Watching Rick Shapiro perform, it eventually becomes clear that the man doesn’t need to blink like normal human beings. He doesn’t recite material as much as explode (see 1998 album Unconditional Love or March’s Catalyst for Change), as if he’s been waiting all night or all week or all of his life to tell you this, and he won’t be able to rest until he gets it out. Everyone else has been asleep, and it is his duty to wake them up; to tell them what the government is doing, what their culture is doing, what they’re doing to themselves. Sometimes it’s funny, and sometimes it’s frightening.
Shapiro could easily step into the world of spoken word and poetry slams, which is, in part, how Unfiltered came to be published. Over the course of five years his manager salvaged the bits of paper, napkins and ephemera on which Shapiro had written ideas that never made it to the stage. Some of that material found its way to audiences through a weekly Los Angeles show, Rick Shapiro: Spoken Word(s), and more of his thoughts were adapted by editor Robert Leach for his fiction and poetry journal Stanley the Whale.
Much of that material is collected in Unfiltered, a book of free-verse poetry, blog posts, e-mails and ramblings straight from Shapiro’s spleen. One look at the table of contents ensures that a strange and intense experience awaits: the opening poem is called “Shut the Door on Hope,” and begins, “I rose out of the shit / Into a pile of stupid shit.” A few other titles include “Angry Stripper,” “The Fuck You Magician,” “Atheists and trannies,” “The Vagina: It became America’s Heartland” and “Angels piss me off.”
As wild as Shapiro can sometimes seem onstage, he outdoes himself in Unfiltered. His poetry and posts are pure stream of consciousness, unprocessed and unrefined. The comedy is what he lets out when people are around; this is what’s going through his mind the rest of the time. Thoughts end abruptly, words are frequently misspelled or placed in all caps. Polishing that too much would have missed the point. These are his words directly from his psyche to the paper, full of tangents, with the amusing bumping up against the deadly serious. In “Sooo Human,” he implores readers to escape the banal and feel something. “Do something you are interested in,” he writes. “Then do something you’re not interested in, like get married.”
Certain themes leave off in one poem and pick up elsewhere. Shapiro references child abuse in “Shut the Door on Hope,” writing, “They said I looked like Blackie / Child abused like you’ve never seen, Man.” Later, in all-caps poem “Can’t Love,” he admonishes, “OPEN UP RICK, TALK ABOUT THE BUTTERFLIES THAT COME OUT OF THE MOTHS OF CHILD ABUSE.” Then again in “The Visit,” a story about Shapiro’s father confronting him over allegations of abuse, he discusses surviving welfare and prostitution, as well as the nature of soullessness.
In a photo of a poem, he writes, “the country will die cause the ones with the balls were shot walkin down the street while they said they have great dreams n while they tried to end all wars.” Later again, in a play on the lifelessness of social media and reality-show culture titled “THEY’RE IN YOUR FACE!” he admits, “I’m hoping to get shot. / That’s how I fukking play / This ain’t on the internet / It’s in your hearts!” He is not impressed with stand up, either, condemning in “Paycheck,” “Nobody has balls as comedians and they just want to get in, get in, get in!” Something is trying to coalesce through the din, and Shapiro’s approach is to let everything out and sort through it later.
Is any of it funny? Yes, in unexpected places. In “I am Comedy Noir,” Shapiro tosses out the strange little nugget “You ever fuck three 18 year olds at once, and get thrown out by the boss that was a midget because you took her mask off…” as if it were just a universal observation. Meanwhile, in “Choose,” he imagines a pig auditioning at Julliard to be food at an “upscale sandwich café.”
Even when the poetry seems impenetrable, the writing shares that same sense of urgency that makes Shapiro a compelling comedian. Unfiltered is not a casual investment for the reader, and definitely not for Shapiro. It can be frustrating, random and then suddenly pointed. Absorbing it can be work. But the message is ultimately liberating. A couple of quotes best sum it up: from “Rick Shapiro the Opera!” “Enjoy yourself and your passions. Kick ass with all of who you are,” and again from “Sooo Human,” “You are only and always human. / Human! / I love that word! / So human.”