In Memory of Taylor Negron, an Endearing Troubled Comedian

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There’s something uncanny about learning that a comic actor you identified with as a child has, all of a sudden, died. It’s even more troubling, however, when you realize that you had, over time, forgotten about this actor and cannot recall why or how you ever identified with him or her (or how much). After brief reflection, you recall that this actor was not (and did not become) famous. He or she was just…there.   You didn’t fully identify with him, however, because there was something close to you in his or her acting; yet there was also something else, something that pushed you away, something oblique.   There is the spark of identification and….something else. On the one hand, it is comical; on the other, it is very troubling. The closer you get to it, the more you are able to, as Walter Benjamin said of his experience reading Kafka, “reread yourself.” But this rereading, though comical, is also shocking and troubling.

I more or less went through this process when I heard that Taylor Negron had died.  I tried to figure out what my troubling experience of his work was (and perhaps still is) and what it means.

As I went through videos on youtube, it came back to me, almost immediately, why I had such a troubled identification his comedy.  I realized that he was unique because he was a troubled comic. Coming to terms with why he is troubling has given me some insight as to what makes his comedy so important to me and possibly for others.

I first saw Negron in Fast Times in Ridgemont High (1982).

I remember the scene very well because, in it, Sean Penn, who plays a constantly-high-on-pot-Jeff-Spicoli, goes from being the cool dude to an angry man who seeks vengeance. Negron is not the object of Spicoli’s anger, the teacher is. But Negron, the pizza boy, is the missing link. Without him, this rivalry wouldn’t exist. Looking back at this I realize why I had a mixed reaction of identification and repulsion with Negron.

The first glimpse we have of Negron he has his head down. He waits, as it were, for the teachers sarcastic question: “Who is it?” And then the routine begins. Negron tells him, in a clipped, awkward tone: “It’s Mr. Pizza Guy.” The teacher, “again?” “It’s Mr. Pizza Guy, Sir.” Upon saying this the second time, we see images of several girls smiling and giggling. For an awkward boy going through puberty, one can imagine how these words, the way they are said, and the response to them, would make one feel. Being awkward is actually attractive?

Then Negron asks, in a tone and with a look that is a little angry and humiliated, “who ordered the double cheese and sausage?” He realizes that he has broken rules and isn’t happy about it. In this moment, the identification shifts.   And the viewer is confused.

Negron collects the money, turns abruptly, and leaves. That’s it. That’s the end of his performance. But in that moment he plays one identification against another in a troubling way.   I do and don’t identify with him. He leaves, turns his back to me, and never returns. And all we are left with his a horrible tension between Spicoli and the teacher.  To be sure, many of us would rather see more of Negron than Penn.

But Negron comes back. I remember seeing him pop up in other movies like Rodney Dangerfield’s Easy Money (1983).   In that film, he plays the new Latino son-in-law named Julio. Dangerfield doesn’t like him, but has to accept Negron if he is to receive an inheritance.   The character is deliberately made into someone who is difficult and irritating.   We don’t identify with him. However, there are moments when Julio is awkward and endearing. In this scene, like a schlemiel, he has to prove to her that he’s a “man” but he doesn’t even know what to say to do this (or even that he has to do this). His friend in the bushes next to him instructs him on what to say to Dangerfield’s daughter in order to win her

over.

He comically says, “I’m bad! I’m so bad!” He is told to “be mean” and “angry” but he can’t. It seems to go against his innocent, comical nature.  This comedic inability to be a “man” or angry speaks to what is most endearing about the schlemiel. Yet, with all of this, Julio is also put forth as a character who is confused and unable to do anything right. He is a comedic “problem.”

While going through his films, I also found a comic routine he did on stage and in a film called Punchline (1988) with Tom Hanks. It parodies an Iranian carpet salesman’s mispronounciations,  Negron exaggerates them by way of his tone and facial expressions. Looking at it now, I can understand why I was troubled by Negron. He seemed troubled, himself. In this routine, he says he likes to “piss off Iranians” and do “punk terrorism.” The light, the camera angle, and the audience all coalesce into a troubling joke told by an angry man.

At this point, I realized that his comedy spans the innocent and the not-so-innocent. There was something there in this character that wanted to be famous – as we see in this very clip to Punchline (notice his words to Tom Hanks) – but was frustrated. The possibility of failure is the darkness that looms over Negron.

Looking into this, I stumbled across a stand up routine Negron did after this film. In the routine, called the “Model Cult,” Negron describes a drug experience in the Californian desert that brought him face to face with models who wanted to bring him into a Model Cult. He starts off by saying that his friends were on Cocaine and “he didn’t like that” because he liked pot and mushrooms (the more “natural drugs”). He wanted, it seems, a more spiritual expeience. As he notes, a model comes up to him, when he is high, and says “you look like you are going through a lot.” It’s the “Fabrege woman,” says Negron. “She’s famous.” And then he changes tone as he describes the “fucking cut, buff guy” that comes up to them. He’s “blond, the Aramus man.” After making this description, Negron sends the first punch line: “And I’m so flattered they’re talking…I’ll fuck them both.”

In the second part of the joke, he portrays his confused conversation with these models. He doesn’t know what he wants. He wants to be artist but he can’t. He doesn’t know what to do. And then he looks with utmost seriousness at the audience and delivers the final punch line: “Ok, we have a cult.”

But this is not by any means the end of his troubled routines. I spent several hours watching them – especially his Taypod series – and found that he was a man who conveyed his troubled life by way of comedy and art. He can’t seem to be famous. He is a slowly dissolving star.  Negron talks about his desire to be on Reality TV and to provide a window on to the “perverse American mind.” His excitement, though naïve, is troubling.

We see this in the brief role he plays in a film he did in 1994, in the film The Stoned Age, where the stoner is the nerd who can’t get with the girls (this is a precursor to all of the Judd Apatow films which also cast stoner nerds).

The scene Negron appears in mixes the American nerd stoner. He plays the perverse, retro-oversexed-disco lover who works at the liquor store selling alcohol to youth . This was well in advance of what we would see in a film like Boogie Nights.

Needless to say, Negron’s comic roles show that he gave himself over to whatever was happening in Hollywood. He wanted to stay relevant. But his roles are all secondary and his video channel shows a person who is comically out of touch with the times he is living in (times that efface fame in the name of Reality TV, stoners, and slackers).

The last clip I came across, was an interview with the actor, comedian, and writer Richard Belzer.

This interview shows how complex a comic character Negron was. He was a child of Hollywood who lived amongst famous people and always wanted to be famous. He was gay and he was Jewish and of Cuban descent. His parents came over from New York. One of his parents was radical the other was conservative.

Negron was someone who, as he notes in the interview, experienced a brief moment of fame (when it existed). Now, however, it is gone. One can no longer be famous as they could. He laments this, yet, he continues to do his art (literally – he was also a visual artist).

Negron didn’t give up, despite the fact that he could no longer even briefly appear in films. He was a hidden star, a funny person who, although he has a darker side that comes with real failure (despite moments of fame), still shed light.

His comedy is attractive to me because it shows something awkward, troubled, and existential which, at the same time, keeps on going and survives, despite social networking and reality TV. But now he’s gone.

Going back through my mixed identifications with you I was able, today, to reread myself.   And though I identified deeply with you what I fear most, like you (and so many Americans), is the death that comes being…almost famous. But as your interview shows me there is a consolation that comes with keeping the conversation alive and recalling who you were, what you did, and what you are doing until the day you die. And if someone out there is listening, anyone, that’s what counts most.

I heard what you were saying.

Rest in peace Taylor, you will be missed.

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