American Beat: Pie-Faced

The schedule of lecturers on college campuses around the country has begun reading like the police blotter: Conservative author Ann Coulter--hit by a pie tossed by two attackers last year. Conservative editor William Kristol--hit by an ice cream pie at a Quaker college in Indiana in March. Really conservative guy Pat Buchanan hit by salad dressing two days later. Liberal-turned-conservative author David Horowitz--hit by a chocolate cream pie a few days after that.

It's disgusting, isn't it? The salad dressing, I mean. Everyone knows that salad dressing is simply not an effective medium for expressing dissent. But pie on the other hand...

The last few days have seen the predictable lament that the pie-throwers represent the worst thing about democracy--people so inarticulate that the only way they can counter such toxic thinkers as Coulter is to seize the moral low ground by trying to curtail their free speech.

That is far too simple an argument. Throwing a pie at someone who deserves it is one of the most celebrated traditions in our so-called culture. History tells us that the ancient Egyptians invented the pie--a mix of honey and nuts in a pastry filling. Still, there is no recorded case of an ancient Egyptian throwing one at another ancient Egyptian (although you're not going to tell me that Rameses didn't deserve it!).

As such, the tradition lay dormant for millennia--until it became institutionalized in the great slapstick films of the silent film era. Mack Sennett may have started it, but the art reached its apotheosis in Laurel & Hardy's 1927 short film, "Battle of the Century." Four thousand pies were harmed in the making of that movie. Encouraged by Laurel & Hardy's success, pie-throwing remained a mainstay of slapstick through the Marx Brothers, Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis and Soupy Sales eras, and even survived being overused by TV sit-com legend Garry Marshall. "It's the essence of slapstick--the guy who needs to have his dignity deflated gets hit with a pie," said Tom Raymond, also known as "Rainbow," a clown from Central Wisconsin ("I'm no expert. I'm just a clown").

Like many forms of artistic expression, it was appropriated for political theater. Levitating the Pentagon is all well and good, but in the 1970s, nothing beat pie-ing a politician. And no single person was better than Aron Kay, a.k.a. The Pieman.

He's retired now, but Kay is still proud that he left former Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ex-CIA chief William Colby, conservative den mother Phyllis Schlafly, liberal California Gov. Jerry Brown and so many others with egg (and cream and fruit filling) all over their face.

Kay always took great pride in matching pie to recipient. Moynihan's comments about the black family earned him a mocha cream pie. New York mayor Abe Beame got an apple crumb because "he was a crumb in the Big Apple." Homophobe Anita Bryant got a fruit pie. Colby got a Bavarian cream pie (to link him, at least in pie, to Hitler's old stomping grounds).

"My mother was a painter and I believed in using the face as a palette," said Kay, who was actively pie-ing from 1976-80. He's had many imitators, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (whose activists throw drippy tofu cream pies), Noel Godin, Belgium's homegrown pie-man (he famously creamed Bill Gates in 1998), and a group called the Bionic Baking Brigade, whose agents achieved their greatest fame that same year by hitting San Francisco mayor Willie Brown with a three-pie, fruit-filled fusillade. They also pied economist Milton Friedman. I called Soupy Sales, who has received an estimated 20,000 pies in his career, and was surprised to hear that a man who spent his whole life honing this slapstick routine did not object to this overt politicization of the pie.

"It's OK as long as you're hitting someone who deserves it," Sales said. "Nixon would have been perfect. As long as it's funny, it can be political."

Kay agreed: "Pieing is an essential tool for deflating the pomposity of these politicians and commentators. I considered myself a defender of justice. But believe me, I still have a list of people who need to be pied."

Horowitz, predictably, disagreed. "These attacks are sinister," he told me. "The person who throws a pie is saying, 'I hate you. I don't want you to speak.' A university is where students are supposed to hear opinions on all sides." Horowitz saw the recent pie-ings as just a symptom of a larger decline of academia, which once stood for vigorous debate. "Larry Summers at Harvard raised an interesting issue [about women's scientific aptitude] at a meeting and the feminists stormed out! They might have well have thrown a pie in his face. Now, instead of having a debate, we have Summers, who is a respected thinker, apologizing and backtracking."

Horowitz used an old World War II cliche to describe his pie-ing: "I never saw it coming," he said. "And it took away my dignity. When you're lecturing, you're supposed to have an authority. But a pie turns it into a food fight."

Horowitz said he encourages debate during his question-and-answer session--within reason, however. "I like to discuss the issues, but there was this kid at a different school recently who got up to ask a question and then read a long statement. I interrupted him and said, 'Look, you're young. You're making the same argument I made when I was your age. You have a golden opportunity to learn something here, but your mind is completely closed.'" (Amazingly, no one threw a pie at Horowitz afterward.)

Clearly, throwing a pie at a lecturer is anathema to serious debate. But what's worse is the quality of pie-throwing today. Coulter was barely grazed. A PETA pie-hurler a few years ago hit Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman in the back (the back!). Horowitz had more pie on his shirt than on his face. Perhaps, the pie itself is the culprit.

Apparently, I was onto something here. During the last great wave of pie-ings in the late 1990s, a British pie company, Tesco, actually tested all its varieties for aerodynamics, crust dispersion and creamability. For best results, the company recommended egg custard, lemon meringue and anything with a fruit filling. "All our pies fly extremely well," company spokeswoman Melodie Schuster proudly told The Wall Street Journal. "When they land on someone, they make a nice, clean mess."

I still needed to conduct further research. As such, I called up well-known author and lecturer David Shenk ("The Forgetting," "Data Smog," and a forthcoming history of chess). I've always felt that Shenk's prolificacy and back-cover blurbs from guys like Dan Rather have made him long overdue for a pie to the face, so I was happy he participated in this vital journalistic endeavor.

Encouraging the NEWSWEEK expense budget to demonstrate new elasticity, we bought six tarts, including lemon meringue, strawberry shortcake, Boston cream, chocolate cream, and a cheese cake.

First, I recalled Raymond's advice: "Remember, it's splat, don't slam," he said. "If you push too hard, you'll break someone's nose." And that's when you go from political expression to assault and battery (and the guys at Rikers treat pie-throwers the way they treat child molesters). And then we began. Just as the good people of Tesco suggested, Shenk had great success hitting me with the strawberry shortcake, the gooey red filling covering my face with a thick ooze that left me looking clown-like. Fortunately, I retaliated, readying a lemon meringue with Shenk's name on it. The guy who dressed Buchanan yelled, "Stop the bigotry!" so I screamed, "How much money are you getting for this lecture, Mr. Shenk?" and promptly slammed the pie into his kisser. The gooey filling was so thick that I was able to push the pie tin into Shenk's face a second and third time--an important consideration for campus pie-throwers, given how lax most security guards are.

Later, when I hit Shenk with the Boston Cream, we were both excited by the results. As the thrower, I was happy that the molten chocolate icing covered Shenk's face like Al Jolson's makeup in "The Jazz Singer." But Shenk was also happy. "The feeling of being covered in warm chocolate is great. It's not humiliating at all." (He was so effusive, in fact, that I would not be surprised if Shenk's next book was called "Cover Me With Warm Molten Chocolate: A Memoir").

When we compared notes, Shenk felt no humiliation. "In fact, being hit by a pie is liberating," he said. "Before the pie, a lecturer like myself is being judged--by the audience, by himself. Everyone is wondering 'Who is this guy? Who died and made him an authority on anything.' But once the pie hits, suddenly, there's this swelling of support for the speaker. The pie breaks the tension." (even Horowitz admitted that "after the pie, I probably did have some of the crowd's sympathy.")

For my part, I learned an even more valuable lesson: If you're going to be conservative and lecture on a college campus, bring a change of clothes.