My friend Greg and I recently braved an ominous sounding event named Smash Party. It’s a once a year thing in Los Angeles, put on by an animation studio called Titmouse. If you’re not familiar with them, they’re the guys behind Metalocalypse. It’s without a doubt the oddest (and probably most cathartic) company party you’ll ever go to.
The first sign that something might be amiss was the personal injury waiver we had to sign at the front gate. There were maybe twenty people in line ahead of us, eagerly waiting to sign with one of the several, tattooed, biker-gang-looking gatekeepers. They didn’t look like any animators I’d ever met, they looked more like “hired muscle”. You know, like when the Stones hired the Hell’s Angels to keep the peace at Altamont. We all know how well that worked out. But they were nice and friendly when we got to the entrance, and even joked around with us a little. I didn’t ask questions, I just went inside.
Passing through the main gate, I finally took in the layout.
It was basically a parking lot in the back of a Hollywood building. There was a bar serving free beer and mixed drinks, food trucks of different types, a live music stage, and running the length of the side of the parking lot near the street…an enclosed structure made out of chain link fence, plywood, and no small amount of cheap, white rope lights from Target.
Bleacher seating surrounded it on two sides, and they were all full. From a distance it looked like a miniature Thunderdome and the reality wasn’t actually that far off.
As we approached it, we heard a mix of blood thirsty yells and the crashing of something big and heavy. When I got close enough, I saw what looked like a small, unassuming girl, dressed in a medical apron and wearing a surgical mask. I wasn’t sure if she was wearing a costume or had just come straight there from Cedars-Sinai. I guessed the former.
She was wielding a sledge hammer like a battle axe…or, at least she was trying to. The thing was almost as tall as she was, and it wasn’t going particularly well. At her feet was what looked like an old dot matrix printer. It was hard to tell because the thing had been…well, smashed.
You remember dot matrix printers, right? The kind you used to have to load with a big spool of paper that printed, if you were lucky, a page every two or three minutes? I remember them. If I had to use one now, I probably would want to “smash” it too.
The girl ditched the sledge hammer in favor of a baseball bat. I guess the strategy was to sacrifice stopping power for lighter weight. It worked. Three hits later and that printer was about twelve pieces of debris scattered around the cage. The crowd cheered wildly. The girl raised her arms inside her apron in a victory salute, then headed out as two other guys came to clean up, brushing what was left of the printer against the far wall of chain link where, I noticed, a growing pile of other vanquished items lay.
The plastic corpses of computer monitors, more printers, plates and pottery, a microwave or two, radios, all manner of things that had somehow earned the murderous scorn of their former users.
I pushed through the crowd with my camera, angling for a better shot. I found it on the ground right in front of the cage. Probably not the best place to be with flying, metal shrapnel a few feet away, but no one stopped me. Why should they, I’d signed their waiver, hadn’t I? I could lose an arm in this place and not have any legal recourse.
Next up, they wheeled in a massive television set.
Now we’re talking, I thought to myself. Consumer electronics!
It was an old set. And, by old, I mean probably like six years old. Way back when TVs had giant glass screens and tubes inside, and still took two or three people to move when you switched apartments. Those tubes were “vacuum” tubes, it meant there was no air in them, and when they burst it was gonna be loud.
I was giddy. So was everyone else. The crowd cheered as a tall, Asian kid strolled inside with a confident gait. He didn’t have a costume, but he did have a lot of attitude, which was just as good.
I looked closer at the arrangement of the cage while I waited for the chaos to begin. It really was set up like Thunderdome. When you went inside, you had a plethora of options to satisfy your personal destruction preferences. The aforementioned sledge hammer and baseball bat, but there were also regular hammers, golf clubs, crow bars, all arranged around the cage.
The Asian kid started with a golf club that looked like an eight iron. The crowd applauded. He teed up right in front of the glass of the TV set and swung. The club bounced off the screen without making a crack. The Japanese know how to build those things.
He hit it again. Same result. Again. Again. Still nothing. The crowd was deflated, they murmured nervously amongst themselves. They were becoming unruly…
But the kid knew what to do. He threw the club to the ground and dramatically approached the sledge hammer, raised it up slowly so the audience could see it, so they would know what was coming.
They ate it up, they cheered him like Spartacus. He certainly knew how to work the crowd, I thought.
He lined up with the hammer and swung it as hard as he could.
It exploded through the glass of the old TV and when it did, there was a concussive blast of sound that echoed probably all the way to West Hollywood (not that they would notice over there). People at the far end of the event cheered loudly, and the audience on the bleachers did too.
I joined them. This wanton destruction was particularly awesome to watch, and we all kept cheering as he smashed the TV into a ruined husk, over and over.
When the violence was done and I had my shots, I lay on the ground thinking about what was going on.
The crowd in the bleachers and around the cage had steadily grown since we’d gotten there. They had a genuine interest in what was happening, they weren’t moving or going anywhere. In fact, the two guys running the cage had to encourage the crowd to go and order food from the trucks or visit the bar. What was happening in that cage was more interesting than free booze, which, in L.A. among animation folk, is saying a lot. The people watching were as vocal and excited as the participants. I felt the same. And there were more lining up to come in.
But why? What does that say about who we are? This insatiable desire for watching other people beat the crap out of things?
Is it just some sort of cathartic release of anger and tension? Probably a part of it, but certainly not the complete equation.
So, what then? Maybe we all ache, secretly or otherwise, to do something wrong, to break the rules, I mused. And events like this party allow us to do just that in a controlled, marginally safe (not to mention legal) way. Is the taboo always more alluring, more sexy than the status quo or what we’re “supposed” to do?
I think so, it’s probably just human nature. It doesn’t mean we have to give in to it, but we want what we’re told we can’t have, yearn to do what’s forbidden to us.
I also wonder if it’s the same side of us that loves villains and tough guys in film noir and Leone style anti-heroes? Doctor Doom, The Man With No Name, Mike Hammer…
I mean, when you think about it, Darth Vader is way more interesting and compelling than Luke Skywalker. By the same token, so is Han Solo. We love these characters because they do things societal constraints won’t let us do. There’s a giddiness when we watch the AT-ATs laying waste to Hoth, or Solo blasting Greedo (before he draws his gun), or Angel Eyes telling his soon-to-be former employer at gunpoint, “But, you know the pity is, when I’m paid…I always see the job through.”
Society generally frowns on the destruction of other people’s possessions with heavy, blunt objects. Smash Party let people indulge in that behavior…or witness the behavior and similarly not feel bad about not calling the cops. All I know is, I slept really well that night. I was relaxed and light hearted, several things that had been stressing me out that week seemed less consequential. I have a feeling it was the same for most people who were there. It was cathartic, that experience. It was, I think…healthy even.
We could use more Smash Parties. Look it up next year.