Reverend Jen Miller is the original sui generis. To hang any individual label on her (“writer”, “comedian”, “host”, “performance artist”) is to do her an injustice — it reduces a complex phenomenon to a mere fragment of the complete picture. A trained visual artist, she made a conscious decision while at the School for Visual Arts in the early 90s to make herself an artwork, and more than any single individual since Alfred Jarry perhaps, that is what she has accomplished. She founded her own religion (hence the “Reverend”); writes true and humorous short stories and articles; wears fabulous costumes wherever she goes; has hosted the world’s most democratic open mic night the “Anti-Slam” for about fourteen years; stars in Nick Zedd movies; has her own cable tv show; and operates a museum of troll dolls in her house. (For more background see my Village Voice piece on her: http://www.villagevoice.com/2006-02-21/theater/slamming-back/).
Rev Jen is the most pleasant combination possible of Spalding Gray, Barbara Feldon and Leonard Nimoy. But that’s all kind of like saying, “Um…New York City has…um…Broadway…and, um…Yankee Stadium….and the Brooklyn Bridge…and, uh…” You’ll always leave something out, so what’s the point?
If my praise of her seems immoderate it is because I think of her as a fellow traveler. She grapples with the same struggles I happen to think are important, both as an artist and as a human being. To be an artist in America, you have to deal with the problem of show business. What is it? Is it art’s evil twin? Is it some parasite or vampire or succubus that sucks the life out of art? Are art and show biz two concepts that actually overlap? Are they two ways of looking at the very same thing? It seems to me the fundamental question for any American artist, on some level. In France, the question is settled. French Culture has its own cabinet position in the government. The country may be said to have a soul; its art and its national identity are one. That is taken for granted. This was once true of America, as well. If there is an American soul, surely it can be found in the work of Emerson, Whitman, Carl Sandburg, John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie. Try to conjure that soul today and I’m afraid you are likely only to produce reflexive snickers or incomprehension. That’s as may be. But following the death of this spirit in the popular esteem, what have we put in its place? Apparently only a cash register. What is art worth? How can one best make a living by one’s work? Andy Warhol presented the question for public consumption most overtly, but I often think of others who embody it. What of the personal appearances of writers? Of Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe or Hunter S. Thompson, for example – personalities as much as prosodists, by necessity. What of Orson Welles schilling on the Merv Griffin Show? Art may or not be created, but having been created, it is an absolute given that it must be SOLD. What is this pageant? What is this parade, that creates equivalency where there is none, that tosses people of worth and accomplishment into the hopper with murderers and whores, and serves it up like some shit-frosted fruitcake?
And is it good or bad? I don’t know. Did you ever see The Agony and the Ecstasy? In the old days, a Michaelangelo needed to suck up to the Pope for his underwriting. Nowadays, an artist must attract the entire human race. You do it by being a walking, talking advertisement for your art. To some, this is distasteful. To me, it is a chapter subsection in the textbook for Life 101. You don’t want to sell your work? Good luck eating when it sells posthumously! BUT – and this is the crucial but, the but that so often gets lost in the shuffle in this universal marketplace – what then? As Epicurus put it (I believe) “Eat to live, don’t live to eat.” You make a living? So what? What are you that lives?
This has not been a digression! This is still about Rev Jen! For a time, she was attaching the honorific “Saint” to her moniker. I always took the healthy self-mocking represented by that gesture as just more evidence of her actual, practical sainthood. Because not only is she one of the nicest human beings on a day-to-day, minute-by-minute basis, you will ever meet…but she is big enough to admit that she isn’t perfect – she punctures her own balloon. She practices not only an art, then, but an ethic. Her Anti-Slam is an exercise in unbelievable generosity and patience. Brilliant performers often take her stage. So too do literal, clinical, diagnosed mental patients. Everyone is awarded a “ten” (on a scale of ten) for their efforts. Rev Jen treats them all the same, and they respond by giving her passionate devotion. Poll her army of Arts Stars. I’ve yet to meet anybody who ever had a single bad thing to say about her. She is the Will Rogers of our time, one of the few people who would be equally at ease (and welcome) at the Whitney Biennial or a Hell’s Angels barbecue.
Which brings us to her book. The volume Live Nude Elf: The Sexperiments of Reverend Jen (Soft Skull Press, 2009) is essentially a collection of her sex columns for Nerve.com. To say the project was unworthy of her is putting it mildly. Not to say that I judge her or blame her. To be blunt, what the hell do you do to get ahead in this landscape of diminishing returns? I have done much I am not proud of, sold short my own art and supplanted it with lowest-common-denominator crap with which I wasn’t comfortable, just to sell tickets. (On one occasion, these choices actually led me to share a night club stage with porn star Ron Jeremy. Now those are strange bedfellows). As Jen herself writes, she has thousands of fans, and can’t even pay her doctor’s bills. So you take what opportunities you can.
So…at some point Rev Jen was hired to take over this pre-existing sex column. Don’t get me wrong. I think sex is the most interesting thing in the world. In fact, it’s so interesting it’s uninteresting, if you take my meaning. Everyone has it, everyone wants it, everyone thinks about it (I am at this very minute). But you don’t need a Rev Jen to write about it. Not to put too fine a point on it, on her worst day, Rev Jen is way more interesting herself than an entire factory outlet of butt plugs, vibrators, and blow up dolls. I know there’s always been an element of this in her work (Lord of the Cock Rings, anyone?) but my point is, it’s always been just one of her million facets, in the same way that her best friend happens to be a Chihuahua. Anyone can be “Nude”, but only Rev Jen is an “Elf”. And that is the salvation of what would otherwise be the Amy Sohn knock-off that some marketing department somewhere is probably trying to sell this book as. The reality is, Rev Jen possesses what many writers would kill for and will never have: a voice. The Rev Jen patois is a hash of high school essay (parodied), stoner-speak, and Maryland dialect, full of droll coinages (“jackable”, “love-mayonnaise”) and bonhomie. She can write about anything – a trip to the bodega, for example – and make it hilarious or poignant or both. And so it doesn’t actually harm her here that her subject matter here consists of the lesser art of getting off. By definition, reading Rev Jen’s account of getting herself and others off is frequently hilarious, in the same way that reading Mark Twain’s account of same would have been hilarious. The title piece is one of the best in the book. It chronicles her brief career as a nude maid. No sex is exchanged. Jen merely shows up at the houses of her pathetic clients, disrobes, and cleans their bathrooms and kitchens wearing only Playtex living gloves and elf ears. That is a New York story. Jen gamely plows through a number of such adventures (many of them much sexier than that — although, as a saving grace, Jen usually bungles her attempts at pick-ups and orgies in some way). But as time goes on, we see that she herself is losing interest in the project. What she wants is a soul-mate.
And the fact that the rocket scientists at nerve.com cancelled her column when the Rev started to write about falling in love with some lucky dude (who then broke her heart) will give you a good idea of how much she outclassed the enterprise to begin with.
Note to publishers. Rev Jen is a writer. Let her write. About anything. And she will produce a kick-ass book. So I hope this one flies off the shelves so she is given that opportunity.
Oh, and by the way, happy birthday to vaudeville and opera impressario Oscar Hammerstein I, born on this day in 1847.