Joe Exotic Tiger King illustration
Illustration: Dan Evans
Entertainment

Joe Exotic and the Inevitability of Self-Sabotage

Behind all the cages and bones and blood and piercings and tattoos and fire and limbs and guns, there is humanity in the Joe Exotic story.
DE
illustrated by Dan Evans
April 3, 2020, 10:53am

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

I think about what role I would have played in the Joe Exotic saga had I somehow stumbled across it. No, scratch that: I think about how I would have died in the Joe Exotic saga had I somehow stumbled across it.

Eyes bleary, on my back, dragged in and out of consciousness to a nearby grinder. Or, no: walking across a tightrope over a small mud pond containing an alligator, slipping to my bloody knees as a group of laughing children watch, Joe giving out 20 full refunds to hush up the horror. Or, no: single bullet to the base of my skull as I flop head-first into a trailer, Joe makes a shrine to me and buries my bones deep beneath it. Tied to a chair in a garage that a tiger’s been sedated in. Whipped with electrical cables and riddled with tattoos until I clench my teeth out of my skull in muffled agony. Allen Glover, single punch, back of my skull clicks the concrete outside the only working bar for miles. Or, no, no, no: I bob in the water, innocently enjoying a day at the beach, the cool salty water easing my tired muscles, and there in the distance is a drone, nrrrrrrrr, and out of nowhere he appears: James Garretson, riding directly into my head with a Jet Ski, so hard it makes a dull thump like a dropped fruit, clumpf, and my skull fills with blood like a bruise does, and my eyes turn pink then red, and I float – huge and dead and dreadful – up to the surface of the water, bobbing aimlessly towards the beach.

"Aw, fuck," Joe Exotic says, when someone calls him to tell him about my death, knowing that this is just another ugly mess he has to get himself out of. "Fuck, fuck, fuck." He throws his burner phone into a small red mound of dirt. He heaves his mangled leg into the bed and joylessly initiates a three-way. As he jitters to a thin, reedy climax, somewhere, distantly, a tiger roars. The air smells of sand. The air smells of petrol. The air smells of blood.

On Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness

I think it's important to address two underlying truths regarding Tiger King, Netflix's latest and most important discourse-defining event:

i. Though it certainly helps that the planet is currently gripped by a plague that means it is close to legally necessary for us all to be inside and watching TV, I do not want that fact to negate the importance of Tiger King and the story of Joseph Exotic. Tiger King would have inspired the thinking that it has inspired whether or not we were all locked in the prisons of our own houses, crying desperately out for TV. We would have watched this show, virus or no virus. Put it another way: there is no timeline on Earth where Joe Exotic could have existed, where this man could have owned close to 200 tigers and almost as many husbands, and he could have gone to prison for 22 years following a failed hit on what could reasonably be described as a "tiger rival", and you would not have found out about him. Joe Exotic was coming for you. This was just the moment you were found. And;

ii. Plainly, a story about a roadside zoo where the owner has more tigers than God is, alone, enough of a subject for a seven-part docuseries, even before someone's husband mysteriously disappears. If you made seven 41-minute episodes – just of Joe Exotic, just of the moments where he wasn’t actively breaking the law, if you made a seven-hour show just about Joe Exotic explaining to the audience his various injuries, and how a baffling number of them weren't even tiger-related – it would still be more entertaining that most Oscar-winning movies. The fact that this story somehow leads to a funeral where Joe, in a cowboy hat and a cleric's uniform with a shiny chrome gun, his eyebrow ring shimmering as he waxes lyrical about his dead husband's testicles, then gently sings a song to their ghost; the fact that this show goes there, and that isn’t even the wildest moment in the thing, this is a testament to the J. Exotic mythology. The man is show business. The man is money, baby. Joe Exotic is an electric chair of pure charisma.

On the Absolution of Good vs. Evil, or: Where Is Hell in a World of Joe Exotic?

Joe Exotic Here Kitty Kitty

Joe Exotic's "Here Kitty Kitty" music video in which a Carole Baskin lookalike feeds fake body parts to a lion, obviously.

I've been thinking a lot recently about the moral absolution of "woke discourse" – a kind of competitive empathy thing we've developed in recent years, a kind of mecha-Catholicism where the underlying idea beneath it is that it is possible to live a flawless and perfectly moral life. A bowling ball rolling strictly between the bumpers of evil down the slick path of good, holding every perfect opinion, an angel-like ally and a flawless column of light. Make one wrong move you are cancelled forever, amen.

Broadly, I do think a more considered, cultivated, practised culture, where we cherish showing empathy for others, is, how you say, "good". But also if they ever get my texts I’m just going to close myself quietly into a coffin to save myself the aggro. You get it.

I've been thinking about this because I cannot move past the feeling I have that Joe Exotic is a good person. I have run this opinion past various people recently and they have all started to treat me like part of my mind has gone soft like a dropped fruit, and they are just waiting for some doctors to free up so they can give me a terminal thought diagnosis. Joe Exotic is in prison, yes, I know that. He tried to kill that woman, yeah. He lured in a number of young straight men with meth until they got tattoos of him over their dick: OK. For many years he ran a cub petting sub-business, which is on the same level as a puppy mill, only puppy mills don't airbrush puppies on the side of a tour bus and go mall-to-mall charging $40 a throw. He, almost certainly, exploded a number of alligators with a grenade and made the internet pay to replace them. I get all that, I understand it. But I still, somehow, believe that he is good. The central Joe Exoticness of Joe Exotic leans towards a greater divinity.

This has a lot to do with the universe Joe Exotic finds himself in (i.e. The Joe Exotic Extended Universe), where Joe is a central magnet, attracting metal filings of carnage. Or, to put it another way, "chaos attracts chaos". The cast of characters within the J.E.E.U. are not found, collected together, in any other walk of life. Exotic is the central hero who unites them all: the squinting nutless killer-for-hire who interviews out of his own bath; the beautiful toothless straight man too shy to fire a gun on camera; a placid nemesis, exuding waves of Rich Aunt energy while chaining herself to her strange pencil of a husband; complexly bald playboy with a Ferrari wallet and a lifetime block from most nanny-hire websites; Doc Antle's various unblinking common-law wives; that guy who looks like the drummer for the Foo Fighters after a stint as a political prisoner, who walks – even on flat, even surfaces – as though he's stepping to avoid land mines; the person who got their arm bitten off then went back to work five days later, I have had hangovers that lasted longer than their rehabilitation; the guy who has clowns spray-painted on his prosthetic legs and has clowns spray-painted on his car, too, and at no point in the entire journey did anyone ask him, "Hey man, what’s the deal with the clowns?"; the guy who looks like a jazz club ghost who had a full mental breakdown because Joe set fire to his own alligators; James Garretson, not evil incarnate but evil adjacent, the snickering friend-of-the-bully-who-is-only-friends-with-the-bully-so-he-doesn’t-get-bullied only all grown up, wearing a wire and revving a Jet Ski into the burning sky; Travis Maldonado, blasting his beautiful face off in front of a campaign manager Joe recruited from the gun section at Walmart.

It is only in this universe that your ally can be "the guy two states over who uses the allure of owning an elephant to somehow run a harem", your friend can be "the guy who drives a bus full of tigers through Las Vegas to try to initiate threesomes", your husbands can be "straight" and your enemy can be "the admittedly weird but titteringly polite lady who just loves cats too much". The sheer presence of Joe Exotic inverts the whole model of good and evil, homo and hetero, chaos and neutrality. There is no right and wrong in a place where bears regularly die. At that point – once all the rules have been broken – the structure of society around you makes sense. I’m not saying it’s OK to order a $3,000 hit, meet a new Grindr match two weeks after your husband's funeral and bury the bones of your dead deep beneath the cages of the tigers above them, but I am saying, against a backdrop like that, it starts to make a rough sort of sense.

Exotic vs. Exotic

There are two wolves inside of you: one is evil, one is good. The one who wins is the one you feed. Similarly, there are two tigers inside Joe Exotic: one is evil, one is good, but they are both mad at something someone said on the internet like eight years ago, and they’ve just been fed a sour bin full of expired meat so they're all riled up. You cannot expect there to be any winners after that. You were stupid to ever expect a winner.

Joe Exotic Never Reached His Final Form, or: A Portrait of an Angel with Clipped Wings

Joe Exotic TV

Screenshot via Joe Exotic TV

You do not just wake up one day and look like Joe Exotic. Not even Joe Exotic did that. This is why I find it unbearable that there are not more archive photographs of Joe Exotic: little by little, decision after decision, he crafted the planet’s most perfect swag. One day, Joe Exotic had to decide to have bullet holes tattooed onto his chest. He made that decision. He had to decide that, and then he had to get it done. He had to ask for someone else to do it, and then he had to pay for it. "Vivid red," Joe Exotic would have said, a little yee in that red, there, a little half-turn in the centre of the motorway of that word, and he would have pointed to a row of tattoo ink and gone: "No, redder."

That is one of, like, one million decisions Joe Exotic had to undertake to become Joe Exotic. The mullet was step one. I dread to think how many iterations of the facial hair there were before he ended up how he did. The eyebrow ring was step two. "Is it possible to pierce my eyebrow?" Joe Exotic said, and the piercer said: sure. And then Joe Exotic said, "Only, can you pierce it through one molecule of skin? I want the eyebrow pierced at, like, an atomic level. The piercing cannot go through more than one cell of skin."

The planet has been robbed of a finite resource now: do you think Joe Exotic was at his final form? Do you think Joe was done being Exotic? There was so much more ear to pierce. There was so much neck left to tattoo. Joe Exotic hadn’t even got his first facelift yet. (Imagine Joe Exotic, please, with a Jocelyn Wildenstein roadside facelift, puffed up like one of his dopey young husbands had got into a bee's nest, single diamanté crutch slithering up his leg). We have, collectively, been robbed of watching Joe Exotic turn from a semi-normal 54-year-old into an utterly deranged 70-year-old, backed by riches and the public eye, and I think that is sinful. Everyone who put Joe Exotic in prison should be in prison themselves, just for taking that away from us.

Joseph Exotiqué and the Inevitability of Self-Sabotage

The basic mistake Joe Exotic made is thinking $1 million was an achievable sum of money. That’s how much Howard and Carole Baskin hit him with in litigation, in the middle of an early back-and-forth they had, when Joe was running a touring petting company under the Big Cat Rescue font-and-banner, and Carole – who'd basically only really interacted with him via a focused email campaign – was using the law to get him to stop.

There is no point hitting someone like Joe Exotic with a cease and desist. Joe Exotic blinks violently in the face of a cease and desist. Joe places a cease and desist carefully by a swamp and throws a grenade on it. He needed to be discouraged, and threatening someone with a $1 million legal bill normally gets them to stop doing the things they are doing. The basic mistake Carole Baskin made was assuming that Joe Exotic's mind works in a normal way.

Joe Exotic sees a million dollars as a fence that can be tactically hurdled, even if you hurt your leg on the way over. Say you sell tiger cubs for $5,000 a pop: heck, that's only 200 cubs! And that’s before you count in lions, and bears, and bobcats, and petting zoo takings, and selling all your guns and ammo, and making an insurance claim on an alligator fire. Two-hundred cubs petted by ten weekends' worth of zoo traffic is a million dollars, easy. This is the moment Joe Exotic started slipping down an oiled slope of sanity that he never really ran back up.

I’m no lawyer, but I do think that responding to the threat of a million-dollar lawsuit with "running an internet TV show where you shoot a mannequin of your enemy in the head with a high-ballistic bullet, then start spreading rumours about how they minced their husband, and also don't stop doing the thing you’re getting sued for" is probably inadvisable. But I’ve been looking for humanity in the Joe Exotic story and that, precisely, is where I found it. Joe Exotic put himself in prison by caring too much about a nemesis who didn’t really care about him back. He pressure-cooked a feud that didn’t happen in his own mind to the extent that he ended up locked behind bars about it. And I can entirely relate to that. That is completely and utterly something I can see myself doing.

In my early twenties I was quite good at, what I call now, "ruining my own life". This was mainly focused on my career, but it went for my interpersonal relationships as well: I stagnated in jobs I hated, I made very stupid decisions when given opportunities to progress in my writing career, I missed deadlines, I accumulated a frankly terrifying amount of overdraft charges, too many pints, &c. &c. &c. A lot of these can just be assigned to "youthful hubris", but a lot of it was sharper, darker, more targeted at me: I created a lot of problems that didn’t need to exist due to some weird, urgent, primal pull within me to bust my own hand. "You’re very good at self-sabotage, aren’t you?" someone said to me, casually, when I was about 25, and it was at that almost precise moment I realised: fuck. Maybe the world wasn’t against me, actually. Maybe I was just a dip-shit and a dickhead rolled into one, who kept making problems for myself. Real "Huh!" moment for me.

I mean, it's still there, the pull – it’s a little like the compulsion you have to hold your hand over a naked flame, but with, like, "sending an incredibly inadvisable email" – but, having mostly got through the worst of it, it's a quality I now recognise in others. Joe Exotic drips with self sabotage. He exudes it. Joe Exotic would not be in prison now if it weren’t for the aggregated actions and decisions of Joe Exotic. Joe Exotic started out just a man, on the floor of a neighbour’s front room, awed and seduced by the sheer power of being able to hold a tiger cub like a revving engine, and then – after decades and cages and bones and blood and piercings and tattoos and fire and limbs and guns and corpses, human and animal, buried in the same red-brown dust – it all transfigured, grew ugly and unmanageable, all egged on distantly and passively by Carole Baskin, smiling mildly in a flower crown.

Joe Exotic is a bad person: yes. Joe Exotic had good intentions: I believe so. But the Joe Exotic tiger consumed the Joseph Schreibvogel man, picked his carcass clean of meat until he was just bones, and that’s the person who pushed all this chaos along: pushing an argument so far, on and on and on and on, that he gave a grand-and-a-half to a man who looks like someone put a baby in a special ageing microwave and set him off to kill. In a way – in a rough, shapeless, ugly, ill-fitting sort of way – I recognise myself in Joe Exotic in a way that terrifies and delights me.

This isn't a story about tigers, or killers for hire, or banging two dudes under the hot heavy Oklahoma sun: it’s about ruining your own life for absolutely no reason at all by becoming so frenziedly obsessed with internet beef that you end up in jail. If you can’t see yourself reflected in the mirror of Joe Exotic, you’re not looking hard enough.

@joelgolby