In case you missed it, Stephen Colbert got into a bit of trouble on Twitter this past week due to a tweet that went out over a Comedy Central controlled Twitter account for his show. Things got very ugly very quickly, including calls for his job and the hashtag #CancelCorbert.
Let me start by saying I am not here to defend the tweet. I think we can all agree it crossed a line, at least for Twitter (some argue it was acceptable in context during the show; having not seen it, I can’t take a stand either way). That having been said, I do think there is something to be said for a wider context that is being ignored, one that has value and validity beyond the scope of a single show: the nature of comedy itself.
I’ve been writing comedy in one medium or another for almost twenty years now, and I’ve always kept two rules in mind. The first is a joke that goes all the way back to vaudeville: “dying is easy; comedy is hard.” Everyone thinks being funny is easy right up until they try it. Even telling a joke someone else came up with takes timing, skill, and panache; being original and funny is exponentially harder. The second rule is one I learned back in college: the more offensive the joke is, the funnier it needs to be. Let’s not kid ourselves, there’s hardly anything in this world that isn’t offensive that is laugh out loud funny. Hitting the balance between “bust a gut” and “bust you in the mouth” is difficult, and it’s easy to miss the mark.
There are other complicating factors as well. Comedy is a moving target for a lot of reasons. One of them is that societal mores are always in flux. What was hilarious ten years ago is kind of uncomfortable today and will be outright taboo next week. The same thing happens in reverse. What’s more, comedy often plays a role in that social change, pushing boundaries, creating safer spaces in which we can talk openly about things that are forbidden in “polite” conversation. The down side of that is that it becomes easy to step on toes, go too far, and yes, even cross a line.
Another complicating factor is that, like it or not, comedy IS contextual. If you read a transcript of almost any performance by Bill Cosby, you might chuckle, or you might just say “I don’t see what’s so funny.” But when you watch him in action, it’s a whole different story. Pitch, tone, pacing, facial expressions, everything he does goes into his comedy. My father used to say that Chevy Chase could make him laugh just by walking into a room. Truth is he can do the same thing for me, but that doesn’t translate to Twitter.
Finally, sometimes you’re just under the gun and a bad joke gets through. It’s easy to sit back and play armchair comedian, complaining how “he should never have said that.” We’ve all done it. But how easy is it to write a half-hour of humor five nights a week? Even with a writing team, it gets exhausting. I used to do 1,000 words of humor a week, and I only lasted a couple of years with breaks every few months. The Colbert Report has been running for almost ten years, with over 1,300 episodes. That’s almost 500 hours of jokes. Is it remotely possible that a bad one might slip through now and then?
Once again, I’m not saying that nobody should be offended. It was offensive, and deliberately so. It was inappropriate for the medium, and hopefully will not be repeated. But calls to fire Colbert or cancel the show are misguided at best and opportunistic grandstanding at worst. There are better things to rage against.
There are a lot of great comedies out there, well-known and deservedly so. Dr. Strangelove, Blazing Saddles, Airplane!, even Ghostbusters are all famous for making people laugh for decades. In the wake of the passing of comedy legend Harold Ramis, I’d like to take the opportunity to spotlight a few of my favorite comedies that aren’t so widely known, but deserve to be praised just the same.
Dr. Detroit (1983) – It only seems right to start with this 80’s gem that stars Ghostbusters co-star Dan Aykroyd as a college literature professor who gets suckered into “managing” four beautiful prostitutes in Chicago. (Once again, I am not making this up.) This movie is 80’s screwball comedy at its finest, with Dan Aykroyd turning in a stellar Jekyll-and-Hyde-esque performance, only in this case it’s all an act until the final reveal. Fans of 80’s beauties will be pleased to see Donna Dixon at her finest, and a young Fran Drescher takes a turn at the risqué long before her debut on The Nanny.
The Big Hit (1998) – Coming out in the same year as The Big Lewbowski, it seemed among my friends you could only love one of the “Bigs”, and personally I have never understood how anyone can even sit through The Big Lebowski. But I digress. The Big Hit is a throwback to that 80’s screwball style, with class, gender, and role-reversals abounding throughout the film. In particular the concept of the sympathetic, pushover hitman is innovative and fun, and played with remarkable skill by Mark Wahlberg, while Lou Diamond Phillips turns in a surprisingly funny yet loathsome villain. Fans of One Crazy Summer or Better Off Dead will find a lot to like here (especially the “Trace Buster Buster”).
PCU (1994) – I know I said this was all because of Harold Ramis, and truly it was inspired by Harold Ramis, but the world is not about Harold Ramis. I only say this because I do not now nor have I ever been able to grasp the obsession some people seem to have with Animal House. There are a few good lines, but that’s it. The movie does nothing for me. Sorry, but that’s just how I feel. Maybe it’s a generational thing. As far as I’m concerned, you can keep Animal House. This is my offensive college movie of choice. Jeremy Piven as Droz represents the modern character of the “big man on campus”, slightly rumpled, disheveled, and a few years past the prime of what a college student should be. The exaggeration of the oppressive PC culture on display is (sadly) even closer to the mark today than it was when the film was first released (although nobody is spared the barb, even the protagonists). Unabashedly rude, shamelessly corrupting, and magnificently over the top, I recommend this film to anyone who can laugh at themselves.
Recently I was listening to the radio (okay, I was in the car and I happened to have the radio on) and I heard an interview with director Randy Moore about his new satire Escape from Tomorrow. It was the first I had heard of the film, which is not terribly surprising since I’ve never really been a film festival kind of guy, but I think I may end up seeing this one. It’s not that I have anything personal against the Big Mouse, it’s just that I think he made an important point in this article:
“Branding is so much a part of our culture, and it’s everywhere. And (Disney) is everywhere. They’re so ubiquitous, you can’t get away from them even if you tried… To not be able to comment or critique or parody that (ubiquity), I just think it’s morally unacceptable.”
However, in the interview I heard he also made another point that, while I think it’s important, makes me feel he missed the mark somewhat by targeting Disney specifically. He said (and I can’t seem to find the interview online, so forgive me for paraphrasing) that the theme of the film is that you can’t be happy all the time. I think that’s an excellent point, especially in an age and culture where we have lost sight of the idea of contentment and we are constantly being sold happiness in its stead. I believe Dennis Leary put it best in his stand-up routine No Cure for Cancer:
“Happiness comes in small doses folks. It’s a cigarette butt, or a chocolate chip cookie or a five second orgasm. You come, you smoke the butt, you eat the cookie, you go to sleep, wake up and go back to fucking work the next morning, THAT’S IT! End of fucking list!”
So yeah. While there’s something to be said for taking a few shots at (as Moore describes them) a “ubiquitous” company that specializes in selling happiness, I think there’s something he loses sight of: Disney is only selling what we’re buying. Yes, Disney Theme Parks™ are the Happiest Place On Earth™ (made so, I have been told by a former employee, by sucking all the happiness out of their employees, powdering it, and then sprinkling it over the park; that’s your “fairy dust”), but they don’t force anyone to go there and then whistle Zippy-Doo-Da out of their assholes a-la Clark Griswald. I think there may be more to be found in making a movie that critically examines a culture fixated on perpetual bliss, rather than the companies that strive to provide it.
Which is not to say those companies deserve to be completely let off the hook; they are a part of the culture, they help make and drive that culture, and they deserve a certain amount of grilling in the space of exploring that culture. But to single out one company for catering to the desires of people to have happiness is akin to blaming one company for Americans being obese.
As some of you may recall, I signed up for two different packages from the online service Quarterly. The first to arrive of the tandem is the Technology and Toys box, of which so far I’ve already reviewed one (which you can see here). The second arrived just last week, but with everything going on I haven’t had time to write up a proper review until now. I know, I know, just like I said to the postman, “I don’t care about your problems, I only want to know what’s in the box!” Well, here we go.
First up, I found a set of paper robots.
I have to admit, this was an awesome find for me. I can remember going to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum all the time as a kid, and while I never got anything from the gift shop, this is exactly the kind of thing I would pick up and look at longingly while my Not So Humble Mother would wait for me to figure out she wasn’t going to buy me yet another toy that was going to sit around my room untouched for weeks before she finally had to throw it out. Fortunately I’m a big boy now, and I can add this to my growing collection of toys that sits around my room unplayed with that My Not So Humble Wife never gets to throw away at all, because it’s called a “man cave” now, and I can still claim I’ll get around to putting them together someday when I just have the time and didn’t you want me to mow the lawn today?
And speaking of robot toys that are right up my alley, the next item really grabbed my attention:
Yes, that’s a tin wind-up robot. It’s only a couple inches tall, but that just makes it that much easier for it to scoot across the table. I especially love that I got the one named “Ima-Robot”. This is exactly the sort of goofy little toy that appeals to me, and it went right into my kitsch collection in my office along with my Pip-Boy Bobble Head and Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.
The next item in the box was only vaguely appealing to me, but at least I can understand why they included it in the Technology and Toys box, and My Not So Humble Wife is quite fond of it. It’s…. sand. Yes, you read that right.
In case you’re wondering “what could this stuff be?” I’ll tell you right now it’s exactly what it says on the label. It’s sand. It never dries out, it’s not too damp, and it’s just like playing with sand at the beach. I personally found it entertaining for about 30 seconds, but My Not So Humble Wife is a notorious fidget and it has kept her busy for hours, so looks like we have a winner with this one.
Alas, the same could not be said for the final item in the box.
Yes, it’s a stylus for all your electronic gadgets. Honestly this is the sort of thing I would expect to buy on my own if I felt I needed one, and if I don’t feel a need for one I would never use one even if someone game me one. *cough* *cough* The problem is I see this going one of two ways. Even though I have exceptionally fat fingers for a man of my slender build, the problem is that either I will find it incredibly useless and will throw it away within a week, or I will get used to it and then I will lose it within a day or so of deciding I have no idea how I ever lived without it. I just don’t see the win here. I also don’t see how this relates to “Toys”, although it’s definitely “Technology”.
So here’s the final verdict: all told a cool box this month, but overall I still didn’t find enough here to justify the $50 price tag, even accounting for someone going to the trouble of curating all the items for me. It just doesn’t have enough of the “fun” or “cool” factor to say “I don’t mind paying extra to have someone pick this stuff out”, nor is there sufficient value in the goodies present to say I got enough to be fully satisfied, although it came a lot closer this time than last time. Your mileage may differ, and if you see enough stuff you like I still recommend checking it out. Also if you think you might like any of the other options, of which there are many, sign up now, because more than a few are sold out (including some of the ones I was thinking of switching to). You can sign up for the waiting list, but three months is already long enough to wait between packages. Don’t wait any longer than you have to.
Get ready haters, I’m about to give you yet another reason to call me a self-involved, entitled, culturally insensitive, ignorant, tone-deaf dudebro. So here it is: if I hear the word “appropriation” misused or overused one more time, I’m going to appropriate a can of whup-ass and start spraying uppercuts. (See what I just did there?)
Here’s the thing: I understand that historically Caucasians (I do so hate the term “white people”) have taken credit for creating entire cultural movements that were actually created by other groups, whether it be people from another country or oppressed minorities within their own countries. Whether it be art, food, music, dance, or pretty much any form of creative or personal expression, if it’s been done by someone a white person (and usually a white man) came along, repackaged it, and sold it as something “new”. And lots of people are still understandably angry about that. Add onto that a history of assimilation (read: be forced to do as we do or you’ll get nothing and worse) and the flames burn even hotter.
But then something strange happened: somewhere along the line, and I’m not sure exactly where, people of all ethnicities and backgrounds started getting credit for their original creations, and we even started going back and correcting the dominant historical narrative. There’s still work to do, and the debate about who originated what is likely to rage for decades if not centuries, but that’s actually normal (people still argue about who “actually” wrote Shakespeare’s plays). This extends beyond individuals to entire elements of society, such as African American culture, Asian culture, and “start-up culture”, and even localized geographical elements, such as Portland culture and Silicon Valley culture.
What many individuals seem to be missing in all of this, however, is that despite the deficiencies of the past, culture does not exist in a vacuum. It influences and is influenced by the society and cultures around it. Pop culture influences African American culture, which influences start up culture, which influences Portland culture, which influences Asian culture, which influences Silicon Valley culture, which in turn influence pop culture, and they all influence each other. When African Americans adopt some element of pop culture (whether individually or as a group) there is no great outcry of “appropriation!”, and yet as soon as some element of African American culture (or any other minority culture) becomes a part of the dominant paradigm, there is an immediate rush to cry foul.
And this is where I have a problem. This failure to acknowledge the intertwined and interactive nature of culture (and note I do not say modern culture, I mean culture across all time and all places) is a fallacy. The problem of appropriation (as I understand it) was not and is not one of the dominant culture being influenced by other cultures, it is that it tries to subsume those cultures, to take what it wants without even acknowledging that those other cultures ever even existed. Today I don’t see that happening so much as I see a blending of cultures, of people being inspired to try new things, to make something a part of their cultural lexicon that wasn’t there before.
Does that mean they have a complete grasp of the entirety of what it is they are exploring or are delving into? No, it doesn’t. In the same way that an artist may see a painting by another artist without understanding the entirety of the subject matter, the depth and composition of it, or even the cultural significance of it because she lacks the necessary referents, and yet still be inspired by it and tries to incorporate some elements of it into her own work. Just as there’s a fine line between tribute and plagiarism, so there is a fine line between inspiration and appropriation. But a knee-jerk reaction that assumes every cultural movement is an act of bad faith is simply a reflection of itself.
Everyone loves a good episode of “Before They Were Stars”, but all they ever show you in those are things that (when you get right down to it) are pretty boring. I mean really, how many times can you look at someone’s high school yearbook photos and think “wow, [insert famous person] was a regular Joe just like me!” Or even worse, watch one of those insipid “child star” commercials where someone’s parents got them to say “Mommy, I want Endorsed Product for lunch!”
But you know what is fun? Digging up those lesser known films they did early in their careers and seeing who was really a star even back then, especially when the movie was… how can I phrase this delicately… not up to the caliber of the cast. Here are some of my favorites.
Legend (1985) – Coming off of Risky Business but before his major role in Top Gun cemented him as THE leading man for all time, Tom Cruise needed a big role, something that would really showcase his talent. And who better to star with than the inestimable Tim Curry? What could possibly go wrong? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Legend. This fantasy film is so over the top, so invested with its own self-importance, it’s impossible to describe. The amazing thing about it is, despite everything that should be wrong with it, from the script to the storyline to the sheer “glitter” of it all, it somehow works. Tom Cruise manages to bring his trademark charisma to the role of Jack, and Tim Curry is brilliantly malevolent and at the same time somehow empathetic as the Darkness (but then, he’s Tim Curry).
Hackers (1995) – Some movies just can’t help churning out stars. Long before 1999’s Girl, Interrupted put her on most people’s radar, Angelina Jolie was burning up the screen in this delightful film that IMDB calls an “action/crime/drama” and every real-life hacker I’ve ever known has called a comedy. Either way, Jolie brought amazing presence and style to the role of Kate, helping to boost this slick, stylish film above its otherwise ridiculous premise. T.V. fans may also be surprised to see Johnny Lee Miller, who plays Sherlock Holmes on CBS’s Elementary as protagonist Dade Murphy. Matthew Lillard from FX’s The Bridge plays a major supporting role as Cereal Killer, as well as establishing one of the best jokes, intentional or not, I have ever seen in film history (to get the rest of the joke, go watch Scream).
Stand By Me (1986) – What would you say if I offered you a movie starring River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Kiefer Sutherland, Richard Dreyfuss, and John Cusack? How about I include that it was based on a novella by Stephen King? Want more? OK, just for you I’ll throw in Wil Wheaton, Lord of the Internet and God of Nerds. And all of them (ok, maybe not Richard Dreyfuss) look so young. This is early in their careers, the first big role for almost all of them, but you could never prove it by me. The power and intensity of this coming of age story is enormous, and the emotional gravity of it will leave you drained by the end. It’s not exactly an uplifting tale (did I mention it was based on a Stephen King story?), but it is surprisingly reassuring. You won’t want to watch it again right away, but you’ll find yourself coming back to look at it again.
I used to read a lot of web comics a while ago, back before I had more important and useful things to do with my free time (like writing this fantastic blog for your pleasure and amusement), and inevitably the same scenario would evolve. Whether it took a few months or a few years (and it was usually closer to a few months), the web comic writer would manage to drop a post, miss a deadline, forget to put something up, or just be unable to come up with something, and they would usually substitute some variation on the “sorry, my bad” post.
This post would occasionally be in the form of a quick sketch, although surprisingly often it would take the form of a lengthy written tirade. Sometimes there wouldn’t even be a gesture at an explanation, just an absence where entertainment used to be, and if you were lucky it would appear again the next time there was a scheduled update, with nobody the wiser as to what had happened. The times when an explanation was forthcoming would occasionally be accompanied with promises of making the next deadline (which might or might not happen), and other times there would be the dreaded “indefinite hiatus”.
Almost universally in these instances the artist attempt some sort of justification. The two most common flavors depended on whether the artist in question considered themselves an amateur or a professional, and to be honest I don’t know which one bothered me more. In the case of the amateur, they would usually invoke “real life”. This one goes like this: “Hi everybody, I’m really sorry to do this to you, but the truth is I’m not a professional cartoonist. This isn’t my day job, and I don’t get paid to do this. I do this for fun, as a hobby and as a way to relax, and I just haven’t found it very relaxing lately.”
My special issue with these guys is that in most cases these “amateurs” have a tip jar right there on the front screen of their comic, usually with one of their characters being all cute and begging for money. Now I may not have to pay for content, but the fact is you are asking to get paid for this gig, so to turn around and say you aren’t getting paid is at least a little disingenuous. A lack of success in achieving your goals is not the same thing as not having tried (otherwise “attempted murder” wouldn’t be a crime). Assuming anybody actually did hit the tip jar means now you’re a liar as well.
Which brings me to the “professionals”. This is their day job (or they at least are trying to make it one), and their approach is something like this: “Hey everybody, sorry, I feel really bad about this but I got nothing today. I’, really trying to make a living at this, and I feel really bad about this, and I know I’m really letting my fans down, and I should be doing better, etc.” They then go on to beat themselves up for another few paragraphs. Here’s the hard truth they don’t want to hear: I don’t care. All those lovely “fans” who write nice things like “hey, take the time you need, we just want a good story”, and those lovely things? They are enabling your first world problems.
The next issue I have in both of these cases is the implication that somehow “real life” suddenly “caught up” to them. Sorry, not buying it. Short of jail, hospital, or morgue, there are very few events that you couldn’t have seen coming and planned ahead for. More likely you ran out of inspiration or got lazy, and the sad fact that you spent time writing out a letter justifying that rather than making at least some attempt to put something up speaks volumes about how you feel about your art. Having spent more than a year churning out over 500 words three times a week, I’ve learned something: creating content, even crap content, is hard. Creating QUALITY content? That’s damn near impossible. But it’s the gig we chose, and nobody forced it on us.
Whether you’re doing is as a hobby and you hope other people enjoy it, or you’re trying to make a living at it, it’s your choice. You decided this is what you’re going to do, this is what you’re going to invest your time and your effort in, and that’s what you should do. If you decide to abandon it, at least have the courtesy to leave a note on the door on your way out in case you did have a fan who drops by now and then, but please, no more self-indulgent whining about how you’re just not able to come up with anything today.
If you’re sick or you just don’t have it in you, hey, that’s fine. It happens. Get somebody to fill in for you. Make sure you have a buffer. If nothing else, sometimes you just have to make it up as you go along and hope something comes to you.
Like I just did.