Thank you This American Life, giving us a reprieve from the disaster and despair that’s been clogging the airwaves for the past two weeks, to give us an episode of sun soaked-summer fun via an “Amusement Parks” episode. Without a doubt, amusement parks are part of the American experience. Pretty much anyone I’ve ever known grew up in somewhat close proximity to an amusement park. For those that didn’t, there were always the summer county fairs, which of course doubled as ground zero for teenagers to let their hormones explode during nauseous Gravitron rides or inside hidden funhouse nooks. Yes, amusement parks are part of the American dream and this week Ira gave another tiny piece of heart so we could all take one long, life-affirming ride together.
In Act I we meet a Cole, an amusement park enthusiast who, at 14 got his first job at mid-sized park in Kansas City. Shoot forward 11 years later, and Cole is still working at the same park as manager of the games department. Cole takes the job very seriously, or not seriously depending on how you see it. As a boss, Cole thrives on bringing his employees into his world, one where working in an amusement park is literally the best job a person could ask for. He shows up in costumes, creates characters to go on as guest speakers, makes You Tube Music videos (which thanks to TAL are rounding 7,000 views) and organizes elaborate competitions throughout the summer. We follow his employee’s battling through one such “Sweet Sixteen Tournament” to see which two employees can procure the most cash for their game by the end of the day. We follow Ira around as he watches these high school-aged employees build intricate sets, sew costumes and devise schemes to lure the most customers into their game. In a sense, Cole has turned this job into a summer camp for these kids. Meanwhile, Cole has let his own growth fall by the wayside.
Ira soon points out that Cole actually neglected to finish college in order to take this job, and that in grand scheme of things, he’s pretty low on the amusement park totem pole. Cole via Ira, tries to come to terms with the fact, that he can’t run his mini Amusement Park summer camp forever. Yet, he admits that he feels as happy at this job as he thinks he’ll ever feel.
The show goes on to compare Cole to The Office’s Michael Scott, a character that, though gone, has clearly become a part of the American zeitgeist (this episode, by the way, comes on the heels of the news that James Spader will be semi replacing Steve Carrel as the new Dunder Mifflin Scranton manger in next season’s Office.) Cole, like Michael Scott is immediately lovable in this week’s episode. It brings us to wonder, what is it about this character archetype, the guy who is such a goof that he transcends goofiness, a guy who’s truly content in his menial-ness, what about this is so attractive to the modern American psyche?
In Act II, a slew of listeners share their stories about amusement parks. Guys proposing on a rollercoaster only to lose the ring, carnies doing tricks on the Gravitron, carnies saving babies and lots of vomit. But the most common theme amongst listener’s stories was love, or teenage lust. Which leads us to our next act from Jonathan Goldstein about the summer he moved to Wildwood, NJ as a last hurrah before dedicating his life to g-d by joining Yeshiva. Jonathan’s story reads like a more nebbish Shalom Auslander story. After spending an entire summer working tedious boardwalk jobs in hope of getting “L’ed,” Jonathan has his first sexual encounter via a drunken stranger on the boardwalk that randomly plants a wet one on his lips and walks off. He points out that this minor interaction would turn him into the dark kid at Yeshiva, the one with a past. Throughout the story, Jonathan paints Wildwood as a creepy, dilapidated town where the fun is a mere afterthought. But then we realize, as does he, that Wildwood is the only place in the world where that stranger would walk up and randomly kiss him on the mouth.
For me, the Amusement Park theme brings to mind, rather than a specific memory, a film. When I was in high school, in the days before Mark Wahlberg become known as the guy responsible for poisoning the TV world with Entourage, a film called Fear would define the sexuality of millions of teenager girls contemplating how and when they would go to third base. Wahlberg, then on the heels of being known as the guy who always dropped his pants under inappropriate circumstances, managed to become a sex symbol incarnate thanks to Fear. He did so by doing the following: threatening his girlfriends parents with violence, ferociously beating his bare chest to make it look like his girlfriends father abused him, trying to seduce his girlfriends mom. In the film, he does all of this so that he could achieve his goal of going to third base with Reese Witherspoon on a rollercoaster. Soon after, the entire rebellious teenage female population of the US (or at least New Jersey) wanted to follow in Reese’s footsteps, or rollercoaster seat as the case may be.
Well, looks like we’re out of time. Till next week I’m Jon Reiss, and may all your loop-de-loops be loopy.