The year was 1986, and being cool at parties was in. But cool at parties wasn’t something you could simply decide to be, nerds. You had to put in the work. You had to watch “top-rated star” Malcolm Jamal Warner on a VHS cassette for nearly 30 minutes. Think that sounds easy? You goddamn nerds, wait until you try getting through “SHOW OFF! HOW TO BE COOL AT PARTIES: Stunts, Tricks and Gags to Amaze Your Friends Starring MALCOLM JAMAL WARNER of the Cosby Show.”
I knew something was wrong when I first scanned this tape with the 1-900-HOTDOG’s WEINER 2600 Media Analyzer. Why would a tape on being “cool” set off the alarm for maximum Nerding Day content?
Right off the bat I saw what the WEINER 2600 was trying to tell me. The production logo is nine cartoon balloons floating next to the words “Children’s Video Library” to the tooting sounds of pan flute music. It’s how a dream team of the world’s greatest artists would communicate, “You’ve made a huge mistake, ’80s teen looking to be cool at parties.” The tape very nearly fried a second piece of expensive equipment, my COOLVIEW VCR/TV Combo from the Malcolm Jamal Warner Collection.
Malcolm Jamal Warner immediately starts doing an awkward magic trick with scissors and string. Except it’s nothing. He cuts part of the string and then dazzles you by showing the uncut part is still together. Whatever about it he meant to be amazing was not communicated. It’s like someone handing you a 7 of clubs, showing you a dead rabbit inside a nearby hat, telling you rabbits die when no one is there to care for them because you see, like magicians, they need fathers. But with a little magic, maybe… just maybe, we can turn things around. Then they pull the 7 of clubs out of your hand and say, “Is this your card? That’s the whole trick and this rabbit is still dead. Hi, I’m top-rated Malcolm Jamal Warner.”
I think the analogy got away from me, but it’s important to me you understand: a tape promising to make us cool opened with Theo Huxtable saying, “Psst!” and doing a confusingly bad version of the dorkiest thing. If he screamed, “OH NO, NOT NOW! NOT IN MY MEDICAL GARFIELD PANTIES FOR INCONTINENT GIRLS!!” while he visibly peed his pants it would be more co– no, sorry. I already did a whole thing explaining the magnitude and strangeness of this uncoolness. It’s just such an immediate and remarkable failure of the stated goal. If I didn’t know this tape existed, I could see myself explaining a different spectacular failure with “it’d be like a VHS tape on coolness opening with a child actor botching a rope trick.” I am a top-rated archivist of the absurd, and what Malcolm Jamal Warner has done in the first five seconds of this has exceeded my most cynical expectations. If the Titanic failed as hard as this video, history would know it as the story of one guy saying, “Gentlemen, I have an idea to build a gigantic boa– AARGH! I’M PEEING IN MY MEDICAL GARFIELD PANTIIIIEEEESSS!!!”
The next several minutes are Malcolm explaining the three rules of showing off– be cool, have fun, and courage. I wouldn’t call it inspiring, but at least he’s moved on from the bad magic trick. Wait, hold on, after he explains the cool rules he starts in on a lengthy tutorial on how to do the rope thing. I don’t know why anyone would need to perform such a terrible, joyless magic trick, though. If you performed this trick while a child watched Peter Pan, Tinkerbell would stay dead. This is not how you become cool. This is how you construct an anti-magic net to capture Santa Claus. For what need do you have this dark power, Malcolm Jamal Warner!?
Now you know how to do this awful thing, yay, cut to:
We are thrust into a musical number where an upside-down chin man lip syncs a ’50s song he did not have time to rehearse. Let’s take a step back for a second. I would describe coolness as doing something interesting effortlessly, which would make this little skit the second example in a row of the maximum limit of that concept’s opposite. If you were to sarcastically say, “Everyone knows what cool is– it’s putting sunglasses on your chin and singing oldies upside down,” I would marvel at your ability to construct a joke and communicate irony. It’s almost unthinkable something could not only be this bad, but this specifically, perfectly bad. This video is like a plot by a Turbo Teen villain to destroy coolness forever.
I thought this was only going to be a weird transition between coolness tips, but after the song, it pulls out to a bald, middle-aged man peeling the wig off his neck and struggling right-side up. Clearly in a lot of pain from a skull bursting with blood, he shrieks, and I quote, “LIP SYNCING IS FUN, BUT EVERYBODY DOES IT THESE DAYS. USE AN UPSIDE-DOWN FACE TO GIVE A NEW TWIST TO YOUR FAVORITE HITS.” So this wasn’t a failed attempt at a cute transition. It was a prelude to a lesson on recreating this, this blighted abomination.
This video’s advice has gone from bad to possibly dangerous. You know when superheroes are fighting a guy who absorbs power and they get the idea to lean into it and keep pouring energy into him until he overloads? You might be getting an understanding of my cool expertise from such a cool reference, but this feels like that. If you tell your fellow teens to stop everything to watch you blindfold yourself and perform your favorite doo-wop hits upside-down, you’re playing into your bullies’ strengths. But what this video seems to be suggesting is that you can humiliate yourself so much it can overload your bullies’ dickhead glands. Any sadist seeing this will instantly die in ecstasy.
Next up is Fred Newman, kids TV host, who comes into frame playing a drum solo with his mouth. He’s here to teach you, the cool viewer, how to beatbox. The producers didn’t get Biz Markie or the Fat Boys, household names for this very thing at the time, but the author of the book MouthSounds: How to Whistle, Pop, Click and Honk Your Way to Social Success. Again, this decision seems like it was written backwards from a joke. Forgive this abrupt code switching, but if you saw a crew trying to be legit and failing, a way to communicate that might be, “You sucker MCs couldn’t have been more wiggity-wack if you had hired the white children’s entertainer known for hosting the Mickey Mouse Club as your rap coach.” Fred is a talented blooper and honker, but “cool” is very specifically the last thing you’d call him. At least one time in his career, a cruise director has told Fred Newman’s agent, “We’ve already booked our headliner and I don’t think the ship needs a second Dave Coulier.” Jesus, I need to step away for a second because that’s the fucking meanest joke I’ve ever written.
The next thing on the video is the best type of thumb wrestling– scripted thumb wrestling with satirical color commentary by top-rated star of The Cosby Show, Malcolm Jamal Warner. If you held a gun to my head and said, “You have three chances to live. You can, One, name any way this All-Star Thumb Wrestling skit benefits mankind. Two, create a hypothetical person who would even smile at this. Or three, suggest any number of changes to make this concept work,” I’d say “Shoot me three fucking times and tell Malcolm Jamal Warner I’ll see him in Hell.”
For the next twenty minutes, a rotating cast of off-duty birthday clowns and clean comics come in and teach obnoxious dad gags and church youth group activities.
After you’ve massacred your chance of being liked again by anyone ever again, the video shows you a hilarious way you can leave for your life of loneliness by smashing your face into the door. You’re going to hate this gif so much:
“WAIT, NO! THIS IS THE WRONG KIND OF LAUGHTER! I MEANT TO DO THAT! STOP LAUGHING AT ME!“
This is going to sound weird, but SHOW OFF! How to be Cool at Parties reminds me of pickup artist techniques. They give you a specific set of tools to manufacture these high-risk, all-or-nothing human interactions. Most of your targets will hate you, mock you, or ignore you until you finally meet a susceptible target. Most philosophers would describe this approach to life as causing the maximum possible harm to others for a tiny chance at selfish pleasure, or in other words, “very morally excellent.”
As long as you don’t care about other people, this sort of works when you’re hunting strange poontang since Plan A is never seeing your failures again. If you scream “Show me your bush!” at a stripper and she isn’t into it, you can try it on a different one tomorrow after you follow the first one home and murder her. That’s not an option for the target audience of this video. You’re a kid performing these limp gags at your classmates and family– people you have to live with after you’ve made your shirt into a turban and screamed nothing more than, “I AM A SHEIK WHERE’S MY CAMEL, MAKALAKAFART, I AM A SHEIK!” Who is supposed to love you after you do these things? You reprehensible, shirt-turbaned fuck, you’re just a needy kid who knows four magic tricks and one way to mash your face against glass. There’s no party in the world where you’ll be cool. Malcolm Jamal Warner lied to you. He lied to all of us!