What’s So Funny?

In May I went to see a thought-provoking drama written and performed by Brian Copeland, a Bay Area writer and comedian.

Copeland is the author of the critically-acclaimed one-man show titled Not a Genuine Black Man. It’s the story of his experiences growing up black in San Leandro in the 1970s, at the time when that East Bay community was considered one of the most segregated towns in the United States.

The May performance was a new play by Copeland, The Scion, which opened in San Francisco earlier this year. This particular evening was a benefit for the San Leandro Historical Society.

The Scion, like Copeland’s earlier work, is based on fact – in this case what came to be known as the sausage factory murders.

On June 21, 2000, Stuart Alexander, self-proclaimed “Sausage King” and owner of San Leandro’s Santos Linguisa factory, shot and killed three meat inspectors.

Two of the victims, Jean Hillery and Thomas Quadros, were from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The third victim was U.S. Food and Drug Administration Inspector William Shaline. With them on this particular day was California State Inspector Earl Willis, who escaped.

After Alexander shot Hillery, Quadros, and Shaline, he chased Willis down the street, firing a gun at him. Willis found refuge in a bank. Alexander then returned to the factory and shot Hillery, Quadros, and Shaline again – each one in the head, at close range.

The inspectors’ visit to the sausage factory that day was prompted by ongoing and unresolved issues between the federal government and Alexander regarding federal food safety regulations. You know, rules like cooking the sausage at the proper temperature, in order to prevent food-borne illness like e.coli. The feds also had concerns about the factory’s cleanliness and outdated equipment. They’d already shut down the factory twice, and Alexander had gotten it reopened.

Alexander viewed these regulations, and the inspectors’ visits, as interference and harassment. As far as he was concerned, the inspectors were trespassers. When the inspectors showed up that day, he led them back to his office, where he kept a number of loaded guns. He started shooting. Everything was caught on the video surveillance tape, which was used by the prosecution at Alexander’s trial.

Alexander pleaded not guilty but was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in February 2005. However, he died in prison in December 2005.

Fast forward to The Scion. Okay, I thought. How in the world is Copeland, with his reputation for humor, going to make a play out of this triple homicide?

He succeeded admirably. Taking the stage, he began by saying, “Rules are rules, for everybody.”

Unless they aren’t for everyone, as he demonstrated during the course of his performance. Copeland talked about his own experiences growing up in San Leandro, racially profiled for walking while black, driving while black, riding in a car with a white woman.

Then he contrasted this with Alexander’s upbringing as the privileged scion of a well-known San Leandro businessman. Evidently Alexander did whatever he liked without being called into account for his actions, whether it was speeding a motor scooter the wrong way down a busy local street, constructing a downtown building without getting any permits, or beating the crap out of an elderly neighbor.

Alexander was frequently described as “having a short fuse” or “combative,” a man who “didn’t like the idea of people telling him what to do,” even if it was a group of USDA meat inspectors whose job it was to make sure people who ate that sausage wouldn’t get sick.

Copeland’s theme, as I see it, is that Stuart Alexander went through life feeling entitled to do exactly what he wanted, even if that meant killing three people. Indeed, Copeland said during the play, up until he was sentenced Alexander apparently thought he was going to get away with murder.

So why the title of this blog post? What’s so funny?

On several occasions, as I was describing the play I’d seen, the person I was talking with laughed. Why? What was so amusing?

There were times during the performance of the play that I laughed, too, as Copeland intended for the audience to do. But then he described how he’d watched the surveillance tape, which shows the efforts of mortally-wounded Jean Hillery to reach her cell phone.

That’s not funny. That’s deadly serious, horrific even.

So what it is that made people laugh when I was telling them about the play, and the murders? Was it the term “sausage factory murders”? Was it the way I described it?

I’ve been pondering that, and I’m not sure I have an answer. I just know that I’ve been turning it around in my head for a couple of months.

After all, I’m a mystery writer. I construct fictional tales that revolve around murder. And within the broader mystery genre there are humorous mysteries. So in a way, we mystery writers do laugh at murder. Though fiction is somehow more palatable than real murder.

Brian Copeland will be performing The Scion at the Marsh Theatre in San Francisco from July 19 through August 23.

Go see it.


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