas. When they arrived at the theater, he asked the delivery guy up onstage, and tried to pay for the food with a drawing of a $50 bill. It was, frankly, a little uncomfortable. The guy delivering the pizzas suddenly found himself standing on a stage, lots of people watching, being asked to make a decision: Did he want Boggs to give him $50 in real cash–or did he want the drawing instead? He broke out in a sweat. All the poor guy knew is that if he didn’t show up back at work with real American currency to cover those pizzas he took out, he’d be in trouble. He turned down the deal. It was hard not to jump in and just tell him: “You can make a thousand dollars here! Take the drawing!”
In retrospect, I realize I should have altered the game a little, still within Boggs’ rules. I could’ve pulled a $10 bill from my wallet, got three people from the audience to pull 10’s from their wallets, and suggested to the pizza guy that if he had $10, we could buy the picture together. He might’ve been carrying $10 on him. I think Boggs is completely original and inspiring, but asking the pizza guy to front $50 for a drawing might’ve been a lot to expect. I mean, I’ve never paid $50 for a drawing.
Boggs’ signature at this point is worth a fair amount of money to collectors, when affixed to the right objects. You can download a Boggs bill from his Web site for free and, if you find him, he’ll sign it and you can sell it for more than $300 to collectors. After the evening’s presentation, many people came up to him asking him to sign this or that. Boggs has a strict policy: He charges $10 per autograph.
A 9-year-old boy in the crowd named Chris Meskauskas really wanted an autograph and invented a scheme to get one. As we adults yammered on during the lecture, Chris got an Art Institute brochure and drew his own $10 bill on the blank back side of it. He copied from a ten-spot he borrowed from his dad. His drawing was in purple pen, and twice the size of a regular $10 bill, but Boggs examined it, showed Chris how to draw a plate number onto a bill, and then accepted Chris’ drawing as worth $10 and gave him the autograph. Chris beamed. But that’s only because he’s too young to have understood our explanation of how much trouble he could get in if he continues down this path of drawing his own money.
Boggs is in enormous trouble with the Treasury Department. Specifically the Secret Service. For most of this decade they’ve been confiscating his work, harassing him, claiming they’re going to build a big counterfeiting case against him but never doing it.
Of course, they never do it. When these cases against Boggs have gone to trial in other countries, he’s always won handily. Juries conclude that he’s not counterfeiting. No one could mistake his drawings for real bills: They’re blank on one side! (Well, blank except for his signature and fingerprint.) He also sometimes monkeys with the wording on the bills, the portraits, and the color (he makes them orange).
Not long ago, Boggs sued the government, saying they were subjecting him to a campaign of harassment and that either they had to bring him to trial on some sort of charges, or they had to return the hundreds of works of his art they’d confiscated. The case has worked its way up to the Supreme Court. He’s waiting to find out if they’ll hear the case. If they don’t, then it’ll mean the government is in fact free to just take his property and never bring a trial, ever. I don’t feel like I’m leaving the territory of journalistic objectivity to say that somehow this does not seem fair. Our government is seizing his property without any trial, any chance to argue his case, any due process at all.
He’s trying to generate some press about all this, but so far the attention he’s got is modest.
What’s crazy about the whole thing is that he’s convinced he’d have stopped drawing U.S. currency years ago, because he’s got tired of it, but now he has to keep doing it to keep his income up for this lawsuit. The money drawings are the only thing he creates that earns him the kind of real cash he needs right now. But he’s weary of drawing money. He’s tried every variation on it. He’s ready to move on to other kinds of artistic creation.
In short: If the Treasury Department weren’t harassing him, trying to bully him into quitting his money drawings, he’d have quit years ago.
There’s some government policy the Clinton administration can be proud of.
A word now about Lawrence Weschler’s book Boggs: A Comedy of Values. He’s my friend, so it’s unbecoming for me to say this publicly, but the book’s funny and thought-provoking and a complete pleasure–in addition to being the perfect Father’s Day present.
See what two days in the world of commercial broadcasting has done to me?
We all went out to dinner together after the event at the Art Institute, and Erin Hogan of the University of Chicago Press (which is publishing Weschler’s book about Boggs) informed me that she’s been reading my diary entries on Slate, and as a former Hawaii resident she wanted to inform me that the place Hawaiians go on vacation is not Vegas but Northern California. Marin County. Hawaiians go there, she said, because they like the changes in landscape and because they like the “dramatic weather.” By this she meant “bad weather.” Back home the weather’s the same every day, she told me. Eighty degrees, rains twice a day. They didn’t even do weather forecasts during the nightly news when she lived there. Which is, as far as I can tell, exactly the way we’re all going to have it in the Kingdom of Heaven during the Afterlife.
Then somehow we got onto the subject of everyone’s first jobs, and she revealed that her first job was as a foot model for Liberty House of Hawaii–an old department store on the islands. An art director on the beach noticed her high arches, and she got the cushy-if-dull $8-an-hour gig. Now be honest: Who among us hears a story like that and doesn’t ask to see the woman’s feet? After much urging from many adults at our table, Erin showed us her feet. They were, we all had to admit, very impressive.
Then Boggs’$2 23-year-old girlfriend, Meghan, told me about the part she recently played on the Mortal Combat TV show. She was Mileena, the evil ugly twin sister of Kitana, the lovely princess. For this job Meghan got to wear a pink pleather lace-up halter-top bustier with matching choker. She pushed her breasts together with her palms as she explained this, and when I asked again later, so I could write it down, she pushed her breasts together with her palms again. She also got knee-high boots for the part. They would not let her wear the outfit home for her boyfriend. Also on the negative side, the job required that they put a lot of makeup on her face to make her ugly, she told me. People treated her differently, she said.
Meanwhile, Boggs circled the table taking pictures with his new digital camera, which he enjoys with the undisguised pleasure of a kid with a new toy.
It was all very fun. I was glad to be back in Chicago, back home in my normal life, in the high-minded world of public broadcasting.