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Hangin' with 13ers

 

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Title: Hangin' with 13ers
Type: production note
Date: January 5th, 2012

B:

This is a genuine academic paper submitted for class credit at Indiana University circa 1994.

Hangin' with 13ers

by Allan Murphy

I elected to study a group of Bloomington people in their early to mid twenties. My principal informant was Bart Everson, who, along with friend Joe Nickell, produces a weekly counterculture television program which airs on the local community- access station.

"ROX" is a comedic, stream-of-consciousness look at slacker life as lived by Joe and Bart (J & B) and their creative circle of friends. Between them, Joe and Bart write, tape, edit, and are the principal actors in the program. I felt that, given their creative bent and their ability to observe and comment on the lifestyle in which they are immersed, they might provide a rich perspective on their generation...or at least the subset to which they belong.

I was not disappointed. I began by shadowing Bart at his "day job", telemarketing for DialAmerica. With computer assistance, Bart called and pitched prospects to buy Time-Life educational books for children. Although a repetitive, tedious job, Bart did it well and made several sales while I observed him. When questioned, he said he "didn't mind" the nature of the work, but allowed that he skips work occasionally "when I just can't get out of bed." The job is a necessary source of income, as the television show produces no revenue. Bart's wife is a graduate student with sporadic employment, so they live on a marginal income, as do many in their group of friends.

I later observed Bart on two occasions as he edited tape for the television show. Although tape editing is in many ways as tedious and repetitious as telemarketing -- as Bart admits -- his demeanor is entirely different. This product is his, and he becomes very absorbed in finding just the right place to cut from one shot to the next, in coming up with the funniest, most appropriate subtitle for the scene. He loves this work and has a lot of ego and pride bound up in the final result, like most videomakers. It's what he wants to do for a living.

This is in counterpoint to Howe/Strauss' observations about 13er attitudes toward work: that 13ers do not exhibit commitment or loyalty to an occupation, that they see it merely as a means to money, that their only work imperative is "just do it." (When asked about that axiom, Bart dismissed it as "a Nike advertising slogan.") True, Bart's current job is telemarketing, to which he has no emotional attachment, but his profession is videomaking, to which his emotional commitment is quite high. Of course, not every 13er will get the chance to watch the creative fruits of their labor every Tuesday night at 11p.m. in the company of their friends, either.

The centerpiece of my fieldwork was a day-long outing with Bart, Joe, and their friends to Lake Monroe to tape much of the content of what proved to be the most controversial episode of "ROX" yet aired. Joe and Bart had decided to center an episode on marijuana, its place in their lives, and the rationality of laws against it. So, a total of nine or ten of us went for an afternoon hike in the woods near the lake with beer, joints and camera in tow.

Joe videotaped as we walked, and continued taping when we stopped to take breaks. Members of the group would alternately talk, seriously or humorously, about their feelings about pot and pot laws, or would suddenly go into a "character" (redneck, policeman) and do a vignette on the societally approved view of marijuana ("Wull, ah think it's just turrible, all them freaks a- smokin' that demon weed an' jumpin' out the windows of Ballantine...").

One of the group invented a character named "Kernie" -- a local outdoorsman/good-ole-boy, with a funny delivery reminiscent of Jim Varney's "Ernest P. Worrall" character: "Nature is our friend. And, as you know, marijuana is part of nature. So marijuana is our friend...and remember, you heard it on "ROX!" Others in the group would then play to the Kernie character, asking him questions or responding to his remarks...as the camera rolled.

Much of the performance was "close to home" -- members of the group tended to play themselves, and they slipped in and out of character easily...with no distinct line between their own personality and the characters they assumed. If not for the camera, they would simply have been a group of (rather creative) friends out for a hike. In keeping with the episode's theme, members would interrupt their soliloquies from time to time to take a long toke on-camera.

Although much of this was played for laughs, a social and political point of view clearly emerged: marijuana is recreational, non addictive, non lethal, and should be non-criminal. In later conversations with members of the group, I discovered a strong political commitment to this issue, and a desire to do something about it. The finished tape of the program interwove these "toking through the woods" scenes with an interview with the chief of police, a scene of J and B smoking a joint in front of the Justice Building, and anti-drug-law commentary.

I also spent time with Bart and friends at Cultureshock, an annual music- and-arts fair in Dunn Meadow. I observed their verbal by-play with a steady stream of acquaintances who came by the "ROX" booth/table in the Meadow. Terry, one of the group, was approached by a woman acquaintance he hadn't seen for some time. She launched into a litany of recent psychodramas ( drug bust, romantic difficulties) while Terry listened sympathetically. Like his friends, Terry is not judgmental about individuals; he has great empathy. He may hate society's injustices and inconsistencies, but he genuinely likes people. He is an innocent abroad, and naturally plays that role in many a "ROX" episode. In one show he is seen getting his nose pierced and marveling at the experience.

My final get-together with the group was for supper and talk at Bart and Joe's on the evening of the last "ROX" episode of the season. Things were a bit electric, due to the huge amount of publicity the marijuana episode ("J & B Get Baked") had generated the preceding week. Indiana news media had played the story big, resulting in the N.Y. -- based Howard Stern radio show airing a sound loop from the program that very morning. MTV was said to be interested, as well.

Bart discussed plans to prepare a demotape from the just-concluded season. The timing was perfect, he felt, to try to parlay the show and its newfound notoriety into a commercial opportunity, perhaps with one of the dozens of new special-interest cable networks on the horizon. And he had the time to think about that now, since the evening was also to celebrate the end of a season's worth of programs. Whether "ROX" would return in the fall for a third season was also a topic of conversation...and may be contingent on those commercial opportunities being explored.

We grilled hamburgers and talked. As we did so, more members of the group arrived, and people updated one another on Howard Stern, MTV, et al. There was a sense of excitement, and accomplishment ("It's a season wrap!") but also a feeling of unsureness about what would come next. The question then asked of me: What have I concluded about the group, as a result of my field study?

I replied that I couldn't generalize, but I saw some real differences between Howe/Strauss' observation, and my own. 13th Gen seems to cast 13ers as apolitical, marginally educated, antipathetic to work and fixated on money and junk culture. "Hell, Bart doesn't even watch television, except for his own show!" I said. And I said I saw the group as politically aware, and intent on creating its own culture, rather than accepting one that has been manufactured for them.

If they appear to question all social and political structures (and they do), it seems to be due to a feeling that it's their turn to improve and redefine those structures. I told them that my generation (the Boomers) went through a similar passage in the Sixties, and that it made me feel good to know that the fight goes on...that the fight itself apparently is cyclical, perhaps eternal.

And I realized that I had come to admire and like them. For maybe the first time in the process, I had none of the moments of discomfort that being "the older generation" can bring. That was certainly due in part to their gracious efforts to make an aging Sixties radical feel right at home.

But, when it came time to sit down communally to watch the final episode of "ROX", I said my farewells. I would have again been an outsider, because it is their show, their experiences; they deserved to watch it together, without the distraction of an "observer." But I was torn. It would have been great fun to watch them watch themselves.

I did race home to watch the show on my own television. And every time I laughed, I knew that the gang at J & B's was laughing along with me.

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