To the people who thought up such intellectually zany flights of fancy as the first Saint Stupid’s Day Parade in 1978, bless you.
In the recent past, to the world at large, San Francisco had seemed a showplace for drugged-out libertines blissfully wallowing on each other in the mud at Golden Gate Park.
Well, as this transplant and nightlife reporter soon found out, biting cultural commentary in the form of performative free-for-alls is a tradition that runs deep in the Bay.
Even Philip K. Dick mentioned something about the First Church of the Last Laugh in his 1981 story Valis, after seeing the first or second annual St. Stupid’s Day Parade while out wandering in San Francisco.
Those who found the hippies a bit silly, and their over-sincerity a bit lacking, started new philosophies and faux cults and DIY clubs in the ‘70s and ‘80s: Like punk rock, but for doing stuff in general and not just playing music. For being weird together.
Tracing back the vines of such giants, the root sacraments and forebears of this serious silliness can be found in art movements like Dada, Surrealism, Situationism, Fluxus, Church of Subgenius, Discordianism, and Dungeons and Dragons … locally in the Wobblies, the Merry Pranksters, the Residents, Negativland, the Cockettes, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the Suicide Club …
… and the First Church of the Last Laugh, who came out of both the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. With these groups, Bay Area weirdos of the Boomer generation engaged in educational improv street theater back in the day, as seen in the movie The Legend of Billy Jack. (Who knows, those clips might’ve been filmic tributes to the Mime Troupe anyway.)
So when you’re twentysomething me in 1998, and you’re used to just writing about rock’n’roll for the paper, and then you meet the organizers of the Cacophony Society, and then you go to the best and only April Fool’s Day parade you’ve ever seen, you might just toss aside all hopes of respectability rock-journalism to follow the truly feral kids deeper underground.
You might even stay there, existing in a carnival cosmos filled with surreality and sovereignty. It is a place you can live, no matter where (or who) you are.
On this assignment, a door opened up to me and showed a well-established … subculture? … I’d spend the next 20 years trying in my head to define. It’s been like hugging an octopus.
This was anything but sitting in a bar. It was exhilaratingly interactive socializing — IRL trolling, kind of. Twenty years later, it’s worldwide, and still doesn’t have a name (besides “cacophony” maybe), but “it” certainly didn’t exist a generation ago.
This new kind of tendency for humanity was soon to be recreated IRL and in cyberspace, in thousands of LARP communities and billions of instructional videos on Youtube — the act of gifting other people your time and experience, and maybe trying to make them smile and not take life so seriously. The element of surprise was a factor; this proto-flash-mob behavior struck me even then as the opposite of terrorism.
The definition may be amorphous but the message to Generation X was wide-ranging and clear:
Stop consuming and go make your own fun. Be imperfect. Laugh at yourself before they can laugh at you. Ride chaos like a lightning bolt. Etc. (I wrote about the subcultural importance of SF/Oakland’s freaks at the turn of last century already for the Burning Man website; if you’re interested you can read Tyler Durden Invented Burning Man.)
The Saint Stupid’s Day Parade 1998 was such a rush, watching regular folks cock their heads to the side like a German Shepherd puppy hearing a fart machine. And I was a new nightlife beat reporter dressed in boring jeans.
All my teenage life I’d idolized writing stalwarts like Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson, and hoped to grow up to participate in a subculture as zeitgeist-y and exciting as theirs, yet far less sexist and macho-seeming.
Teenage me fantasized about a high-octane world of wackiness where women actively participated instead of being either scenery, or a hangover mommy, or a target to be ogled from afar and/or gang-banged and forgotten.
And here it was! Literal cacophony. Equal-opportunity mayhem. You may already be a member. No adoring fans and no cocky performers. All together in the muck.
You want stupid?, said the leaders of San Francisco’s underground. We will show you stupid.
Disclosure: This essay also appears in the most incredible book of all time: Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society
Dumb and dumber: the St. Stupid’s Day parade
by Summer Burkes, 4.9.1998
San Francisco’s first formal religion of the asinine started more than 20 years ago at the behest of a longtime Bay Area resident who calls himself Bishop Joey. According to the Bishop, every single human on earth is a member of his tongue-in-cheek church, the First Church of the Last Laugh, since the only requirement for membership is the one uniting factor of our species: stupidity.
“And lo, it came to pass that a table of four did sit and chat at New York City Deli … in the city of San Francisco on a day in March 1979. And far and yon did their conversation wander thru subjects of art, life, politics, and would a blintz be good to have with coffee about now …
“And lo, it came to pass some more that this one of four called Ed did mutter the need for a parade thru the temples of our land, the civic symbols of the power that bind us to a slackless life.
“And lo, the blintz did not sit well in his bowels, and his brain did swirl in digestive confusion and regurgitate the combined intake of thought and conversation into the words … St. Stupid’s Day. The rest is history.”
-The pre-history of the First Church of the Last Laugh, as related by Bishop Joey, seminal and secular head of the FCLL
Thus the First Church of the Last Laugh is also the world’s oldest religion, since “all other religions are based on fear and guilt, and before fear and guilt can work, you must have stupidity.” This belief in the unfortunate, universal genetic flaw we all share is celebrated by knowing Church members once a year with a parade through the Financial District of San Francisco.
St. Stupid’s Day, the official holy day of the First Church of the Last Laugh, falls (not coincidentally) on April Fool’s Day. On Wednesday the first of April, a friend and I, childhood Protestants and longtime heathens, joined a church for the second time in our lives.
Justin Hermann Plaza at the end of the Embarcadero has been the St. Stupid’s Day Parade’s ground zero for the past 20 years. Strolling down Market Street on April Fool’s Day, my companion and I realize we’ve found the spot when we see a man in a dog suit talking into a fake cell phone.
Another man in knickers and a top hat holds a megaphone and bellows repeatedly to addled tourists, “You are all winners!” At the end of Market, amid the construction and the suits on lunch break, we find the convergence. We mill around, costume-less, feeling horribly underdressed.
The ragtag crowd centers itself around an even more ragtag marching band, trading compliments and strange party favors. Within the first five minutes, we are handed dog biscuits and strawberries, solicited for three or four fundraisers and political events, branded with little round yellow stickers, and stamped on the hand with a picture of a goat.
Angels, nuns, jesters, fairies, and demons mingle and tend to their children and pets. A man stands upright and “sleeps” in a bed he made by strapping a mattress to his back and swaddling himself in blankets. Another man in an orange prison suit looks forlornly through the steel bars he has fastened vertically from his waist, brandishing a tin cup. Three or four people on stilts congregate near a man wearing no pants and a “no shoes, no shirt, no service” sign.
At noon, the marching band begins to play, accompanied by kazoos, whistles, megaphones, and general noise. Hyperactive revelers dance to the beat. The infamous Wavy Gravy, in a green Merlin clown suit, leads a plastic fish around by a leash. A somewhat conservative-looking older woman in a sports jacket strolls to and fro with her friends, seemingly oblivious to the bright pink sticker on the end of her nose. Bemused office workers in shades of navy and brown tentatively inspect the party and retreat to the periphery, smirking.
After a short, cacophonous song, Bishop Joey addresses the crowd, briefly explaining the tenets of the First Church of the Last Laugh and then indoctrinating us all. We raise our left hands, cross our fingers, and repeat after him: “I pledge allegiance to the illusion, and to the pyramid scheme for which it stands. One species, in denial, with error and excess, by all.” The parade, a procession to each of the holy Seven Stations of Stupid, begins.
As we march from Justin Hermann Plaza to the first Station of Stupid, we pass a fancy café where some businesspeople are eating lunch. One of the paraders a giant propeller attached to his head ogles them, Rain Man-style, through the plate glass window. We come to the Federal Reserve Bank.
In direct opposition to known parade protocol, the throng stops and sits down all 200 or 300 participants. Bishop Joey makes a brief speech, thanking the bank and all its kin for making America into a “casino economy,” where luck, not hard work or education, gets you rich. He throws all his old lottery tickets from the past year (he buys one every day) at the front doors. We move on.
At the next stop, the parade crowds in, on, and between two 20-foot, levered, pyramid-shaped planters. Bishop Joey points out an unmarked door and tells us that it’s the entrance to The Tomb of Stupid. He shushes the crowd as a man with giant prosthetic hands knocks on the “Tomb” to see if Saint Stupid is in. He’s not. Again, business-suited types have come out of their skyscrapers to see what’s going on.
“Hi, normal people!” a few intrepid souls holler as we make our way to the next Station. “Back to work! Get back to work!” A middle-aged man in a clown’s nose trips and falls en route. He springs up, throws his hands in the air and shouts, “Blessed by Saint Stupid!”
The parade stops at the intersection of Bush and Market. A witless chant rises from the throng: “No more chanting! No more chanting!”
Bishop Joey explains that this intersection marked by the iron lug nuts in the ground represents the border between old San Francisco and landfill San Francisco. This Station of Stupid is the Leap of Faith, an exercise wherein churchgoers close their eyes, jump up, and believe that when they come down the earth will still be there. Members of the crowd “tighten” the lug nuts for safety’s sake, and then, at the Bishop’s command, the crowd jumps. The earth is still there, and the skyscrapers haven’t fallen into the ocean. Mission accomplished.
The parade moves to another plaza. We sit down, and The Parade Rests. A pig-faced man with a small accordion, eager to hear Bishop Joey’s next message, screams, repeatedly and somewhat psychotically, “Everybody shut up!” The crowd joins in, and soon an entire plaza of stupidly clad people is jubilantly hollering these three words at everyone else, first arrhythmically, then conga-style.
This fourth Station of Stupid includes a free lunch (boxes of cereal thrown at the crowd by the handfuls) and then some official Church hymns (“Hymmmmnnnn…,” “Herrrrrrrrrrr…,” and “Usssssssssss…,” to name a few). After a brief and unexplained march round and round the Citicorp Building’s Fountain, the parade settles in front of the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange for the sixth Station of Stupid, The Sock Exchange.
My friend and I stand near the looming Doggie Diner dog’s head that’s being towed alongside the parade on a flatbed truck. “So this is how capitalism works,” my companion says to me as socks fly back and forth above our heads. Lacking socks to exchange, we instead throw our dog biscuits at the Dog as an appropriate offering. After chanting “Jump! Jump! Jump!” skyward at the suits watching from their high-rises (and then, of course, “No more chanting!”), the parade seeks out the final Station of Stupid.
The giant black marble blob of a sculpture at Kearny and California is the centerpiece for the last ceremony. After more marching in a circle, the parade settles in for The Blessing of the Banker’s Heart. The few pennies that capitalism allows us to save throughout the year, Bishop Joey tells us, are to be tossed at the Heart as a sarcastic offering to The Man. After the Bishop flicks the first penny with a derisive and resigned “fuck you,” a hailstorm of copper blankets the plaza and snickering choruses of “for they’re all jolly good fellows” ricochet off the high-rises. The last laugh.
Saint Stupid’s throng heads in the direction of ground zero. Sunburned, hungry, and secure in the knowledge that the best part of the parade is over, my companion and I head for food and away from the dispersing crowd. A lurking, trench-coated man with a mirror attached to the bottom of his cane chases around my short-skirted friend.
A clown rides his tall bike around a jester blowing a three-foot kazoo. The ground is littered with socks and pennies. The man with the giant hands, the Knocker of the Tomb of Stupid, sneaks up and puts an enormous paw on my shoulder. I jump. He looks at me with lurid, holographic bug-eyed sunglasses.
“Nice ta seeeee ya,” he jeers. I feel blessed. Touched, as it were, by the stuffed, overblown, imbecilic, and thoroughly entertaining hand of Stupid.
This is the fourth entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).
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