tonight at alamo ritz
You might know Owen Egerton as one of Austin's most recognizable writers; in fact, he was voted our city's favorite author twice by the Chronicle. His novels, The Book of Harold and Marshall Hollenzer is Driving, and his short story collection, How to Best Avoid Dying, continue to fly off BookPeople's shelves. But he's into a lot more than literature: a former artistic director at one of Austin's first comedy theaters, he's recently directed and performed in shows at the Zach Scott Theater. He's written screenplays, recorded comedy albums and he even doles out parenting advice on dadlabs.com.
Tonight, Owen shares one of his more esoteric passions at The Best of Sex Ed with Owen Egerton, presented by the Alamo.
We spoke with Owen as he was putting the finishing touches on tonight’s show.
What are you working on now?
I did the show the first time six years ago, so I kind of constantly am searching for different videos and adding stuff and trimming stuff and putting it together. I was just now doing a little editing on one of my favorite syphilis scare films, “The Need to Know.” It’s a real beauty.
Where did the idea for a whole show on sex ed films come from?
The way I got started originally was, a friend of mine had a video tape called “VD is for Everybody,” named after a 1970s ad campaign called VD is for Everybody, with a very catchy song that features in the show. And this was all before YouTube, so from there, it was a lot of going to friends that had weird collections, picking up things from Vulcan Video—they’re good with that. And since then, with YouTube, there’s all these rare beauties you thought were lost are emerging somewhere online. I’m always discovering stuff.
What are some common themes that pop up in the videos you find?
What you find out when you go way back and trace these sex ed and PSA videos and films, you find out something about what the culture was saying at the time. In the very earliest ones, there’s a lot of warnings against jazz, the dangers of jazz. There’s a lot of warning men against easy women—easy pick-ups is what they’re called—girls who are willing to do something, because they’re definitely dirty. It’s not your fault, you’re just a guy, but you gotta avoid those women.
There’s a lot of cultural information there.
There’s also this sort of undercurrent that the right time to have sex is when you’re married, you have a house, you have a job and you’re appropriately contributing to society. There’s a conservative vibe that underlies these films from the 50s—then in the 60s, things start getting out there, they start being a little more honest.
But in some ways what’s most fascinating is that the most honest and clear of the sex ed films are the ones that aren’t really provided for the general public. There’s a film called “The ABCs of Sexual Education of the Trainables.” “Trainables” was a term used briefly in the 60s and 70s to talk about the mentally retarded, so this is a film for them—more specifically, the people who teach the mentally retarded. It’s a bizarre film for a lot of reasons, but what’s amazing is it has the clearest, most concise definition of sex—I would have loved to have had these instructors talk to me about sex, instead of these strange graphs and bizarre pictures I was shown in high school that looked nothing like my body or any body I had seen. So it’s interesting there how the truth sneaks out in strange places.
Are there any sort of recently “popular” themes?
In the last decade or so, there’s a lot more abstinence videos. And the abstinence videos are usually starring kids talking about how uncool it is to have sex, that’s pretty interesting—there’s been a lot of those made in the last decade or so. And the other interesting thing—this goes kind of all the way through, but I find it most entertaining in the 80s and 90s—when they started doing a lot of talk about using condoms and how important it was, especially when AIDS became more and more of a concern, you have this weird tension where the people who are making these films want to reach young people. So they use cartoons and goofy images and fun, silly songs, but they’re talking about sex; so you have things like, the illustrated condom talking to everybody, or you have this awful rap video. It’s sort of this continued thing of adults thinking, “Well, I know how to talk to kids, and it’s going to be through animated condoms and poorly written raps.”
Are there any seriously weird things you’ve come across?
There was one that came out of England, it’s this one doctor and she’s talking about the female body, and she just has this naked woman next to her, completely naked. I was kind of thinking, I don’t know how much I can show of just full frontal nudity.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing of my finds, that I’ve added to the show, there was a 1950s short film called “Boys beware.” It’s basically warning against the roaming homosexuals that are out to get you. It’s fascinating because the same film was remade in the 70s, taking the exact same narration and soundtrack but re-filming the stories with kids in the 70s instead of the 50s. The whole thing that’s so scary is, it’s talking about homosexuality like it’s a mental illness, like you’ve got to watch out because they might appear normal—It might be too late by the time you realize they’re sick individuals. Of course, to a modern audience, especially I think a modern audience in Austin, it seem ludicrous, but watching it is disturbing.
What do you hope that people take away from the show?
One thing, I think it’s very entertaining. I love these movies—not just because they’re funny, but because there’s something kind of beautiful and small about them. They’re these wonderful short films that have been lost, and it’s fun to kind of find them. The other thing I think is, there’s something cathartic about remembering how messed up a lot of what we heard and supposedly were taught about sex was when we were kids. And it’s kind of fun to laugh through that. And I think a layer past that is, you start to realize why your parents were kind of messed up, you’re realizing this is what they were told when they went to school.
There’s something very humbling about watching these videos, and watching what we tell ourselves over the decades—and then also across the world, because I’ve got some films from other countries as well. It’s easy to see either the misinformation or, more accurately, the cultural prejudices that show up in these films with the distance of time. We can see how cheesy the 1950s coach is, and the information that he gives, but it takes a little more time to kind of realize we’re doing the same things now. The things we believe, obviously our kids and our kids’ kids are going to say: “What?” So it’s kind of an humbling thing to be like, all right, we don’t have all the answers, but we can talk about it.