Harmon Leon laughs. "No," he says. "Why?"
"Okay, cool," I reply. "I was just wondering because this story is going to run in our Queer Issue, and if you were gay I could maybe blow it up a bit and stick it in the feature section, but that's cool. I'll just put it in the arts section."
There's a slight pause, then Leon: "So if I was gay I would get a bigger story?"
Now it's my turn to laugh, and I almost say, "yes," but catch myself; it occurs to me that Harmon might take me up on it.
The chameleon-like Leon has made a career out of transforming himself into different personality types. An actor/comedian-turned-writer, he finds unique subcultures, then dons a persona that will help him infiltrate them, submerge, and ultimately report back to the front line on what he finds. He calls this kind of work "theatrical journalism." To date, among many other adventures, he has taken a tour of a star-studded Los Angeles Scientology Center as the imaginary German pop star Dieter Lietershvantz; he has attended a backstage party at the X Games as the famous, injured "agress-vert" athlete Chas Lemon; and he has visited a ventriloquist convention in Las Vegas with his special ventriloquism dummy, Mr. Cocksucker.
The lesson to be learned from Leon's exploits is inspiring: no matter how obnoxious you are, if you take yourself completely seriously, people will usually put up with you. At the X Games Leon obtained an all-access pass to every event simply by claming to be a volunteer. ("It's comforting to know that any moron or terrorist can be granted a full-access pass without the bothersome hassle of an ID check," he writes.) At an interview for a job as a clown, he boasted without a speck of insincerity, "I really love clowning," and was quickly offered a position in management. A day later he was on his way to a birthday party in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Bay Area's Hunter's Point projects, dressed in an enormous Pokemon costume.
"Pokemon was pretty miserable," Leon tells me. Not only was it just horrific, but I had this flu and I was just in this sweaty incubator of disease. But I find the more painful the situation the funnier the stories actually turn out."
And sure enough, "Bad Clown", as the chapter is called, is one of the funniest parts of The Harmon Chronicles. The image of a sick, hungover (Leon is hungover, drunk, or stoned for nearly all his missions. He claims it "enhances the absurdity of the situation."), sweating man in a Pokemon suit repeating, "It's funny Pokemon" in a desperate attempt to entertain a group of bratty kids is one of the more tragically comic images imaginable. "My presence is making everyone very uncomfortable," Leon writes. "Teenage gangster-types look like they want to bust a cap in my fat yellow ass. I contemplate pulling off my head and permanently screwing up these poor children."
Chronicles is loaded with such delightful images, all framed within Leon's brilliant humor prose cadence. I have never laughed out loud so much while reading a book to myself. Even Leon's method of spacing his text weaves a magical comic spell. For example: reporting on his travails at the Eighth Annual America's Most Beautiful Baby Contest in Phoenix, he writes, "I've arrived early. Immediately, through direct eye-interaction from those in the mall, I've already been singled out as a child-abducting pervert. I'm the only one here without a baby. Just a grown man, alone, taking in a beautiful baby contest on a scorching hot Saturday morning, thank you."
A space in the text as Leon ponders this situation.
And then: "You really stand out without a baby. I should've brought one."
Leon has of course been compared with the likes of other infiltrators like Tom Green and Michael Moore, and though he does share similarities with those entertainers, the skill and pace of his storytelling places him in a slightly different field.
"Tom Green's all about the one-second gag, about how much he can repulse people in one second," Leon tells me. "Michael Moore has his own set of ideas and goes into a place and all he wants to do is back up his already conceived opinions. I come to my conclusion through my experience. I'm sort of like the Everyman and I just have this innate curiosity about these weird groups."
Leon's traveling show incorporates monologues and film footage, including a scene with Mr. Cocksucker at the ventriloquist convention. And no, he's not gay, but he certainly can be. He can be whatever it takes. JUSTIN WESCOAT SANDERS