Two weeks ago, on Saturday March 21, I couldn’t breathe. Well, to be precise, I was technically still breathing–or was, at least, feigning some pathetic half-hearted attempt at breath–but it was as if my lungs collectively decided to reject the necessary oxygen. Instead, they burned, constricted, tightened. My vision blurred and I felt lightheaded as I tried to take deeper and deeper breaths. And then, the terror set in:
What if my rapid gasps became so bad I had to venture to the overly crowded, COVID-19-rampant New York City hospitals? What if I had to be sedated and put on a ventilator (nothing like jumping to the worst possibility in pure panic)? How would I even get to the hospital? Walk? Would an ambulance show up if I wasn’t blue in the face? Would I collapse in my apartment, snuggled in my Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds Ghosteen hoodie, ironically becoming a ghosteen myself? Would I lay prone surrounded by my demented art collection? Would people take one look at a central portrait of Andrew Cunanan and say I deserved it? Would the art world, continually posthumously enamored with dead outspoken women, pretend they always loved my work? No! I can’t die now! Fuck those people!
Now, was it the possible, potential, presumed deadly COVID-19 that had infected my body, destroying my lungs with my own immune response? Or were hyperventilation, pulmonary panic and respiratory distress all side effects of being physically and psychologically overcome by the overwhelming imagery showcased in the Netflix docu-series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness? Frankly, it may have been both–it’s not as if I could even get a test for coronavirus unless I made a quick jaunt to the hospital. And anyway, who can breathe with regularity when witnessing such sights as exotic animal park sex cults, gay redneck thrupple weddings, Tiger King-branded sex gel, tiger cubs in Louis Vuitton suitcases being rolled through Vegas casinos, padlocks hung on Prince Alberts, and clowns printed on prosthetic limbs needed after zipline accidents? Not to mention the star of the show: the platinum mullet-sporting “completely insane, gay, gun-toting, drug addict fanatic” founder of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma, currently imprisoned for, among other charges, a hare-brained murder for hire plot, Joe Exotic.
In these last few weeks, other writers have detailed their bout with the killer virus, addressing how it affects their family (breeders!), analyzing what it says about our country’s broken and failing healthcare system (shocker!), or lecturing people about social distancing (call the cops on the picnickers!). However, my own personal battle with COVID-19 was marked, not by fear of death or toilet paper hoarding, but a distress that I may die before finishing Tiger King or be too ill to truly appreciate its transcendent trash genius. That’s right. My experience with COVID-19 is inextricably tied with a manic and desperate attempt to watch the masterpiece as my body was breaking down. In fact, it may be why I survived at all. I had to see it! This might be my last chance!
Directed by Eric Goode (who also co-founded the legendary nightclub Area) and Rebecca Chaiklin, the plot of Tiger King’s seven-episode run is nearly impossible to detail succinctly: a voyeuristic look into the unhinged wackos that run exotic cat parks and their numerous schemes, centering around the petty rivalry turned attempted murder plot between Joe Exotic and his nemesis “that bitch Carole Baskin,” the flower crown and cat print-loving founder of the Big Cat Rescue who is just as loathsome as the rest and quite possibly killed her “missing” second husband. But, that doesn’t even begin to cover it. I’ll just say it manages to combine the raucous revenge-driven filthiest people alive that populated early John Waters films and the Coen Brothers’ prodigious talent for creating half-witted, white trash criminals with wild, tangled and often murderous conspiracies in the middle of nowhere, all done in a style that can only be described as the mockumentary that Christopher Guest never made. Tiger King is the stuff of dreams–fever dreams that is.
And I’m certainly not alone in grasping for Tiger King in a last ditch effort to maintain sanity as the global economy collapses and society crumbles in just a few weeks. I mean, even O.J. Simpson provided his expert commentary on whether Carole Baskin did it. The series has become the white trash balm to soothe America’s weakened, wounded soul in its last days.
But, I know what you’re thinking: How could Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin, and their exotic cat owner colleagues, such as Doctor Bhagavan Antle, who runs a sex cult…I mean, zoo…in Myrtle Beach and sleeps with an AK-47 under his mattress, actually aid your COVID-19 survival? Was it the life-sustaining power of watching Joe Exotic run for president and governor by shilling condoms with his face on it (Move over Mayor Pete! Joe ran for president as a gay man first! Why do the delusional pioneers never receive the credit?)? Was it the oxygen-providing imagery of a pizza restaurant using the same expired Walmart meat that was fed to the tigers? Or maybe the moving eulogy that included references to the deceased’s balls as “golden nuggets”? Undoubtedly.
It all started for me on the Tuesday before the release of Tiger King. I woke up with a sore and scratchy throat, some minor congestion and a headache. It’s just allergies, right? That’s it! Allergies! This minor discomfort could be easily written off, as tree pollen floated through the air, flowers bloomed in the warming breeze….ah, spring in New York! I’ll just ignore that strange metallic taste in the back of my mouth and the lingering thought in my head that this is probably something more nefarious.
On Friday, though, things become more concerning as my entire chest began burning. This wasn’t the heartburn I was used to after too much red wine! Still, I made it through the day in continued denial. Saturday, though, Miss Rona revealed herself, actually right after publishing the tribute to Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (Don’t you see all I sacrifice for YOU, dearest Filthy Dreams readers?!). I struggled to breathe, became winded while merely eating soup, and grew increasingly feverish.
I knew what I had to do. No, not call a doctor. Swig as much Tylenol Cold and Flu that my liver could stand, mainline tea, and try to watch the first episode of Tiger King. That’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re sick, right? Watch TV!
This was, in retrospect, perhaps not the smartest idea. However, it did make for some memorable moments as I became hyperaware of my ever-changing symptoms in case I had to seek serious medical attention and found it increasingly difficult to discern what bodily response might be COVID-19-related and what might be Tiger King-motivated. Was I chilling because I should go to the ER? Or was it because a voiceover described big cat owners as “back-stabbing pieces of shit”? Was I shaky due to viral weakness? Or was it because my body couldn’t handle the excitement of witnessing Joe Exotic’s early exotic animal/magic shows, trained by an expert 12 year-old magician, that were designed as Jerri Blank-esque anti-drug events for schools (“drugs make your teeth fall out and you get really ugly and you don’t have any friends”)? Was I cripplingly achey because of the fever? Or was it from laughing so hard at Exotic’s country music stint, including his magnum opus music video “I Saw a Tiger,” featuring his toothless hubby John Finlay? Even the b-roll footage of deadbeat park staff interacting with wild animals, including my personal favorite employee Eric Cowie, who found his job through a Craigslist ad (“And now look at me! I’m doing tiger shows!”), had me sweating with glee.
Look, I won’t pretend that watching this first episode at the apex of my battle with the rone was fun. In fact, it was torturous as I became more and more mentally exhausted by scenes like Joe Exotic’s suggestion that park-goers purchase a T-shirt emblazoned with “I Just Got Peed On By A Tiger” or his proud, teeth-clenched grinning assertion that “We have a very open relationship here. We do not discriminate here” as two male tigers humped each other. And it’s not exactly as if I could call 911 to explain that my chest pain was exacerbated by Carole Baskin’s husband’s description of her as “the Mother Teresa of cats.”
The next day, my fever broke as I woke up, legs quivering, struggling to get out of bed. I had made it only halfway through that first episode the previous night before succumbing to a fitful sleep, lying on my stomach in the hopes of catching a full breath. The next week was a blur of extreme fatigue, chest tightness and shortness of breath that eventually–yet agonizingly slowly–got better and better. And all through this recovery, I traced my labored climb from the depths of illness through my responses to Tiger King. If my chest hurt too much after laughing at a Joe Exotic-produced image of Carole Baskin’s face superimposed on a diapered adult baby’s body, not only was I not completely well, I also had enough Tiger King for that day.
Eventually though, I finished all seven episodes and recovered bit by bit (FYI I’m still fatigued and not 100%), feeling as if I had returned from a long odyssey. It also felt entirely unreal. Were my half-obscured memories of Tiger King sickness-induced hallucinations or were they actual memories? Did I imagine a sculptural tribute to Joe Exotic’s late husband Travis consisting of go-carts embedded in stone? Did I fantasize a former cult member…I mean, employee…of Doc Antle saying she got breast implants so she could take a nap? Was a tramp stamp tattoo that read “Privately Owned by Joe Exotic” all just a dream? I hesitated to rewatch the series in case my illusions would be shattered (I have, and they weren’t).
While sure, the docu-series has its issues, namely the continual misgendering of Saff, the G.W. Exotic Animal Park worker who lost his arm in a tiger cage and came back to work seven days later after its amputation. And yet, other than these missteps, the documentary is pitch perfect for several reasons. First, it’s a near orgasmic viewing experience for any connoisseur of trash. I mean, talk about queer world-making! Joe, Doc, Carole and the others not only built their own menagerie, but they also created a strange sort of community of misfits, outcasts, losers and societal rejects committed to a white trash fantasy of wild animals and freedom on their own terms, even if baffling, frightening and yes, a bit illegal. As reality show producer and human cigarette Rick Kirkham observed, “The people who worked for Joe were misfits. It was a place where all these misfits could come together and be with the king of the misfits who reigned over him.” Eat your heart out, Michael Warner!
But, even more, Tiger King provides an amusingly dead-on glimpse at exactly how America got here, as we’re witnessing our society’s dismantlement in front of our very eyes. Tiger King showcases the American dream run rampant, built on countless cons, fraud and willfully ignoring federal laws. Scamming, as seen in Tiger King, is American as apple pie–or tiger cub breeding. It’s all a sham in which nobody is ethical (sorry, Carole) and everybody undermines each other in order to get the lion’s share. It’s a representation of how our larger society operates, but through a focused lens trained on the tackiest people imaginable–the American flag turned tiger and leopard print. It’s our national degeneration in 2020 laid bare in all its absurdity, tragedy and farce, all in equal measure.
And it could not be more relevant to the macabre shit show we’re facing on a daily basis as Trump, his band of con men and wealthy people searching for their own personal ventilators fuck over the country repeatedly, as freezer trucks hold bodies in New York City and frontline medical workers can’t get PPE. Like the nuts in Tiger King, these people make up a closed society with niche interests, a loose grasp on ethics, and an even looser understanding of laws as mere suggestions that get in the way of their own greed and power hungry delusions. And the Trumpian death spiral we’re on is not that distant from the surrealism of the series. Is a presidential press conference featuring the My Pillow guy talking about God or Franklin Graham’s revival tents in Central Park providing Pentecostal phobe healings to the sick and dying any less shockingly bizarre than anything in Tiger King? Not really. And is it any less of a legally dubious con job? Definitely not. Isn’t Trump ignoring New York a kind of federal murder for hire plot too?
While it’s not too far off, Tiger King is still able to act as a lovely source of escapism, an inspiring monument to the trash aesthetic, and even, a survival tool. It also revealed to me my enduring purpose in life–the reason for my continued existence: to lobby Trump to pardon Joe Exotic. Save Joe!!!