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Glasgow Phillips was taking a dump at a sandwich shop on Melrose when it happened. A call came through from an associate at CRAPtv, the "content" division of a dubious production company he'd cofounded, only semi-sarcastically, under the rubric Certified Renegade American Product. It was lunchtime, the restaurant was crowded, and the cell phone signal was weak. Phillips yelled from inside the stall.
"No! A million dollars isn't enough!" This was the initial valuation Phillips sought for CRAPtv, which had yet to produce much content, let alone sell any—although Comedy Central had shown interest in one of their pilots, a proto-Jackass variety show starring a drug-addled schizophrenic hippie named Timmy the Woodsman. "Can you hear me? I'm taking a crap at World Wraps! I SAID A MILLION DOLLARS ISN'T ENOUGH!" The call dropped; Phillips returned to his seat. The entire restaurant was staring at him. "For one brief moment," Phillips admits, "I was aware that I was turning into the kind of person whose ass I would normally want to kick just on principal."
This flash of abashment comes late in The Royal Nonesuch, a gonzo memoir of new-media madness and bottom-feeding buffoonery from the heyday of irrational exuberance. The story begins with a motorcycle crash—apropos given the twin engines of hipster entrepreneurship that motored Phillips down his road to nowhere: namely (or perhaps just nominally) independent filmmaking and dotcom startups. "As the white, scooped-out places where the flesh had been welled up red and spilled over," he writes with a typically sharp, sardonic eye, "I sat down on the curb to await further developments." There would be plenty to come—all of them outrageous, some of them poignant, a few of them profitable. But none of them adding up to much more than material for this crazed, crackerjack memoir. The full title of the book—The Royal Nonesuch: Or, What Will I Do When I Grow Up?—poses a question left unanswered in these pages.
The early chapters tell of a privileged, petulant childhood spent in the bobo paradise of Marin County. Young Glasgow cultivated a stupendous substance abuse problem and the friendship of Jason McHugh, a charismatic wild card with ambitions in film. Following a stint in rehab, Phillips studied at Brown, published a well-received novel, then moved to Austin where he languished on the follow-up. Meanwhile, at the University of Colorado, McHugh had formed a production company with fellow students Matt Stone and Trey Parker, a partnership that would result in Cannibal! The Musical and Orgazmo, but dissolved before South Park made its impudent millions.
McHugh got in touch with Phillips and, for lack of a better idea, they moved to LA to conquer the world. They collaborated on "The Sound of One Hand Clapping," a short film in which "a Shaolin monk destroys his adversaries with devastating manipulations of his cock and balls." Inevitably, they took it to Sundance—or rather Slamdance, which grudgingly played host to "Undance," the bogus underground festival McHugh managed to get written up in The New York Times Magazine, with a program consisting of exactly one film.
CRAP had a philosophy. "The most effective mode of criticism isn't criticism," writes Phillips, "but embedding a point of view in your own cultural production . . . . There was a very real, if stymied and ironic, idealism in the name we chose for our company, whose first move would be to try to sell T-shirts and other licensed garbage." A hundred pages later, as CRAPtv attempts to ride the tsunami of new-media venture capital, Phillips further clarifies his ethos: "We wanted to make stuff that wasn't like what was on television. Never mind that I had no idea how television was even made or even, to be perfectly honest, any idea what was on television."
Phillips dives into dotcom irreality with the founding of Quiddity, a "naming" company whose services largely consist of barfing hip business jargon into the lap of clueless clients. He goes to work on his feature debut, Human Number, an apocalyptic torture porn opus inspired by the success of The Blair Witch Project. On the periphery of these shenanigans flail a rogues gallery of hucksters, hustlers, eccentrics, trannies, tricksters, and major-league oddballs. Given the atmosphere of "piratical douchebaggery," it comes as no surprise when James Frey turns in a cameo.
"You have to think about how to rebel against a culture of fake rebellion," says Phillips, while adding that "even as we were trying to express this confusing generation statement, we were still trying like crazy to succeed as part of the culture machine we despised—to be rich, to be famous. For how else could we judge the success of our rebellion?" Put that in your pipe dream and smoke it. In The Royal Nonesuch, selling out is the new keeping it real.
The Royal Nonesuch: Or, What Will I Do When I Grow Up? By Glasgow Phillips; Black Cat. Paperback, 374 pages, $14.
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