The tale of The Asheville Disclaimer is one of japery and monkeyshines, otherwise known as love and laughs and beer. It is the saga of how a notion became a comedy institution. The Disclaimer has evolved from a standalone publication to “The Most Beloved Page in All the Land” within the Mountain Xpress. Beyond print, Disclaimer is the host organization of a plethora of local stand-up comedy nights. What follows is a melange of quotes and stories that roughly recounts the origin of The Disclaimer and some assorted vignettes of interest from times past.
Part 1: Ontogenesis
Michele Scheve (at the time Michele Souma): “In Spring of 2002, I had the idea to start a humor paper. I had already done two issues of a humor zine called The Asheville Hyena, which was pretty much exclusively available at Downtown Books and News. After my partner at The Hyena decided she didn’t want to continue, I was still excited about the potential that that kind of paper would have in Asheville.”
Shiniqua Lerrell: “At the time Michele was working at IWANNA. Her background had been in publishing. Earlier in her career, she was an art director for several papers and had created ads and content but really she had always wanted to publish something of her own.”
Michele: “Charles Pittman was a friend I would always see at parties and he would just make me laugh hysterically at his insights on political figures and (there weren’t so many hipsters there yet) people on Lexington Avenue. I knew I wanted his help creating this paper, so I told him, ‘You are my muse!’ We sat down and had a workshop one day and we were trying to come up with the name. I wanted it to have Asheville in the title and then some sort of proclamation. Charles instantly came up with ‘Disclaimer’ and that was that.”
Dave Cole: “Charles introduced Michele to Shiniqua Lerrell at Broadway’s one night. Broadway’s has always been a huge factor in Disclaimer history. She (Shiniqua) was very excited and ended up becoming the editor-in-chief. Her involvement was crucial in getting the word out and getting people to come to our first meetings.”
Part 2: But how and where?
Dave: “Michele had a friend who had an office space at 70 Woodfin Place. The guy had wild parties there all the time because the suite adjoined this huge flat rooftop. For whatever reason, he needed a place to live and someone to take over the office space, so Michele gave him her place in north Asheville and essentially moved back in with her Mom, but really she was moving into the office.”
Michele: “I had a refrigerator and some couches, one of which pulled out. I started collecting old computers and old furniture so there were computer stations set up. I also got a huge conference table. After that I started the weekly Tuesday meetings where I stocked the fridge with PBR and snacks.”
“There were always crackers and pepper cheese and PBR at the office.”
Part 3: So then…
Michele: “We came to the decision that we should try to get our first issue out in August of 2002. I took it to IWANNA to use their printing facilities and then they saw the issue when they were doing the plates to put it on the press. After that they refused to print it because it was too vulgar, which was great because it made me realize that I didn’t want to print it where I worked. It could’ve gotten me into a lot of trouble. We ended up printing it from a Waynesville newspaper.”
Dave: “Michele had great Photoshop skills and she wanted to have a centerfold in every issue. She also liked putting people’s heads on other people’s bodies. She did all of the design and layouts for the paper.”
Michele: “On that first issue Shiniqua was the managing editor, Charles was credited as Publicity Leech and a bunch of other friends contributed. Seth Stuart did illustrations. Liz [Allen] was there too, she had the title of Duchess. There were only six of us to begin with, women mostly, but we used a lot of pseudonyms.”
Part 4: Enter Many Unreliable Narrators
Gnome de Ploom: “After that first issue came out we got a huge reaction from readers. Lots of people wanted to write or just to hang out with us.”
Shiniqua: “By the third issue we were getting new people at the meetings every week. People who were coming just to hang out and pitch and people who were coming prepared with pieces already written.”
Dave: “When I first approached Disclaimer as a writer it was at one of those Tuesday night meetings. I had brought three very long humor articles. I didn’t have a computer at the time so I had spent a few afternoons at the public library getting those together. The writer’s room at Woodfin Place was such an inviting environment and everyone involved with the paper was surprisingly supportive. After workshopping my articles, Michele told me that she wanted me to be a regular contributor. I was given the position of Action Rocker on the staff page. As for my three articles: one was printed, one was forgotten and one made everyone laugh hysterically but was deemed too offensive to ever go in … although we kept it around just in case.”
Jake Frankel: “I'll always remember the day 10 years ago when Michele handed me the first issue of Disclaimer. I was wandering around the Lexington Avenue Arts and Fun Festival. I immediately thought to myself, ‘I want to write for this paper.’ I was just out of college, underemployed and interested in journalism. I grew up in Asheville and knew the town's eccentricities. I had a hyper-sarcastic sense of humor. It was a perfect match. I had never heard of The Onion. I thought the idea of a local satire and entertainment publication was completely unique and brilliant. I emailed over a couple attempts at parody articles and got a response from Shiniqua, basically rejecting them but encouraging me to keep trying.”
Name Not Cleared to Print: “When Dave introduced himself to me as Action Rocker, it took all I had to keep from rolling my eyes. He told me, ‘If you want to get involved with The Disclaimer then tonight is the night. We’re going to press tomorrow and we’re way short on material so we’re … you know … cramming.’ So there it was, my big break, my chance to turn all this bitterness and sarcasm and smart assery into a living breathing piece of literary art.”
Cary Goff: "In 2004 I was living in Atlanta and submitted an article to Disclaimer because of an ad I saw in the IWANNA. I was moving to Asheville and thought maybe they’d pay money. I thought more than likely it was a scam or some vanity press kind of thing but figured, ‘What the hell, couldn’t hurt.’ I exchanged emails with Tom and they took my stuff. I moved to Asheville and lived here for about a month and asked a friend (blogger and now Council member Gordon Smith) if he’d ever heard of Disclaimer and he said yes. Then I asked him if he had ever read an Ask Arnold. He said yes. I told him that was me. Don’t think he believed me. So after about three months of submitting things, I learned it was a real thing, or real(ish), except for the money."
Tom Scheve: “Nine years ago I was drifting through Asheville when I met Michele. It occurred to me that I could live on the couch in the Disclaimer office without paying rent, sleep with the publisher and drive her Jaguar into the ground so long as I kept making up little stories for the newspaper, and that was the last time I had an idea. Sometimes we’ve called it ‘The Asheville Disclaimer;’ other times, just ‘Asheville Disclaimer.’”
Part 5: Part Five
Dave: “The fact that we had a working office, a lounge and an actual writers’ room was kind of essential to the paper in the early years. Most of our best stuff came from just hanging out together and joking around. Whenever somebody said something that caught her ear, Michele would turn around from her work station where she was working on layouts and ads and Photoshop gags and say, ‘That’s got to be a story — somebody write that down!’”.
Pierre: “Stories got assigned like it was a real writer’s room. We had an open-door policy at the office so we usually had people hanging out who were there just to drink, smoke and foster conversation. Luckily we had work stations right there so if an idea was bandied about one of us could just run to a computer and start getting it down.”
Jake: “Writing good parody is hard. You have to be able to write straight news, and then tweak it just so. Often, you have to have a deep understanding of what you're writing about, in order to be able to have a sense of how to make it funny.”
Name Not Cleared to Print: “When I first walked in there was a long, wood paneled room with a conference table, several empty pizza boxes, an un-chilled, two-thirds-empty beer keg, old shoes, banana peels, wigs, old issues of MAD magazine and overflowing ashtrays.”
Michele: “A lot of our advertisers would pay us in merchandise; some of our favorites were Rosetta’s, Bedtyme Stories and the Costume Shoppe. We always had extra costumes lying around the office. On our first anniversary, Ron Ogle brought us a framed blueprint of the Buncombe County lock-up which ended up on our wall.”
Shiniqua: “When Henry Rollins was in town, somebody took a story from an issue that wasn’t out yet. It ended up going into the next issue. That person also took the current issue which had the movie poster for Gulf War 2. He signed it ‘Why me?’ and we hung it up in the office.”
Rebecca Sulock (former music editor): “Somehow Whitney Shroyer and I got backstage to interview Jeff Tweedy of Wilco when they played the Orange Peel. Shroyer had the scathing and wonderful ‘Dr. Filth’s Personality Profile’ column. I was drunk and balked and effed up the entire interview, but blessedly Whitney jumped in and wowed Tweedy with his prowess. We were passing notes backstage to get the interview. I don’t know why Tweedy let us back there, except I think that was during his pill-heavy phase.”
Part 6: Those Long Nights
Dave: “The night before publication was always an all-nighter. At times we had huge arguments about what should or shouldn’t go in or about how a specific subject should be handled. I think those disputes usually ended up benefiting the paper in general.”
Pierre: “One night we stayed up till dawn trying to figure out the centerfold. It was April so we did all of these silly spreads with an Easter Bunny costume that we had on hand and we tried to work in a tax man but nothing worked. At the last minute Michele had the idea for a simple picture of the Vance Monument with the First Amendment quoted next to it. The monument had, at the time, been barricaded to protestors. It was brilliant and hugely popular with the readers. We saw that centerfold posted randomly all over town that month.”
Dave: “It was not at all unusual for us to submit the final document at 7:20 a.m. if the printer needed it by 7:30. The all night cramming, writing, re-writing sessions were a regular monthly thing.”
Rebecca: “I’d leave the office at 7 a.m. after smoking a thousand cigarettes all night long and see these yuppie joggers hoofing by, all early rising and healthy, and just curse them.”
Jake: “I ended up becoming the entertainment editor, which was filled with fun and interesting learning experiences. Being able to play a part in so many different parts of putting out a paper — writing, editing, layout, ad sales, photos — set the stage for so many of the things I did throughout the rest of the decade, including the job I now have as a reporter for The Mountain Xpress.”
Part 7: Shenanigans Aplenty
Michele: “We always liked to reward the thorough reader. Even our fine print and ads had jokes in them. We would have ticker-tape running across the top of the entire paper that would tell a story or give an actual disclaimer for the interior content.”
Dave: “Most people didn’t even notice that the ticker-tape was there but if you read the whole thing then you would get one big, long story that had an actual disclaimer at its core.”
Jake: “One of the funniest, weirdest experiences I ever had at the Disclaimer was going on a ‘win a date with the Disclaimer’ contest. Only one person entered and she went on a date with the entire staff. Lucky for us, she was brilliant, funny and beautiful. Four of us took her on a big group date to a Mexican restaurant. Then she wrote about the experience and made fun of us all in the next issue. A few months later, she called and tried to get us all to lie in order to be on The Jerry Springer Show with her, pretending we were all mixed up in some bizarre incestuous love quadrangle.”
Michele: “We had a regular advice columnist called the Reverend Gramm who anonymously sent his really funny parody article in each month. Everyone on the staff had a guess that it was really Cecil Bothwell, but we never found out.”
Dave: “At a certain point we became a kind of community forum for general frustration or things that certain people thought we should be aware of. If somebody sent us something unsolicited, whether it was a rant or an arts and entertainment review, chances are that if it was well written, it would go in.
Pierre: “There was one month where, for whatever reason, we just couldn’t get the issue together, so we decided instead to post fliers in all of the places we normally set out papers saying that it had been halted by authorities at the press for further investigation.”
Jake: “One of the weirdest interviews I ever did was with ‘Johnny,’ a notorious homeless man known for aggressive panhandling and singing ‘80s hair metal songs, especially by Guns & Roses. After the interview he tried to force me into driving him somewhere and buying him crack. He got really mad when I refused. He forgave me when the article came out. I ran into him walking around town holding a copy, pointing to his photos and screaming at random people walking down the sidewalk that he was ‘famous!’" Apparently, he was also obnoxiously bragging about the coverage to a bunch of people who work downtown who he had pissed off over the years, walking into their shops and screaming at them about how he was famous and invincible now. I know this because we heard from several of those people in subsequent days who informed us that they would no longer be advertising with us.”
Michele: “The first parody we did was of Ishmael the local tagger, who is now a prominent artist. I was also tying it in with Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael, which was about a talking philosophical gorilla. Someone at Malaprop’s got that issue to him and he wrote us a really nice funny letter and sent us a bunch of posters and some gorilla swag.”
Part 9: But What About…?
Pierre: After several years as a monthly newsprint magazine we had decided to call it quits. Fortunately Jon Elliston, who was managing editor of Mountain Xpress at the time, wouldn’t hear of it.
Jon Elliston: “Hello.”
Michele: “Jon asked us to join the Xpress in 2005 and we’ve been a feature there since then.”
Dave: “After that Disclaimer was able to go on in print without the added stress of drumming up advertising and the cost of printing.”
Jon: “When the Disclaimer folks decided, some years ago, to cease publishing the standalone, full version of their paper, it felt like Asheville was on the verge of losing something special. Xpress managed to start a good discussion with the Scheves about incorporating a page of Disclaimer material in Xpress.
Tom, Michele and their cronies nailed it from the beginning, and the Disclaimer page quickly became one of Xpress’ most-popular (and simultaneously most-reviled) features. Within a couple of years it was ranking as both the favorite and least-favorite Xpress feature in the annual Best of WNC poll.
You know how sometimes people don’t realize that The Onion is a satirical publication, and they’ll pass stories around the internet as though they were the genuine article? Some of my strongest memories from the early years of the Disclaimer page involved similar instances of confusion. One week I got a call from enraged older reader. “How dare you publish a picture of our mayor in a bathing suit!” she said. “It’s outrageous that you’ve violated her privacy like this.” (Disclaimer had Photoshopped a picture of Mayor Bellamy, putting her in a bikini and draping her with a sash that said “Ingles.”)
Another caller was quite concerned to read in Disclaimer about a radical update and revision of the Cherokee outdoor drama Unto These Hills. He’d worked on earlier productions of the show, and was dismayed to hear about the changes. He was quite relieved to learn it was all made up.”
The entirety of the Asheville Disclaimer’s back issues have been donated, scanned in and are now available at Pack Library.