A summary of our November 2009 speaker, Mr. Whitekeys
By Sonya Senkowsky
“Being a good communicator in Alaska—the bar isn’t all that high.”
With that and a smirk, on Thursday, November 5, 2009, Mr. Whitekeys launched his talk to the Alaska Professional Communicators, as well as a theme familiar to his fans: sharing a laugh over media bloopers from across the state.
From the Kodiak Daily Mirror: “Senate passes bill that would set up hunting season for children.” The ad from KFQD ad, which said: “Radio or TV experience required, but not necessary.” And from The Pulse, a local shopper: “Bring the world home. Hose a foreign exchange student.” This last headline-writer turned out to be in the audience; it was APC member Dianne Barske, who claimed authorship with a smile.
New media and technologies got some notice as well. Whitekeys found that his book Mr. Whitekeys’ Alaska Bizarre scored an Amazon.com rating of four and a half stars, while the classic Melville novel Moby Dick rated only four. The obvious conclusion, according to ‘Keys: “I am famous-er than Moby Dick, and there is technology to prove it.”
But the presentation was more than a cleverly customized recap of Whitekeys’ act. While continuing his trademark “can you believe this” banter, by citing a series of favorite quotes, the writer-entertainer and author of three books also shared a glimpse of his inspirations and the philosophies that have guided his career.
These included what he called “one of the best things ever said to me about writing,” a quote attributed to Mark Twain, passed along to ‘Keys by former Anchorage Daily News publisher Howard Weaver: “People love hearing stories about people.”
He quickly knocked that down a notch—adding, from Voltaire, this wisdom: “All books are too long.”
Since quitting his 26-year nightclub gig—a decision made because he no longer wanted to run a bar—the performer known to Alaska only as Mr. Whitekeys has been responsible for weekly Fly By Fridays commentaries on the KTUU Channel 2 Newshour as well as a monthly column in Alaska magazine. And he appears drawn to collecting comments on writing, including one by comedian Steven Wright, who didn’t understand why anyone would spend years writing a novel, “when you can buy one for a couple dollars.”
Despite the earlier posturing about his Melvillian accomplishments, Whitekeys still doesn’t take himself all that seriously. In one breath, he says, “I’m a journalist telling the story of Alaska.” In the other: “My job is to mouth off and make snotty comments.”
Both descriptions contain truth, but it’s the first that best answers the question “Where does he get his ideas?” When odd things happen to Whitekeys—and for whatever reason this happens with stunning regularity—he is the expert collector and curator of the moments they bring, filing them away for stories or songs.
There was the video shoot in Kodiak for his DVD, Mr. Whitekeys presents Alaska, the First 10,000 years, when he and four dancers set out in rain slickers to demonstrate the region’s typically gloomy weather. Except, the day of the shoot happened to be “the hottest, sunniest day of the year.” They arrange to have a hose replace the rain, but then find themselves with another problem: a rambunctious local who wanted only one thing: “I’m gonna spray those girls.” That was not allowed to happen (this is not that kind of act), but the story—well, it gets filed for sure under “Alaskans behaving badly.”
Then there was the day he was arrested for trespassing on railroad property in Seward while bird-watching. It was the officer who arrested him who ended up telling about a comic-book-like alert system once used to call out police in Palmer, using a red light mounted on a hotel chimney.
And, while the rest of the country was duking it out over health insurance, Mr. Whitekeys found himself musing over the debate in a different direction, and ended up writing the song, “We Want to be On the Death Panel.”
Shortly after this came his one-sentence lesson on movie-making and marketing: “You can’t say that, or else Wal Mart won’t carry it.”
In closing, Whitekeys told of a recent National Public Radio interview he’d heard with columnist Leonard Pitts, who said that in order to write about something, he had to care about it.
“I say that’s a bunch of crap,” said Keys. “I want a cheap laugh.”
Nonetheless, his parting quote still managed to be poignant. It came from Kurt Vonnegut, who said: “We are here on Earth to fart around.”
And if you are ‘Keys, to do it in style.