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Photograph by Dave Lepori

Code Worrier: Monologue man Josh Kornbluth used to dread reading the tax code, but he now understands the need to fund the basics of a civilized society.

Taxing Matters

Josh Kornbluth wants you to pay your taxes. How the famed monologuist--and dyed-in-the-womb Communist--became a pro-tax advocate.

By Richard von Busack

ON APRIL 15 comes the annual penalty for living in America, when your hard-earned thousands go to ... take your pick: pork-chop-fed congressmen, Cadillac-driving welfare queens, $5,000 crescent wrenches for the fascist war machine, foreigner-loving elitist symphony orchestras or farmers subsidized to grow nothing except their chin whiskers.

Kornbluth's monologue (which has been held over to May 23 at San Jose's Theatre on San Pedro Square) might be seen as part of a backlash against the received wisdom that lower taxes are always better. New York Times reporter Daniel Cay Johnston's bestseller Perfectly Legal describes how the art of upper-crust tax avoidance is now at the rococo state. Even in California, voters are beginning to realize that raising taxes may be the only way to keep schools, hospitals and libraries from disintegrating altogether.

In Love & Taxes, Kornbluth frames his pro-tax stance in the form of old-time populism. Acting out incidents from several years in his life, Kornbluth functions as both teacher and storyteller. Behind him, we see a screen on which his ever-growing debt is tallied as he prowls the edge of the stage in his Hawaiian shirt and Levis.

Unlike the recently deceased monologue pioneer Spalding Gray, Kornbluth doesn't do voices or characters. Kornbluth is always himself--a mensch, a fumbler--trying on the different cadences of Bay Area speech: laid-back computer zillionaires, forceful tax attorneys or kitty-petting alternative accountants.

Even after what Kornbluth went through in the throes of debt, he claims that paying taxes is an act of love--an act of sacrifice for posterity, one's duty to the nation. In his two hours onstage, Kornbluth describes how getting the Internal Revenue Service paid off was part of rising to maturity. Today, Kornbluth is now given to utterances like "I now think taxation is the coolest topic on the planet--with the possible exception of love."

At some shows, the Berkeley-based performance artist even invites IRS representatives onstage to discuss tax matters. In addition to his own website (joshkornbluth.com), the performer has also created a blog called "IR-US." (www.i-r-us.org): "The idea of the site is quixotic, to turn the tide, make the country pro tax! When the politician says, 'I'm gonna cut your taxes,' vote him out of office!"

Woe to Owe

Josh Kornbluth is probably the most familiar monologuist in the Bay Area. The not-easy-to-please Pauline Kael once praised his "intellectual slapstick." And his 2001 film, Haiku Tunnel, co-directed by his brother, Jacob, was picked up by Sony Classics and played at Sundance. Even as his career took off, Kornbluth stayed bad with money; he tended to put W2s in a drawer and then forget where the drawer was. Thus the show is part of his message to tax avoiders: "Come out of the cold!"

In Love & Taxes, he confesses how his hostility toward the idea of accounting left him with a humongous debt; at the end, he owed a manager, the IRS and the California State Franchise Board $80,000.

The coupling of death and taxes, these two dire inevitables, is attributed to Benjamin Franklin. Coincidentally, Kornbluth once played everybody's favorite founding father in Ben Franklin: Unplugged. The actor/writer is the first to admit he looks like Franklin. He's large in the dome, bald at the top, moon-faced and bespectacled and has friendly eyes.

We meet at his producer's office in a vintage University Avenue building in Berkeley, at a pine table in a small kitchen, next to a water cooler and a wicker basket of tea. On the wall is a Berkeley kind of joke: a New Yorker cartoon of Che Guevara wearing a Bart Simpson T-shirt. According to the credits of Haiku Tunnel, Kornbluth's wife, Sara Sato, makes Josh's shirts. Today's sports shirt, when peered at, seems to reveal a field of vermillion ostrich plumes, rampant and couchant.

With the monologuist is the alert and talented Guthrie Kornbluth, age 6. The boy bides his time trying to copy out Einstein's most famous formula.

"How do you spell energy?" he asks his dad.

"He's working out relativity for himself," boasts the older Kornbluth.

If Guthrie has any math talent, he may have inherited it from his grandfather Paul, who was a math teacher, or even his father, a math lover who "hit the wall of calculus" at Princeton, as recorded in Kornbluth's piece The Mathematics of Change.

We try the kid's patience when the conversation wanders off to the deathless Cleveland band Pere Ubu, the Beatles' minor masterpiece "I'm Only Sleeping," the Mountain Goats and Gary Wills vs. George Will (Kornbluth: "I always used to confuse them, but one is brilliant and good, and the other is stupid and evil").

We talk about the inversion of great riffs: "Louie Louie"'s famous clave-beat lead, written by a guy from Seattle, gets redone in a minor key by the furious Kurt Cobain in "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The Theremin wail in the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" is rung out in a minor key and becomes the Viking death shriek in "The Immigrant's Song." And what a thing of beauty Jack Black's Kabuki pantomime of that Led Zeppelin hell-anthem was in School of Rock. Kornbluth hasn't seen that movie yet, though he actually is schooling his son in rock. He tells me that later that day he is going to pick up a copy of Sgt. Pepper for Guthrie.

Before we start in earnest, I show Kornbluth a copy of Awake! that someone had handed me in front of my bank on San Pablo Avenue. The cover story urges readers to pay their taxes with a glad heart, as a patriotic and Christian duty. Kornbluth drinks in the implications of being on the same side of the fence as the Jehovah's Witnesses.

"This knee-jerk animus against taxation itself, against government itself and the public itself, it all started here in California," Kornbluth figures. "We burned down our own libraries and public schools; then we found out we couldn't put out the fire because we defunded the fire department. Remember that Reagan gained the presidency as an anti-tax crusader, ... but he actually responded to the fact that enormous deficits were created. There was actually at the time a very good tax-code revision in 1986.

"The situation is different now. You have Gov. Schwarzenegger going on about 'You're taxed when you wake up, you're taxed to flush the toilet ...' People like him were very happy to be lifted up by social services. And now that he's inside, he locks the gates. The voters fall for it, that's the sad part of it."

As part of a campaign to reinforce the value of taxes, Kornbluth argues that American citizens need to get in touch with their taxes and the way they're spent. In all his previous monologues, Kornbluth used a level of distance and irony, in praise of slack, procrastination and the unattached life. Onstage, Kornbluth is still a man who claims his great gift in life is "to fuck up." But his newest piece, humorous as it is, is about direct misfortune: owing the IRS a great deal of money, right at the time when he wanted to marry and raise a child.

"Love & Taxes is different," he explains, "because I'm saying something that I actually believe. What's really cool to me about humor, for me, I can actually get to the place I believe in, even when I don't have the intellectual or emotional faculties to argue. And I'm not a great political thinker--well, I am, but I haven't proved it yet."

Kornbluth adds, "I get emails from people who agree with me. I got one from a guy yesterday, who thought it was strange that someone from a radical background should come up with a message that is essentially conservative."

Kornbluth's piece is also about transcending the influence of his father, Paul: the larger-than-life Brooklyn Communist evoked in Josh's Red Diaper Baby, which includes the following snapshot: "My father was such a physically magnificent man. He was big, and he had this great big potbelly--not a wiggly-jiggly, Social Democratic potbelly; a firm, Communist potbelly. You bopped it; it would bop you back. It was strong."

Such a man was not subject to the Man, or the Man's demands, such as bus fares, subway turnstiles and income taxes. When Kornbluth began his own parenthood, the most important step was exorcising the Freudian ghost of his uncompromising dad.

"The issue my father brings up in Love & Taxes," Kornbluth tells me, "is that we don't want to give our money to the Man. In a democracy, we are the Man. It really is this huge sea change, this passionate thing for me, to admit I'm the Man.

"Of course, it's one thing to say that, and it's another thing in practice to enter the world, to say, 'I want to change this.' This is the way the system works, and you vote for people who you think will make the right decisions."

Gray Zone

Kornbluth arrived in the Bay Area in the late 1980s, after working as a "shy copy editor" at the alternative newspaper the Boston Phoenix. "I came because there were a bunch of friends of mine who had come out to work for the San Francisco Examiner. They included theater critic Scott Rosenberg, film critic Michael Sragow and his wife, Glenda, who was then editing the style section in the Chronicle." Kornbluth was trying to write a novel, but he was also a devotee of monologuist Spalding Gray. As Kornbluth saw it, the first steps of monologue were doing standup comedy.

"Monologue is a species of standup, and I struggle with that fact," Kornbluth says.

Is monologue, finally, another one of those popular arts made sophisticated by African Americans? What is Bill Cosby's 1968 25-minute-long "For Russell, My Brother Whom I Slept With" if not an early example of how standup comedy was mutating into what we think of today as monologue.

Richard Pryor, after starting out as Bill Cosby II, mutated his work into the threatening comedy of Sam Kinison, Andy Kaufman and Bill Hicks. Pryor's huge influence on a generation of comedians--and even in places like the speeches in Quentin Tarantino's movies--has yet to be fully acknowledged.

Kornbluth never saw his "ultimate hero," Pryor, live. "Of all the things that knocked me out it was the Richard Pryor concert films ... what he does and did, it's my dream to do as well. Even though he's Richard Pryor, and I'm obviously not."

Kornbluth did a little bit of standup here and there, particularly at the San Francisco comedy club the Other Cafe. "I did a show at the El Rio and met [monologuist] Margo Gomez early on," he recalls. "She invited me to perform at a club called the Baybrick. It seemed like everywhere I performed, they closed immediately."

In the end, it was Spalding Gray who suggested to Kornbluth a way to shape his talents. When Gray committed suicide this winter, the results of chronic ill health and depression, he left behind a handful of concert films: Jonathan Demme's Swimming to Cambodia (1987), Gray's Anatomy (1996, Steven Soderbergh) and Monster in a Box (1992, Nick Broomfield).

Demme's underground hit made Gray nationally known. This barebones movie is a model of how to film a live performance film, with expert editing and rhythms. The director's use of close-ups and reverse angles transcends what's a basically static image of a man seated at a desk.

But in Demme's lens, however, Gray is still a theater actor: overemphatic, a little hammy. There's justice in Kael's scathing comment that Gray was "cagey in the use of his naiveté"--though who isn't? It's undeniable that Gray used the Cambodian holocaust to weight down his performance. However, as the events of the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror fade into the morass of so much other bloody history, Swimming to Cambodia is one way to begin seeing Southeast Asian history.

By contrast, the Broomfield film practically dots Gray's ragged performance with exclamation points. In this piece, Gray goes the most off the wall, reading his reviews, reminiscing about junkets to Russia and Nicaragua, while carrying around a huge, unfinishable novel--the "monster in a box"--about the suicide of his mother.

Monster in a Box's low point has Gray meeting with survivors of Contra atrocities. This meeting takes a back seat to Gray's distractions: the heat, the actor's need for an afternoon nap, his worries about his career, a fracas with his roommate for the trip, a UC-Berkeley student who went off his meds.

Gray's best film is his least known: Gray's Anatomy. The monologue concerns Gray's fearful refusal to get eye surgery for a condition called a "macular pucker." Gray, who at that point was downy with advance money, was ripe for the picking by a variety of New Age quacks.

Not everyone knows what it is to be famous--and to feel guilty about it. Not everyone knows what it's like to write a novel and fail in the attempt. But everybody knows what it is to be sick. Soderbergh breaks up Gray's performance into abstractions, louvered bars of cream-colored lighting, implying Gray's out-of-focus vision in his diseased eye. Soderbergh overlaps the dialogue to keep the pace crisp. He dispenses with the live audience to emphasize Gray's searching solitude. He breaks up the film with black-and-white interviews with people who damaged their eyes in industrial accidents or sports.

Gray's Anatomy is, in short, a real movie. With the added points of innovative sets by Adele Plauche, simmering music by Cliff Martinez and dancers (in silhouette) pantomiming the chaos at the office of a Philippines-based "psychic surgeon," Gray's Anatomy is the right place to begin revisiting the work of the commanding, melancholy New England performer.

Gray's death is clearly on Kornbluth's mind. "I mean, I've been thinking so much about Spalding lately," he says, "because he taught me how to do what I do. The whole craft kind of sprang from his forehead. Besides creating the form, he also created an audience. I didn't know him very well, and he could be distant in person. But onstage, he did things that were, in many ways, informal: the desk, the chair, the sip of water. ...It wasn't like he was one of these performers who go out of their way to seem accessible. His shows were almost like a nonreligious religious ritual. Within the ritual, you felt so connected with him, as if there were no distance."

Gray was, Kornbluth says, "a terrific storyteller, with so many tools ... which was again sort of counterintuitive, since he limited himself almost to just sitting. Onstage, Spalding had an enormous range of emotions and moods, ...and he found these constraints that created this freedom. I read a book on theater that had Spalding Gray in it, and he commented that he began by improvising his stuff. This immediately released me to do improv. I realized if I were onstage, I'd have to do something."

Each Kornbluth performance is improvised--to an extent. "It's a mixed process. I'm really conscious about driving at what I mean to say. It's not like I'm floating free; I want the audiences to be entertained as much as possible. It's never scripted word for word, and I'm acutely aware of everything that happens in the audience--if someone looks at their watch. It's this really weird combo of being open, but also being in control."

Kornbluth continues, "But what happens is, I just don't know even what I think until I say it to an audience of strangers, and I can't anticipate them, and I can't understand how it works. It's a mystery to me. When I first talked about my dad's death, I hadn't talked about it to anybody, not even to friends ... and then I started talking about it to an audience ... and I realized the audience went with me. So for me, I bring my own experiences, which I don't understand, and bounce them around. I don't think about them reflexively. The story doesn't exist until it goes out, and then with the audience's energy and intellect, it starts being drawn out. So it's very exciting and scary."

According to Kornbluth, "the audience's ability to feel and to think is endless, and the audience is infinitely deep. How much of an inroad can you make into an audience's potential? That's really what it feels like to me when I perform. To its discredit, the audience doesn't edit the story, so that's why I have collaborators."

Kornbluth calls the collaboration process "quite involved." His partners start with a discussion of the topic. Kornbluth then does improvs, sometimes on tape, which they critique. Live shows, with small audiences (sometimes just 3-5 people), are used to test out early versions of the monologue.

Kornbluth's collaborators (David Dower on Love & Taxes, John Belluci on Red Diaper Baby and The Mathematics of Change and David Ford on Haiku Tunnel) keep outlines, but even by the time Kornbluth is ready to test pre-opening versions of the monologues, the outlines sometimes say only "To come." The collaborators can urge him to abandon material, but ultimately the final decision is his. "It's my story, my life, within the context of the piece."

Tunnel Vision

As the best-known of monologuists, the one who really broke through, Spalding Gray accustomed audiences to one-person shows as different as Eric Bogosian's, Julia Sweeney's God Said, 'Ha!'" and Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles, or one of the younger performers Kornbluth recommends, Danny Hoch. Although Gray started Kornbluth on his way, however, there's relatively little of Gray's direct influence on Kornbluth's work.

As Kornbluth records in Haiku Tunnel, he once toiled as a temp secretary in San Francisco. The film records the struggle of a character called "Josh Kornbluth" to avoid being absorbed by the financial district. The magnetic attraction and repulsion from the force of money there is symbolized by the Transylvanian Head Secretary Marlina (Helen Shumaker).

Kornbluth's aversion to the business of work happily recalls Phil Silvers' connivance and love of sloth. When Kornbluth withholds the truth of his lowly status as a temp, the service of courtship, he also resembles Jason Alexander's shifty George Costanza.

When Haiku Tunnel came out, I didn't think much of it, probably because Kornbluth was unused to the screen; he was too close and too much. But he and his brother had made the only movie I'd ever seen about a unique San Francisco dilemma: the city is one of the last places where the terror of selling out is grave enough to stop a person in his tracks. In such a situation, as the Irish say, you keep sitting on a nettle bush for fear of someone taking your seat.

As "Kornbluth" watches the aimless drinking and circular conversation of the fellow temps, one sees, concealed, restlessness. In a burst of passivity, if there is such a thing, "Kornbluth" can't bring himself to do what's required of him. He's supposed to mail some important letters his boss has dictated--a refusal his boss diagnoses as the "artistic temperament."

This looming commitment--the fear of "going perm" in life, is contrasted with the previous job "Kornbluth" held. It was an ultra-light-duty temp assignment at some engineering firm (Bechtel?) that was constructing a highway tunnel near the Maui town of Haiku.

Significantly, this seemingly paradisical job--doing some small amount of work, listening to punk-rock on the Walkman and toying with writing a novel--was depressing. The feeling of freefall gets to be too much. The piece is clearly autobiographical.

"There was a moment I remember," Kornbluth says. "On Friday, I'd walk out of the financial district and cross at Columbus and go to City Lights bookstore, where they were equally mean to me, but in a cool way. One night I'd been kept late, and it was twilight. There was a stoplight at the corner. The redness of the light was just super bright, because of the dark blue of the sky.

"I had the thought, the red light was telling me, 'You'll never have a family. And you'll never be in love. I mean, really. You'll never be in love.' It was a matter of fact thing. It wasn't like I just went, URGH, like that. It was more like 'Oh.'"

"I remember that feeling," I tell him. "Walking home from my temp job Xeroxing for 7 1/2 hours a day, the phrase I'd hear in my mind, very clearly, was 'This far and no farther.'" Kornbluth adds, "That's what was so great about Travis Bickle in [Taxi Driver], how it shows what it's like for someone who feels the world of beauty, the world of love, is something he won't access.

"My dad, Guthrie's granddad, always used to say, 'The revolution will not happen in my lifetime, but it will happen in yours.' Part of my adult life, if you can call it adult, is coming to an accommodation, with a number of things that are not happening in the statement: 'The revolution will happen in your lifetime.' And yet I try not to lose the vibe of it, that feeling of irrational optimism."

Thinking about his upbringing, Kornbluth says, "I really had this Partridge Family background, with all this singing and dancing--except we were Communists. It was a very loving environment. The people who I know who were raised Catholic, like to describe themselves as lapsed Catholics, but they're still Catholics ... that's what I feel like, except I'm a lapsed Communist. I know Communism didn't work. Whatever people called it, it was an evil system. But it got into my wheelhouse. I loved my dad so much, and he was so persuasive. The overwhelming amount of what my parents raised me with was true and beautiful. Maybe what they believed represents a later stage of human evolution, or they only work in parts of Scandinavia.

"In my case, in these monologues, I can work out what I think, in a joke that isn't a joke. Now, I have the life I dreamed of. Doing these shows allows me to take this inner self and bring it out into this being that I really love: my friend and collaborator and confidant, the audience. It's really this--for me, it's this warm and loving experience to be out onstage. Each show I'm trying to get deeper. When the audience doesn't respond it's difficult, ... but it's still interesting."

Kornbluth spells out the meaning of putting love instead of death with taxes: "In one sense, Love & Taxes is a love story, based on my girlfriend. We got pregnant--we wanted to--and I had to solve my tax problems before she would marry me."

Kornbluth adds, "People expect me to tell a story of how terrible the IRS was, but they were really nice; there was always a real person on the other end of the line when I talked to them on the phone. The ampersand that connects love and taxes represents our connection to each other, not just as couples but as friends and citizens. My wife teaches K-1 in the Vallejo public school system. My stepmother and father are teachers. And my mom was a librarian. I love America, and I love the public things about it. I believe in good health care.

"In a sense, taxes show our love of each other as citizens, our respect and gratitude. Love and taxes aren't superficially connected; it's obviously a juxtaposition that's unusual. But they're connected in a way that's emotional and clear."

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From the April 14-20, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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