Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Craig Froehlich: 1971-2008

If ever a situation required a laugh, Craig Froehlich was the man to provide it. Whether he was addressing a calamity of international proportions, celebrity news fodder or a personality that was at-odds with his own, Craig cut it down to its essence with his acerbic wit and insight. Whenever I hear something that makes me throw my arms in the air in disbelief, I think "I can't wait to hear what Craig has to say about this!"

As long as the world spins on with its foibles, ironies and outrages, that thought will no doubt reverberate in my head. But it breaks my heart that I will no longer have the pleasure of finding out. Craig died Monday morning after a long battle against alcoholism and depression. He left behind many devastated friends and family members who still remember him in his most happy and inspired moments. They include sister Carmen Watkins and her three daughters, brother Kevin Froehlich, mother Gertrud Anderson and father Darryl Froehlich.

Craig moved to Salt Lake City from Detroit in 1994, and completed his BA in Mass Communications at the University of Utah in 2002. We met when he came to the Daily Utah Chronicle and RED Magazine to pursue his love of writing. There, I had the pleasure of working with him and reading his material on a regular basis.

Craig was a ferocious reader, a lover of literature, history, humor, music and film. It was rare to find a topic on which he wasn't knowledgeable, and rarer still to find one from which he couldn't yank laughs. His drive to know everything spilled into his writing. Even the breeziest of his comedic gems entailed a great deal of research—he wanted to know his target before he lambasted it, to ensure his jokes were spot on.

Once, when I was his editor at the University of Utah's RED Magazine, he called a local burger joint near campus because he wanted to make a joke about the "World-Famous Pastrami Burger" sign outside their restaurant. Nevermind that his piece was about John Kerry, he needed to make sure he quoted the sign correctly. Unfortunately, the employee who worked there wasn't so aware of his surroundings, and didn't even know the sign even existed. Much to Craig's dismay, the minimum-wage-earning mope wouldn't go outside and check, and since we were on deadline, we couldn't check it ourselves. I suggested an alternative to the gag, but he remained bemused that this employee wouldn't aid his mischievous comedic scheme.

I've been going over the writing Craig left behind since receiving the news, and reading it is the best way to lift my spirits after. It doesn't replace having him here in person—the charming banter, the off-the-cuff remarks so clever you're not sure you really heard them, the hilarious storytelling and excited declarations—but it certainly reminds us of his unmistakable spirit. He was able to find the perfect way to cut down his subject with the wrong end of his axe, whether commenting on the shortcomings of ethnic nomenclature ("Many blacks feel far more American than African. Many whites have no idea what "Caucasian" means and refuse to be called European Americans for fear their women will stop shaving their armpits."), Republican political strategy ("God, Guns and Gays—or more specifically, threatening the latter with the first two.") or tourist souvenirs ("Sea turtles swaggered through town in flashy clothing and demanded money from helpless artisans and shopkeepers. To combat this menace, a Mexican freedom fighter known only as Señor Frog built countless resort hotels on Cancun’s immaculate stretch of beaches. These hotels decimated the habitat where the turtles laid their fragile eggs. Fertile turtles of yesterday now face extinction (a serious blow to their intimidation factor). Many of Cancun’s grandest shot glasses and T-shirts now bear the name of the heroic frog.").

Craig wouldn't abide sugar-coating—he avoided sentimentality and never hesitated to tell friends—or complete strangers—exactly what was on his mind. When people were building Miis at a Wii party, he took pleasure in pointing out when people were selecting features they wish they had, rather than ones that resembled their real-life looks. Of course, no one could accuse him of hypocrisy after seeing the comically sad little avatar he cooked up.

Once, I took him to an emergency room to receive treatment for a kidney stone that would not pass. His extreme pain combined with the tedious banter of the people sitting near us and, of course, his own personality to generate a reaction I'll never forget. As the man talked nonsense about celebrities, gun laws and stem-cell research, Craig cut him off. "Oh, will you shut the hell up!" he snapped, adding a disgruntled "PLEASE!" after seeing the unimpressed expression on the offender's face.

As his incessant banter suggested, the talking man wasn't as frightened of a confrontation as me, the silent fellow sinking in his seat. "If you don't like it, go somewhere else," he replied. While Craig mercifully relented from pushing the point further and apologized, he later mused about where he was supposed to go. "I'm in a freaking emergency room, for crying out loud." The detail he most ardently brought up, however, was that he did, after all, say please.

While Craig's social form may have been a bit unconventional, it let you know that he was never blowing smoke up your ass. If he asked about how something was going or how people were doing, you knew it was because he really cared.

So I can't sugar-coat this memorial, lest I hear him say, "You've gotta be kidding me!" in my head. The last several years of his life saw his addiction to alcohol grow worse and worse, and we saw less and less of the Craig we know and love. There was only so much time his loved ones could devote to enacting a recovery before becoming frustrated and exhausted. But even when he was sick in the hospital and experiencing great pain, he still took the time to ask about how everyone was doing, and tell some jokes to put our sad selves at ease.

Like most people who see the absurdities of the world in a special way, Craig was frustrated that others couldn't see them so easily. He loved his country, and his planet, but was continually upset that neither were as perfect as they should be. And while he never reached the levels he aspired to in life, he left us with a tremendous collection of work that makes us laugh while we shake our heads at how ridiculous it all is.

Below are links to some of Craig's best writing. Please share your own memories and thoughts on Craig in the comments section. This is a very sad moment, but Craig would be displeased if we didn't spend it laughing.

RED Through the Ages. To kick off the school year in Fall 2003, Craig wrote this introduction to RED Magazine. Sending up more than 100 years of history through the eyes of imagined college A&E publications. "1912—The Titanic sinks with 1,500 souls on board. 'It would make a smashing moving-picture show,' the editor of The Ute Artful Dodger muses, 'if only one could seamlessly write the gratuitous display of boobs into the story.'"

Façade: Interactive Videogames Take a Small Step Forward. A Review of an ambitious, but buggy-as-hell artificial intelligence game (or interactive drama). "If you want to shoot people or baskets, chances are you can find a video game that satiates your needs. If you want interaction and a chance to express personality and intellect, chances are you’ll need to stoop to speaking to other Homo sapiens."

Will Joke For Food. Craig profiles the hardships of local standup comedians for Salt Lake City Weekly. "Being a professional comedian requires compromises and obedience to the gods of income. Decisions to wring a living out of making people laugh demands diligence and a smidgen of insanity. A hard-working comedian can still skirt the poverty level, but it’s a world where only bad timing, horrible pay and a Klan rally discourages a comic from accepting a gig."

The Salt Shaker's 1977 Star Wars review. In honor of the prequel trilogy, Craig wrote this "archival review" of the original "Star Wars"—a 1977 article by "Anakin Mathews." It ran in our inaugural issue. "With or without the wars, Hamill’s star is definitely on the rise."

RED Magazine's endorsement of John Kerry. Note that because Craig couldn't get confirmation on B & D Burgers' world famous pastrami sign before deadline, he had to settle for the Training Table's claim to world-famous cheese fries. He always regretted the compromise and remained convinced that the B & D pastrami burger would have resulted in a funnier gag.

Christ and Comic Books on Main Street of SLC. Craig wonders if Chick Tracts will be distributed in downtown Salt Lake City. "Approach your stroll through the Main Street "Free-Speech-O-Rama" Plaza as would a cultural anthropologist. Observe outsiders with attentive impartiality and read comic books with the utmost caution. Those booklets are designed to convert unsuspecting sinners after only one reading."

The Best Film Fest in the West. Craig's send-up of the Sundance Film Festival was so funny, I ran it during two different festivals. "Sundance is devoid of the pretensions and exclusivity of other festivals. Any moron can get a ticket, and they do so in droves."

The Original Draft of the Bill of Rights. "Excessive bail shall not be required although every bail is excessive when you’re poor; nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted such as eating Pop-Tarts in front of a hungry person or dressing up like a pirate and pelting someone with stale pancakes."

In Memoriam: Richard Pryor. Craig looks back on the life of one of his heroes.

The Top News Stories of 2005. Craig's last published work. "President Bush, since he has always held the media in such high esteem, believed that the Big Easy had truly dodged a bullet. He continued a well-deserved 27th vacation at his Crawford, Texas ranch—riding bikes, clearing brush and barbecuin’ up some of that tasty "pork" imported from Guantanamo Bay."
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