Friday, January 22, 2010

Bloggedy Blog Blog

Somewhere back in the archives I talked about stand up comedy. Some comically-inclined fellows and I did a tribute show a couple years back showcasing our favorite comedians whose work inspired our developments. The sketches included Johnny Carson and Jack Webb's "Copper Clappers", Slovin and Allen's "Time Machine", Ron White's "Coup-ins", Louis CK on deer and wealth, and Newhart and Mo Collins "Stop It".

When it comes to consistently entertaining comedy I fine my favorites are Bob Newhart, Eddie Izzard, Chris Rock, Bill Hicks, Tim Minchin. I enjoy the stylings of the Smothers brothers, George Carlin, Bill Cosby and Robin Williams.

I don't care for Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Mort Sahl, Rodney Dangerfield, and others I'm sure.

Why I prefer one over the other I can't quite say. Part of it has to do with the freshness of the material. Lenny Bruce was, I know, revolutionary. But his jokes are so tied to his times and cultural references of his world that they don't age well.

Timing and delivery is part of it, and is a bit determined by personal tastes. I think John Cleese is masterful in Fawlty Towers, but I can't watch Ricky Gervais in The Office.

Lucille Ball makes me yawn, but Groucho Marx makes me laugh. Jon Carroll said that everything is funny. This, he elaborated, does not mean everything is funny for everyone, but that anything you can think of is funny to someone. My preference for Newhart over Phil Silvers or Buster Keaton over the three stooges is personal, not objective.

("Niagara Falls" is pretty damned brilliant, though.)

Training students to be comedians, as I do, makes this immediately apparent. Some jokes make my students laugh, sometimes only I'm laughing. Some bits make everyone laugh, though. I have begun to study which bits get everyone to laugh.

Often it is what John Wiswell describes when he gives the example of two scenarios involving a driving test. In one version the driving test doesn't go well, and an argument erupts between the instructor and student. The other version has the instructor kidnap the student and hold him for ransom for bizarre and paranoid reasons. Both may be fertile comic soil, yet the latter is possibly better for universal appeal due to its being unexpected and outrageous (which are oft conflated but not synonymous).

"What is it?"

What a wonderfully ripe comedic question. 'It' can be anything: a tiger, a dildo, one million dollars cash, a creme pie. In constructing a comedic scene you need to pick which of these things would be unexpected and amusing without entering the realm of the absurd. Absurd humor is fine, and funny if done right, but is one of the more difficult genres to recreate on the stage. The wildest offerings of absurdist theatre still must preserve some internal cohesion to preserve their audience. If a man asks 'what is it?' and gets the reply 'a leopard' you have the basis for an entire movie script.

The humor can come from silence, action, sounds, and reactions. What else is there for the actor to manipulate? Humor is societal. If a man burps after a meal on stage in America there may be comic appeal. In other countries it's merely a compliment to the chef. If what you do on stage is unexpected in society, and benign, you are likely creating comedy.

Then again, it need not be benign. Many find 'dark' humor in scenarios which, if recreated off-stage, would horrify us. Dr. Strangelove, if a reflection of reality, would be as monstrous as fluoridation. Infanticide is both tragic in reality, and the source of an entire category of jokes.

Recently I've been interested in the trend in American comedy to make the mundane humorous. I'm not sure what is driving this movement, but cannot help notice many others understand the appeal. I don't. But why I don't, I'm not quite sure.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Albums I obsessed over in 2009:

The College Dropout by Kanye West

It really did change hiphop. The beats were nothing new, but you couldn't get around them. The lyrics were witty an interesting. The instrumentation and sampling was well-done. As concept albums go hiphop has tried a few times, but this proves to be my favorite.

Illinois by Sufjan Stevens and Fox Confessor Brings the Flood by Neko Case

Reviewed these back in August. Both are sonic treats.

Loveless by My Bloody Valentine

This is my first foray into 'shoe gaze'. So far it has been incredibly rewarding. It reminds me of the sheets of sound from artists like Coltrane. I had to look up the lyrics, but the catchy hook of 'Only Shallow' pulled me into this album and the rest drove me along a catchy and occasionally profound-ish journey.

MTV Unplugged in New York by Nirvana

Like many Nirvana was, to me, a one-album band. I knew there was more than Nevermind but since Nevermind was never one of my great favorites I'd not bothered with the rest. This raw and moving concert showed me that Nirvana was more than amplifier and snarl.

Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette

Roughly fifteen years later I finally got into the album my sister was listening to as I grew up. Part of the draw was the familiarity: I'd heard all of these songs so many times, they had already carved out solid neuron connections of familiarity and likableness. Anything I could add was said long ago.

Stop Making Sense by The Talking Heads

These guys always bugged me before. I didn't care for their sound, and as such didn't expect anything from this live album. But the infectious incredible energy and humour brought to this performance got me to like them. Maybe they just put too much sheen on their studio stuff. This I could dig.

Movies I obsessed over in 2009:

Cinema Paradiso

I'm a bit behind the times here, too.

This Italian movie tells the story of a projectionist and a director, and is enhanced, in my opinion, if you know a little something about Italian cinema in the first place. Nice love story, nice cinematography, nice plot. Frankly, one of the more twee movies I'll ever recommend.


As anime goes, this is the peak. From Akira and Ninja Scroll through Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon and Ottomo's Steam Boy, I think this hits the nail on the head. This is what Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind should have been.

Deals with: reality, dreaming, avatars, science and technological development, movies, ethics and change, love, etc. I've been humming it's theme for what feels like a lifetime. Expect great animation paired with a rarity in anime: character development!

La Dolce Vita

...And we're back to Italy. What can I say? It's not 8 1/2 but everything is superb: the director this time is looking on bemused by the antics of the rich and famous. Sort of a 1960's Rules of the Game. To be expected is top quality cinematography, acting, and wayward plot.


The 1972 Russian three-hour sci-fi epic. Sound like fun? Kubrick would late make a similar movie in 2001 but this treats very different themes on humanity and consciousness. Again, warnings about the future and incomprehensible worlds out there, but unsurprisingly perhaps, the real monsters/terror/caution is ourselves. Oh sci-fi.

Grand Illusion

Musings on the French and German side about war lead to deeper musings regarding roles in history, roles of class, and the dying aristocracy after WWI. Really they're all just human. No, really. The war is actually depriving us of our humanity that we share. Where are you going...?

Books I obsessed over in 2009:

On The Road by Kerouac

Kerouac has always been a bit iffy for me. I knew more about his ideas in philosophy than the story of his ramblings and rovings. What could this travelogue teach that others don't? Yet the language style, the characters (thinly disguised) and Paradise's demeanor throughout are intoxicating and real. I think he captured something and created a new archetype in Dean.

Ulysses by Joyce

I had tried reading this a few times without success. Eventually I was just in the right mood, the right frame of mind, and devoured it in a couple of weeks. Once I acclimated to his language the narrative was so wonky and engrossing that it couldn't be escaped. Laying the Odyssey over it all was tremendous. I didn't get all the references, and maybe never will. But those I did were so well-included that my jaw was often literally open.

Answer to Job by Jung

Jung debates the most important book int he bible from a psycho-theological perspective. A must read for those interested in theology or religious psychology or history.

Swann's Way: First Part by Proust

The middle section of this bothered me. Yet the opening, regarding the narrator's childhood and memory, was a delight. Swann was less so.

Also: Huckleberry Finn and Jane Eyre by Twain and C. Bronte. Neither quite lived up to what I was hoping for, but both were an admittedly great read. So too Mendel's Experiments in Plant Hybridization which I'd wanted to read for quite some time. If you like science and genetics it comes highly recommended. For those who are really really into genetics and medicine I also had fun this year with Virchow's Cellular Pathology and Boveri's Origin of Tumours. But you kind of have to be into that sort of thing.