Bill Barr, Sideshow Bear

Lies, selective memory, mischaracterizations, shadings, deletions, redactions: Bill Barr has, in his short, second tenure as Attorney General, been guilty of these and just about every other untruth-adjacent action you can name. But he shouldn’t be impeached and the more Democrats talk about doing it, the closer they get to falling into a Republican trap years in the making.

Even before hearing additional testimony from Mueller, McGahn, or any number of others, we must realize two things about Donald Trump and the Mueller Report: First, there was indeed collusion between Trump, his campaign, and Russians. So, difficult as it is with the entire right-o-sphere repeating it 24-7, strike that “no collusion” mantra from your brains. Trump’s collusion with the Russians is as clear as him saying, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails.” We all heard that, going on three years ago.

What Trump or his campaign may or may not be guilty of is engaging in a criminal conspiracy with the Russians to manipulate the results of the 2016 election. That we don’t know because despite his protestations of “transparency” on the matter, Trump was anything but, first stalling an interview with the Special Counsel, then refusing one, then stalling the answering of his written take-home test substitute, and finally refusing to answer a significant portion of that same take-home test. So, in direct opposition to Trump’s line of “No collusion, it’s been investigated, let’s move on,” we have the reality of “Yes, collusion. Trump has not been fully investigated, and we cannot move on until he is impeached.”

Enter William Barr with his sneering, bullying captain-of-the-high-school-football-team persona. He is, yes, just as Trump would have wanted “straight out of central casting,” if one were looking to “cast” a corrupt, truculent political hack with a long line of authoritarian-friendly legal fetishes. That’s before we even get to that nineteen-page job interview/take-home test he gave on the supposed invalidity of the Special Counsel investigation, a missive that made him highest-lawyer-in-the-land to the sort of know-nothing would-be king who’ll let him get away with just about anything he wants. Even with all this, Barr is still a sideshow. He’s a bear in the corner doing a snappy little two-step while a tiger jumps through a flaming hoop and mauls the audience. And, yes, Donald Trump is that tiger.

As the Democrats now fret over how Barr has lied and should be impeached—certainly realistic, noble goals if Trump, as President, wasn’t already well deserving of indictment, conviction, and removal from office for his many and varied attempts to obstruct justice, never mind his campaign and administration’s continuing illicit collusion with the Russians—the President and his men hope the House will be foolish enough to move forward with Barr’s impeachment whether out of political expediency or outright cowardice. This cannot be allowed to happen.

Barr is a figure with little personal charisma. Demonstrated proof of lies and attempts to obstruct justice will be enough to push him from office. If not now, then certainly after Trump himself receives the impeachment he deserves. Now, the Democrats, from Speaker Pelosi on down, must be brave enough to do what’s right. Donald Trump must be impeached if America is to continue as anything remotely resembling a democratic republic. Focusing on Barr to the exclusion of Trump is the trap Republicans hope the House will fall into. Democrats must be brave enough to turn away from the sideshow, to deal head-on with Trump.   

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What’s Your Problem with Joe Biden?

Oh lord, what now? You have a problem with affable Democrat Joe Biden? Joe is cool, he wears Ray Bans, he rolls up his sleeves. He and Obama had a bromance, didn’t you see the memes? So what if he held the back of a White House intern’s head and pressed her forehead against his? It could be seen as fatherly. So what if he put his hand on a donor’s shoulder, then dropped it down her back? What’s your problem, anyway? Have you seen what we’re up against? We need someone who can beat Trump. Sure, Joe ran twice before and lost, but he just looks like a President, am I right? I mean, I would vote for a woman, of course, but…

It’s just how he is; it’s just how men are. Joe is a kind man—a grandpa!—and, sure, he’s a little behind the times, but he’s not bad, not like Trump, not even close! Why are you so sensitive? Is it hormones? Maybe you don’t like anyone touching you. Personally, I like hugs. What—do you want every man to hesitate before he touches you?

We’re in a Constitutional crisis right now. We don’t have time to waste on your PC culture, your insistence on an equality that we never had in the first place.

Remember: Joe is a champion for women. Did you know that, as Senator, he introduced the Violence Against Women Act? Joe is on our side, he’s one of us. I mean, he’s white and cis male and heterosexual and a career politician, but he really gets us, you know? I mean, Anita Hill was a long time ago. Who even remembers? Her humiliation was not his fault, not entirely. She should have known better than to try and take on such powerful men.

So maybe that was Joe Biden’s hand on your thigh, on your face, pulling you in for a kiss, you thought, but no—he just wanted to rub noses. Maybe it was his hug that lasted a little too long. Maybe it was his breath on your neck or was it some other man’s? So many men have put their hands and breath on you, and you didn’t always hate it. Forget it and move on with your life, like the rest of us.

Joe isn’t going to apologize for his “gestures of support and encouragement” to women—and some men!—who reach out to him. He concedes that the boundaries “have been reset.” He just wants to connect; he wants human connection. It was not his intent, he says, to make any woman feel embarrassed, uneasy, confused, uncomfortable, demeaned, powerless, or frozen. Lucy Flores felt just fine when Vice-President Biden came to Nevada to boost her doomed campaign. Now she claims that, backstage at her rally, Joe sniffed her hair, then leaned in and gave it a big, slow kiss. Why didn’t she say something at the time? It’s not like he was violent. I’m sure he didn’t mean it to be sexual.  

I get it,” Joe says. “I get it. I’ve worked my whole life to empower women.”

He thinks we need him to save us, and maybe we do. It would be great if he could. Hasn’t he worked his whole life to empower women?

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Song Beneath the Song: “American Pie” by Don McLean

“AMERICAN PIE,” Don McLean’s magnum opus that spent four weeks at #1 in 1972, is a “dirge in the dark,” a song about the ramifications of the plane crash that claimed the life of Buddy Holly. Over the course of six verses, seven choruses, eight-and-a-half minutes, and any number of cryptic allusions approaching the Biblical in both scope and obscurity, the narrator inveighs against the British Invasion. The point is this: American music—viz., good music—died with Charles Harden Holley.

“The Day the Music Died” refers to 3 February, 1959 (“February made me shiver”), when Buddy Holly perished in a plane crash (“the plane climbed high into the night”), along with Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper (neither worthy of mention in the song). When the chorus of “good ol’ boys” lament that “this’ll be the day that I die,” they are coyly alluding to Holly’s hit “That’ll Be The Day:”

You say you’re gonna leave
I know it’s a lie,
Cuz that’ll be the day-ay-ay
That I die.

Since the release of “American Pie”  in November, 1971—just 12 years after the death of American music—listeners have played the roman à clef game, attempting to divine, often with the aid of mind-altering substances, just who the allegorical characters in the song are supposed to represent. Is “The King” Elvis, as is commonly assumed? Is “The Jester” Bob Dylan? The “girl who sang the blues” Janis Joplin? And who are the enigmatic “three men I admire most / the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” who board the last train to California in the final verse? This tantalizing ambiguity is part of the song’s charm.

Whatever the meaning of the individual references, the chronological flow of the song seems clear. We begin at a dance in a high school gym, presumably early in ’59, as “The Book of Love” plays—the age of pink-carnation innocence, before the Lubbock sound was corrupted by Liverpudlians—and jump to ten years later (1969, a decade after Holly’s demise), where the malefic influence of the Beatles (“the Sergeants played a marching tune,” “Lenin/Lennon read a book on Marx”), the Rolling Stones (“moss grows flat on a rolling stone,” “Jack Flash sat on a candlestick”), the Byrds (“the birds/Byrds flew off from the fallout shelter, eight miles high and falling fast”), and, curiously, the Grateful Dead (“fire is the devil’s only friend”) have adulterated the purity of American rock ‘n’ roll. We check off all the Baby Boom cultural milestones: the Manson murders (“helter skelter”), Woodstock (“and there we were in one place, a generation lost in space”), and Altamont (“no angel born in hell could break that Satan’s spell”), as well as the film Rebel Without a Cause (“a coat he borrowed from James Dean”).

In spite of all this generational excitement going on around him, however, the narrator (b. 1945) is unmoved. Nothing—not the Beatles, not the “girl who sang the blues,” not even the Summer of Fucking Love—can make him forget the loss of Holly, whose memory he invokes with a reverence akin to religious zeal. If the three men he admires most (Hendrix, Morrison, and Clapton? Sinatra, Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr.? Nixon, Agnew, and Kissinger? Does McLean even know?) are the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, Holly, we might assume, is a trinity all to himself. Once you get past the reverence, the whole endeavor seems kind of silly.

Look, no one disputes the genius of Buddy Holly. Even the Beatles worshiped at his altar; the name of their band is meant to echo Holly’s own outfit, the Crickets. Just 23 when he died, Holly nevertheless left behind enough material to fill a solid greatest hits album. It could be argued—indeed, “American Pie” itself makes the argument—that his loss at such a young age is the single worst tragedy to befall the popular culture in the twentieth century. His untimely death deprived us of who knows how much great music. Or, to put it in Holly’s own words, “All my love, all my kissin’, you don’t know what you been missin’.  Oh, boy.”

Nevertheless, I can’t help but find this song reactionary, a musical equivalent of MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN. I saw McLean perform when I was in high school—it was my first concert, in fact, back in ‘87—at the gym at Drew University (so he saw us dancing in the gym). I loved “American Pie” and “Superman’s Ghost” and “Vincent” and “Castles in the Air,” so I was excited for the show. McLean was not. At one point, he tore into Paul Simon, finger-picking a thirteenth chord and mockingly singing “At the Zoo.” It was uncomfortable, because his bitterness was so obvious. Basically, he came off like a jaded old man who hates anything new—you know, like the narrator of “American Pie.” That the cover of the album—McLean flashing the thumbs-up, with the American flag imprinted on his thumb—looks like a Tea Party political ad only underscores this conservatism.

Buddy’s gone, Don. Take a sad song and make it better.

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Dirty Rubles: An Introduction to Trump/Russia (My New Book)

I have written a short book called Dirty Rubles: An Introduction to Trump/Russia. It is available in print, and as an e-book.

It is a 120-page Trump/Russia primer, similar in tone to my summary threads on Twitter, and drawn extensively from my work here at The Weeklings. I hope that it will be a useful resource in broadcasting the truth about Donald Trump.

Writing a book about Trump/Russia is like jumping off a moving train. Trump is a locomotive, hurtling down the tracks, spewing filth a mile a minute. Instinctively we try and keep up. But it’s necessary sometimes to stop, look around, and take stock of the situation.

Dirty Rubles is my attempt to do just that. It is a short book that presents an OVERVIEW of Trump/Russia. Nothing fancy. Nothing complicated. Just a primer. Because we need a primer. Because if the fate of the nation hinges on whether, say, my parents can tell the difference between Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Gorkov, we are all doomed.

It is designed for people who have not been following the story closely, so they can be brought up to speed. But Dirty Rubles is also a handy review, for those of us who HAVE had the misfortune of following the Trump/Russia saga. (It’s also a great gift for the MAGA devotee in your life, who will need an overview when they realize their Emperor is buck-naked & hung like a gerbil).

Here’s a closer look at the table of contents:

1/ Introduction
In which I present my bona fides, such as they are, and explain the purpose of the #DirtyRubles book. We reflect on the impossibly long odds of a Trump victory. Listen to me read it, here.

2/ The Russia Lie
We discuss Trump’s use of the “Big Lie” strategy so eloquently explained by Hitler in Mein Kompf. We present a litany of his lies about Russia. We discuss the 7 most important Trump/Russia meetings. #DirtyRubles

3/ Conspiracy Against the United States: A Plot Summary
What is “Trump/Russia”? We quickly break down the crime, the criminals & their motives. We finger the troika of most important villains of the story: Paul Manafort, Mike Flynn & Jared Kushner. #DirtyRubles

4/ Boy Wonder Meets the Count: The Turning of Jared Kushner
In which I put on my novelist hat and tell the story from Jared Kushner’s POV. How he went from young, wealthy New York royalty to Kremlin asset. #DirtyRubles

5/ Sexts, Lies & Videotape: October Surprises
How in God’s name did the Access Hollywood tape not end Trump’s presidency? Because of the Comey letter. Why did Comey do such a thing? We explain. #DirtyRubles

6/ Thieves-in-Law: The Brainy Don vs. the Not-so-Brainy Don
This is a chapter about the Russian mob, which is more like SPECTRE than Goodfellas. These are NOT people we want to cozy up to. We also delve into Trump’s mob ties. #DirtyRubles

7/ Trick or Treat: The Fourth Estate Craps the Bed
The MSM failed bigly, especially the NYT on 31 Oct 2016. We discuss this failure, its causes and consequences. We talk Steele. We laud brave journalist heroes like @NatashaBertrand, @DavidCorn, @20Committee & @LouiseMensch. #DirtyRubles

8/ Lame Ducks & Pink Slips: #ObamaFail and #ComeyFail
We all now love Comey and have imbued Obama w/almost mythological goodness. But we have to be true: both of these great men f8cked up royally. Bonus: our election take. #DirtyRubles

9/ Witch Hunt: Collaborators Gonna Collaborate
Trump has tweeted that phrase over THREE DOZEN times. We name his collaborators in his administration, in Congress, in the media. We finger the @GOP, @SpeakerRyan & @DevinNunes. #DirtyRubles

10/ Known Unknowns: What’s Next in Trump/Russia
How to end such a book in May of 2018? We rattle off the things we know that we’ll eventually know (i.e., Junior’s indictment, Mike Pence’s role, results of Midterms). We end with hope! #DirtyRubles

I hope that you will buy and read #DirtyRubles, and more importantly, share it.

Thank you, as always, for your generous support.

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Youth for the President

OVER THE PAST YEAR, we’ve seen Karl Marx’s famous saying about history unfolding first as tragedy, then as farce turned on its head.  What started off as ludicrous fantasy took on truly terrible dimensions by the end of the 2016 campaign cycle. Once upon a time, the likes of H.L. Mencken and Hunter S. Thompson mercilessly satirized our nation’s political leaders and the gullible voters who supported them – but even they in their most savage bitterness couldn’t have predicted a result like the one that arrived last November.

Watching the rise of Donald Trump’s brand of reactionary populism, I thought back to a simpler era, when candidates were expected to adhere to old-fashioned norms of political moderation and propriety, at least in public. Distinguished arbiters of newsworthiness like TV anchors Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor were expected to filter out lies and keep politics as fact-based as possible.  When it was revealed that Republican operatives used underhanded tactics on Democratic candidates to help re-elect President Nixon in 1972, millions of Americans were genuinely shocked that American politics had fallen so low.

In the early ‘70s, there was still a sense of buttoned-down propriety to politics, a code of conduct that the public expected candidates and their supporters to adhere to. If someone violated this code too outrageously, the likes of CBS News or the New York Times would call them to account. Anyone who challenged this way of doing things was a kook, a comedian or a prankster.

I found myself in the latter category in July of 1974. I was a 17-year-old kid in San Diego looking to have a little fun while the country was embroiled in the final stages of the Watergate scandals. The House Judiciary Committee had just voted articles of impeachment against Nixon; his defenders were dwindling daily. That didn’t stop me and my friend Edgar from dreaming up a fictitious pro-Nixon group to plead his case in creative ways.

For about a month, we got ourselves booked on a series of local TV and radio stations as members of Youth for the President, a bogus grassroots organization with “hundreds” of members up and down the West Coast.  We pranked some of San Diego’s best known journalists and talk show hosts with what (to us) were patently ridiculous arguments. Looking back, I can see we were more than fooling around at the media’s expense — we were spreading fake news 40 years before Trump and his followers had perfected the art.

It all began innocently enough. We were walking across the commons of San Diego State University one afternoon when we got the devilish notion to head over to the campus public radio station and ask to be interviewed. Impersonating young right-wing activists defending the obviously guilty Nixon seemed like a workable premise, so I tore a flyer off of a bulletin board and scribbled a press release announcing that Youth for the President had been formed to stop the “neo-socialistic press” from destroying our hero. We marched into the studios of KPBS-FM and asked to see the news director, giving our names as Jeffrey Spaulding (Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers) and Leonard Schneider (comedian Lenny Bruce’s real name).  We thought we’d be quickly shown the door – instead, we were told to get ready for a news segment taping in 15 minutes.

I can still recall the weird thrill of that first interview. The 20-something newsman treated us with respect and took our arguments seriously. Jeffrey (me) had a hard time keeping a straight face during the first few minutes; I explained it away as “sand in my nose.” Getting a grip, I proceeded with my partner Leonard (Edgar) to reel off steadily more dubious arguments on Nixon’s behalf, heavily laced with contempt for the news media and American democracy. When our interviewer brought up the Watergate conspirators’ unprincipled tactics against the Democrats, Leonard asserted that “elections are war – they’ve always been war,” but that “it’s hard for a commander to keep track of every private… a general can’t be expected to keep track of Cubans.” We accused the media of “pandering to the whims of the American people” and charged House Judiciary Committee chairman Peter Rodino with being a stooge for organized crime.

The PBS guy took it all in stride, wrapping things up by saying it was great that these two young men were getting involved in the process. We promoted a fake on-campus rally on behalf of our imaginary organization and left the studio feeling giddy and a little guilty from what we’d done.

Some context here: Edgar and I were both aware of the Nixon campaign’s use of “dirty tricks” during the 1972 election season. An operative named Donald Segretti had been caught forging letters and spreading false stories to help subvert Senator Edmund S. Muskie’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Details about the Watergate burglary, illegal campaign contributions and pay-offs, targeted tax audits and similar scandals emerged after the election that confirmed Nixon’s involvement in a host of nasty activities. Edgar and I thought it was obvious that Nixon was dishonest down to the bone. How could anybody defend this man with a straight face?

But as we continued with our Youth for the President pranks, we also developed some doubts about the American media and how it operated. We were more than a little surprised at how easy these broadcast professionals were to fool – or did they want to be fooled? Did they see through our baseless, outright silly talking points – or did they even care that we were only kidding? This was heavy stuff for two politically-minded teenagers to contemplate. It wasn’t enough to make us quit impersonating pro-Nixon fanatics. But it did give us pause.

Our next appearance was on KFMB-TV’s Telepulse program on August 4th. This Sunday night show dealt with topical issues and was hosted by respected local journalists.  We called up the station, sent them a press release (typed on clean paper this time) and got a booking. Only Leonard appeared on the show, as Jeffrey chickened out at the last minute. Lenny made the most of his ten minutes with host Shirley Klumm, comparing Nixon to Jesus Christ and the furor over Watergate to the hula-hoop fad. The high point came when he whipped out a greeting card that a local third grader had supposedly made to help cheer up the President. The heart-shaped card featured crayon drawings of Nixon standing with happy children along with such slogans as “Our President needs us” and “We like our President.” Leonard explained that our group had been going around to elementary schools to drum up support for Nixon. Klumm didn’t question any of this. I sat in the studio audience, very pleased that the crude little card I had whipped up looked so good under the TV lights.

The following night, we got an hour’s worth of time on a local radio talk show hosted by Laurence Gross, a veteran broadcaster and outspoken liberal. We got off to a dicey start when he recognized “Leonard Schneider” as Lenny Bruce’s real name. (Later, I learned that Gross had been Bruce’s piano player at one time.) Gross didn’t seem to doubt our legitimacy, though, even when our defense of the President got increasingly strange. We took things to a very primal level. At one point, Jeffrey suggested that Senator Sam Ervin (chairman of the Senate Watergate investigating committee) challenge Nixon one on one “to see who the real man is.” Leonard couched his outrageous claims in slippery language: “I’m willing to bet… I’m not making any charges, but it’s possible… that those congressmen were drugged into voting against the President…”

Much of what we said was sheer nonsense. When Gross suggested that the President had to operate within the limits of the law, Leonard said, “Maybe it’s best to make an analogy. We see the nation as a big boat. Richard Nixon is the captain of this boat and he’s trying to get the boat through the middle of a raging storm. And the press and the American People have the audacity to go up to the captain in the middle of this storm and ask, ‘What time will lunch be served?’”

“I think that’s the dumbest thing I have ever heard in my life,” Gross said. “What does that mean? What did you just say?”

More gibberish followed, of course, as Gross grew steadily more irritated with us. We cited bogus judicial precedents and fictitious organizations to bolster our positions. We advocated making Nixon’s impeachment proceedings top secret or postponing them until after he left office. Whenever challenged, we retreated to our right to have our own facts. “We can state our sources as freely as Bernstein and Woodward can,” Jeffrey said. “We have a right to make a judgment, just as you have the right to your obvious opinions,” Leonard told Gross. “All we can account for is what we believe.”

We took some phone calls on the air. An older gentleman said he was ready to “bust a blood vessel” over what these two “runny-nosed kids” were saying. A female caller asked us if we thought Nixon should step down immediately considering all he’d put America through. “I’m glad we’ve got at least one supporter of the great man calling in tonight,” Leonard said. “I’m not a supporter, don’t be ridiculous!” she shot back. No act of petty obfuscation was beneath us.

Despite our best efforts, President Nixon bowed to the inevitable and resigned from office on August 8th. That didn’t stop us from continuing our crusade – now we could champion a martyred leader brought down by America’s enemies. That’s the tack we took on our final pair of interviews. Right wing commentator Ann Watson booked us on her afternoon radio show to help bolster her conspiratorial view of international politics, even though she felt Nixon leaned too far towards appeasing Communism. Leonard and Jeffrey gave her audience a fine mix of fantasy and silliness, reciting a poem praising our hero (“We love Richard Nixon…Nixon loves the children of the world…”) and proposing that Gerald Ford appoint him Vice President as soon as possible. Watson worked around our more outrageous claims, calling us “brilliant” (if a little soft on the Red Menace).

Youth for the President ended its run on The Good Life, a radio program hosted by the affable Jim Gates. Once again, the host and the audience didn’t trust Nixon because of his willingness to make deals with the Soviets and China. No one blanched when we compared Nixon to the crucified Savior, however. Jeffrey did test the limits when he cited “a theory out there” that it had been a Nixon impersonator – rather than the great man himself – who had resigned from the Presidency in a carefully staged hoax.

Gates had to step in at this point. “Fellas, we’re dealing in childish folly here,” he said. “Let’s not be ridiculous. A broadcaster couldn’t possibly let that happen.” “Would you say that in the day of the SLA and the Weathermen?” Leonard shot back, dropping the names of two famous radical groups of the era. “It could be done by paying off a few people…”  Gates laughed it off, then added: “These guys came prepared to talk. They’re well-documented… Wherever these two guys go, the phone lights up…”

Sad to say, the phones went dim for Leonard and Jeffrey after that. Talk show hosts lost interest in kicking Nixon around any further. But there was a coda of sorts to our Youth for the President escapade two years later, when we decided to launch another round of pranks to promote a nonexistent book exposing the biases of the news media.

The high point of our new prank project was scoring an appearance on the Sam Yorty Show on KCOP-TV in Los Angeles. Yorty was the ex-mayor of L.A. and a fixture in California politics since the 1930s. His right-hand man was Wally George, a former child actor and radio broadcaster who took Yorty’s conservative views to a more aggressive level. It was George who called me after he received our press release. “Do you think the liberal media runs this country?” he asked me within a minute of getting me on the phone. I realized that all I had to do to get on the Yorty show was to agree with whatever he said, so I did.

Sharing a TV sound stage with Yorty and especially Wally George was a revelation. For the first time, we were being presented to a live audience that was primed to cheer our antiestablishment views. When Jeffrey urged viewers to keep all personal documents near their kitchen stove in case they needed to incinerate them when The Enemy stormed in, the mostly white and elderly audience applauded loudly. This was the most disturbing moment that Leonard and Jeffrey experienced in their career as pranksters. To see our brand of free-floating paranoia lapped up by seemingly ordinary Middle Americans was a little scary.

After the show, we had a nice chat with Mayor Sam (as he was known) and left the studio with an uneasy feeling. Our nonsense was just part of the populist grist that his show was churning out. Wally George would go on to greater success as the ultrapatriotic host of Hot Seat, a syndicated TV talk show that got loud and sometimes physically violent. We would’ve fit right into George’s antics if we had been willing to take things a few steps further.

Forty years on, my experience as a media prankster still haunts me. The reason why bamboozling those interviewers seemed so funny was that we assumed we were breaking the rules and that we’d get in trouble if we were caught. You aren’t supposed to make stuff up and say it’s true on TV or the radio – right? We implicitly accepted what we thought the norms of responsible broadcast journalism were.

True, none of the media professionals we dealt with – whether deep-dyed liberals like Laurence Gross or right wing provocateurs like Wally George – bothered to check our credentials before booking us. We thought it was because none of them considered the possibility that they were being fooled. I do think some of them would’ve been offended if they’d found us out.

Today, though, it’s a different story. The standards of objective fact have been so undermined that no one can determine what a joke or a prank or an outright lie is anymore. In 2005, Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness” to describe imaginary facts that “feel” true – a neat summation of what Youth for the President stood for.  In December 2016, Oxford Dictionaries proclaimed “post-truth” as its Word of the Year. In their small but feisty way, Jeffrey Spaulding and Leonard Schneider did their part to make it happen.

Yet I take no joy in this. You need standards of sober, honest conduct to make a prank work. Otherwise, it’s not a prank anymore – it’s just ordinary life.

Welcome to the new American reality.

The sort of gleeful disinformation that we engaged in as pranksters has become familiar in our nation’s politics. From the denial of Barack Obama’s American birth to the claims that the Sandy Hook school shootings were a hoax and that millions of votes were cast illegally in the 2016 presidential election, we’ve seen fact-free assertions become articles of faith for countless true believers. “You choose your facts and I’ll choose mine” is the mantra of much of the country now. When Leonard Schneider said that “all we can account for is what we believe,” he was trying to be absurd, not predict the future.

One particular technique we employed deserves special mention. During our interviews, we would repeat wacky stories without fully endorsing them and softened extreme claims with qualifiers like “I’m not making any charges…” I felt a jolt of recognition when I heard Donald Trump put forth the idea that Ted Cruz’s father was somehow implicated in President Kennedy’s assassination without saying he truly believed it. This kind of shifty “I’m-just-saying” tactic was something we’d stumbled onto four decades ago.

If Jeffrey and Leonard had been less silly and more ambitious, they might have grown up to be Steve Bannon and parlayed a media operation built upon mean gags, vulgar insults and wholesale falsehoods into a White House job. They surely could’ve been hired by James O’Keefe to be part of the undercover faux-pranksters who target liberals for Project Veritas.  They wouldn’t try to spread false news as guests on the Alex Jones Show – they would be Alex Jones.

The claim that Donald Trump won the popular vote in the 2016 general election is of a piece with Youth for the President’s assertion that Richard Nixon’s resignation from the Presidency was faked by an actor and a few evil broadcasters. It’s just more insidious and less funny.

Jeffrey Spaulding and Leonard Schneider were lucky to have pulled their pranks back when there was still a modicum of respect for the American news media, standards of political civility and the value of rational thinking. It’s a prankster’s paradise now. And the joke is on us all.

Posted in Memoir, Politics | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

A Summary of the Conspiracy Against the United States

Trump/Russia is the worst political scandal in the history of the United States. This is a summary of who is involved.

Big Picture

Donald Trump and his associates inside and outside his campaign conspired with Vladimir Putin, Russian intelligence, and Russian organized crime to steal the election.

For his efforts, Putin was to receive a blind eye toward his conquest of Crimea, a weakened NATO, the lifting of sanctions against his oligarchs—and, apparently, veto power over key appointments.

Trump and his family would get the aid of Russian hackers in turning the election, as well as other financial to-be-determined considerations, probably debt forgiveness. In addition, kompromat gathered on him during his trip to Moscow in 2013 would not be deployed.


The quid pro quo between Trump and Putin did not emerge out of thin air. A number of intermediaries were utilized during the period of negotiations that began in earnest when Kremlin asset Paul Manafort joined the campaign in March, 2016, and remain on-going to this day.

The Trump negotiation team consisted of: Donald Trump, Jr. and Jared Kushner, the president’s son and son-in-law; Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen; then-Senator Jeff SessionsMike Flynn and Mike Flynn, Jr.George Papadapoulos and Carter Page; Blackwater founder Erik PrinceJD Gordon, Sam Clovis, and KT McFarland; Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates; and Indiana governor and transition chair Mike Pence.

Basically, anyone who met with, and failed to disclose, meetings with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak was part of the team.


Russian cyber operatives 1) hacked the DNC and RNC servers; 2) weaponized American social media in key swing states especially; 3) released hacked information at key moments during campaign. They did this in coordination with Trump’s people.

The Trumpist tech team included: Kushner, who helmed the Trump campaign’s social media operation; Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer, each part-owners of Cambridge Analytica; web guru Brad ParscaleRoger Stone, who coordinated with Guccifer 2.0; Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, who has been a Russian asset since at least the Edward Snowden affair; and various FSB-affiliated hackers (e.g., the “13 Russians“).

Fat Cats

Trump was not the only beneficiary of the deal with Putin. His Cabinet is honeycombed with wealthy men and women who gained from dealings with Putin and the oligarchs, or who stood to profit from the lifting of sanctions and/or Trump’s tax policies. Wilbur Ross and Rex Tillerson are the most obvious names here, along with hostile takeover specialist and inside trader Carl Icahn.


This group includes those who became aware of Trump/Russia and actively sought to cover it up, whether by making knowingly false media statements, failing to report illicit activity to the FBI, or otherwise abetting the initial crimes.

In Trump’s circle, this includes: Hope Hicks, Keith Schiller, White White counsel Donald McGahnIvanka TrumpStephen Miller, Seb Gorka, Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus, Anthony Scaramucci, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Sam Nunberg, and Kellyanne Conway.

The “True Pundit Hoax” that forced then-FBI director James Comey to release his notorious memo on Hilary Clinton’s emails, which turned the election, was perpetuated by, among others: Donald Trump, Jr.; former New York mayor Rudy GiulianiErik PrinceSteve Bannon; an anonymous figure known as Thomas Paine; pundit Jeanine Pirro; and Julian Assange.

Members of Congress and other politicians who obstructed justice by attempting to derail the various Russia investigations despite knowledge of the truth include: Devin Nunes, Jason Chaffetz, Dana Rohrabacher, Trey Gowdy, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Chuck GrassleyLindsey Graham, Matt Gaetz, Ron DeSantis, Steve King, and current CIA director Mike Pompeo.

Media personalities who actively disseminate(d) false or misleading stories include: Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Jeanine Pirro, Gregg Jarrett, Alan Dershowitz, Julian Assange, Lara Trump, Mike Cernovich, the Fox & Friends crew, the editorial page of the Wall Street JournalNewt GingrichMike Huckabee, and Alex Jones.

Useful Idiots

Prominent Americans who, wittingly or not, parrot Putinist talking points: Bernie Sanders and Jill SteinGlenn Greenwald and the other Russia skeptics at The Intercept; purists like Susan Sarandon and Cornel West; fallen Democrat Donna BrazileMaggie Haberman and other slipshod reporters at the New York Times; and plenty of well-intentioned people.

This is the scandal of our lifetimes. All of us made mistakes and erred in our judgment. All of us were played.

The key is not to double down on those mistakes, but to learn from them, quickly; to pursue justice no matter what (Dems will ultimately be changed, too, I’m sure); and to save the Republic from Trumpism.

Posted in Trump/Russia | Tagged , | 32 Comments

The 50 Most Awesomely Innovative Pinball Machines of All Time

If pinball evokes wistful memories of a youth spent in loud arcades, or that neglected game shedding paint flakes in your uncle’s basement, you may lament the temporal forces that have rendered pinball a unique product of a bygone era. Luckily, you’re wrong: Pinball is alive and thriving and is, in fact, arguably more popular today than at any time in the past two decades.

I’ve trawled through the thousands of pinball machines on the Internet Pinball Database (IPDB) to find 50 of the most special, the coolest, the landmarks in pinball history. This list is highly subjective, of course—after all, the best pinball machine in the world is whichever one you like to play the most. So let’s start at the beginning.


Improvements in Bagatelles (M. Redgrave Bagatelle Co., 1871)

Okay, this one may not be super fun to play. And if you do play it, the guards at the Smithsonian Museum of American History will ask how you got inside the display case. But this little gizmo, which earned patent #115,357 for inventor Montague Redgrave, essentially transformed the parlor game of bagatelle into something that more closely resembled pinball. Redgrave’s innovations included steeply sloping the playfield and launching the ball via a spring-powered plunger rather than the classic billiards cue.


Ballyhoo (Bally Mfg. Corp., 1932)

This squat little gizmo, unassuming by today’s standards, lit the world on fire for pinball. Its affordable price, bright patchwork colors, and catchy slogan (“What’ll they play in ’32? Ball-y-hoo!”) kicked off the Bally Manufacturing Corporation, which—after selling 50,000 of these beauties to bar and arcade owners—would continue to be one of the leading pinball manufacturers for more than half a century. It’s basically Montague Redgrave’s design made commercial, at exactly the time when Americans were looking for seven-balls-for-a-penny entertainment.×1024.jpg


Big Broadcast (D. Gottlieb & Co., 1933)

Big Broadcast, with its theme of radio towers beaming analog information from such exotic far-flung locales as Detroit, Philadelphia, and Cleveland, holds a special place in pinball history for one reason: It kept score. Nowadays one wouldn’t dream of forcing a player to perform mental math just to come up with a numerical point total, but at the time, a calculator or adding machine (or, as they sometimes called it, a “totalizer”) was an advanced scientific instrument, so most games relied on the nearby human brain to keep score. Big Broadcast, on the other hand, used metal flaps like toilet seats to trap a ball in a given hole and prevent additional balls from falling in as well. With this one-to-one ball-to-hole ratio guaranteed, all that remained was for each ball to roll down a particular metal trough under the playfield and flip a numerical display. It’s like a calculator designed by Rube Goldberg.


World’s Fair Jig-Saw (Rock-ola Manufacturing Corp., 1933)

This was about as complicated as a game got in 1933, but even today the feature remains neat. A map of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933 has been painted onto the underside of a sixteen-piece jigsaw puzzle; rolling the pinballs over the switches flips each puzzle piece into place. Not bad for an invention that predates the ballpoint pen.


Humpty Dumpty (D. Gottlieb & Co., 1947)

No list of important pinball machines ever fails to include Humpty Dumpty, so why start now? While it didn’t achieve listicle-topping fame for its theme or artwork (in which Humpty Dumpty, a giant egg with limbs, is somehow popular with bikini-wearing human women—figure that one out, Dr. Ruth), Humpty had something no previous machine did: electromechanical flippers. Or, as the marketing slogan boasted, “Sensationally New Player Controlled Flipper Bumpers”! Granted, the flippers were weirdly positioned, and they didn’t really point at anything helpful, but hey: flippers.


Knock Out (D. Gottlieb & Co., 1950)

Knock Out contained the 1950 equivalent of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, a rubber-ringed metal diamond in the middle of the playfield on which two flat, miniature boxers could swing tiny boxing gloves at each other. Or, as its marketing slogan claims, “uproarious slam-bang animation in a real ring on the playfield”! Whether or not the miniscule avatars with moving elbows constituted uproarious slam-bang action, it’s still a pretty cool feature for a machine made otherwise mostly from wood.


Balls-a-Poppin (Bally Mfg. Corp., 1956)

This one deserves a spot on the list for the name alone—not to mention its marketing slogan, “With Riotously Exciting Wild Balls.” But what makes Balls-a-Poppin so ballsy is a prominent kick-out hole labeled, “RELEASE WILD BALLS,” which, when landed in, launched a series of additional balls (as many as nine!) onto the playfield. If one of those landed in the “RELEASE WILD BALLS” hole, the mayhem intensified, augmented all the while by a loud “pop” every time a ball hit a certain type of target—hence the name. It’s also the first machine with flippers to include multiball at all, so imagine how crazily chaotic the whole thing must have seemed in 1956. My balls are a-poppin’ just thinking about it.


Bank-a-Ball (D. Gottlieb & Co., 1965)

You know how, when the ball goes to the right or left of the triangle-shaped bumpers, it can either fall down an inlane, feeding it to your flipper, or down an outlane, feeding it to the drain and causing you to curse a lot? Bank-a-Ball, Gottlieb’s billiards-themed game, was the first to include inlanes. That may sound like a historical footnote, but its reviews on the Internet Pinball Database (IPDB) include the word “classic” from so many independent assessments that it has to make this list.


Beat Time (Williams Electronics, Inc., 1967)

No copyright infringement here—Beat Time is themed around a totally fictitious musical group, The Bootles, who presumably sing hits like “Can’t Boo Moo Loov” and “Hey Jord.” The gameplay was nothing groundbreaking, but I simply can’t stop staring at the backglass. It’s just so…angular. It’s so…1967.


Big Flipper (Chicago Coin Machine Mfg. Co., 1970)

Its flippers are big. They are not small. Rather, they are big. And what exactly is the defining feature of these flippers? Specifically, it is their bigness. Also, what part of the game is big? You guessed it: the flippers. And that’s the fascinating story behind Big Flipper, the pinball machine whose flippers are big.


2001 (D. Gottlieb & Co., 1971)

This game—which, as of this writing, is the top-rated electromechanical machine on IPDB—was also the first to feature multiple banks of drop targets, those plastic rectangles that retreat into the playfield when tapped with the ball. 2001, in fact, set a record of 20 total drop targets, an achievement unmatched before or since. If, you know, drop targets are your thing.


Surf Champ (D. Gottlieb & Co., 1976)

Surf Champ appears on this list, not because of what it does, but because of what’s been done to it. On the inside, which players typically never see, pinball machines are jumbles of wires, switches, and electrical and mechanical gizmos that are—at least to a certain sort of person—just as beautiful as the machine’s surface. At the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, California, they’ve put the guts of a Surf Champ on full display by replacing the cabinet and playfield with transparent Plexiglas, allowing visitors to marvel at its inner workings. It’s like those clear fish, where you can see their heart and stomach and stuff. You know what I mean? Those are awesome fish. This is better.


Eros One (Fascination Int’l, Inc., 1979)

Gonna go ahead and pick Eros One as the token cocktail pinball table on this list for no particular reason. Cocktail pinballs, which were most popular in the late ‘70s (to the extent that such things could be popular), were kind of like flat octagons on which one could enjoy a highball while chatting up the hot bar patron who presumably didn’t mind you staring at the table.


Gorgar (Williams Electronics, Inc., 1979)

Nowadays, the idea of a talking pinball machine is essentially a given—a machine’s callouts are part of its sound package, and some games even end up with custom speech recorded by actors from the TV shows or films on which they’re based. But before anyone dreamed of Patrick Stewart in a sound studio saying, “All hands prepare for multiball,” there was Gorgar, the first talking pinball machine. Gorgar could say three nouns (“me,” “you,” and “Gorgar”) and four verbs (“beat,” “hurt,” “got,” and “speaks”), which he could rearrange to form rudimentary sentences. Thus, though he never actually did this, here’s a haiku Gorgar could have said:

Gorgar, you hurt me.

Gorgar speaks: “You? You got hurt?”

Beat me, Gorgar. Beat me.


Hercules (Atari, Inc., 1979)

So you’ve been hoping to someday use a pinball cabinet as a coffin, but you’d really like to fit the whole family inside. Good news: Atari’s massive novelty—so large it used an actual billiard ball as a pinball—was big enough to make Zeus himself ask if they might consider taking it down a notch.


Black Knight (Williams Electronics, Inc., 1980)

I’m a sucker for multi-level playfields, and on that score, Black Knight was the first of its era. A large section of the playfield is dominated by a sort of “upstairs,” a second wooden playfield with its own flipper and targets, not to mention ramps that rocket the ball back “downstairs.” Black Knight also introduced the sometimes-still-used “Magna-Save,” a magnet under the playfield that a player could activate to magically grab a ball on its way to the outlane. The game was so beloved that Williams made an updated version, Black Knight 2000, in 1989.


Firepower (Williams Electronics, Inc., 1980)

One of the top five bestselling games of all time, Firepower was the first solid-state electronic pinball machine to include a now-standard event called multiball. It also introduced the “lane change” feature, which gives the player the ability to switch which lights on the playfield are currently illuminated, thus positioning not-yet-won awards in places the ball is about to travel. That tiny bit of code, which most modern machines have adopted as well, added one more task for the player to focus on while waiting for the ball to return to the flippers—which may sound insignificant, but it helped build pinball into something that requires the player’s undivided attention.


Flight 2000 (Stern Electronics, Inc., 1980)

To pinball enthusiasts, calling a game difficult is a compliment. One might suppose that easy games are more fun to play, and that might be true for a little while. But if you’re the sort of person who’s going to play a pinball machine repeatedly for years—or own one in your basement—you want the game to pose a challenge. Flight 2000, Stern’s first talking game (a year after Williams gave us Gorgar), earns points for having an exceptionally difficult-to-start multiball. Just look at that complicated series of paths in the upper left of the playfield! What cruel monster dreamed up these catacombs and convolutions? You could spend all day trying to start multiball, only to drain all three balls immediately. Such is life. Such is pinball.


Black Hole (D. Gottlieb & Co., 1981)

When you’re walking by a row of pinball machines, Black Hole is the sort of game that stops you in your tracks. Just look at the cool blueness of everything, from the playfield to the pop bumper caps to the subterranean (subspace?) mini playfield that makes you want to be sucked into its void. Black Hole firmly occupies the category of being just unusual enough to be notable without being full-gonzo-bonkers. (If it’s full-gonzo-bonkers you prefer, read on…)


Hyperball (Williams Electronics, Inc., 1981)

How could pinball be fun without flippers? Well…what if you could simply fire 250 pinballs across the playfield per minute? Yep, that’d do it. Hence Hyperball, a not-exactly-pinball pinball machine with the letters A through Y displayed around the playfield (Z is reserved for “Z Bombs,” controlled by a special button). Each letter would attack you, or you’d attack it, or you’d spell words, or something. It’s hard to tell what’s going on when you have fifty balls in play at the same time.


Orbitor 1 (Stern Electronics, Inc., 1982)

For their hundredth game, Stern Pinball celebrated by manufacturing a machine that would mess with players’ freaking minds. Instead of a flat, wooden playfield, Orbitor 1 used warped, curvy, smooth, backlit, transparent Plexiglas with a misleading moonscape painted underneath it. The effect was that you never knew which way your ball would roll, including back up between the flippers. Go home, Orbitor 1. You’re drunk.


Spectrum (Bally Manufacturing Corp., 1982)

Remember that board game Mastermind? Where you had to guess the sequence of colors your opponent had chosen? Sort of? This is kind of like that, only you can’t just “guess” the four-color pattern the computer secretly knows (red-yellow-red-blue, for example). You have to shoot the ball at colored banks of targets in order to guess that color, and if you hit the wrong target by mistake, well, you’ve guessed the wrong color. Also notable is the game’s perfect left-right symmetry—it doesn’t even have a plunger to launch the ball. Instead, somewhat confusingly, the ball springs up from between the flippers.


Varkon (Williams Electronics, Inc., 1982)

Silly pinball machine. Thinks it’s an arcade cabinet. That’s kind of the idea behind Varkon, a fantasy-themed machine that looks like any other arcade amusement from the era of Dig Dug, BurgerTime, and Donkey Kong, Jr. But peer inside Varkon and you’ll see that the joysticks actually control flippers, and thanks to a cleverly placed mirror, it looks like you’re playing pinball vertically. I mean, you’re vertical yourself, but you were anyway. You know what I mean.


Joust (Williams Electronics, Inc., 1983)

Imagine if flipping the pinball sent it, not up a ramp, but to another person. That’s the premise behind Joust, which wasn’t the only head-to-head pinball machine but may be one of the better-known ones. Remember the Joust video game, with the birds that collided, and the bird with the higher beak was the only one that survived the collision? It was like that, but not.


Banzai Run (WMS Industries, Inc., 1988)

Usually the backbox of a pinball machine is a functionless decoration. Sure, some have included weird little mini-games or—nowadays—video animations. But for years, a backbox did little but advertise the name of the game and display your score. On Banzai Run, it’s an entire second playfield, a vertical one. As you can imagine, gravity is less forgiving in vertical pinball, but it’s still really neat to see the ball suddenly enter this mysterious, previously theoretical z-axis.×1024.jpg


Funhouse (WMS Industries, Inc., 1990)

What’s this on the playfield? Why, it’s a fella. A friendly fella named Rudy who calls players “Bucko” and taunts them when he feels grumpy. Advancing the virtual clock to midnight lulls Rudy to sleep, and when he snores with his mouth open, that’s where you put your balls. Just like that one time in college. Incidentally, Funhouse kicked off a mini-genre of pinball machines containing ball-in-mouth shots, including Stern Pinball’s 2017 game, Guardians of the Galaxy, in which sentient tree Groot is the lucky ball swallower.


Whirlwind (WMS Industries, Inc., 1990)

It’s the pinball machine that blows—literally. With an undesirable-weather-event theme, Whirlwind challenges the player to avoid cyclones, which manifest themselves on the playfield as spinning discs that throw the ball in unanticipated directions. But it’s what’s on top of the backbox that most people remember vividly: a fan. That may not sound like too nifty of a perk—after all, a fan just blows air, and air is free. But when the game cautions “The storm is coming! Return to your homes!”, and then the fan activates and buffets the player with wind, there’s just something beautiful and holistic about the whole experience. Plus, if you’re playing pinball in a hot beach arcade, that fan can feel damn good.


The Addams Family (WMS Industries, Inc., 1992)

If you’re unfamiliar with the number of machines one must sell in order to call a game popular, here’s some context. For most titles today, a few thousand is the norm. There are just 41 machines in modern history (based on IPDB sales figures) that have ever sold more than 10,000 copies, and only two have cracked the 20,000 barrier: Eight Ball in 1979 and The Addams Family, which overtopped Eight Ball by selling 20,270 machines, then sold an additional thousand of a higher-quality “Gold Edition” in 1994. Why was The Addams Family so popular? Quite frankly, it happened to have the right confluence of elements: easy to play, hard to master, and it didn’t hurt that it was made in 1992, right at the peak of pinball’s popularity in the early ‘90’s. And it’s impossible not to smile when Raul Julia (as Gomez Addams), backed by an increasing sonic crescendo, announces the beginning of multiball with an exuberant, “IT’S SHOWTIME!”


Twilight Zone (WMS Industries, Inc., 1993)

For your consideration: After the success of The Addams Family, designer Pat Lawlor was given permission to make his next game even cooler. That game—which required widening the playfield by half a foot just to accommodate its abundance of gadgets, including a pinball-dispensing gumball machine and a mini-playfield with invisible virtual “magna-flippers”—has also become the most “modded” game, as collectors and enthusiasts invent new toys to augment the originals. Also, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.


The Pinball Circus (WMS Industries, Inc., 1994)

One-of-a-kind pinball machines are rare (well, duh), but it’s even rarer to have one publicly playable. And rarer still for one that looks as nifty as the semi-vertical Pinball Circus. I guess what I’m saying is, playing The Pinball Circus at the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, where it currently resides, is not just like finding a unicorn—it’s like finding a unicorn you’re allowed to pet for a dollar. (Technically the machine, built as an engineering prototype before WMS rejected the concept, is two-of-a-kind, but the second is in a private collection.) The goal is to use the seven flippers, elephant’s trunk, and giraffe’s neck to send the pinball up to each subsequent level, until at the top level you knock out the clown’s teeth, which actually makes for a somewhat gory circus experience.


Photo supplied with permission from Jay Stafford.


The Who’s Tommy Pinball Wizard (Data East Pinball, Inc., 1994)

It’s inevitable, don’t you think? Tommy, the rock opera and subsequent film that rekindled America’s love of pinball, happens to make a nice subject for a pinball machine itself. Besides the terrific music, this game includes an opaque “blinder” that makes the player feel like the eponymous deaf, dumb, and blind kid—it expands across the flippers, making each flip somewhat of a haphazard guess with no visual feedback. See me, feel me, touch me, play me.


Apollo 13 (Sega Pinball, Inc., 1995)

In the you-know-what-measuring contest of whose multiball has the most balls, no game can top Apollo 13. Some games have tried: Aerosmith has a six-ball multiball, Indiana Jones has eight, and let’s not forget the nine in Balls-a-Poppin. Apollo 13 has a throw-everything-at-you 13-ball multiball. Locking balls inside the spaceship rocket triggered this thrilling, somewhat baffling turn of events, as players struggled not to lose six or seven balls in the first five seconds.


Attack from Mars (WMS Industries, Inc., 1995)

Pinball players know immediately that someone is a novice if they say, “Ooh, I love that game…what’s it called? Mars Attacks!” Mars Attacks is a sci-fi film released, coincidentally, around the same time as Attack from Mars, and they have nothing to do with each other. Attack from Mars is a simple yet extremely satisfying pinball machine that includes vibrating Martians, secret cow graphics, and multiball mode—only accessible by random award—that involves a strobe light. Just an all-around awesome game that, for many, helped cement the ‘90’s as pinball’s best decade ever.


Big Bang Bar (Capcom Coin-Op, Inc., 1996)

In 1996, pinball was enjoying a renaissance, but one which no one knew, or at least no one admitted, had already peaked in 1992. Enter Capcom Coin-Op, a company that existed for the blink of an eye (a year and a half) with the mission of designing and manufacturing original pinball machines. Toward the end of Capcom’s brief foray into pinball, they designed a space-and-alcohol-themed game called Big Bang Bar, made 14 functioning prototypes, then went out of business. That recipe for scarcity has made Big Bang Bar one of the most valuable pinball machines, a title so coveted that a company called Illinois Pinball Inc. licensed Capcom’s design and “remade” Big Bang Bar in 2006-2007, shipping 191 more machines to eager customers. Even today, the remakes still sell for double the price of a new pinball machine.


Safe Cracker (WMS Industries, Inc., 1996)

Unlike the de facto gambling pin machines of the 1930’s, modern pinball machines don’t typically dispense physical prizes. But Safe Cracker, with its mission of raiding a bank vault, gave victorious players a strange little surprise by rolling a commemorative golden or silver token, on its edge, down the glass and pretty much into the player’s crotch. One of the tokens read, “IN PINBALL WE TRUST.”


Cirqus Voltaire (WMS Industries, Inc., 1997)

What can I say about Cirqus Voltaire? It’s a creepy, demented circus (so demented as to spell “circus” with a “q”), and the maniacal ringmaster rises from the playfield to such a height that you think he might bust through the glass. (He won’t.) Then there’s a pop bumper that retracts into the playfield! A scoring display on the playfield itself instead of the backglass! Balls automatically “juggled” between three holes! A twisty neon tube! A large plastic ball for some reason! It’s not a game you’ll see in public often, so if you do, drop in a couple quarters and enjoy one of the weirdest—and niftiest—pinball machines in modern history.


Medieval Madness (WMS Industries, Inc., 1997)

While assembling this list, I worried that perhaps I was overrepresenting games made by WMS in the ‘90’s. Fuck that. Those machines from that decade are awesome, and Medieval Madness is proof. It’s the Middle Ages, and your quest is to lay siege to castles defended by belligerent or drunken knights, rescue damsels, and quash peasant riots. Or…lead peasant riots. I’m not quite sure. It’s also the answer to a recurring piece of pinball trivia: A couple of the distressed damsels were voiced by a little-known Second City actress named Tina Fey.


NBA Fastbreak (WMS Industries, Inc., 1997)

In a world where scores have stretched over pinball’s history, from four digits in the 1960’s to ten digits in the ‘90’s, one game dared battle the scourge of score inflation. NBA Fastbreak has basketball-style scoring—two-pointers, three-pointers—making a final score of 150 actually quite good. But NBA Fastbreak’s superpower is its ability to link to a second NBA Fastbreak, activating a mode in which opponents can compete head-to-head. Well, head-near-head.


Revenge from Mars (WMS Industries, Inc., 1999)

What a formidable task this machine had. In 1999, the largest manufacturer of pinball machines—WMS, with 70-75% market share—was threatening to exit the pinball business and focus on slot machines. The top brass charged the designers with reinventing pinball for a new generation, or, you know, layoffs. Designers rose to the challenge with this futuristic mashup—a sequel to Attack from Mars—that felt like playing pinball from inside a video game, amazing players who found themselves able to shoot pinballs through a holographic screen of invading Martians. It was innovative, nifty, fun, and profitable. WMS stopped making pinball machines anyway. Stupid capitalism.


The Simpsons Pinball Party (Stern Pinball, Inc., 2003)

Most modern pinball machines have a Wizard Mode, an over-the-top, everything-is-lit frenzy that’s deliberately difficult to earn. The Simpsons Pinball Party takes the concept several steps further with a Super Duper Extreme Wizard Mode (yes, that’s actually what it’s called) so difficult to achieve that only a handful of human beings have ever seen it. Unless, say, they’ve looked for it on YouTube.


Family Guy (Stern Pinball, Inc., 2006)

Family Guy answers the question, “Couldn’t you make a pinball machine with, like, a tiny pinball machine inside it?” In the upper right corner of the game, world domination-obsessed baby Stewie gets a Stewie-sized machine, with tiny ramps, miniature flippers, and a pea-sized pinball. And if the game’s irreverent modes (such as Sperm Attack and Fart Multiball) offend your sensibilities, the same playfield was re-themed as Shrek in 2008, with the tiny pinball belonging to the ogre’s donkey sidekick.


Pirates of the Caribbean (Stern Pinball, Inc., 2006)

One lesson from the popularity of games like Attack from Mars and Medieval Madness is that players love a big ol’ “bash target,” which is a large, prominent toy to hit repeatedly with the pinball—in these cases, a UFO and a medieval castle, respectively. On Pirates of the Caribbean, the bash target is a nifty pirate ship with sails that collapse when it “sinks.” The game was so popular that, more than a decade later, Stern’s new rival Jersey Jack Pinball announced they would build and sell their own Pirates of the Caribbean, this time incorporating elements from all five films in the franchise. Yo ho ho.


Bill Paxton Pinball (Ben Heckendorn, 2010)

In 2005, internet celebrity Ben Heckendorn, better known as Ben Heck, decided to build a pinball machine from scratch. It took him until 2010. The amount of time and labor he dedicated, therefore, are especially awesome-slash-hilarious when you consider the theme of the machine in which he invested his efforts: Bill Paxton. The actor. From Twister. And HBO’s Big Love. And…was he in Titanic? Really? Oh, right, he’s the treasure hunter guy who gets the old lady to tell the story. Huh. Neat.


Wizard of Oz (Jersey Jack Pinball, Inc., 2013)

For almost 15 years, Stern Pinball had a monopoly. (Appropriately, in 2001, Stern Pinball produced the game Monopoly.) For almost 25 years, all pinball machines had dot matrix displays, making modern games visually indistinguishable from those made during the first Bush administration. Eff that, said “Jersey” Jack Guarnieri, who stuffed his new company’s first machine with a 27” flatscreen in the backbox. Now Dorothy and Toto could look like Dorothy and Toto, rather than looking like a collection of orangish dots.


Full Throttle (Heighway Pinball, Ltd., 2015)

It’s not the gadgets or the theme that make Full Throttle, new Welsh manufacturer Heighway Pinball’s first creation, so neat. It’s what’s inside: Every major component of the game is plug-and-play. If a flipper breaks on most machines, the repair—called “rebuilding” the flipper—is complicated and involves soldering. On Full Throttle, the flipper unit is self-contained and can be replaced with a new one when necessary. Even the playfield and art can be swapped with other Heighway games, so if you want to own ten different pinball machines, you just need one cabinet and a stack of ten playfields in the closet. (As of this writing, however, Heighway’s second game, Alien, is still in the prototype phase—so you really can’t swap a Full Throttle playfield with anything but your hopes and dreams.)


PinBox 3000 (Cardboard Teck Instantute, 2015)

If you’ve ever wanted to make your own pinball machine without spending a million dollars on research and development, behold Cardboard Teck Instantute’s $30, all-cardboard platform for creativity. The only limit is your imagination. And fire. Fire is probably a limit, too—because, um, cardboard.


Batman (Stern Pinball, Inc., 2016)

Though the game is formally called “Batman” (which might cause one to confuse it with other Batman pinball machines from 1991, 1995, and 2007), this deliberately campy machine—Stern’s first with a video display—is better known as Batman 66, in which “66” refers to 1966, the date of the original biff-pow-kaboom Batman television series. You know, the one with villains like King Tut, Egghead, Shame, and The Bookworm. You…don’t remember them? Most people probably don’t, but it doesn’t matter: Whether you’re battling The Riddler or consulting the gigantic Bat Computer, you’ll feel like you’re in the middle of the 50-year-old series and should probably be wearing tights. Oh, and before multiball begins, Batman says, “Shall we, Robin?”, to which Robin replies, “Let’s, Batman.” Oh, and the game shines the bat signal onto your ceiling!


The Big Lebowski Pinball (Dutch Pinball, 2016)

Though manufacturing and shipping have experienced delays—to be expected for any newish pinball manufacturer—the few dozen enthusiasts who’ve received their Big Lebowski pinball machines have confirmed that they’re awesome. Every part of the film you know and love is included: making the Dude a white Russian, the rug, the bowling alley, the bowling alley parking lot, and of course, nihilists running with scissors. If you haven’t watched the film, then (a) this game may confuse you, and (b) please go watch the film right now.


Dialed In! (Jersey Jack Pinball, Inc., 2017)

It’s 2017, for goodness sake, and Dialed In! wants to make sure everyone knows it. Picture this: You’re playing the game, when suddenly it starts to take photos of you and display them on the screen. It’s called Crazy Selfie Mode, and it’s just one of the ridiculously delightful features of a game that also lets you flip the flippers using your own Bluetooth-enabled smartphone. Interactive holograms, drones with spinning propellers, alien attacks that temporarily disable the flippers—it’s a race to save Quantum City from disaster, as well as a perfect demonstration that pinball designers can, and will, continue to innovate.


Total Nuclear Annihilation (Spooky Pinball, LLC, 2017)

Pinside Forums, a website where fans debate (and sometimes debase) each other’s love of pinball, maintains a list of what its users consider the top pinball machines of all time—and somehow this faux-retro game from fairly recent startup Spooky Pinball has cracked the top twenty. Pinball fans, I’ve found, can be largely split into two camps: those who love the tech-heavy games of the ‘90’s and beyond, and those who love the simpler games of the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s. Total Nuclear Annihilation satisfies both of them. The game is fast, fun, modern, and immersive—even though it has no ramps or toys. Also, the goal is to disable a melting-down nuclear reactor. Kind of important.





Adam Ruben is a writer, comedian, storyteller, and molecular biologist. For over a decade, he has performed at clubs, colleges, and private venues across the country, including at some of the best-known storytelling shows and comedy clubs. He is the author of Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School (Random House, 2010), a satirical guide to the low points and, well, lower points of post-baccalaureate education. His new book, Pinball Wizards: Jackpots, Drains, and the Cult of the Silver Ball is out now on Chicago Review Press.



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