Every month, throngs of fans descend upon the Oakland Metro Operahouse, a chilly warehouse with mottled, tar-spattered cement floors, to witness one of Oakland’s strangest attractions. Tourettes Without Regrets is a raunchy, attention-deficit vaudeville extravaganza of lewd audience contests, dirty haiku battles, and more euphemisms for male genitalia than you could shake a stick at. So to speak.
The show, which takes place every first Thursday, has nothing to do with actual Tourette’s Sydrome, which is a neurological disorder characterized by tics and obsessive behavior. Nor does it document the experiences of those who have the disorder. The name Tourettes Without Regrets is a riff on the popular (albeit technically flawed) association of Tourette’s Syndrome with vulgar outbursts.
Tourettes, the show, is a laissez-faire celebration of the eccentric and the perverted. Vaudevillian in structure, it intersperses short cabaret acts with a series of spoken word and emcee battles, in which two poets square off, ripping each other’s abilities with scripted or impromptu sound bites. The wittiest, most brutal verbal reduction of one’s opponent wins.
The attraction of local artists seeking to prove their mettle has made Tourettes a breeding ground for hyper-talented performers, some of whom go on to successful careers in their craft. Take George Watsky, a goofy, existentially conflicted 25-year-old poet and actor whose Youtube hit Pale Kid Raps Fast went viral earlier this year. A Bay Area native, Watsky returned to the Tourettes stage last Thursday night for the first time in years. For him, it was a homecoming; he had stage-managed there when he was only 15.
“I was the only sober person in the room to count the money,” said Watsky, who likened himself to a boy scout. (The fact that he looks a lot like Michael Cera has not escaped him).
Jamie Dewolf, the openly narcissistic announcer of Tourettes, put it more bluntly: “There were girls doing coke backstage.” (Dewolf, born Jamie Kennedy, took his mother’s surname to avoid confusion with the failed actor Jamie Kennedy, who fizzled out unspectacularly a few years ago). A National Grand Slam Champion, he founded Tourettes 11 years ago.
The show’s taboo-crushing ethos has distinguished it as a landmark in the world of underground battle venues. By making itself indigestible for pop culture, Tourettes has managed to stay out of the mainstream, while building a dedicated following. One thing I learned quickly: Tourettes Without Regrets is where boundaries come to die.
No sooner had I made myself comfortable in my front row seat than I was approached by a woman in a salaciously unbuttoned white men’s collared shirt, wearing a cardboard-and-elastic Guy Fawkes mask, a la Occupy fashion. She identified herself as Miss Eccentric.
“Would you like to be a judge?” she said.
I looked at the notebook in my lap. “I’m a reporter.”
“Are you a gonzo reporter?” she asked.
“I am now, I guess.” And, following in the tradition of my new role, I made for the full bar in back.
When the doors opened at 8:30, a long line of people poured into the building, filling nearly 150 chairs on three sides of a low-rise stage. The sound system was cranked up, bumping 90’s hits like Blackstreet’s No Diggity and California Love by 2pac and Dr. Dre. A room full of heads bobbed to the beat.
Everyone made eye contact, as though we were all in on the same secret.
Then the music cut out and DJ Syzygy, a beatbox whiz who provides all of the sound effects for Tourettes with his voice, unleashed a torrent of breakbeats and droning bass lines. Wum-wum-wum-wum-KSH-KSH-wum-wumm-bppppth.
“Everybody!” Syzygy yelled. “Make some motherfucking noise for Jamie Dewolf!”
And out burst Jamie, accompanied by The Imperial March from “Star Wars,” his provocatively dressed sister “The Evil Vanna White,” and some guy in a ratty-looking badger costume.
First, Dewolf commanded everyone to hug the nearest stranger to them. Then, he instructed us to caress the person, gently, while whispering “sexually intimidating things” into their ears. Bad-touch mayhem, giggling, and at least some uncomfortable sidestepping ensued.
“Who here is from Oakland!” Dewolf called out. “The land of Hell’s Angels and the Black Panthers!” The crowd roared. He asked everyone who had been teargassed during Occupy Oakland demonstrations to raise their hands. Dozens of hands flew into the air, mine among them.
“Who here is from someplace other than Oakland!” Even more hands went up, though nearly all of them dropped when Dewolf inquired about their participation in the protests. “They’re like, ‘I’m not trying to get teargassed and raped by riot cops in front of 90 iPhones,’” he cracked.
“Who here is from Walnut Creek?”
A sweet-looking girl in plain clothes timidly lifted her hand.
Eyes looked from her back to Dewolf, who was savoring the anticipation in the room. He decided, by the power vested in him by, well, himself, to make her an honorary Oaklander. Dewolf began to bark out orders. Soon, a man was getting “#occupyoakland” sharpied on his forehead, everyone was standing, fists raised high, screaming at the top of their lungs. The badger mascot was pumping its fists.
“Now I need five guys to take their shirts off for no reason!” Dewolf said. Shirts were enthusiastically removed. “Throw water in your face so it looks like you’ve been teargassed!” Water was thrown. In the middle of the fray was the nice lady from Walnut Creek, fist half-heartedly raised, lips half-smiling, eyes moving from one corner to the other.
In moments like this, it’s not difficult to believe that Jamie Dewolf is the great-grandson of Scientology cult leader L. Ron Hubbard, a fact that has helped to shape his public mystique. Despite whatever strange traits Dewolf may carry in his DNA, however, “I do not officially have Tourette’s,” he said.
“But I’ve been accused of it many times since I was a kid,” he added. As a child, Dewolf was kicked out of two schools for his disturbing, compulsive writing. When he started Tourettes Without Regrets, Dewolf envisioned “a celebration of everything raw about the world.” Throughout the years, he has met several audience members who do actually have the disorder. A couple of them took offense, he said, while others thanked him. One even returned to perform a spoken word piece about the experience of having Tourette’s while attending Tourettes.
“I don’t mean to insult anyone,” Dewolf said. Rather, he hopes his show will help people to accept parts of themselves they might usually try to hide. His proclamation: “This is what we are, and we have to embrace it.”
While many of the attractions at Tourettes Without Regrets are shock-and-indulgence-based, don’t mistake this as covering up for lack of skill. KQED called the show “the deepest concentration of raw talent you’re likely to see in the Bay Area.” The stage is unfriendly for battle emcees who are not on their game. Up there, it’s survival of the fittest. Shred the mic or die trying. Particularly unskilled poets are sometimes denigrated and shooed offstage by Dewolf. Everyone fights for the respect of the crowd.
Few Tourettes vets have enjoyed as much web-celebrity status as George Watsky. In recent years, he has gained attention from some of the great contemporary spoken word artists, such as Saul Williams, and is part of an elite few who pay their rent with their craft. After Pale Kid, Watsky was offered a quarter-million dollars to perform in an ad for T-mobile. He turned it down, then released a dis track in the form of a parody video making fun of the ad campaign.
Not that Watsky is against sponsorship. After failing to secure a deal with his favorite drink company Juice Squeeze, he recently used Twitter to drive web traffic to Amy’s Kitchen. He was rewarded with a gift package of soups and packaged foods for his birthday. “It was awesome,” he said.
Watsky’s writing, like his business dealings, is both silly and on point. On Thursday, he opened with a bumbling but strangely beautiful poem, Letter to my 16-year-old Self, in which he advises an anxiety-ridden younger Watsky about some of the world’s disturbing paradoxes: “You know what’s awesome?” he asked. “World peace. And you know what else is awesome?” His face went serious. “Catapults. And that’s just the goddamn truth.”
Other Thursday night attractions included the inaugural hazing of the judges (“moonwalk like Michael Jackson on sleeping pills,” I was told); Occupy My Pants, a potato sack-style race in which partners share a pair of stretchy pants; and a lap dance contest in which four girls competed for the favor of a dwarf as he spanked them with fistfuls of one-dollar bills.
Watsky put it best. “I felt the same about Tourettes as I do about the Occupy encampments,” he joked. “I support it in theory, but I’m conflicted about some of the specifics.”
Tourettes Without Regrets occurs monthly at the Oakland Metro Operahouse at 630 3rd Street. For details, visit the event homepage here.