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Berkeley comic shows the lighter side of temping

By Peter Crimmins Daily Planet Correspondent
Friday September 14, 2001

When big business discovered the financial potential in hiring a temporary workforce, the march of organized labor was set back a few steps. In “Haiku Tunnel,” comedian Josh Kornbluth grasps that the thwarted professional ambitions in the temp market, the denied employee benefits with no investment in the process of production, is a boon for artistic temperaments.  

The son of communist parents and long-time Berkeley comic monologist developed his one-man show “Haiku Tunnel” 10 years ago at the Marsh in San Francisco. He has since performed it in many venues across the country and included it in his published collection of writings “Red Diaper Baby.” It’s the story of a man who champions the detached freedom of being a temp. 

Trotsky should be rolling in his grave.  

Kornbluth and his brother Jacob have padded the one-man show with a supporting cast, stretched out a few subplots, and brought “Haiku Tunnel” to the big screen. Their first film (and they hope not their last) opened in San Francisco Thursday and will come to Berkeley Sept. 21. 

Sitting in a production office at the bottom of Potrero Hill in San Francisco, Josh and Jacob reminisce about the days, not so long ago, when they were toiling as temps and writing on the side, and hearing of other temp slaves using this disassociated employment phase to pursue personal ambitions. 

“There’s something about being a temp and not really connecting to your work,” said Jacob. “You have the possibility, at least in your own mind, that tomorrow or the next day or whenever you are going to be the thing you are actually going to be, that thing is going to be amazing.” 

The name of the film comes from a job the main character, called “Josh Kornbluth,” had in his temp past. During a stint entering specs for a Hawaiian engineering project he discovered the Zen of temping: with no connection to anyone in the office, free to come and go, not worried about the past or future while jacked into his Walkman doing data entry, the world became weightless and nothing mattered to him. 

“We sometimes refer to the period of time he spends there as the unbearable lightness of temping,” said Josh. “He was totally temp and he realizes later that he was miserable when he was totally temp. So if he thinks in his mind that that’s what he wanted, maybe now he has to rethink things.” 

When “Josh Kornbluth” takes a temp job at a law firm called Skyler and Mitchel (S&M) he is offered to go “perm.” A long-term job forces him to actually get to know his eccentric co-workers personally and to become intimate with the Xerox machine and developing a late-night, confessional relationship with a voicemail system.  

The mole hills-into-mountains squabbles with people and machines at S&M are the stuff of comic pot shots and there is an implied class struggle of the haves (lawyers) and the have-nots (their secretaries) but it isn’t given a dramatic punch because the bosses are not painted as belligerent ogres.  

The real enemy in “Haiku Tunnel” is “Josh Kornbluth,” himself, struggling to adjust his disaffiliated worldview to the idea of permanence. Josh and Jacob’s story of a man overcoming temping and its psychological consequences is a personal revolution instead of a social one.  

“We’re political people fundamentally. We’re not anti-politics,” explained Jacob. “But the thing we wanted to do with this story is focus the narrative very much on the secretaries. To tell the story as honestly as possible from what we felt was, and when you’re honest about it very little of your life intersects with the boss.” 

There are letters that stack up 17 high on the corner of “Josh’s” desk. They go unmailed for a week, and are the proverbial monkey on the secretarial back. Obsessively neurotic that they have not been mailed out and yet perversely comforted by their presence, Josh’s unnatural relationship with the letters propels the character through increasingly absurd antics. As a plot device, the innocuous envelopes’ refusal to be posted evokes a visceral sinking feeling that is both comic and dreadful. 

The real Josh wants to make it abundantly clear to potential future employers that this is not typical behavior for the once (and future?) office worker. 

“That’s the kind thing that if they ever do need to re-enter the secretarial market, which could happen within weeks since the opening is imminent, I just want people to know that that is not something I would actually do. I would not do something bad like that.”