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.
I’ve been taking some time off this week, and as always that means I’ve been exposing myself to the good, the bad, and the ugly of the entertainment world so that you, my loyal readers, won’t have to. I’ve got a trio of movies for you this time, ranging from family friendly fare to art house Shakespeare, and theaters-only to cable-exclusives.
First up is the Joss Whedon re-imagining of the Shakespeare classic Much Ado About Nothing. I’ve got a huge man-crush on Whedon, but I also have an undying love for Shakespeare that is as intense as My Not So Humble Wife’s passionate hatred for him (which she can even express in iambic pentameter). Considering my strong and mixed feelings about Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 Much Ado (I loved most of it, but there were some serious casting problems, especially Keanu Reeves as Don John), I approached this film with some joy and much trepidation. The fact that it was shot in twelve days during what amounted to a vacation in the middle of making The Avengers added a certain amount of uncertainty as well.
Fortunately there was nothing to be concerned about and everything to cheer for (even the wife liked it). The entire movie played smoothly, with a cool hipster-jazz influenced feel. Alexis Denisof as Benedick and Amy Acker as Beatrice revive the on screen chemistry that long-time Whedon fans will remember from later seasons of Angel. The dialogue is fast, sharp, and well played, and the staging is perfect. Fran Kranz turns in a solid performance as Claudio, bringing a believable yet charismatic youth and impetuousness to the character without being emo, and Jillian Morgese is charming and reserved as Hero.
My personal favorite surprise was Nathan Fillion as Dogberry. I have never really understood nor appreciated the humor of this character before, particularly since every time I have seen the show Dogberry is overplayed and chewing the scenery (Michael Keaton, I’m looking squarely at you). Fillion brings a surprisingly subdued turn to the role, and by underplaying it actually makes it much funnier, as well as giving his fellow ensemble members a chance to shine.
While I’m on the subject of ensembles, I may as well talk about Pitch Perfect. Yes, I watched this film, mostly because My Not So Humble Sister said it was funny. I hate admitting she’s right about anything (see the part about her being my sister), but I have to admit it was pretty good. It’s about what you would expect, but there are some ways that it manages to rise above itself. In addition to having some really stellar a cappella performances, the film makes a few inside jokes subverting the very form of film it is (my favorite being when Beca (Anna Kendrick) mocks movies that have the exact plotline of the movie she’s in). Another great bit of comedic subversion in the film is Fat Amy, played by Rebel Wilson. Rather than being the typical shy fat girl who needs to develop self-confidence, “discover herself” and open up, Amy is played as a strong, confident woman from the start. She also has plenty of well-sculpted young men keeping her company in her palatial estate over Spring Break, another nice change from expected norms.
The film does unfortunately have some downsides. They play to the lesbian stereotype more than a little, and there is more than a little bit of gross-out humor (some of which is so far over the top I couldn’t even watch). The plot is also so derivative that, as previously mentioned, they felt the need to mock it in the movie. That only gets you so far.
All that having been said, if you’re looking for something relatively light, relatively fun, and not in any way taxing, Pitch Perfect definitely hits the mark.
I also finally got to see Puss in Boots. I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while, because Puss has become about the only character from Shrek that I can watch for more than five minutes without feeling the need to punch something. It’s not that I don’t like the Shrek franchise, it’s just that I get tired of the same joke after hearing it enough times, and apparently that number of times is two (hence why I can’t stand Shrek the Third, and the less said about the abysmal Shrek the Halls the better). Lucky for me, ditching Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy seems to be exactly what this franchise needed.
Puss in Boots is a sweet, fun, lighthearted romp. It’s family-friendly, but I wouldn’t hold that against it. It’s got a lot of laughs for pretty much everybody, and they cut back the cast to something a bit more manageable to they can really enjoy and play with the idea of the characters again rather than every character just being a one trick pony (or a one note donkey, as the case may be). If the plot was a little predictable, that’s only because (a) they actually laid everything out in such a way that nobody can cry foul later in the film, and (b) the target market for this film probably doesn’t have two digits in their age. If you can accept that, you’ll have a lot of laughs, maybe even enjoy a heartwarming moment (it’s DreamWorks, how can you not?), and then go to bed like good little boys and girls.
I am the internet’s worst nightmare.
The other night I was listening to Marketplace on NPR (I love Kai Ryssdal, I may have mentioned this before) and I heard a fantastic commentary on the issue of spoilers. Beth Teitell made an excellent case about how we’re all setting ourselves up for spoiler disappointment while at the same time becoming more sensitive to spoilers.
I am the worst of the lot.
Just the other week I finally watched Jekyll (2007) from the BBC on Netflix. Note the year on that one. If someone had told me any of the salient plot points before I watched it, I would have been beyond infuriated, but really, it’s been around for over five years. How could they know? More importantly, why should they care?
This is typical for me. I watch movies months after they leave the theater (with rare exceptions), and I’m usually several weeks behind in my TV show watching. I’ve been known to run away from conversations I’m not even party to with my hands over my ears screaming “NO SPOILERS!” like a lunatic, and that’s just in real life. On the internet I’m far worse.
But the truth is we can’t avoid spoilers, nor can we reasonably expect to. Part of the fun of pop culture is that it’s popular (hence the “pop”), and we want to talk about it. Denying people that just so we can enjoy things on our own schedule is selfish. At the same time, expecting everyone to be able to invest their entire lives in keeping up with everything worthwhile all the time is just silly, too. It’s not like we’re still in the age of single-screen movie theaters, three TV channels, and nobody to talk to but the people in our small towns.
Therefore, I am declaring a Free Spoiler Zone.
It works like this: there is a statute of limitations on the right to declare “NO SPOILERS!” Once the statute of limitations has passed, it is incumbent on each individual to either be in the know or to guard themselves; prior to that proper decorum requires the asking of “Have you seen…” or a similar inquiry before discussing anything, as well as a reasonable warning to anyone joining the conversation. This should help alleviate the distress being caused by our over-saturated, media hyped world, and allow us all some peace.
The rules I suggest are as follows:
1. An absolute moratorium on any communications within 24 hours of an event. Don’t even talk about it; you don’t know who is in earshot. I don’t even want to hear “OMFG THAT WAS SO GOOD!” or “Meh, this week’s episode was okay.” Let me find out for myself, especially if I’m in a different time zone.
2. Barring sporting events, reality TV, or other “real time” entertainment, any electronic communication for the first week must be preceded by the phrase “SPOILER ALERT”. If it’s real time entertainment, after 24 hours you take your chances, but please, don’t be a jerk; if you know someone TiVo’d it, don’t ruin the big game.
3. For all other TV shows, every in-person conversation must include “Have you seen…” or some other socially acceptable form of spoiler alert for one month. After that, you need to either clear out your DVR or climb out from under the rock.
4. For movies you get one month of nobody says nothing. Then all bets are off.
5. Actual news events are exempt from these rules. News should be shared.
6. Feel free to share political shows, commentary, debates, et al to your heart’s content. You deserve what you get.
While I am willing to negotiate on the length of time involved in each rule, I truly believe that following these rules will improve our lives. Everyone will have a free and fair chance to enjoy their quality entertainment without fear of having it ruined, while at the same time encouraging and enhancing the sort of interpersonal relationships we’re losing for fear of not being able to share our love of the great and diverse culture we all enjoy.
However, I am declaring one category of entertainment completely off-limits to spoilers (by special request from My Not So Humble Wife): books. I actually have to agree with her on this one, for a lot of reasons. People read at different speeds, borrow books from each other, and most of all we want to encourage more literacy, not less. Besides, I haven’t finished the Illiad yet, and I can’t wait to find out how it ends.
So I finally saw the finale of “The Voice” the other day, and I’d like to start by saying congratulations to Cassadee Pope. I picked her as an early favorite to win, although she wasn’t necessarily my favorite. I liked Terry McDermott, although he had an off night in the finale, and Nicholas David was also very good. Amanda Brown also caught my attention with “Dream On” and “Here I Go Again“, and I personally thought she went home too soon.
So why did it take me almost two weeks to get around to watching the finally? Well, that would be because I watch it On Demand. Specifically because I watch it with Verizon On Demand. I wanted to be very clear about this, because I don’t know for sure that all the vitriol I am about to unleash is applicable to every cable and satellite provider, although past experience with other systems would lead me to believe it is. Still, I want to be as fair as possible.
Once upon a time, I loved On Demand. It was just like watching TV, only without the commercials. I could also pause, rewind, fast forward, anything I wanted. Sure, I was paying a small fortune for access to these features, but I was willing to pay it, because what I was getting made it worthwhile. It was like having a DVR that I didn’t have to set up (although we have one of those too, I just don’t use it).
Then something went wrong. First it was little things. The pause button started timing out on programs. Annoying, but hey, it happens with DVDs sometimes. But then we couldn’t just restart where we left off, we would have to restart from the beginning. And then suddenly we can’t use features like fast forward. Uh-oh, this is ominous. Before you can say “screw the customer”, we’re getting commercials in our On Demand programming.
Oh, and the price of our cable bill keeps going up. But that’s kind of like death and taxes.
So this extra service that we’re paying for (a little more every month, it seems) is getting less valuable every month. Now, some of you might say, “why not just use the DVR? You said you have one, right?” Well, here’s how they screw us on that one, too. You need a separate box for every room, and we’re already paying extra just to have a basic cable box in our bedroom, which is where my wife and I watch TV. So we have to pay extra to watch TV when we want, and we have to pay extra to watch it where we want, AND we have to pay extra to watch without commercials, which we thought we were doing in the first place.
Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that TV isn’t free. All entertainment comes at a price, and that entertainment needs to be paid for. Broadcast TV (which traditionally came free to people’s home via, well, broadcast) was paid for by advertising. But cable (and it’s bastard stepchild, satellite) is not paid for exclusively through advertising. In fact, I’d like to know exactly what percentage of it is paid for each year in advertising revenue, because I know I’m paying a hefty sum just to get access to the most basic channels. (I’ll gladly pay the extra for HBO and Showtime, thanks.)
I’d like to say that they get away with this because they have a monopoly, and there is some truth to that. But there’s a deeper truth to it: they get away with it because I put up with it. I keep coming back for the “higher” internet speeds (read “please don’t choke my downloads”), I keep coming back for the “On Demand television” (none of the convenience, all of the commercials), I keep coming back for the crappy service and the “customer service line” whose responses are less “how can I help you” and more “sounds like your problem”.
I used to buy entire seasons of shows on DVD and watch them that way. Sure, it put me way behind everyone else in the office, running from water coolers with my ears covered screaming “NO SPOILERS! NO SPOILERS!” for months at a time, but it’s getting to that point again anyway. At least back then I didn’t have to watch commercials in the meantime. I’d consider switching to watching TV on the internet, but they’re usually a season behind AND have commercials, plus I still have Verizon internet. So if anyone has a better idea I’m all ears.
Until then, don’t tell me who won Season 4 of “The Voice” until at least a month after it’s over.
For those who might be interested, I’m taking a class on rhetoric and digital media, and as a class project had to create a piece of digital art. I decided to do a digital poem that was a riff on Taroko Gorge by Nick Montfort. It’s my own mash-up of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, rather appropriately titled The Dark Side of the Wall. Fell free to have a look, critique it, love it, hate it, just tell me what you think in the comments.
It’s not like I’m some sort of newb: my first gaming console was an Atari 2600. I’ve played most of the consoles since then, and I’ve owned every iteration of Playstation and Xbox that has ever existed, as well as most of the Nintendo consoles. I’ve had a computer since x86 was even a designation, and “baud” was a word. I get gaming. Believe me. I’ve loved it, hated it, and been thrilled and frustrated by it. I just don’t think gaming gets me anymore.
For those of you who only started playing video games in the mid to late nineties (or heaven forbid, since Facebook and cell phones made video games acceptable), let me describe to you what gaming used to be like. You would sit in a room, usually by yourself, and you would put the game in. It would start up, you would play for anywhere from a few minutes to a few days (depending on your endurance and the size of your bladder), and then you would pass out. If you were really lucky and you were playing the right kind of game, you might have a friend to play with. If you were unlucky, you had a sibling you had to share with (hi, Jen). That was about it.
Somewhere along the line somebody got the idea of creating multiplayer games in a very real way. I’m not clear on exactly when this happened (I blame Doom), because they didn’t dominate the world of gaming for a long time. They coexisted, out there but not overshadowing traditional gaming. At least to the best of my knowledge not before Everquest came along (colloquially known as Evercrack). I lost a lot of good friends to Evercrack, mostly because I just never saw the appeal. It seemed more like a job than a game, spending all of your time “grinding” (that would be doing senseless and boring tasks for in-game currency to buy in-game items or achieve other in-game objectives) so you could get to a point where you could, I dunno, play the game. And it was always a matter of keeping up with the Joneses.
Then I discovered City of Heroes. This is a massively mutiplayer online game in which you get to play a super hero, and it was tailor made for me. My wife became a gaming widow for about a year. She finally got me back when she lured me into World of Warcraft, which had taken over from Everquest as the fantasy MMO equivalent of crack. She got tired of it; I didn’t. At least, not for a long time. It took a lot of grinding, foul language, and downright immaturity that I would be shocked to hear from an 11-year old boy to finally get me to quit. Two years of that later I finally went cold turkey. I’ve been clean for about six months now, and I’ve discovered something: there’s no games left for me.
See, here’s the problem. I never liked first person shooters (Doom, I’m looking at you again). I just never got the whole “twitch-twitch-flinch-twitch-this is fun!” thing. And I’m done with MMOs. It’s not the games; it’s the players. I just can’t tolerate their bullshit. For the right game I’ll pay every month (although that did grate on me, I won’t lie), but as City of Heroes found out, the free to play model isn’t enough to keep you going when the content isn’t there and the jerk-to-fun ratio is jacked up to 11.
But when I go to look for a nice, simple game, something like the games of my youth, they all seem to be gone. Note I didn’t say “easy”. Anyone who wants to claim that Metroid or even Super Mario World was easy has either a short memory or way too much time or their hands. But I don’t want to have to invest three days learning the control scheme. I don’t want to have to do mental and physical gymnastics to control my character (Wii, Kinnect, I’m looking at you this time). Even the franchises I used to love have confused added complexity for improvement. I loved Civilization. Civilization II may well have been the pinnacle of game making. Civ III was so convoluted and confusing I couldn’t even finish a game on the easiest setting. I hear they’re up to 5 now. Good for them. I wouldn’t even give them 5 bucks for it.
How about a basic platformer with some deep story? I’d love to see a great RPG that I can sit down and play for hours, not sit down and watch for hours a la Final Fantasy 13, which was so painful I couldn’t get through the first two hours, which translated to roughly fifteen minutes of actual gameplay. How about instead of adding bad multiplayer, you take the time to program the game such that I can choose between playing it FPS or strategic (Fallout 3, I’m talking to you). How about just once, you deliver a game experience that maybe isn’t all about the hottest graphics and coolest sound, and instead rewards me with gameplay so compelling, so rich, so intuitive and fun that I want to come back again and again, and I’m actually willing to pay twenty dollars more for extra content, because the original game was JUST THAT GOOD?
Oh, and how about not forcing me to be online just to play a single player game, Blizzard? ‘Cause, yeah, that’s bullshit.
I had an interesting conversation the other day with a friend at work that later spread (rather ironically) to some fellow coworkers. It was on a topic of grave (pardon the pun) importance in this day and age: if it was the zombie apocalypse, would you want to be the first person turned into a zombie or the last person left on Earth after everyone else had been turned into a zombie? Think about that one for a second. Go watch a few episodes of The Walking Dead if you think it would be instructive.
Got your answer? Here’s the ones that came up: almost universally the decision was be the first. The reasons given ranged from the maudlin (“I would hate to watch my entire family and all of my friends die”) to the perverse (“I’ve always enjoyed an all-you-can-eat buffet…”), but there was solid agreement on this point; as usual I was the lone dissenter. I said, unequivocally, I would invest my entire fortune in canned food and shotgun shells and ride this one out. My reasoning may sound flip at first, perhaps even grotesque, but I ask you to bear with me.
To start, answer this perhaps indelicate but I promise serious and on-point question: have you made love enough in your lifetime?
No need to answer out loud; feel free to keep it to yourself. Regardless of your answer, let me take it a step further. Have you read every book you would ever want to read? Seen every film? Have you experienced every great or wonderful moment you could ever want to experience? If nothing else, have you seen every sunset or sunrise you ever need see again?
Answer me every one of those questions, and then answer this one again: would you be the first zombie, or the last?
I also pointed out that, if you remove the element of the fantastic from it, the question becomes one of the essential nature of humanity. Death, in all of its forms, is unpleasant at least and gruesome at worst. It is rarely desirable, and it is always final. Change the question even slightly: “if every person on Earth were going to die in a car crash, would you prefer to be the first or the last?” Does your answer change?
Life is for the living. It’s easy to forget that as we go through the motions of job and school, get trapped in the daily grind of wake up, commute, work, commute, sleep, rinse and repeat. There are joys to be had, great and small, victories and triumphs and losses and tears and great walloping gobs of life to live. And when the zombie apocalypse comes, I’m going to ride that sucker out in style. Feel free to stop by; I’ll have plenty of canned food and shotgun shells to go around.
I know it’s just a game, a thought experiment, and perhaps I take it a bit too seriously, but I think sometimes games are worth taking a little seriously just to see where they take us. If this game takes you to a place where you appreciate life a bit more, perhaps enjoy a sunset, kiss your spouse one more time, pet your dog, or just give an extra piece of candy to the kids who knock on your door tonight, then it was a game well played.
Happy Halloween, everyone.