Up in Smoke


Reality television is risky. A recent lawsuit blames Extreme Makeover for inflicting emotional distress that led to a suicide. One hears reports of former reality stars wandering Sunset Boulevard like ghosts, wondering where their fame went. Children should be warned about the danger of appearing on such programs. A public-service ad campaign might be in order, like the ones that encourage all parents to take a hard line against marijuana use, even if Mom and Pop were gloriously stoned hippies in their day. But a kind of anvil morality, in which kids are told never to do something, is a less effective teaching method than personal histories with ambiguous lessons. That’s my theory. And I’ve got a tale that sheds light on these twin menaces that most teens will eventually face: reality TV and pot—invitations to transcendence that might or might not work out. I recommend the following as an instructive bedtime story.

I voluntarily made an idiot of myself in front of a TV camera before it was cool, before reality TV made the questionable judgment of the common man the cornerstone of telecommunications.

In college, I smoked marijuana regularly. And in style: I had a clear, dignified bong that looked like it belonged on the desk of an executive—an executive with a drug problem, but still, an executive. Our apartment had a sticker on the refrigerator that read, “Thank You for Pot Smoking.” It was considered a minor classic. Pot amplified what we were feeling: the spirituality and miracle of every day and everything. We’d get so happy and meaningful we couldn’t express ourselves. It felt like an important part of our education.

I wasn’t a pothead. I went to class and did most things not high. If I do have a regret, it’s that I didn’t get in deep enough. If I’d used marijuana as a stepping-stone to hard drugs, like you’re supposed to, I’d be able to add my Searing Memoir of Addiction to the lucrative Searing Memoirs of Addiction shelf. Alas, I was just a fan. Though I did believe that an all-family smoke-up would’ve caulked any gaps my parents and I had in understanding. Regarding that plan, I came to my senses, which is not something I always did.

The town had an annual Harvest Fest, where everyone would gather on campus, get stoned, and “march” toward the Capitol in the name of pot smokers’ rights. There would be music, speeches, juggling, people selling crafts. It was pretty much like every other day, only more concentrated. I have grainy Super-8 footage of it somewhere.

During my senior year, word was out that a little-known sensationalist TV newsmagazine (a poor man’s A Current Affair, a real-life version of The Simpsons “Rock Bottom”) wanted to do a story on Harvest Fest, and they were looking for someone to smoke pot on camera. Even the most lost of my circle, dropouts with no discernible family and pipes taller than they were, had the acuity to realize that this was not a great opportunity. But I couldn’t imagine a downside—I liked marijuana, and I liked the idea of fame.

My first duty the day of the festival was easy—a camera crew followed me around while I asked light questions to advocates of marijuana law reform. Then we found a group of earthy high school girls from out of town and brought them back to my apartment for an interview. While sitting on my couch and fielding questions from the host about their “drug habit,” they became fidgety and unglued. A half-hour before they were dancing in the sun and browsing hemp satchels, now they were being grilled like criminals for all the world. This felt wrong, exploitative—similar to what I imagine someone with a conscience would feel on a porn set. I pitied them. Until it was my turn.

After the girls were released to their lives, I was in the hot seat. The crew wanted me to roll a joint, and my hands shook with nerves and regret while the cameraman came in to get a tight shot. This is when the interviewer asked, in that deep correspondent’s voice, “Do your parents know you smoke . . . marijuana?”

Even if this had the makings of sweeps-quality programming, it didn’t bode well for my reputation. I was being framed, even though I had put myself into the picture. I started freaking out—breathing heavily, peppering my answers with profanity, and snapping at the questioner. I was thinking that this would make the interview unusable, when in fact, an edgy drug fiend getting bleeped for swearing was probably far juicer footage than they had hoped for.

It was bad, but somehow, it didn’t encourage me to quit pot. Instead, I quit wanting to be on TV. I stopped smoking years later, when I no longer liked where the drug took me. Now I relish being clearheaded— naked consciousness is the miracle. On the rare occasion when I take a passed joint, it’s like getting together with an ex—there are glimpses of wonder, but mostly I remember why we broke up. (She makes me crazy.) My anger at the war on drugs has moved to the periphery and crusted over to bafflement—this “war” just seems so vengeful and endless and absurd. Have we really exhausted diplomacy here?

To my disappointment and relief, the segment never aired. But the tape is out there. I imagine it buried in a massive government warehouse. It may surface on some website or yet unimagined cable station that airs old nightmares. This idea reassures me—an unflattering electronic memorial is better that none. Maybe this is why we fight to gladly sign away our images to programs that would happily make fools of us. We think we can beat the system. This is still the home of the brave. And the home of whopping lecture fees for people who have made idiots of themselves on TV.

Andy Selsberg blogs at citizentruth.blogspot.com.


This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 27, 2005

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