Fifth Street

May 12, 2022

That time a failed comedian tried to humiliate me on film lol | YOU get a train! and YOU get a train! and YOU get a train! | Media Sommelier: funding a permanent election season

"JAMIE KENNEDY needs to be stopped,” begins my Las Vegas Weekly review of the 2003 comedy Malibu’s Most Wanted. It does not get kinder from there, either to the movie or to Kennedy, who in 2003 was a rising comedy star headlining a major studio movie for the first time. In the review, I compared Kennedy to Pauly Shore, expressing concern that Kennedy might reach the same level of success that Shore experienced a decade earlier. I awarded the movie one star out of five.

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One person who was not pleased with that review was Jamie Kennedy himself. In September 2003, when the review was published, I was 23 and had been working as a professional writer for a little over a year. I had fairly recently achieved my goal of getting my movie reviews posted to Rotten Tomatoes, where they were more likely to reach an audience beyond Las Vegas. I was, perhaps, a little too enamored of my own cleverness, as many young writers are. I didn’t enjoy watching Malibu’s Most Wanted, but I did enjoy tearing it apart in print. So when, about two years later, I received an email from filmmaker Michael Addis asking if I’d appear in Heckler, a documentary about Kennedy confronting his critics, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.

I almost immediately started second-guessing myself, though. “Am I Jamie Kennedy’s next victim?” is the headline on a blog post I wrote in October 2005. Kennedy was one of the prominent figures of the early-’00s boom in hidden-camera prank shows with his series The Jamie Kennedy Experiment, and I worried that the whole thing might be a prank, despite assurances to the contrary. But there was a certain element of pride at work, too: If I could withstand the criticism of my own criticism, then that would further prove that Kennedy was comparatively immature and petty.

That’s what brought me to the now-defunct Improv at Harrah’s comedy club on a Friday night in November 2005, escorted backstage following Kennedy’s stand-up show (which I did not watch). I signed waivers that almost certainly would have given the filmmakers permission to prank me if that’s what they had planned. I met Addis and Kennedy, who were friendly and gracious, thanking me for agreeing to appear in their movie. They told me that they were interviewing critics along all of Kennedy’s tour stops, and that even Roger Ebert had signed on. Joining us backstage was a woman I knew from local movie screenings, a marketing rep for a radio-station group. I never figured out how she got there.

Surprisingly (but of course not actually surprisingly), once the camera was turned on, Kennedy’s demeanor changed completely. He was combative and confrontational, not only about the negative things I had said in my Malibu’s Most Wanted review, but also about my personality and appearance. He repeatedly referred to the woman next to me, making crude implications about my sex life (or lack thereof). He rattled off a list of elaborate and possibly fictional sex acts. He accused me of being a Star Trek-loving loser.

Even though I had anticipated some kind of hostility, it still felt a bit jarring. It brought back memories of being bullied by passive-aggressive "friends" who framed every insult and attack as a harmless joke. I was determined not to give him the satisfaction of making me angry, and I shut down anything he brought up that wasn't specifically about the movie. The more outrageous things he said, the less of a response I gave.

Heckler premiered in April 2007 at the Tribeca Film Festival, before eventually being released direct to DVD. I never watched it.

Never, that is, until this past week. To celebrate the 15th anniversary of Heckler’s premiere, I finally sat down with the movie, which is streaming for free with ads on the Roku Channel and Amazon’s Freevee. At the risk of incurring Kennedy’s ire once again, I will say that Heckler is not a good movie, although it is a better movie than Malibu’s Most Wanted. It’s a bit of a bait-and-switch, starting as an examination of what most people traditionally think of as hecklers, audience members who interrupt live performers, particularly comedians.

Addis and Kennedy put together an impressive lineup of interviewees, including Vegas-connected comedians like George Wallace, Carrot Top and Louie Anderson. There are some insightful comments about the nature of heckling, although the filmmaking is crude, and many of the interviews were clearly captured at inopportune moments. Kennedy, who appears frequently in footage ranging from stand-up performances to a prostate exam, is still not funny.

After about 25 minutes, Heckler shifts its focus to critics, and the central thesis that critics and hecklers are equivalent is never convincing. Kennedy increasingly comes off as an entitled brat who can’t handle anyone saying anything negative about his work, and his efforts to sound superior to his critics only make him seem more pathetic and needy. While other interviewees speak mostly in general terms about reviews and criticism, only Kennedy confronts his critics directly. Obviously, Roger Ebert is not in the movie, although Richard Roeper is, and so am I.

I show up at around the 55-minute mark, and I’m onscreen for about two minutes. The woman who joined me backstage is never seen. Kennedy begins by reading the opening line of my review, saying, “This is probably the worst review I’ve ever gotten,” which seems unlikely since earlier in the movie he confronts a writer who referred to him as a “rape baby.” One of the key ideas presented in Heckler is that any criticism is by definition a personal attack, and I do my best to deflect that. “I have nothing against you as a person,” I say. “I don’t know you.”

During the years in which Heckler was circulating on cable, various friends reported back to me about my appearance, assuring me that I kept my cool and didn’t give Kennedy any ammunition to use against me. I’d like to think that our only subsequent exchange that made it into the movie supports that. Kennedy asks me if I’ve been to Comic-Con International in San Diego, and I answer that I’ve gone a couple of times. “You fucking live at Comic-Con,” he spits out, like it’s a terrible accusation. “Well,” I respond, “it only occurs once a year, so you can’t really go more often than that.”

I can’t say that I feel good about appearing in Heckler, or that I’d agree to do it again if asked today, but I still value being a critic at least as much as I did when I was 23. In a way, Heckler helped clarify how important that is to me, as I was put in a position of defending my role. If I wrote a review of Malibu’s Most Wanted now, I’d probably tone down the snark, although not the negativity. More than ever, in a world cluttered with social-media vitriol, thoughtful and honest criticism, both positive and negative, is vital. I love championing a movie or TV show that I find brilliant, especially something that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. And, I admit, I still enjoy tearing down pop-culture garbage, which is in endless supply.

My movie and TV reviews are still regularly posted to Rotten Tomatoes. This weekend, Jamie Kennedy is one of the featured celebrity guests at Michigan’s Motor City Comic Con.

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STUCK IN A TRAFFIC JAM on the stretch of I-15 between Victorville and Cajon Pass — sustained only by visions of the Newport Beach rental, Hollywood Bowl concert, or Disneyland outing that awaits on the other side — who hasn’t fantasized about a high-speed train between Las Vegas and L.A.? The Nevada Rail Coalition sees you. And it’s not stopping with regional passenger rail either. The group, comprising more than a dozen environmental nonprofits, labor organizations, and railroad associations, is advocating for a lower-carbon, more sustainable transportation future that would include both freight and passenger, inter- and intrastate trains spanning Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and even Montana.

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“(It) translates into a safer, cleaner, more prosperous, efficient, and less congested Nevada that would greatly benefit all the citizens — both rural and urban — of the state,” says Ron Kaminkow general secretary of Railroad Workers United and vice president of the Division 51 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

Working together since 2021, the Sierra Club, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, Nevada State AFL-CIO, and other coalition members hope an organized political initiative can spark the policy and funding needed to increase both passenger and freight train accessibility. Their specific goals include achieving a better trucks-to-train ratio; developing a regional passenger rail transit system in northern Nevada; restoring Amtrak’s Desert Wind service between Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, and Southern California; expanding and upgrading Amtrak station stops in rural Nevada; and completing the much-anticipated high-speed rail service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. 

“Our concern is for the climate emergency, but we also understand that a public transportation-based system is much more equitable,” said Anne Macquarie, co-chair and secretary of the Nevada Rail Coalition’s steering committee. Low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by pollution according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. 

The transportation industry is among the biggest sources of pollution, with its greenhouse gas emissions — representing 32 percent of the Nevada’s total — now exceeding those of the energy sector, according to the State Climate Initiative. Heavy rail transit (such as passenger rail, subways, and metros) produces 76 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions per passenger mile than an average single-occupancy vehicle, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. With Las Vegas being among the fastest-warming cities in the U.S., the coalition believes transitioning to rail transportation is the best way to take the urgently needed action.

Kaminkow learned the importance of addressing labor issues during his 25 years as brakeman, conductor, and engineer on various railroads. “I see the foibles, mistakes, and ineptitude of railroad management in this country from the freight and passenger side,” he says. Class I railroads, those generating more than $900 million annually and including companies like Union Pacific, move most U.S. freight, and, according to Kaminkow, are hostile to passenger trains because there’s no money in them. He says the amount of freight being moved by rail has decreased over the last 15 years, despite it being the most efficient means of moving both passengers and freight. Considering the economy has grown substantially, the coalition sees this as a missed opportunity.

Even though rail makes sense, many companies still opt for trucks. Michael Sussman, Chairman and Founder of Philadelphia-based OnTrack North America, gives this example: Tesla’s Gigafactory is in Sparks, Nevada, while its automotive factory is in Fremont, California. Though both facilities are less than two miles from railways, the company opts to use dozens of trucks daily to move freight. These same trucks return to Nevada empty.

Still, Sussman stresses, the coalition’s goal is not to demonize the trucking industry. “They’re actually rooting for our success,” he says. “There’s an opportunity for (them to have) a better quality of life because they’d be transporting local goods,” which shields them from the lower per-mile income that can happen when issues like weather delays occur on long hauls. 

The coalition completed a state rail plan last year, but, Macquarie says, it won’t be quick to implement. The first step will be lobbying the 2023 Nevada Legislature for the creation of a state rail authority. Currently, the Nevada Department of Transportation oversees the state rail plan.

“The state of Nevada does not have a state rail authority, so there is no state-level agency that can fund, develop, and manage statewide passenger rail,” Macquarie says. “Other states that have either their own rail systems, or that provide additional Amtrak routes within the state, do have some sort of state-level rail authority.”

Environmental gains aren’t the plan’s only possible benefit to Nevadans; it could also boost the economy. That’s Mike Pilcher’s focus, as president of the Northern Nevada Central Labor Council. “Without stronger interstate and intrastate rail buildout, oversight, and staffing,” he says, “the people’s commerce, labor, and industry are blocked from full potential.”

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1. THE FIRST SENTENCE of this exciting installment of Media Sommelier was going to be “It’s election season,” but as soon as I typed it, it struck me as factless, inert, archaic. Why? Because we’ve been in a continual election season for almost a decade now! We live in a permanent election season, fueled by the twin accelerants of an infinite-refresh, outrage-optimized news cycle and the heaving, oceanic froth of social media, nowadays a hyper-ideologized medium where even the most mundane facts and innocent sentiments can suddenly magnetize and violently thwip to a point on the political spectrum.

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The dismal irony is that while election season is a permanent atmospheric condition of our politicized reality, actual free and fair elections as we believe in them are an endangered species. Democracy has been a dark-money Supermarket Sweep for the elites for a minute now — and primary season in Nevada vividly showcases that ugly truth, particularly in this well-researched political spending overview in The Nevada Independent by Riley Snyder. With laughably lax state laws that barely limit spending by political action committees — and that allow them to accept money from dark-money nonprofits fattened by anonymous megadonors — this year’s primary races are attracting a zoo’s worth of questionable actors looking to buy an electoral outcome, from the Silver State’s space travel-obsessed slum kings to its heedless mining conglomerates to its meat-golem vapelords. But sure, yes, please vote. Was that sarcasm? I don’t know anymore!

2. You may know José Andrés as an all-around bad-ass of Spanish cuisine, grandmaster of molecular cooking, and owner of award-winning restaurants in Las Vegas. You may also know him as a practical philanthropist who’s turned a significant portion of his talents and resources to feeding people caught in crisis situations around the globe — war, natural disasters — with his relief org World Central Kitchen. What I didn’t know until I read this GQ profile was how hands-on he is with his food activism — for example, staying for months in Hurricane Maria-ravaged Puerto Rico to serve millions of meals to displaced people, overseeing ever-changing logistics on the ground at volatile border crossings in Ukraine — while also remaining mindful of working with, and not over, local organizations on the ground. But perhaps most interesting is how GQ writer Brett Martin, while certainly an admirer of the culinary crusader, captures Andrés in all his jumbled, confused, grumpy humanity. Refreshingly, Andrés doesn’t try to reconcile the fact of his high-concept restaurant empire with his outsized activism to gin up some grand philanthro-bro posture. “I like to help people,” he says. “But at the same time, you know, I could be playing the Ryder Cup celebrity game, and I’m in the mountains of Haiti. What do you want me to tell you? I had a good life before all this too.”

3. In the Every Accusation Is A Confession Department: Lol, remember when Republicans (including some of our own) were all in a whirling patriotic frothuccino about the Muslim menace of insidious Sharia law taking over America, turning back the clock on women’s rights and taking theocratic control of our children’s minds? They were right — but the onslaught is coming from inside the house! In light of the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, there’s been a lot of timely, relevant, and trenchant discussion of what this would mean to women’s rights and women’s health. Less discussed are some of the deep assumptions embedded in conversations about reproductive freedom in which women are expected to take on a disproportionate responsibility — and risk. Blogger Jason Kottke nails it in his post, “Letter of Recommendation: Get a Vasectomy”: “Women have typically (and unfairly) had to be the responsible ones about birth control, in large part because it’s ultimately their body, health, and well-being that’s on the line if a sexual act results in pregnancy, but there are benefits of birth control that accrue to both parties (and to society) and taking over that important responsibility from your sexual partner is way more than equitable.”

4. The Believer magazine has come to a sad, strange, ignoble, infuriating end after its brief life under the wing of the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute. Once the twee darling of West Coast indie publishing, in 2017 the magazine moved from San Francisco, where it had been published by independent press McSweeney’s, to UNLV, where it nestled into a bustling portfolio of projects and initiatives of BMI, invigorated by then-Executive Director Joshua Wolf Shenk. Fast-forward to 2021: Shenk resigns after exposing himself during a Zoom meeting; the College of Liberal Arts announces the shuttering of The Believer after its March 2022 issue, and — cue the Twitter outrage as the news leaks out — this week, UNLV says in a terse press release that it sold the magazine to Paradise Media, an SEO and digital marketing firm connected to another company called the Sex Toy Collective. Hm, a literary bastion moves to town, only to be unceremoniously auctioned off to a pair of companies that sell hype and sex. You know, a witty essay on how tragically Vegas that is would be just perfect for The Believer. Andrew Kiraly

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Photos and art: Josh Bell photo-illustration by Scott Lien; Heckler screen grab courtesy Echo Bridge Home Entertainment; train by Shutterstock; train conductor courtesy Mike Sussman

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