PROFILE OF KENNY MORSE AS "MR. TRAFFIC"
NOTE: I have a few problems with some of the characterizations of me, but the
writer assures me that she is my biggest fan and now drives better than
EVER.....so....I will leave it at that. Any publicity is good
publicity....no? (and I have inserted some re-edited dates and
clarifications....they are in ITALICS. I
re-typed this so any grammar or typos are mine.)
NEW YORKER MAGAZINE 8/31/09 ISSUE
NOTES FROM CALIFORNIA
THE ODD RISE OF COMEDY TRAFFIC SCHOOL
BY ELIF BATUMAN
Kenny (Mr. Traffic) Morse, an instructor for the Improv Traffic School and the erstwhile host of ASK MR. TRAFFIC, a call-in television show, was heading north from Los Angeles on I-14, into the Mojave Desert. "People who drive with me are like, 'Come ON'" he said. "People who aren't used to it feel like they aren't going anywhere, which is ridiculous. We're going lightning fast. We're going 65 mph" Rarely had I felt myself to be in the presence of such absolute compliance with the law. "I'm setting the cruise control just a little over 65," Morse said. "If you actually do 65, it's a hazard since everyone else is driving so much faster." A white Toyota Sienna edged past us. A small boy waved from the back seat. We waved back.
It was early in the morning and were bound for Palmdale, the 2nd largest city in the fast growing Antelope Valley region, for one of Morse's traffic classes. In many states, including New York, traffic violators can reduce their driving points and their insurance rates by attending a course in traffic safety. In California, such courses ease the strain on traffic courts by minimizing the number of disputed citations. (In Los Angeles County last year, police issued 1.7 million traffic citations, about four hundred thousand of which were settled through traffic schools.) The philosophy of Drivers Education varies from state to state. The New York DMV upholding the "serious nature of the motor vehicle accident prevention course," bars schools from attempting to attract students with "gimmicks or enticements, such as comedy or free gifts." By contrast, California DMV approved traffic schools have included:
FUN D MENTAL TRAFFIC SCHOOL, PIZZA 4U GREAT COMEDIANS TRAFFIC SCHOOL, LAID BACK TRAFFIC SCHOOL, THE ORIGINAL HIP HOP TRAFFIC SCHOOL, FINALLY A GAY TRAFFIC SCHOOL, and the SWORDPLAY TRAFFIC SCHOOL.
Morse was dressed for his class in an ASK MR. TRAFFIC T-Shirt and a vest embroidered with multicolored license plates, a gift from "a designer called Nicole Miller."
50+ years old and of average height and weight, Morse can resemble nearly any kind of public figure: A judge, a mayor, a television host. His thinning hair (a subject of many jokes) is a pale, indescribable chemical color. (Kenny Note: Hello...its called BLOND) His most distinctive feature is an asymmetrical grin - higher on the right than on the left which produces a rueful or raffish effects. He talked non-stop throughout the hour long drive, the ceaseless river of speech fueled by measured sips of a bottle of Sunkist Soda. This discourse devoid of stammers, hesitations and uhs, sounded exactly like a radio or television broadcast. "I'm going the speed limit" Morse said. "That means I don't have to do what all these other people are doing - watching the mirror for cops. Imagine this consciousness. What kind of person are you when you drive that you're watching your mirror for the police? That's what CRIMINALS do."
Comedy traffic school originated in 1985 with the husband and wife team Ray and Linda Regan, owners of West Coast Traffic School in San Gabriel, California. At that time, traffic classes were typically taught by off duty police officers. At the Regans' school, the only instructor consistently able to sell out his class was a motorcycle officer named John McCarthy. Known as "the funny cop", McCarthy made the 8 hours seem shorter, "like seven and a half hours." This gave the Regans the idea of hiring professional entertainers to teach traffic safety, once they had established that instructors didn't have to be police officers but just had to pass a multiple choice test and take some pre approved classes. In 1986, the Regans opened their new traffic school, Lettuce Amuse U. One young comic actor, the Louisiana born Steve Verret, began working for Lettuce Amuse U in 1986 as an alternative to the soul crushing cycle of LA open mic nights. Verret immediately fell in love with the job which guaranteed him a captive audience for up to forty people for 8 hours: his first class gave him a standing ovation, and he went on to achieve traffic school stardom, teaching sold-out classes six days a week. Staples of Verret's routine include his Uncle Boudreaux ("Hell yeah, I'm drunk" Boudreaux told the officer. "I ain't one of them reckless drivers.") and the Louisiana traffic code, ("In California, the pedestrian always has the right of way. In Louisiana, you can not only hit and kill the pedestrian, you can take him home, cook him and eat him, make yourself a pedestrian gumbo.")
The Regans comedy hegemony lasted until around 1989 when Gary Alexander a Ukrainian born entrepreneur and Budd Friedman, the owner of the Hollywood Improv Comedy club, co-founded the so-called Improv The Comedy Club Presents Traffic School. Some classes were held at the club itself on Melrose Avenue, and students received free passes to Improv shows. The Improv lured away Lettuce Amuse U's two top talents - Verret, who in addition to teaching weekly classes, now runs the franchise throughout California, and Kenny Morse, who still teaches there. The tremendous success of comedy traffic school in California may be explained in part by environmental factors: an exceedingly car rich urban sprawl and one of the world's largest populations of out of work actors.
Kenny Morse was born Kenny Morse Schaffel in New York City. The middle name comes from his great-uncle Morris Silverman, father of the late Beverly Sills. I first met Morse at Canter's Delicatessen, on Fairfax. We sat at an enormous u-shaped banquette in an enormous half-empty room. Sipping on celery soda, Morse reminisced about the Gitlitz Deli, on Broadway and Seventy Seventh Street, where, as a child, he drank celery soda and watched the comedian Rodney Dangerfield yelling at his kids. Morse's childhood unfolded on the Upper West Side, among charismatic figures and show business "personalities." His father, the television producer Hal Schaffel, was one of the old school charismatic types, whose day would start off at the dice table with his Teamsters and might end at the dinner table with President Kennedy. (Kenny's Note: That actually DID happen....visit http://www.mrtraffic.com/hal.htm)
Morse's dreams lay not in television or movies but in the spectacle and camaraderie of musical theatre. As a teenager, in the late 60's, he played Prince Edward in a musical film adaptation of "The Prince and The Pauper": a clip on YouTube shows an adolescent Morse being persecuted by a mob of singing tramps, led by the late John Spencer, who appeared in "The West Wing." Morse majored in acting at Boston University's School of Theatre. His mother died while he was still in college and after graduation Morse returned to New York to console his father, during what he now calls "The Morose Year." He worked as a casting assistant for "bits and extras"(Kenny Note: For the famed Sylvia Fay Casting. Sylvia passed away last year); recently, Morse re-watched "Taxi Driver" which he had helped cast, and actually saw his younger self walking by, holding a clipboard, in the ground of a political rally scene.
At the end of the Morose Year, Morse auditioned for the Broadway production of "Grease" and was eventually chosen as the male understudy for the national tour - a miserable job, consisting of sitting in the front row every night and "wishing ill on your friends." Morse's first time onstage was in Cleveland, during a snowstorm . The show had received no publicity, owing to a newspaper strike and the only audience, he recalls, was "three black ladies sitting in the fourth row." The actor playing Kenickie - the one part that Morse had never rehearsed - decided that he didn't feel like acting, and sent Morse on in his place. Morse botched his opening lines, the incipit of what he unhesitatingly characterizes as "the worst show in the history of American theatre."
Morse later played Sonny in "Grease" and Pontius Pilate in a Los Angeles production of "Jesus Christ Superstar," but the dream of a career in musical theatre never quite materialized. In the late 70's he began supplementing his income by appearing in commercials and game shows. He recalls winning a year's supply of Creamettes Macaroni on "Jackpot" and twenty five thousand dollars on "The Joker's Wild." He became an expert at getting picked for game shows. "You have to overreact a bit," he explained. "Yessssss!" he hissed, eyes screwed shut, jerking his elbow back. "It's more than I would react normally, but you have to show that you have a personality." He hunched over, clenching his fists: "Big Money, big money!"
Morse began working at Lettuce Amuse U in 1987. He had no particular interest in traffic safety and claims that he "drove like a dick." Only after taking the job did he develop an obsessive interest in the California Vehicle Code. Morse, who describes himself as a voracious reader, read and read the Vehicle Code and began sitting in on traffic court. He can now recite substantial portions of the code from memory. The transformation into Mr. Traffic occurred in 1990 when Morse was listening to talk radio and heard the host of a legal call-in show incorrectly answer a question about a traffic citation. (Kenny note: KFI Host Bill Handel) Morse phones in to set him straight, and the switchboards immediately lit up with incoming calls. There was apparently no limit to the number of listeners with pressing questions and strong opinions about traffic law. Invited as a regular guest on the program, Morse decided to call himself Mr. Traffic. What was supposed to be a part time job had become not just a career but an entire identity.
After a few such appearances, Mr. Traffic wanted his own show. Later that year, he began broadcasting "Ask Mr. Traffic" on public access television, and for a while he and a Lettuce Amuse U colleague had their own talk radio show, "Traffic Jam" devoted to L.A.'s twin obsessions: driving and celebrities. (Kenny Note: This became my OWN show on KRLA, "THE DRIVING SHOW with MR. TRAFFIC") They interviewed a combination of law enforcement officials and "celebrity drivers": Jay Leno, who takes a different car to the studio every day; Erik Estrada, who played a California Highway Patrol officer on "CHiPS"; Bob Barker, who, as host of "The Price Is Right" gave away more than 6 thousand cars. Morse also wrote an "Ask Mr. Traffic" column, which appeared until recently in six West Los Angeles newspapers. (Kenny Note: They went out of business) In a typical exchange, a citizen describes "a large hedge blocking the view of traffic at the northeast corner of Sancola Avenue and Huston Street in North Hollywood," endangering children on bicycles; Mr. Traffic contacts the Department of Transportation and assures readers the necessary foliage trim request has been made." Mr. Traffic's intercessions have resulted in the placement of new stoplights, as well as the correction of a misleading sign on Sunset Boulevard.
In addition to his published writing, Mr. Traffic personally answers all the "Ask Mr. Traffic" emails he receives from around the world:
"Dear Mr. Traffic,
I live in Jakarta, Indonesia, a city known for its traffic jams and crime rate. I would like to ask you, what do I do if one day while moving through a narrow lane, or at a traffic light, a group of bandits surrounded my car, preventing my escape and tried to force me out of the car to rob me?.....Do I stay in the car no matter what, even if they bang at the car. And if they start smashing the windscreen and stab the tires?"
Mr. Traffic advises drivers in stressful situations to "avoid eye contact," "say cool," and "keep away from drivers behaving erratically." Mr. Traffic's conscientious vigilance over his chosen sphere is absolute. It is as if when Kenny Morse puts on his Nicole Miller vest, he becomes a modest superhero, one who travels not as fast a speeding bullet but, still, at 65 miles per hour, quite fast.
We reached the Palmdale-Lancaster Holiday Inn at 8:15am. The temperature was already in the 80's. Morse unloaded his gear on to a dolly: a flat screen TV, a speaker set, several crates full of photocopied handouts, a Casio keyboard, a microphone, and a laptop computer containing an extensive library of karaoke songs. (In his capacity as Karaoke Kenny, Morse mc's two weekly parties in West Hollywood and L.A.) We proceed to a meeting room where rows of green chairs stood on a green fleur de lis carpet. Morse wrote the day's schedule on a whiteboard: Two 3 1/2 hour segments, separated by an hour long lunch break.
Mr. Traffic began the class with a kind of audience warm up, consisting of rapid fire derisive remarks targets at other DMV accredited traffic schools. The remarks fell on a spectrum from relatively funny to near incomprehensible. At the funny end were the Fred Kennedy Traffic Safety School ("You think anyone with the last name of Kennedy should be teaching anything about driving?") (Kenny Note: Ted Kennedy was still alive then) and a Chinatown Traffic school ("Half and hour later you want to speed again"); in the middle were unfunny but parsable jokes at the expense of Persian Traffic Schools (involving a Persian instructor's umbrage at being mistaken for an Arab) and the Original Hip Hop Traffic School (eight hours of getting your "nizzle schizzled"). Then there were some remarks that though delivered in a joking intonation, and set up with phrases like "I have one word for you" or "Seriously though," showed few of the structural properties of an actual joke. For example, Filipino traffic school: "It's taught by Imelda Marcos. Ever wonder whatever happened to her? She's teaching traffic school." (Kenny Note: Comedy is NOT for everyone....children...do not try this at home!)
The first part of the pre-lunch session was devoted to student accounts of their own infractions. The twenty-odd students ranged in age from a 17 year old high school student to a retired airplane builder with a long white beard. Eliska, a middle aged black hospital worker, had been exceeding the speed limit while listening to R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly" at top volume when she noticed a patrol car behind her with flashing lights. The street was unlit and deserted, and Eliska, fearing that she was being chased by "a fake cop" called 911, so Eliska just drove home, pursued by the cop, who cited her both for speeding and failure to pull over.
Christopher, a Hispanic bank supervisor with gelled hair and a pink striped shirt, had been caught by a red light camera. Mr. Traffic asked to see the photograph, and made fun of Christopher's facial expression. Observing that Christopher was wearing a chain with a diamond cross pendant, Mr. Traffic asked where Jesus had been when Christopher ran the red light. Christopher appeared to consider this but Mr. Traffic yelled, "You kicked his ass to the curb! You weren't even near the yellow. You were going 39 mph." It emerged that in addition to the red light ticket, Christopher received another citation the night before, for driving 90mph from West Hills to see his pregnant wife. "What happens to the unborn child if anything happens to you going 90mph" Mr. Traffic demanded. "She'll be with her new boyfriend. The baby will have a new daddy. That never occurred to you?"
Much of Mr. Traffic's comedy consisted of harangues. He adopted various mannerisms and voices: He pulled up a chair in front of a student, straddled the chair backwards, wheedled out a confession of some misdeed and then roared "Stupid!" He held up a card with the word "STOOPID", inviting students to identify their actions as such. (Kenny Note: I don't call anyone STUPID....I call what they DID "STOOPID" and all day, when someone says they did something illegal, I ask "WHY....ANSWER??" and the class yells 'STOOPID'.....this was cut from the article). Jewish mother jokes, the synthesized sound of squealing brakes, invective against selfishness - all were met by the same half hearted laughter, seemingly elicited by some kind of semantic code for comedy, rather than by actual humor. (Kenny Note: In other words....they laughed their heads off in reality!)
When Mr. Traffic came across another student wearing a gold cross, it served as the opportunity for a peculiar albeit thoroughly accurate, digression on the Vatican's teaching on traffic safety. In a sarcastic voice, he read from the "Ten Commandments for Driving" issued by the Vatican in 2007: "Bring guilty motorists and their victims together, at the appropriate time, so that they can undergo the liberating experience of forgiveness." The Vatican's Vehicular Decalogue was released by the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers. Drivers, tourists, truckers, gas station attendants and "motorway restaurant staff" are instructed to bear in mind that "Christ is the way, he is the road," and to practice prayer at spiritual strategic points along the road" including mobile chapels. In the United States, the organization Transport For Christ operates a network of such mobile chapels, housed in 5ft. cargo trailers at truck stops. (Kenny Note: Which the point is....if people WOULD drive as Good Christians....it would be a safer and better world!!)
Morse later told me that he had an audience with Pope Paul VI. He and his bother Bob had traded in their bar mitzvah party for a first ever trip to Europe. In Rome, thanks to some string pulling, the Schaffels were granted a "VIP Audience" at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. The concept of a bar mitzvah was explained to the Pope, who "tapped the little Jews on the head and blessed us" Morse said. The boys were then escorted to a vast hall, completely filled with pilgrims; the Pope was on his sedia gestatoria (Kenny Note: That is the ceremonial chair they carry him in on). The thing that stuck with Morse was the atmosphere in the room. The mass of pilgrims, he says radiated "the energy of love. Where do you get to see that? You don't, but it was there."
I asked Morse whether the Pope had radiated the energy of love too, "Absolutely not," he said. "The Pope was a cold fish. Pope Paul VI was one cold fish."
During the lunch break, Morse and I drove to a nearby shopping center. Morse was in his element, and noticed four different infractions in the course of a five minute drive. We disembarked in a seemingly infinite parking lot. Monolithic windowless buildings - Sport Chalet, Staples, - shimmered in the heat like alien temples. We went to a Panda Express, where, over barbequed pork and chow mein, Morse reviewed the morning's class. In response to my question, he confirmed that there are always crosses in his class, and he always tells them that they kicked Jesus to the roadside. "If everyone drove like Jesus, that would be great," he said. "But these people are such hypocrites." He took a sip of orange soda. "The thing is" he went on, "every story we heard today was a human story. You have a pregnant woman who's nauseous. What feels worse than being nauseous?" "Nothing" I said. "Nothing" he said "you have a concerned, loving father to be, driving to visit his sick pregnant wife. Now, if he gets into an accident and kills someone's kid, nobody's going to give a shit he was in a hurry to get to his pregnant wife. They're gonna want him dead."
Christopher was the day's success story: he had approached Mr. Traffic after class and thanked him for getting through to him.
Morse was mesmerized by the picture windows, which looked out on the parking lot, some sparsely vegetated foothills and tawny distant mountains. "I love the desert," he said. "This is one of my favorite places to teach." His least favorite are Hollywood and Beverly Hills, where he finds the students "combative" and where a single eye rolling student can ruin his whole day. Steve Verret, who was for many years in charge of assigning instructors to classroom locations, later told me that instructors tastes are highly varied. Verret, for example, loves to teach at the Melrose Avenue club, in Hollywood, because it attracts a large crowd; he likes the energy of a full house. Morse prefers a smaller class, in which he can mine the individual stories of his students for comic or pedagogic material. Verret acknowledged that students from posher neighborhoods sometimes try to give him a hard time, but said he is unruffled by the presence of celebrities in his class. The trick, he says is to "ask them how they feel about stuff."
I asked Morse how he would rate the dynamic in today's classroom. "Slightly below average," he said. " I get much worse, but this a slightly below average." He was particularly worried by Kristy, a glum 19 year old accompanied by her father. (They had been cited for identical speeding offenses). "She hasn't laughed once," he said.
We opened our fortune cookies. Mr. Traffic's said "You are broad minded and socially active."
Back at the Holiday Inn, sun seeped through the white blinds, combining with the yellowish electric light for a depressing effect. The after lunch session began with Alcohol, Drugs and Impaired Driving. At one point, Mr. Traffic called upon Kristy to corroborate his lurid representation of student drug use at Antelope Valley High School. "Which part of what I said so far, did I get wrong?" he asked.
"Nothing. It's BAD," she said with a hint of relish. "Almost all the kids do drugs there." Mr. Traffic followed this coup a minute later with a joke involving Ecstasy and marriage counseling. Kristy giggled. Mr. Traffic caught my eye. "She's laughing," he mouthed. (Kenny Note: And the point was...this 19 year old who came with an attitude to class WITH her father, turned around, was learning AND having a good time!)
Mr. Traffic polled the students on various subjects: Driver attitude (Have you recently given another driver the finger?); Defensive Driving (have you ever fallen asleep at the wheel? Do you carry a weapon in the car?); Passive Restraints (Do you regularly drive without a seatbelt?) A crew member from a network television show had given someone the finger AND fallen asleep at the wheel. A 21 year old tow truck operator kept a baseball bat in his truck. A tattooed pipe fitter with a shaved head and a wallet chain always took his seat belt off in the mountains, "for personal reasons."
"What's your personal reason? You wanna die in the mountains?"
The man explained that his car had once "fallen off the side of a mountain" in such a way that he would have been killed.
There was a section on insurance, and a demonstration of what appeared to be a pair of red and green phosphorescent oven mits - for directing traffic at night - designed by an inventor who had vainly solicited Mr. Traffic's endorsement. We watched several slapstick movies about people making stupid driving mistakes, along with the driving scenes from "LA Story." At 5pm, Mr. Traffic cued up "Pomp and Circumstance" on his sound system and distributed certificates to all the students.
After reloading the car, we headed back to Los Angeles at exactly 67mph. I leaned back in the enormous bucket seat and admired the sound insulation: passing cars produced a muted roar, like waves crashing on a faraway beach. Morse, visibly fatigued, maintained his constant stream of conversation and commentary. He was on the lookout for infractions, but everyone seemed to be driving well. "I always hope for the best," he said " but I expect the worst. I expect that guy there" - a white Lexus SUV crawling along to our right--"I expect that guy to see a parking spot on the left side of the street and rush in front of us without signaling. I'm prepared for it. Now maybe it won't happen. Maybe the guy is a good driver. I don't know. I hope he is."
Morse went on, "One down, twenty three million to go. You see people doing all kinds of things here. You see them running red lights. You see them cutting people off. You see them riding around with their poodles on their laps talking on the phone. Near Fairfax Avenue, we pass a police car with flashing lights. "Someone's getting pulled over, " Morse said looking in the rearview mirror. "I should go back and hand the guy my card."