Comedy Central airs a program called The Man Show, which exists solely to celebrate the beer-and-babes lifestyle. I used to watch it once in a while because it's so unbelievably out of hand, and because hey, I can take a joke. When I found out that 38 percent of the viewers are female and that it's co-executive-produced by two women, Jennifer Heftler and Lisa Page, I went out to L.A. imagining I could confirm what everyone's been saying: that all of this is just a benign goof.
The night I show up for a taping, there isn't enough space for all the guys who've lined up, and a team of heavy-limbed boys in matching green T-shirts from Chico State is pumped to have made it into the audience.
Don, the bald audience fluffer, seems to be looking directly at them when he yells from the stage, "A few weeks ago, we had trouble with guys touching the women here. You can't just grab their asses -- you don't do that in real life, do you?" Beat. "Welllll . . . so do I!" The frat boys cheer, but not with the alarming gusto of the man in front of them, a scrawny, bespectacled computer technician who resembles one of the P's in Peter, Paul & Mary. "To the women," bellows Don, "today only, you're an honorary man! Grab your dick!"
Snoop is rapping over the loudspeaker:
Guess who back in the motherfuckin house/With a fat dick for your motherfuckin mouth.
Abby, a brunette in tight white jeans, is called up to the stage for her big chance to win a T-shirt. Honorary man status notwithstanding, she is asked to expose her breasts to the crowd. Abby declines, but agrees brightly to kiss another girl instead. A pert redhead in her early twenties races up from the audience to wrap her hands around Abby's back and put her tongue in the stranger's mouth. "Yeah! Yeah! You're making me hard," shrieks Peter/Paul. He is nearly hit in the head by the Chico Statesman behind him, who is pumping his fist in the air in front of his crotch.
Soon after, the stage doors open and out pour the Juggies, nine dancing girls in coordinated pornographic Mother Goose costumes: Little Red Riding Hood in spike-heeled patent-leather thigh-highs, Bo Peep in a push-up bra so aggressive you can almost see her nipples, and, of course, Puss in Boots.
They shimmy their way around the audience, and some of them do tricks on the poles. After the shouting dies down, the show's hosts, Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla, emerge from backstage, fresh as daisies in matching his and his gingham shirts. "Who knows a good joke?" Carolla asks.
"How do you piss your girlfriend off when you're having sex?" a guy in the back volunteers. "Call her up and tell her."
Then they show a pretaped spot about a mock clinic for wife evaluation, where a prospective bride is assessed based on her grasp of football and her aptitude at administering fellatio to Ron Jeremy.
"There's a side of boydom that's fun," declares Jen Heftler, a big woman with frizzy hair and two tattoos, one of a rose and the other of a dragonfly. "They get to fart, they get to be loud -- and I think now we're saying we can fart and curse and go to strip clubs and smoke cigars just as easily and just as well."
As for the Juggies, we are supposed to understand that they are kitsch -- boobs, yes, but in quotes. "In the sixties, Dean Martin had his Golddiggers, and they were basically Juggies," says Heftler, "but the audience wasn't in on the joke. It was just pretty girls because that's what a guy would have. Then it was, you can never have that, you can't show a woman as a sex object, that's terrible. Now we're back to having it, but it's kind of commenting on that as opposed to just being that. The girls are in on it, and the women watching it are in on it."
But after sitting in that audience, I have to wonder: What exactly are they in on? That women are ditsy and jiggly? That men would like them to be?
Bob Guccione Jr., the publisher and editor of Gear, says, "In our pictures, there's a sense of mystery, as if the woman is one step ahead of you. There are women who have a knee-jerk reaction -- you know the kind of women I'm talking about -- women who just don't like to see guys having fun and are uncomfortable with sex."
The women in front of the camera are in control, the argument goes; what's wrong with you that you can't see it? Except that you'd be hard-pressed to argue that the Juggies -- who end every episode of The Man Show by bouncing around in a section aptly titled "Girls on Trampolines" -- are "one step ahead of you."
"Listen, our generation has gone past the point where The Man Show is going to cause a guy to walk into a doctor's office and say, Oh, my God! A woman doctor!" Heftler counters. "Women have always had to find ways to make men comfortable with where we're at. One of the perks to this job was that we wouldn't have to prove ourselves anymore," she continues. "We could say, 'We worked at The Man Show,' and no one would ever think, Oh, those prissy little women again."
It's an old strategy. Women who've wanted to be perceived as powerful have long found it more efficient to join forces with men than to try to elevate the entire female sex. Mary McCarthy and Elizabeth Hardwick were famously contemptuous of "women's libbers," for example, and were untroubled about striving to "write like a man." Not everyone cares that this doesn't do much for the sisterhood.
The night after the taping, I have dinner with Adam Carolla, Jimmy Kimmel, and The Man Show's co-creator, Daniel Kellison, at the restaurant inside the W Hotel in Westwood, a place that resembles Asia de Cuba in its penchant for hot white lights and giant pieces of fabric draped over everything. I ask why they suppose 38 percent of their viewers are women.
"We did a little research," says Carolla, "and it turns out 38 percent of all women have a sense of humor."
I laugh. I want to be one of those women. The ladies here at the W are like another species: There are lush curves bursting off impossibly thin frames everywhere you look, and miles of hairless, sand-colored skin.
"It's a whole power thing that you take advantage of and career women take advantage of," Kellison offers. "If you read Maxim or watch our show or Howard Stern or whatever, you have an overview of a cultural phenomenon, you have power. You take responsibility for your life and you don't walk around thinking, I'm a victim of the press! I'm a victim of pop culture! So you can laugh at girls on trampolines." He smiles warmly. "There's nothing ominous about this; it's just guys hanging out. You get it."
For a moment, I allow myself to feel vaguely triumphant.
Kimmel sucks an oyster out of its shell and then snickers. "At TCA," the annual Television Critics Association conference in Pasadena, "this woman asked, 'How does having big-breasted women in the Juggy dance squad differ from having black women in the darkie dance squad?' I said, 'First of all, that's the stupidest question I've ever heard.'
"Then Adam said, 'Let me put your mind at ease: If we ever decide to put together a retarded dance squad, you'll be the first one in it,' " says Kellison, and all three of them laugh.
"What kind of women do you hang out with?" I ask.
Kimmel looks at me as though I'm insane. "For the most part," he says, "women don't even want to hang out with their friends."
For my final field trip, I accompany Charlotte and the gang to Ten's on 21st Street. The room -- dark, air-conditioned -- glints in pink, then green, then orange as dozens of tiny neon stars on the wall flash with color. A bald bouncer in a three-piece suit of sorts leads us to a table near the stage, and we sit down next to two guys in business suits. While one talks on his cell phone, the other is looking up slack-mouthed at the woman twisting in front of him in her underpants. "You're the most beautiful girl in here," he pants. She keeps her face frozen in a slit-eyed half smile until he slips the money in her G-string. Then she walks away, yawning.
Charlotte looks like she may try and make a run for it, but Anyssa decides she's ready for a lap dance. "Oh What a Night" is blaring on the sound system as two strippers approach and peel their dresses off. They don't strictly resemble Barbie dolls, but there is that plastic quality -- a body without flaw, skin that looks as if it's been poured from a tube. One stripper slips in between Sherry's legs. Seconds later, a bouncer comes over and grasps her by the arm. "Put your dress on," he says.
"Hey," Sherry yells as the woman is escorted away. "Where'd my girl go?"
Onstage, the blonde who best approximates Pamela Anderson Lee is writhing against a pole. "You should get her on your lap," one of the bouncers tells Sherry, winking.
But her original stripper has returned with a friend, and they settle in next to Sherry and Anyssa. It seems they are getting on swimmingly for a while, but then Anyssa turns to Charlotte, suddenly sullen. "Pass me my wallet," she says. It seems the strippers expect around a hundred dollars for their little chat.
Just then, a tall Russian woman still in her blue polyester dress approaches and rests her hand on my arm. "Are you gay?" she asks. "No? Do you want to be a stripper?"
Because, really -- and she was right about this -- why else would a woman choose to be here?