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Bending the Clowns: Lorin Partridge's brand of unpolitically correct humor was formed in response to 'uptight' liberal Silicon Valley.

Pranks For Nothing

Lorin Partridge is a born-and-bred prankster. What motivates people like him, and do we have to call what he does 'art'?

By Vrinda Normand

IT ALL started in 1998, with a package of beef lips. Lorin Partridge, a mischief-maker with a penchant for creating chaos—even now, at 27—was strolling through a Mexican supermarket in San Jose when he spotted the puffy slabs of meat. "It was one of the most hideous things I had ever seen," he says. "I thought, 'I have to buy that, and I'll figure out what I'm going to do with it later.'"

Not long after, the perfect opportunity arose. Partridge had recently quit his job at the Camera Cinemas downtown, but his buddy Adam Winkel and few other friends were still employed. They all shared the same disdain for the teenage crowd that flocked to Camera One on First Street every Saturday for the midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

"There was a rivalry between The Rocky Horror Picture Show fans and the Camera Cinema employees," Winkel explains. "We grew to dislike them a lot. They fancied themselves to be perverse and kinky. We saw through that. We tried to mess with them and beat them at their own game."

So Partridge took his beef lips home and sewed them together into the shape of a doll. He stuffed the figure into a tiny leather jacket and glued some googly plastic eyes on it. "It was like this disgusting little meat man," he remembers. "Then I thought, 'Let's pitch it into the crowd at Rocky Horror on Saturday night.'"

That weekend, he hung out by the projectionist, and when the lights went down he flung the doll into the unsuspecting audience. According to Partridge, it lodged in the cleavage of a young woman, "who screamed, vomited a little and ran out to demand what had happened."

This little experiment in human psychology got Partridge hooked. The Rocky Horror fans "claim to be these sort of weird, death-obsessed, gothic kids, but as soon as something happens outside of their cherished little eggshell comfort zone, they flip out," he says. Fertile ground, he thought, for something on a grander scale.

The Legacy

Under the dim lights at South First Billiards, Partridge's wide blue eyes narrow with intensity as he recounts his personal philosophy and passion for pranks. His elastic expressions, reminiscent of Jim Carrey, all fall back into a subtle smirk that casts calculated doubt on the truth behind his tales.

He leans forward and rests his elbows on his knees. A tribal head tattoo peeks out from under the sleeve of his black leather jacket. Each of his knuckles are marked with a letter, spelling out "FIST AHOY," and they tremor slightly as he reaches for his vodka Collins.

Winkel, Partridge's friend of almost 10 years, describes his partner in pranks in one word: enigmatic. "Even people who know him best can't always figure him out," he says. For all of Partridge's inner contradictions, however, his stories seem to be consistent.

Metro readers first met Partridge in July of 2002, when he landed in the news section after infuriating local antiwar protestors by hoisting signs that read, "War Is Groovy" and "Killing People Is No Big Deal" (MetroNews, "The Anti-Guy," July 18, 2002). Since this little spin at the counterintuitive, Partridge has continued to needle Silicon Valley. His efforts to sneer at normalcy, poke fun at crowd mentality and basically get a rise out of people reflect a legacy of pranksters, local and otherwise.

In the early 1960s, for example, Mal Sharpe toted a hidden tape recorder around San Francisco, conducting absurd interviews with a deadpan expression. He once asked a baffled mortician to conduct a symbolic funeral ceremony for a depressed friend. Feigning seriousness and paying real money for the services, Sharpe got the mortician to go along with it, and in the process got some of his most hysterical audio footage.

The revolutionary decade birthed a whole generation of nonconforming artists who used their antics to shock and disturb. There were the Merry Pranksters, of course, who grouped around Ken Kesey in Palo Alto and whose LSD-fueled performance art hijinks were recorded by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Around the same time, in New York City, Joey Skaggs stirred things up when he walked through the streets bearing a crucified skeleton with a dangling metal penis. This stunt, repeated on Easter Sunday morning for years, reflected Skaggs' anger about the hypocrisy of the church.

For the next 40 years, Skaggs—perhaps the best-known contemporary prankster—would go on to conduct various forms of performance art that championed social injustice and alarmed conservatives. In 1976, he advertised in the Village Voice a Cathouse for Dogs, "featuring a savory selection of hot bitches." The media fell into Skaggs' trap and reported the sensational stunt as fact. In 2004, Skaggs distributed press releases for a hoax Independence Day parade in which he presented a caricature of Bush sitting on a White House toilet.

In the 1970s and '80s, legendary prankster Boyd Rice rocked the boat in a style very similar to that of Partridge. The classic book Pranks! (published in San Francisco in 1988) chronicles a handful of his stunts, such as handing a skinned sheep head to Betty Ford and staking large purple eggplants in front of a shopping center.

Rice, now 50 and living in Denver, Colo., says he met Partridge about 10 years ago when he was trying to start a grotesque art publication called Kill Magazine. Partridge sent him a few weird images, they started talking on the phone, and then they met at a music performance in San Francisco, where Rice had lived throughout the 1980s.

"Our paths crossed more and more, and eventually, it got to the point where I thought, 'This is definitely a person who I need to have in my life,'" Rice says about Partridge. "He's one of the most interesting people in the world."

The two later formed a countercultural movement with nine other radical artists called Unpop Art. Launched earlier this year, the group's official website, unpopart.org, showcases the use of popular icons and designs to display controversial and often distasteful content.

In a way, Partridge is continuing a longstanding tradition of harping on the hypocrisy of the mainstream and playing with perceptions of reality. This South Bay Gen-Xer could very well appear in the next pranks anthology. At the same time, his staunchly anti-politically-correct agenda might not groove with some of the elder pranksters, who operated at a time when being liberal was enough to stand out from the conservative majority.

Partridge represents a new kind of outcast, one that can't resist poking fun at the ultraliberal masses—even it it's not clear to what end. This is one not-so-merry prankster with whom the Bay Area's longstanding left-leaning image may have backfired.

"The Silicon Valley is so uptight. People have really closed minds here. They consider themselves liberal, but they're the only group who believes there is such a thing as thought crime," he says. "People in the Bay Area are walking around with these giant red buttons, just waiting to be pushed."

The Life of a Mischief-Maker

Born in 1977, Partridge grew up in Mountain View and Santa Clara, where he currently lives. From a very young age, he "had a predilection for upsetting people," he says. He started at 4, pretty much as soon as he was physically able to cause trouble. He bought hand buzzers and whoopee cushions, but looking back, he says that juvenile stuff "doesn't really count."

As he got older, he found that a little ingenuity could go a long way. "I used to buy clothes from thrift stores, stuff them with newspapers to make dummy people and then add injuries to them," he says. "I would have a body of what looked like a homeless person with a dumpster overturned on the head."

Many times, Partridge would have to "imagine" people's reactions, because he split as soon as he set up his props. "It was just too conspicuous for me to stand there oblivious while everyone else pointed horrified at what appeared to be a dead man."

Sometimes he would poke his head around the corner of a building and spy people driving by. Most of them, he says, didn't even bother to get out of their cars—they just slowed down and reached for their cell phones.

By the age of 13, he had honed the use of fake blood to an art. Inspired by the 1980s series of films called Faces of Death, he purchased yards of intestines and whole organs from butcher shops.

"There was an incident in the parking lot of Valley Fair Shopping Mall," he recalls. "I was stumbling around with blood all over my hands and arms looking like I was trying to hold my organs into a huge hole in my gut."

As he meandered between the cars, people stared at him with horrified expressions. Apparently, someone called 911 because he heard a siren approaching and spotted security guards searching for him. "I finally just dove into my friend's van and said, 'Cheese it now! We've got to get out of here.'"

Partridge's influences come from characters like Willy Wonka and Danny, the trickster from the Partridge Family. He joined the Partridge Family Temple, a pop cult based on the 1970s television series, and hence adopted his current last name.

Partridge still idolizes his childhood role model, the Penguin from the old Batman series. The birdlike villain's clever machinations weren't "so much about committing a crime; it was all an elaborate prank. When I was a kid, I thought that was what I wanted to be when I grew up," he says.

Over the years, Partridge's plots have grown more complex or more effective in their simplicity. In August, he changed a light rail notice to read, "Due to the fact that lesbians never stop frowning, VTA will operate a bus bridge during the following dates and times." The flier also notifies passengers to board buses marked "Quit your Sapphic whining."

"Pranks are in my nature," Partridge confesses. "They're what I do daily in one form or another."

"I'll just be walking down the street, and this elaborate plan will hit me like a thunderbolt. I intuitively have to carry it out," he says. "When people hear that word, they often think of something very unrefined. Their idea of a prank is dumping ketchup on the floor at Denny's and laughing about it."

"That's not a prank," he scoffs. "That's fucking simian. A prank should bend the nature of reality." Partridge's efforts to observe how panic works and learn how to manipulate crowds, for example, would fuel the ultimate experiment at the Camera Cinemas.

Horror at Rocky Horror

Propelled by the success of his meat-doll operation, Partridge went back to the Mexican supermarket with Winkel. They found whole, skinned sheep heads with the "eyeballs and tongue hanging out." They were perfect—both nasty and mysterious.

Partridge bought six at about $5 each and tossed them into a black duffel bag. Then he designed fliers that combined images of sex and death, using figures from Victoria's Secret catalogs and a Mexican death magazine called Alarma. Around the graphics, he typed a nonsensical "cryptic code." He made 100 photocopies of the flier, slung the bag of sheep heads over his shoulder and made his way toward the cinema on a Saturday night.

Partridge arrived with Winkel at 11:15pm, just 15 minutes before the doors would open for the Rocky Horror Picture Show crowd. The two stuck the fliers throughout the theater and gingerly placed the heads in toilets, on a seat in the theater and on top of a stack of Metro newspapers.

Winkel remembers depositing two heads in the women's bathroom. He says he got used to them after the initial shock of seeing them. "They were fresh," he adds. "They smelled like any other kind of meat."

Finally, people started to wander in while Partridge and Winkel were scurrying about. Partridge hung back a bit, trying not to appear suspicious. He watched the Rocky Horror fans examine the fliers with disturbed expressions on their faces.

"One guy ran out of the men's restroom and said, 'There's something in there I think you need to take care of," Partridge recalls. In the crowd of more than 100 kids, "there was an air of confusion and panic stirring." He helped fan the flames by pretending to be freaked out. "What's going on here?" he cried, "Who did you piss off?"

And the climax, or perhaps the denouement, happened when a girl went into the bathroom stall that housed the sheep head and sat down to urinate without looking. "When she was greeted with a sound unlike urine hitting water, she looked down and saw an eyeball staring at her," Partridge says. He says she fainted. Winkel says she just had a panic attack. In any case, it was bad enough that the police and ambulance arrived.

Partridge and Winkel took off, returning later that night to gather the rest of the story from their friends who worked at the theater. The following is what they heard:

Two young police officers came in. One of them said the sheep head looked like a dog. He said he knew of satanists who sacrificed dogs up in the hills. The other officer studied the flier and somehow made sense of the nonsense letter combinations. He pointed out the code for a Korean gang, saying there might be some connection to the Korean nightclub across the street.

Evidently, the Rocky Horror kids and the Camera employees were "left with the impression that there was a satanic Korean gang that felt somehow wronged by them and left this grisly tableau as a warning," Partridge laughed.

After the night's drama, a couple of employees got fired, not including Winkel. Partridge says The Rocky Horror Picture Show never played there again. A co-owner of Camera Cinemas, Dennis Skaggs, says the show was canceled for other reasons as well. It required too much "repair and maintenance," he says. People would throw rice and toilet paper in the theater.

"It was unbelievable," Skaggs says he thought when he heard about the prank. "I couldn't comprehend why anybody would do that. I never really knew who was behind it." About four years later, though, Skaggs says Partridge confessed to him over "a lot of vodka tonics."

There are no hard feelings on the part of the cinema co-owner. The fuzzy details of that night only make him laugh. "Lorin is great," he says about Partridge, who he's known since the mid-'90s. "He's always been a character."

Officer Gina Pepoorten of the San Jose Police Department says she vaguely remembers the incident from when she used to patrol downtown, but that it doesn't sound like anything illegal occurred that night. No one is sure if a report was even filed.

Partridge—who has never had any serious run-ins with the law over any of his pranks—says he expected the prank to be "a lot of fun," but had no idea it would involve "police, an ambulance, an unconscious girl and satanic Korean gangs. It really is almost a magical operation," he says.

Wanted: Motive

Uncovering the motive behind Partridge's pranks has been a puzzling and entertaining ride. Two years, multiple interviews and one Unpop adventure after his anti-antiwar dogma, it's still hard to answer the question, "Is this guy serious?"

The likely answer is: Serious? Probably never. Partridge's strongest conviction amounts to mocking other people for having convictions, like the determined war protesters or the passionate Rocky Horror fans. For all his anti-liberal ranting, Partridge returns a blank look when asked, "So are you conservative?"

"Politics are for people who can't run their own lives," he deadpans.

At the same time, the inflammatory nature of Partridge's experiments may serve some social purpose. Joshua Gamson, a sociology professor at the University of San Francisco, says this prankster sounds like an "amateur sociologist" who has taken an interest in social disruption to see what people do when they're disturbed.

That can be a constructive thing, Gamson explains, because pushing boundaries makes people aware of what they are. And Partridge certainly wouldn't be the first one to do this—art and theater have long challenged people to look outside of what they consider normal.

The real experts, or experienced pranksters themselves, are able to shed light on this humorous (or annoying, depending on your point of view) culture. Rice's schemes have calmed down with age, but he remembers being a very angry young man who irrationally saw pranks as a way to get revenge on the world. "It's about making rats go through the maze the way you want them to," he says about the sense of control that comes with the hobby. Depending on the severity of the plot, victims are either left laughing or seething.

Like Partridge, Rice grew up thinking he wanted to be a criminal or something socially unacceptable that would give him freedom to experiment with perceptions of reality. The art of messing with people's minds is based on the power of suggestion, Rice explains. "It's like you have a rock sitting on the table. You say this rock used to belong to JFK, and they look at this rock and it all of a sudden has this really beautiful quality to it," he says. "But if you said a member of the Ku Klux Klan threw this rock at Martin Luther King during one of his marches, the rock would become evil."

After interviewing more than 40 pranksters for his book Pranks!, publisher V. Vale found that the most common thread running through these acts was an attack on authority. The target doesn't have to be a person—it can also be an idea or a convention.

"You have to be a part of that minority of people who no longer believe anything, whatsoever, especially anything from a corporation. Or even worse, what we're suffering under the Bush administration, which is complete withholding of information," he says.

Political commentary, artistic expression, dramatic performance and psychological experimentation are only some of the motivations that might be behind pranks. Vale likes to evaluate a prank like he does a piece of art. "How deeply meaningful is it?" he asks. "How long can you keep thinking about it and keep coming up with new implications?"

"And of course," he adds, "a good prank ought to be so powerful that it inspires you to do one yourself."

Be Mean to Women Day

Partridge strolls down First Street on a Thursday night in September, his lithe frame poised to carry out his most recent creative scheme. His light brown hair is slicked back in a mild version of the greaser-do, and he proudly wears a lucky pin ("God Bless Tiny Tim") on his buttoned-down shirt.

He holds a stack of bright pink and green fliers that announce Be Mean to Women Day, the 24-hour "loathe in" (after the '60s love-in) happening on Oct. 23. He politely leaves them with patrons at downtown bars, producing a spectrum of human reaction, from confusion to amusement to irritation.

At Tres Gringos, a man and a woman stare at the flier for several minutes, their eyebrows drawing together slowly as they try to make sense of it. They seem unsure whether to laugh or look offended.

A short blonde woman at the Flying Pig scoffs at the flier while swilling her drink. "What!" she exclaims, "Men are assholes every other day in the year!" The two guys with her chuckle and give each other high-fives.

On San Carlos Street, Partridge runs into two women named Katie and Kate, who happily take a bunch of fliers to distribute themselves. They seem entertained by the whole thing, whereas a man at Johnny V's takes it a little more seriously. "That's awful," he says with a half smile, "I told him I don't want one. I said turn that shit over, man."

Partridge grins at the confusion and sighs, "It feels like I'm letting the sunshine in!" He maintains an innocent expression while interacting with people and lets an evil grin escape as he walks away.

"Some people get shaken up because they're just uptight and no-fun-niks," Partridge explains. "I present something here that can obviously be a fun, wild experience, and they've got nothing but bad things to say."

"It's not as if it's real malice," he continues. "I want to make it clear that I'm not suggesting that you physically harm women. This is going to open a whole new door of interactive performance art."

Little did Partridge know, many would embrace the idea and distribute fliers on their own. He began to see them in places he had never frequented—proof, he says, that Be Mean to Women Day was only tapping into the something that was already there. "It was on the tip of everyone's tongue."

On the big day that Partridge had been buzzing about for a month, he gleefully observed men flinging coffee-stirrers at their dates, pelting them with ice cubes and exhibiting similar forms of clownish behavior.

Partridge's longtime friend Ally Karn got a kick out of the whole thing. "It was interesting to see how people responded," she says, "because a lot of women were really upset by it. I think that's ironic because women are mean to each other all year."

Behind the Mask

While many of Partridge's ideas may be eye opening, it often seems as if he's trying too hard to rebel against the social structure. He would love to be painted as a nonconformist and set himself apart from the vast majority of people who "quietly eke out their existence." He sees the rest of society as a "nice, workable arena" because the less imagination a person has, the stronger a punch line the prank will have.

Partridge often recalls the class clown who's really just an insecure boy begging for attention. He dropped out of high school at 16 and snubs the mention of higher education. "School is Nowhereville," he says. He used to work as a bartender and now lives with friends, earning what little money he can through freelance writing jobs. He plans to pursue a career in Unpop art.

Moreover, his inflated world-view (which he describes with an unsettling level of seriousness) suggests his provocative perspective may be slightly out of whack. "I'm aware that the apocalypse happened a long time ago," Partridge says. In other words, he thinks the world ceased workable functioning in the middle of the 20th century. "It just gets more and more absurd," he explains. "The assumptions that people have are exactly the opposite of what's really going on. It amuses the hell out of me."

But underneath the tough exterior, Partridge has human sensitivities and quirky fetishes like the rest of us. Karn used to work with him at the Camera Cinemas, and the two bonded when he asked her get the butterfat (popcorn flavoring in solid form) and some napkins. They went outside and together greased the curved tracks on Second Street where the light rail train squeaked as it went by. This became a ritual, to bide time and cut down on the grating sound.

"He's like a brother," Karn says. "One night he took care of me when I got drunk at the Cactus Club. I was on the floor I was so sick." He brought her to the back where the German rockabilly band members were hanging out and told them, "Hey Germans, this is my friend. Don't fuck with her."

Partridge lived in Karn's living room for a short time (he owns the drifter status), and although she was slightly annoyed that he yelled in his sleep, the two would relax over tea and cigarettes in the morning.

"There are so many contradictions between Lorin and that," she says about his chauvinist front. "He has never been anything but completely respectful to me." Despite his boyish facade, for example, Karn reveals that Partridge loves Sanrio toys. "One year, for his birthday, I got him a Hello Kitty lamp. He was really stoked," she says.

"I don't want to ruin his fan base, but he's not a dick," she asserts. "He has the gift of being able to see things from a different perspective, which is always refreshing. Most people have a lot of faces. Lorin just shows them all."

When the Tricks Are Down

CRUISING Highway 101 through the Silicon Valley, one can't help but notice the landscape swallowed by boxy office buildings. From outside, the quiet corporate sprawl yawns an absence of vibrant metropolitan life. You'd be surprised, though. It's a cubicle jungle in there.

While hordes of white-collar San Joseans trudge dutifully to their desks every day, some bored (yet clever) employees rebel against their cog-in-the-wheel status. In the wake of the dotcom crash, downsized nerds took revenge by hacking into their company's systems. According to a 2001 Business Week article, the FBI estimated the cost of the average insider attack to be $2.7 million.

More widespread, however, are the relatively harmless pranks that slowly drain company resources. "It's already a huge phenomenon in the United States," says Ray Thomas, one of the founders of ®TMark (pronounced artmark), an Internet-based company that finances complex media and corporate hoaxes. Thomas says the website www.rtmark.com gets about 2,000 hits a day.

Although incidents of corporate sabotage are highly underreported, Thomas estimates the costs they incur in the billions. He explains that passive acts of rebellion such as slacking off or wasting company resources persist because people feel exploited. Surfing the online forum Ars Technica reveals a healthy dose of mischief among tech geeks who seem more work-weary than anything else.

One jokester brags that he reversed the settings on his supervisor's mouse; another renamed all of the icons on his boss's desktop. A systems administrator recalls how he made fake error messages pop up on his co-workers' computers. And an innovative troublemaker changed the status message on his shared printer to "Insert Coin."

While it's difficult to get many office pranksters to come forward (they don't want to attract attention to their sneaky games), one former South Bay tech-support guy named Dirk admits to a few stunts. He worked at local companies for more than six years (he recently moved to Wisconsin) and says he added a little adventure to the lives of the people around him.

He started out doing small things, like redirecting the motion sensor so that every time a co-worker sat down at his desk, the radio would blast instead of the monitor switching on. When he stayed late on the swing shift in an empty office building, he couldn't stop himself from going further.

Once he spent hours in the middle of the night removing the mouse balls from hundreds of desks and hiding them in a box in his supervisor's office. The next day, he says people were confused, but he had added something to the workplace culture. "For a couple of weeks, it was more enjoyable to work there. People were more interested in what was going on around them."

While Dirk's little pranks might have irked company heads and made a few people laugh, ®TMark encourages people to graduate from silly acts of rebellion and move on to more groundbreaking projects and bigger statements. ®TMark investors bank on cultural returns. They get their kicks by mocking corporate America and infiltrating products and websites with radical views.

The network is responsible for the 1993 Barbie Liberation Project that switched the voice boxes of 300 hundred Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls. In 1996, they hired a Silicon Valley programmer to make the SimCopter video game a little more gay-friendly. Buxom babes were replaced with bikini-clad men in more than 50,000 copies.

More recently, the company built a parody website called gwbush.com that aggravated Dubya during his first presidential campaign and inspired the Bushism, "There should be limits to freedom." Now the site is under construction, possibly revamping to commemorate the re-election.

"We urge you to at all costs remember that laws should defend human people, not corporate people like the one of which you will be a part," the ®TMark site tells prospective investors. "If you keep this in mind and work towards making it a reality, you may find your life much more bearable."

Vrinda Normand

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From the December 1-7, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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