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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Cookie Puss lives

Like many people, if not most, I have an inordinate fondness for the sights and sounds that surrounded me in my youth. In my case, that includes the Carvel ice cream chain's endearingly low-budget commercials of the early 1980's. Apparently, I'm not alone. Wikipedia's entries for Cookie Puss and Fudgie the Whale include ample sections on the character cakes' many appearances in popular culture. [Note: the Fudgie entry, to which I have contributed in the past, has recently been vandalised. At least people still care.]

People will make culture out of whatever material is at hand and they always have. If the past century is any different in this regard, the difference lies in its shamelessly omnivorous embrace of high and low on equal terms. We can see signs of this tendency as early as Duchamp's Fountain, if not Picasso and Braque's cubist collages, but there the artists were still consciously practicing cultural and æsthetic rebellion. It was not until decades later that Rauschenberg, Warhol, Liechtenstein, and others could develop an artistic practice of recycling 'junk' without apparent thought to the historical novelty or brazen amorality of doing so.

The consequence for all of us, artists or not, is the abolition of guilt in our personal tastes. Indeed, the doctrine of Taste with a capital T—so fretted over by public thinkers since at least Addison and Steele—now seems as quaint a relic as the powdered wig. I don't think any modern person thinks twice about admitting that they like sitcom X or pop star Y, and why should they? There are no more guilty pleasures: now there are only pleasures.

Reader, one of the great childhood delights of my youth has finally made its way onto the internet. Yes, I am speaking of the classic Carvel commercials mentioned above. For anyone who grew up in New York in front of a television while the city burned in the late 70's and early 80's, the gloriously bizarre Carvel ads were a steady companion and, for me in particular, a source of endless material for comic impersonations.

Before we go any further, have a look:
Cookie Puss and Cookie O'Puss
Cupie Puss
Dumpy the Pumpkin et al.
Cookie Chick
Fudgie-Shaped Santa and Cookie Puss-Shaped Menorah

(Unfortunately, the original Fudgie the Whale ads are not online yet. Even so, it's a whale of a cake for a whale of a dad.)

It did not take long for members of my generation to start recycling the Carvel ads, especially the character cakes. By 1983, Carvel's heyday, the Beastie Boys had already recorded their song 'Cooky [sic] Puss'. I, too, have made some Carvel art that I have distributed privately among friends. My first piece in this style combined Cookie Puss, Fudgie, and Velázquez's Las Meninas. More recently, I did a piece with Cookie Puss and the Rokeby Venus. (I am sure that if Basquiat had been born ten years later, he would have devoted many paintings to Cookie Puss and friends. Imagine it with me, if you will: 'Wednesday is Sunday © SAMO'.)

What strikes me now when watching these ads again, after twenty-something years, is how wrong my memories of them have been. I have been reciting, when my hysterical laughter permits, the voiceover from the Cookie O'Puss ad at family occasions and among friends for twenty years, but my recitation has been all wrong, unless there's another version out there somewhere. I remembered a far more stereotypically comic Irish voice saying, 'Oh hello dere. I'm Cookie O'Puss, just in time for Saint Paddy's Day.' You can see for yourself that that's not what CO'P says, and, although there is some ethnic imitation in the ad, it's far less uproarious than I remembered. Some of the cakes, like Dumpy the Pumpkin, I had completely forgotten. And, most surprisingly, Tom Carvel's voice is nowhere nearly as emphysemic as I've portrayed it.

It's a commonplace these days to reflect on the slippages and revisions of memory over time. I'm grateful to have access to these ads after a long separation. Hopefully, more will turn up. But now that I can correct the historical record, I have no intention of doing so. At family holidays and among longtime friends, I'm going to stick to my incorrect versions of the ads, and I will do so shamelessly. My Carvel recitals are my own brand of performance art and ought to stand alone as independent cultural objects. That's what recycling is all about: making something new out of something old. My 'mistakes' constitute my own contribution to the Carvel canon, and there's plenty more Carvel-inspired original pirate material on the internet. May a million divinely insane Carvel performances, songs, and paintings bloom.

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