Religion with Nerves of Steel
by Alba Machado


It is the night of July 5th and we are toasting the birth of America. We are listening to gospel music while digging through our pockets for money to contribute to the circulating basket.

By and by, when the morning comes,
when the saints of God are gathered home,
we’ll  tell the story how we’ve overcome,
for we’ll understand it better by and by.

But don’t worry. We haven’t joined the Tea Party or anything like that. (Sorry, Tia, my aggressively “born again” aunt.) We are at the Hungry Brain for So You Think You Have Nerves of Steel?, the literary variety show which was originally conceived of by Todd Dills and others at The2ndhand, and it’s just the kind of religious experience we need. Series host Harold Ray is our kind of minister (he is played by Jacob Knabb, editor of Another Chicago Magazine). “We let you in for free,” he says, “because we’re low-rent like that. But we are trying to raise money for a projector so we can show pornographic images.” (That’s a joke, Tia. Well, sort of.)

Chicago Artist’s Resource (CAR) describes Harold as a “ruinous West Virginia janitor who secretly longs to become a famous country singer but who has no discernible talents other than the ability to drunkenly croon.” It also says that “he only hosts the show because he thinks it will lead to a record deal.” What it fails to mention is that he’s ferociously honest and immediately likeable. After a charming performance by folk rock band Good Evening that includes a fiddle, a ukulele, and tap dancing percussion, Harold introduces the first reader of the evening, James Kennedy, by saying, “I don’t know this motherfucker. But the last time I saw him, he was dressed like a wizard. So you can’t really respect him.”

Kennedy is the author of The Order of Odd-Fish, a hilarious, absurd, and challenging young adult fantasy novel about a 13-year-old girl who struggles against a horrifying destiny in a world where butlers are foppish talking cockroaches and an order of knights is wholly committed to the act of “dithering.” Part Monty Python and part Roald Dahl, it is the sort of book that can inspire in young and old alike both fits of laughter and deep philosophical thought. After taking the stage, Kennedy says, sheepishly, “I usually read at junior high schools, so this is a different vibe for me.” Then he launches into a surprisingly forceful and dynamic reading. It’s like he’s reading a bedtime story to a kid who got a concussion and therefore cannot be allowed to sleep. He is shouting and flailing his arms about. When one of his characters jumps out of a window, he leaps off the stage and into the audience. He’s talking about interplanetary olympics, a tear in a space suit, dragon wasps, and a vainglorious man by the name of Moot. “Does there exist a font noble enough to describe the history of the Moots?” he asks, in character. At one point, when he says, “Sweat gathers on your upper lip,” he actually approaches a member of the audience and wipes the sweat off the man’s upper lip.

By the time he’s finished, it seems Kennedy succeeds in earning a degree of respect from Harold. “Goddamn,” Harold declares. “Makes me wish I could read.”

Next up is Aaaaaaaaaaalice. That’s Alice with eleven A’s. Poet Jennifer Karmin is joined by two of her friends for an unrehearsed performance of her “text-sound epic.” She explains that it’s a sort of travelogue that starts in the United States, and then moves onto Asia and Russia. But as she and the women at her side each read from different parts of the collection, all at the same time, it’s not Rick Steves’ Europe that comes to mind but, rather, a play called Play by Samuel Beckett and a song called “The Murder Mystery” by the Velvet Underground. There is a lulling rhythm to the joint reading, almost like chanting. We can only catch certain words and phrases, those that are coincidentally spoken in unison or while the other readers are inhaling: “depending,” “waiting,” “we wish,” “bags look alike,” “a school house built in 1910,” “sometimes we go together.” Karmin leaves the stage on two separate occasions, marching to the rear of the space and back again, first yelling “Hello!” like she is lost, and then repeating, “practice, practice, practice.” We are made to feel like we ourselves are travelers in a distant land, grasping snippets of custom and conversation around us but unable to fully understand their significance. It is frustrating, unnerving, and fascinating, and just when we feel we cannot take anymore, Karmin says, “We reach the point where we understand a little,” and her performance is over.

Perhaps realizing that we need to recover from our poetry-induced jet lag, Harold takes a moment to sing Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” before he announces the next act, the Puterbaugh Sisters. Formally trained in “American improvisation,” the sisters start off by taking suggestions for songs from the audience; every single one of them leads to the refrain of Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America.” Not the whole song, just the refrain. Theirs is a comedy that combines old and new, sketch and stand-up, vaudeville and one-liners about oral sex. They sing an old-timey sounding jingle about The Container Store, talk about their upcoming “douchebags and casseroles” event, and explain that they are collecting scorpions so that they can drop them onto passersby from the rooftops of tall buildings just to be able to say, “Hey, guys, aren’t you glad it’s not raining scorpions every day?” They’re shameless flirts, too. One sister asks a member of the audience if she’s Native American, and when she says that yes, she is, the sister replies, “That is why I’ve been hearing your spirit guide telling me to go down on you.” They also perform 1940s film noir stars and 1950s B-horror movie actresses reacting to everyday questions like “Do you use Turbo Tax to do your taxes?” and improvise a song by Erykah Badu based on the audience suggestion of “Pants.” Someday, those pants are gonna get in your way . . . Back in the day, when I had some pants—gimme some pants, pants, pants, pants, pants, pants, pants . . .”

Michael Czyzniejewski has the difficult task of following the Puterbaugh Sisters. But he doesn’t seem too worried about it. He is the author of an eclectic collection of short stories called Elephants in Our Bedroom, which has been praised by Aimee Bender as being “both wry-funny and absurd-funny, plunging into the everyday and the outrageous.” From the way he’s flipping through his stack of papers, it seems as though he’s printed out a random set of his works and is only now deciding what he will be reading to us. “What do you like? Oprah? Do you like Oprah? Is she still here or did she leave Chicago once her show ended?” As it turns out, though, these aren’t random, unrelated pieces; they’re all parody monologues of celebrities. There’s Rod Blagojevich negotiating his first tattoo at Joliet State Prison (“A basic symbol would be nice, like a clover or a heart . . . an outline of the state would be good for irony . . .”), Mr. T selling male enhancement pills (“Send a message to your brain. Heart: send blood down south now!”), and Ann Landers warning that the use of Twitter is the primary cause of teenage pregnancy (“What’s next? What’s after teenage pregnancy? Yes, crack babies.”). He also explains the ten simple rules that allow David Yow of The Jesus Lizards to keep a smile on his face, one of which is to always be honest with people, even if it makes them hate you, because then “you’ll be able to call yourself a straight shooter.”

Finally we reach the “experimental freakout with extended kazoo patriotics” portion of the evening, performed by the Post-Revolutionary Let Downs. Harold Ray, who’s in the band, says that it “believes in following up the 4th of July with a certain reverence.” So it performs its rendition of By and By and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, among others. He dares Weston Rose of Good Evening to return to the stage for an improvised piece of country gospel music set to passages of The Frugal Gourmet, asking for the first and only time this evening: “Do you have nerves of steel?” Rose accepts the challenge and The Frugal Gourmet has never sounded so cool. Appearing to be in his element, Harold says, “I know you northern socialists can appreciate the proletariat. It’s what led you not to vote in the last election.”

But wait, there’s more! Just when we think the evening has ended, Harold introduces “two random motherfuckers,” two men in tuxedos carrying a bugle bike horn and a silver flask. These two men look suspiciously like the Puterbaugh Sisters. One sits on the other’s lap and they do a live dummy bit, singing a mash-up that starts off with Judy Garland’s “Trolley Song” and Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell.” “We Googled what teens love these days and we found that they love mash-ups.” The last thing I remember about this installment of So You Think You Have Nerves of Steel? is the dudes who look like the Puterbaugh Sisters promoting their “orphan slinger,” a sling used to hurl chestnuts at orphans. “It says, ‘Hey orphans, you don’t have a lot of parents. But we sure have a lot of chestnuts.’” I remember that and also Harold Ray giving a shout-out to “Dangerous Dan, Bartender Man.” Hallelujah, this is how church should be.

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Related Blog Post
Spit is God’s Lube by Harold Ray, host of So You Think You Have Nerves of Steel?


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2 thoughts on “Religion with Nerves of Steel
by Alba Machado

  1. Jacob says:

    This is excellent, Alba. Thanks for the wonderful write-up.

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