Pieing for fun and profit.
“I used to throw pies for a living.”
The story usually elicits a good chuckle or two. It’s the perfect gambit when dinner-party conversation lags—a legendary prank executed long ago in my rascal past, a kind of April Fools’ joke.
But what my audience never knows is this: they’re talking to a guy who once commanded a hit squad of domestic terrorists that carried out a slew of public attacks in broad daylight and got away with it.
Well, mostly. An enraged crowd of Trekkies nearly stomped me to death after I’d boldly gone and pied William Shatner, their beloved Captain Kirk, at a Star Trek convention. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
While I abhor pointless violence, I have long believed there are some people in this world who deserve to be smacked in the face with a pie. Vladimir Putin, for example, or my girlfriend’s ex-husband—anyone for whom a well-aimed pie could serve as a rebuke and a corrective measure. The legal code may define it as a violent act—when comedian Jonnie Marbles pied Rupert Murdoch, he earned jail time for assault—but to my mind, what motivates the striking thrust is not violence but idealism. Che Guevara once said, “The true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.” I say the tart’s trajectory is often guided by faith in humanity—or at least a sense of humor.
Popular belief has it that the pie-in-the-face gag (a word derived from the Norse gagg, meaning “yelp”) originated in the silent-movie era. Performed by the slapstick director Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops, Fatty Arbuckle, Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, and various imitators then and since, the stunt seems uniquely American. What better enforcer of the democratic dogma than a tossed pie? A gooey face is an instant social equalizer.
Of course, the self-important have always been targets for a takedown; even if pieing is a predominantly American phenomenon, the puncturing of pomposity is universal. I’m reminded of certain graffiti left behind in Egyptian tombs by workers who remarked on the pharaoh’s resemblance to the buttocks of an ox.
The French have a word for it, of course: lèse-majesté, “injured sovereignty,” an ancient crime from the Roman era, still on the books in such countries as Turkey and Thailand. Even in the Netherlands, a man was jailed in 2012 for calling Queen Beatrix a “con woman” and a “sinner,” and demanding abolishment of the monarchy. Royalty has always deserved, short of the guillotine, the pie.
The first incidence of political pie-throwing occurred in 1970, when politics overshadowed everything. Nixon ruled, the Vietnam War dragged on, and the previous decade’s legacy of political assassinations carried over into a new decade of surliness and pugnacity. In the early days of May, antiwar protesters filled the streets and the National Guard shot four students dead on the Kent State University campus.
Capitol Hill on May 13, 1970, was not in a joking mood. Thomas King Forcade, head of the Underground Press Syndicate, was testifying before a meeting of the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, originally convened by Lyndon B. Johnson. Forcade cited forty-five publications around the country shut down or persecuted by authorities on charges of obscenity. He concluded his testimony with the cry, “The only obscenity is censorship!” Then he drew a cream pie he’d somehow smuggled in his briefcase and launched it accurately into the face of commission chairman Otto N. Larsen, the head of the University of Washington’s sociology department. Wire services carried the photo worldwide.
Forcade’s epic pie-toss was the first known instance of pastry as a political weapon. Nothing less than domestic terrorism à la mode, it was a kind of violence that inflicted smiles: Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies scattering money on the floor of the Stock Exchange; an armed, uniformed squad of Vietnam Veterans Against the War roughing up tourists in the U.S. Capitol and threatening to add to their “body count.” Guerilla Theater, we used to call this tomfoolery, and as the original Boston Tea Party did, it helped fire up a revolution.
Forcade was a buddy of mine. We conspired on a wide range of joint ventures, so to speak, involving pot, publishing, politics, and mayhem, including the creation of High Times magazine. An unusual intellect as well as a pioneer of Colombian imports, Forcade was an avid fan of the sci-fi genre. One of his favorite novels was Agents of Chaos.
Written by Norman Spinrad, Agents of Chaos posits a naive revolutionary group sometime in the distant future; they fight the Hegemony to bring democracy to the solar system. But the rebels and rulers contend with a third force, the unpredictable Brotherhood of Assassins—aka the Agents of Chaos. Fearless, cultish followers of the philosopher Gregor Markowitz, the Agents are guided by his Theory of Social Entropy. “Every Social Conflict,” according to Markowitz, “is the arena for three mutually antagonistic forces”: the Establishment, the anti-Establishment, and Chaos—the pervasive tendency for everything to screw up.
Forcade was on the side of the screw-ups. He saw Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, left and right, as part and parcel of the same Establishment; he wanted to be the Third Force, subverting the whole shebang. In Agents of Chaos he found his guiding principle, and, aided by illicit pharmacopeia and a manic-depressive condition, he acted it out. As a result, he was shunned by the left, hounded by the FBI, and frequently irritating to his closest friends.
Goaded by the political zeitgeist, I was determined to create my own Agents of Chaos, a cadre of trusted comrades who could be called upon to rise up and act decisively, who would know how to infiltrate difficult locations, carry out a plan of action, and escape into the night. Partisans to fight off Nixon’s gestapo after Tricky Dick’s inevitable coup d’etat! But clandestine groups required too much secretive energy. Instead, I decided, we would train openly, using pies as a front.
Taking a businesslike approach, we created a brochure offering a menu of attacks: Squirt Gun Ambush, Seltzer Bottle Blitz, and the classic Pie-in-the-Face, with a choice of flavors (chocolate cream, lemon meringue, etc.). Fees began at a basic $150, with upward adjustments depending upon the difficulty involved. Their anonymity guaranteed, customers signed a contract authorizing the hit. Payment was 50 percent up front, with the remainder, plus expenses, due on the successful conclusion of the mission. For an extra fee we provided photographic evidence. A small advertisement in the Village Voice got us started; a bit of PR pulled a mention from Voice columnist Howard Smith. Agents of Pie-Kill took off.
At first, our ranks counted two: me and my then-girlfriend. Call her Agile Accomplice. She’s the one in thigh-high leather boots who jumped out of a taxicab in front of the Buffalo Roadhouse patio, just off Sheridan Square, waving a couple of water-filled pistols, dousing a client’s cheating boyfriend. (He was dining al fresco with his new sweetie.) It was she who shoved a cream pie in David Frost’s face on live network television, a hit contracted by the show’s producer. She possessed a certain pie panache.
When business demanded more agents, our first recruit was a sturdy young man named Aron Kay. He was a Brooklyn-born disciple of A. J. Weberman, the so-called Garbologist, infamous for digging through Bob Dylan’s trash. Kay used to act as a sort of bodyguard for Weberman—his awesome girth and bulk were perfect for fending off Weberman’s critics, mainly fanatical Dylan fans. I taught our willing cadet the proper procedures: reconnoitering the location, surveilling the target, rehearsing the moves and plotting alternate escape routes. Within days of joining Pie-Kill, he was in the field, armed and dangerous—as long as he didn’t eat the pies.
At its peak, Agents of Pie-Kill’s roster numbered half a dozen agents. We pulled in a fair amount of cash revenue and inspired imitators worldwide. Time called us “the biggest fad since streaking.” Every day the news would report someone somewhere getting a pie in the face. Our own Agent Kay scored headline-making hits against the conservative pundit William F. Buckley and antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly.
Things got out of hand when Pat Halley, a Detroit affiliate acting pro bono, smacked a pie into the kisser of the fifteen-year-old self-proclaimed Perfect Master Guru Maharaj Ji. As reported by Walter Cronkite on national news and around the world, God had been hit in the face with a shaving-cream pie! The Guru’s acolytes retaliated, putting Halley in the hospital with fifty-five stitches and a permanent plastic plate in his skull.
It wasn’t long before we noticed Agent Kay had switched to autopilot. He couldn’t stop throwing pies at people: Watergate operative Gordon Liddy, New York City mayor Abe Beame, Senator Daniel Moynihan, and even rock poet Patti Smith. The list goes on. Agents of Pie-Kill had created a monster. And suddenly, the times were a-changin’ once again: Nixon was gone, the war was over, and a peanut farmer was president. Time to close the patisserie.
The subversion of our radical agenda—to what was, at best, a lighter moment on the evening news, and, at worst, a business model for the service industry—was politically pathetic, it’s true. But “there’s no success like failure,” as Dylan says, capturing the ambivalence of the postsixties era, “and failure’s no success at all.” So it goes on. In the wilds of Canada, Les Entartistes, a Canadian bunch specializing in politicians and financiers, was still tossing tarts into the late 1990s. More recently, Confeiteiros sem Fronteiras has been active in Brazil, lobbing pies at rich rainforest despoilers. The pitcher A. J. Burnett, during the Yankees 2009 season, deflated scoring teammates with pies in the face as they touched home plate. Lucy Liu and Jimmy Fallon mutually pied each other last year on late-night TV.
My own exploits would fill volumes. The full story awaits scholarly research in the Pie-Kill Archives, recently acquired by Yale’s Beinecke Library. I will probably never launch a pie again. Nor will my former associates: Agile Accomplice has gone off to pursue targets with a sharpened pen. My cadre has withered away—except for Aron Kay, who, at sixty-three, weighs a reported 366 pounds. He is too well recognized to wield a pie effectively, and is under doctor’s orders not to consume any more of them.
The terrible truth is that far more serious agents of chaos have run the surprise-attack business into the ground. Things are so tight now you couldn’t fling a cupcake without running afoul of Homeland Security or Moms Against Bullying. On some level, the prankster has been pranked—the joke’s on us. As a veteran mischief-maker, I would say that April Fools’ Day in America is over.
But then again, you never know.