Chris Gethard speaks up in defense of NYC’s weirdness
The comedian makes a case for why our city is—and will always be—odd as fuck
Fri Apr 25 2014
Photograph: Melissa Sinclair
My fiancée loves to tell me that New York isn’t weird anymore. She’s got tales from her days living in the East Village in the early ’90s, when insane locals dominated the neighborhood and part of its charm was how rough around the edges and scary it could be.
That sends me into a sad existential crisis. In a past life, I was a chronicler of the weird—literally and professionally: I was employed for many years at Weird NJ magazine, and when it expanded into a book series, I contributed to the first two volumes as well as the national version, Weird U.S. Most important, in 2005 I authored the book Weird New York.
That tome covered the entire, gigantic Empire State, and I quickly came to realize how difficult it was to research anything in New York City. When you drive to a suburb outside of Utica or a farming town south of Buffalo, you can generally walk into a gas station or diner and say, “What’s weird around here?” and they’ll actually have the answer. “Well, there’s a haunted graveyard in the middle of the woods where the ghost of an autistic girl kills people,” they might say nonchalantly. (This is not theoretical: There is an actual legend about this in the tiny town of Frewsburg.)
In NYC, though, asking folks what’s odd is self-defeating. Getting a New Yorker to stop and talk to you can be tough enough, but ask about weirdness and the answer is usually akin to my fiancée’s: “New York’s not weird anymore. Giuliani ruined it.” No one’s going to deny that the city has more coffeeshops and cupcake shops and shops that only sell rice pudding than it did decades ago. And believe me, I regret that I wasn’t around when the East Village was overrun with lunatics and artistic junkies who built sculptures out of garbage, and converted abandoned buildings into orgy huts and art galleries and whatever else was going on back then.
“The threshold for the bizarre is higher here than anywhere else in the nation.”
Photograph: Melissa Sinclair
But is weirdness in New York really gone? Think of it this way: The threshold for the bizarre is higher here than anywhere else in the nation. So I would argue there’s still weird all around us—we’re just used to it (and maybe it is more clandestine in Starbucks-drenched environs), so we have to look harder. If we slowed down and recognized every time something insane happened in this city, we’d never do anything else. And we’re New Yorkers—we don’t have time to slow down for anything.
Think, for example, about the Chelsea Birdman. He’s the guy you’ll see from time to time in the western reaches of that Manhattan ’hood, walking around with a hat made of feathers, loudly emulating the sound of birds and rats in apparent conversation. As in, rodents approach him and he mimicks their sounds in a way that makes you stop and think, Oh, this human being has deciphered rat language and actually speaks it.
In any other town in America, that’s the strangest person anyone has ever seen. That’s pretty much a superpower. New Yorkers don’t stop and think about that guy, though. We keep walking, annoyed that his mystical ability to communicate with other species sometimes blocks our way and makes our walk from the office to Duane Reade 11 seconds longer.
Just the other week, I was hosting my public-access program, The Chris Gethard Show (and believe me, if you want proof this town is still home to the creatively bonkers, stop by the MNN studios any day of the week), when an older woman in a very revealing cowboy outfit wandered over and introduced herself. I brought her on camera. Turned out she was Sandy Kane, a local character who performs as the Naked Cowgirl in Times Square. She immediately said something about her genitals and started inexplicably dancing.
I refuse to believe that could happen anywhere but here. This city still has its strange side—there are odd people, abandoned train stations and unexplained phenomena happening every day. Rather than claim they don’t exist, I’d recommend you stop and look around. While our weirdness might not happen in the same places it used to, it’s still there. And not only is it alive, we couldn’t kill it if we tried.
Gethard’s first LP, My Comedy Album, is out now.
Follow Chris Gethard on Twitter: @ChrisGethard
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Editor: Marley Lynch (@marleyasinbob)