Inhuman Swill : Comedy

Grand motherfucker

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My apologies if you've already seen this. Months ago—way back in March, as a matter of fact—I conceived of a poem that would incorporate hiphop-style rhymes with science fiction storytelling and would be called (as I knew even then) "Grand Motherfucker." I would write the poem sometime over the spring or summer, then perform it at the September 4th science fiction edition of Tuesday Funk.

I made a few notes, but somehow I managed to not start working on the poem in earnest until late in the morning of, er, September 4th. I worked furiously for the next few hours, finally suturing up the last rhymes at around 5:30 pm. The show began at 7:30.

Better late than never! Here's how the poem went over last Tuesday night. Or perhaps how it went down. I hope you like it.

Every sperm is sacred

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Here's a Daily Show story from last week that just about made me spit a tooth across the room. It's about the amendment State Senator Constance Johnson attempted to add to Oklahoma's odious "personhood" bill. The amendment would have tacked this language onto the bill:

[A]ny action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman's vagina shall be interpreted and construed as an action against an unborn child.
This video segment was the first I'd heard about the proposed amendment, and I'm embarrassed to say that it took me until partway through to realize that Sen. Johnson was making an absurdist pro-choice statement with her amendment. Then the story was twice as funny as it had been before.

Video link: "Bro-Choice" from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart


Into the belly of the beast I keep not finding time to post about my trip with Laura to the SXSW Interactive conference last month, but it was a swell time and I should probably jot down a few memories before a) they become totally instead of just mostly irrelevant, and b) they fall completely out of my head.

Laura has been to SXSWi a few times before, and she was adamant that I should come with her this year to feed the programming consultant side of my brain. We bought our memberships and booked our hotel last summer. We flew to Austin on the morning on March 8, the day before the conference started, which turned out to be a good idea in several ways, the first of which was entirely accidental. We ran into our good friend Scott Smith of Chicago magazine in the departure lounge at Midway that morning. With him were Andrew Huff of Gapers Block and Steve Prokopy of Ain't It Cool News. We were all on the same flight, and we ended up riding the bus from the airport into Austin together and all trekking to Frank for lunch (the only time that weekend we were able to get in, incidentally). We were also able to go to the convention center that afternoon and pick up our badges in fairly short order. The next day, lines at registration were a couple of hours long.

Venison sausage at Frank The panels themselves were varied and interesting. I attended discussions of augmented reality, artificial intelligence, smarter algorithms for pinch-and-zoom on touch interfaces, social/local/mobile services, online privacy, and even more abstruse topics. These panels all seem fascinating in retrospect, though I'm afraid that at the time most of them suffered from the problem of not quite living up to the promise of their descriptions in the program guide. Very useful stuff that, at worst, got me excited about doing more iOS programming.

There was time for entertainment, too. We made it out to Skinny's Ballroom to see Scott and Andrew (along with 18 other readers) participate in 20x2, an evening of two-minute readings. (They both crushed it. By which I mean they were good.) I saw a hilarious panel on comedy podcasting featuring Kevin Pollak and Doug Benson and others, and I attended Rainn Wilson's (sadly hit-and-miss) presentation about his spirituality site Soul Pancake. I managed to get into my own top pick of events, which was a live taping of Marc Maron's WTF podcast featuring Jeffrey Tambor. Jay-Z at Austin City Limits Live But it was Laura who scored the coup, using her Amex membership to get us a free pair of tickets to a special Jay-Z concert at Austin City Limits Live. ("HOVA! HOVA!")

And then, of course, there were the people we got to hang out with. We had dinner with our old friends Donna and Tad, who left New York for Austin even before Laura and I left for Chicago. I saw Stina Leicht—author of the new And Blues Skies from Pain, and with whom I share an agent—a couple of times. Welcome to 6th Street We ran into Rik Catlow, an artist we both used to work with well over a decade ago and whose work hangs on our wall, and Erin Dorr, whom Laura used to work with. And then there was that epic night with Scott and Andrew and Matt Wood and Paul M. Davis that started outside a journalism party and traveled through the Hilton bar on its way The Jackalope and a pedicab and shouted advice from a homeless man before it blacked out in a stupor. The less said about that, probably the better.

In any case, SXSW was a great time, worthwhile from both a personal and a professional standpoint. I hope to go again next year, although I'll be tempted to add a film badge on top of the interactive...

A full set of my photos from SXSW is here.


UPDATE!  After this blog entry was written, I emailed the text of it to John Hodgman on a whim. A few hours later, to my surprise, I received a response. His Honor told me he would endure my "gut punches" if I disagreed with him, but that I should not ask him to answer for Martin Amis.
Dear Judge John Hodgman:

I must take great exception to your summary judgment in a recent episode of the "Judge John Hodgman" podcast, to wit, that Shaun of the Dead is a comedy only and not a horror film.

Your Honor, this opinion is, if you'll permit me, patent hogwash. If we are to accept your definition of a horror film as one designed to provoke terror and dread in its audience and to help that audience confront and process their own existential fears as their on-screen proxies battle horrors from beyond the grave, then in what way does Shaun of the Dead not meet that definition? Yes, we may be laughing at the same time, and we may chuckle wryly here and there in recognition of nods to earlier classics in the zombie canon, but that in no way reduces our identification with Shaun, Ed, and the rest of our heroes, nor does it diminish our well-justified fears for their safety or our investment in their fates. Whatever yuks may be afoot, these characters are in very real peril, and we can't help experiencing that peril along with them. Shaun of the Dead clearly manages the feat of being effective comedy and horror both, at the same time.

shaun-meta-david.jpg I am weary to my bones of the tired assertion that a thing that is one thing cannot also be another thing, particularly when the one thing is seen as high art and the other as low. I recall years ago attending a lecture by literary enfant terrible Martin Amis at the NYU library. His New Yorker short story "The Janitor on Mars" had just been named by Locus Magazine as one of the year's top works of science fiction. During Q&A, a young woman asked Amis if the publication of that story meant that he was now a science fiction writer. Amis hemmed and hawed, eventually asserting that, while he had read and absorbed copious amounts of science fiction as a youth and certainly wasn't embarrassed by that fact, "The Janitor on Mars" merely deployed the tropes and language of science fiction to a higher literary end. It was not itself, he claimed, science fiction.

This, Your Honor, is so much mealy-mouthed rot. Something that quacks like a duck, though it may do so in an erudite, hipper-than-thou cadence with its bill raised snootily in the air, is nonetheless still a duck. There may be some "meta" purpose at work, but if we po-mo roughnecks have learned nothing else in the course of our rude existences, is it not that the very definition of "meta" is to be the thing being referenced? Have we failed to heed the lesson of the yin and the yang, which is that a thing can, nay, must embrace, embody, and give rise to its apparent opposite?

They in their towers of ivory glass may not like it, but I'm sure such an enlightened nerd as Your Honor must agree that science fiction can also be literature, that comedy can also be horror, and that from time to time even a judge can be wrong.

Yours humbly,
William Shunn
Science Fiction Writer

Louis C.K. gets it

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Louis C.K. is one smart dude. He's not just one of the best standup comics working. He's also a writer, producer, director, and entrepreneur who's been making films for a long, long time. His FX series Louie—essentially a tenuously related string of short films—is the logical culmination of that interest. He even edits the series himself.

But standup is his main bag, and today Louis started offering his brand-new concert video, Louis C.K.: Live at the Beacon, at his website. Exclusively at his website. Streamable or downloadable. Completely DRM-free.

For five bucks.

This shouldn't seem like such a revolutionary idea, but for the movie and television industries it is. With all the hysteria over piracy in those quarters, it takes a smart, iconoclastic guy with the power to do his own thing to do something so simple and obvious.

Louis C.K. gets it.

He gets that the exposure and goodwill a move like this will generate far outweigh any loss of revenue he'll incur from piracy. He gets that most consumers are basically good, and will gladly pay five dollars for something of value to someone trusted who trusts them back.

In fact, here's a little message from him that appears during the purchase process:

To those who might wish to "torrent" this video: look, I don't really get the whole "torrent" thing. I don't know enough about it to judge either way. But I'd just like you to consider this: I made this video extremely easy to use against well-informed advice. I was told that it would be easier to torrent the way I made it, but I chose to do it this way anyway, because I want it to be easy for people to watch and enjoy this video in any way they want without "corporate" restrictions.

Please bear in mind that I am not a company or a corporation. I'm just some guy. I paid for the production and posting of this video with my own money. I would like to be able to post more material to the fans in this way, which makes it cheaper for the buyer and more pleasant for me. So, please help me keep this being a good idea. I can't stop you from torrenting; all I can do is politely ask you to pay your five little dollars, enjoy the video, and let other people find it in the same way.

Sincerely,
Louis C.K.
The really interesting thing is what your five bucks buys you. It gives you a license to download the film twice, and to stream it twice. In other words, you can watch it twice online, but you can download the file twice and watch it as many times as you want. In fact, you can remix it or burn it to a DVD or whatever. It's yours.

I'm downloading it now, and I can't wait to watch it. The file is a 1.2Gb H.264 MP4, which in layman's terms means I'm going to easily be able to copy it to my iPad and watch it on the exercise bike at the gym, or wherever.

I haven't even watched it yet, and I'm inclined to love it. Louis C.K.—what a smart fucking dude.

(Get your copy at buy.louisck.net.)


A brand-new short story of mine, "Stand Up," is available now at the group blog This May Get Awkward:

"Stand Up"

The good folks at TMGA (in the person of the estimable JD Adamski, an MVP of the Tuesday Funk reading series I co-produce) asked me a while back to contribute a story, and I'm glad I finally had a chance to oblige them. I hope you like it. It's short.

"Yeah—mothers," said the comedian, running a hand through his sparse hair. "Don't you just hate 'em?"

Uncertain charges of laughter detonated here and there around the club. It was all in the delivery, and in the modest credit he'd accrued up to now with the audience.  [read more]

Dedicated to the career path I did not follow?


Saturday, August 27, 2011
Dear Marc Maron

For some reason this is a hard letter to write. I'm a relatively new fan of your podcast and your comedy, having come to it all through the broadcasts on WBEZ, but it seems like ages I've been trying to compose a thank you to you in my head. I mean, how hard should it be just to say I appreciate what you do and your show means a lot to me? Especially for a writer like me.

WTF with Marc Maron I'm 44 years old. My wife and I live in Chicago. I'm a writer, mostly of science fiction. Nothing glamorous like film or TV—I'm talking the basic stuff, prose on a page. None of which really explains why I've been chewing my way so voraciously through your podcast archive, or why I feel such a connection to what you do.

Part of it, I guess, is some of the weird correspondences with my life. I was born in Highland Park, for instance, where you now live, though I only lived there until I was six. (I was in L.A. in February, and I called my mom in Utah and told her I was planning to go visit the old house on Aldama Street. She said, "Oh, I don't think that's a very good idea." I went anyway with my buddy Ashir—the neighborhood was fine—and was surprised to see how small the house was, to remember how steep the hill was, and to hear parrots or some shit squawking in the big old trees.) I lived in Astoria for a long time, same as you, and it might be the best place I've ever lived. (Did you ever eat at Kabab Cafe on Steinway near 25th Ave? My favorite place in the world.) 5340 Aldama St. You have hassles getting into Canada—I can't even go to Canada, thanks to a ridiculous incident in Calgary when I was a stupid young 19-year-old Mormon missionary. (It's a long story.) I was on Air America ... um, one time, when Ron Kuby interviewed me a couple of years ago about a podcast I was doing. (See how I'm grasping at straws already? I should reassure you that I don't think there's some mystical, brothers-under-the-skin bond here. Cats are nice, but I'm a fucking dog person, okay?)

And I've pretty much toiled away at my chosen craft, the the thing I wanted to do from the time I was a kid, for the past twenty years without much tangible reward. I mean, other science fiction writers know me, and I have a handful of fans, but I've somehow managed to dodge widespread attention and financial security all these years. I've published about thirty short stories and novellas, and one slim collaborative novel, but the most popular thing I've written by far is a guide to professional manuscript formatting that gets thousands of times more hits online than my fiction ever has.

Whoa, let me veer back from the precipice of bitterness here for a minute. Didn't mean to go there so quickly.

A big, big part of what I love about WTF is the sheer joy of hearing two professionals talk about their craft with intelligence, passion, and familiarity. It doesn't matter that your craft is comedy and ours is making up stories about spaceships and virtual reality. There is a tremendous pleasure in listening in while people who have thought hard about their art, worked tirelessly at it, and internalized the history and craft of it reflect on what a life dedicated to that pursuit is like. I identify with it. I hear things that seem like they're lifted right out of my own life and out of my friends' lives, and it strikes a deep chord in me. (It also makes me miss my writer friends in New York, and explains why I take every opportunity to meet up with them and others at conferences around the country and talk about writing and get smashed together at the hotel bars.) Damn, there's just something about the way professional artists talk—especially ones to whom language is so crucial—that sucks me in and takes me to a better place.

But okay. If listening to WTF helps me feel a little bit more connected to a community of artists, helps me feel a bit smarter and more insightful about my own art, the absolutely biggest part of what inspires me is your personal journey.

I feel like I've walked a lot of those roads. Early promise, steady publication, but not much notice. Near misses with success. Projects I poured my heart into that went nowhere. Shitty agents who didn't get what I was about, content to sit back and wait for me to generate my own buzz. Good reviews, respect from my peers, even major award nominations—great things that nevertheless mean fuck-all to anyone outside the industry or to my ability to support myself. Professional jealousy—the soul-killing bitter envy at seeing my friends' names on best-seller lists, or getting optioned for movies or TV—that has led me to pull away from important friendships, to my own detriment. Undermining myself in a thousand other ways. Asking myself time and time again whether it's worth it to keep on doing what I do, worth the cost of my sanity, worth the cost of lying awake at night knowing the clock is ticking, I'm 44, and what the fuck have I done with my life so far? Wanting to give up, stop writing, but unable to because there are still things to say, and still a little, perverse, unkillable germ of hope down in there somewhere.

Listen, Marc, I know you're not rolling in dough, and I know you've still got plenty of demons. But goddammit, you hung in there and did stuff even when it seemed like there was nothing left to do. The fact that you kept yourself in the game and turned it around in what must have seemed like the bottom of the ninth—that is a giant fucking inspiration to me.

And I'm trying to hang in there. I have a good agent now, who is also a friend and who gets my stuff. Finally, after twelve years of work, I've finished the Big One and handed it in, the memoir about that missionary incident in Canada. (It really is a good story.) He'll start shopping the manuscript around after Labor Day, and I will try to stop thinking about it and start working on the next thing, a novel. Because I'm a professional, you know, and that's just what you do.

Look, we both know that talent and craft and hard work are not in and of themselves guarantees of anything. But what you and your show remind me, and what I need so badly to believe, is that sometimes the final necessary ingredient for success is just fucking hanging in there long enough. Just fucking gunning the engine until the tires stop spinning in place and some traction catches. Thank you for that from the bottom of my heart. Thank you.

Please believe me that I mean it as the highest of compliments when I say that listening to WTF is the next best thing to sitting around and talking about science fiction. With my friends. Which is what you seem like.

Best wishes,
Bill Shunn

P.S. I fucking love your new album, This Has to Be Funny. I keep playing bits from it for my wife. I think she's getting annoyed with me and amused by me in equal measure.

Four, no, five buffoons

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It's easy to see why Drafthouse Films (the new distribution arm of Austin's great Alamo Drafthouse theater chain) was able to snap up the rights to British TV vet Chris Morris's feature film debut, Four Lions. Probably no one else wanted to touch it. It's not a movie for everybody.

I saw Four Lions last night at a preview screening at Piper's Alley, and I thought it was the funniest movie I'd seen since, well, The Hangover. Like any number of other comedies, it's the story of a buffoonish group of losers determined to succeed at something they clearly have no talent for. What makes Four Lions different is that the something is jihad. Will you like it? That depends on how much taste you have for laughing at suicide bombings. (Mild spoilers may lie ahead.)

Omar and Waj are two would-be British-Pakistani mujahideen who get ejected from an Al Qaeda training camp for rank incompetence. Undeterred from their dreams of glorious martyrdom, they tell the rest of their goofy terror cell back home in England that they've been sent back to carry out an important mission. The antics of the group, the most volatile member of which is a loose-cannon white convert to Islam, as they bumble their way toward a series of suicide bombings are very funny stuff, laugh-out-loud stuff. But you can't help but feel a certain amount of discomfort laughing at this gang of sincere fools.

Are we laughing at stereotyped Muslims? I don't think so. We're laughing at comedic types, certainly, but as embodied by characters who are actually more three-dimensional than you might expect in this sort of movie. Along with the uncomfortable laughs, we get a look inside the rage, the faith, the yearning for community, and the yearning for glory that prods a certain type of personality into taking up a violent cause. And the self-styled jihadis are hardly the only Muslims we meet. In the course of the film we encounter a wide range of Muslims, most of whom want nothing to do with violence, and a few of whom get caught up in it anyway, in different ways.

I guess a movie like Four Lions has to be approached in two ways. First, does it just plain work as a movie? I'll get back to that question, because I want to tackle the second question first: Is it wrong to make a comedy about Muslim terrorists at a time when anti-Muslim sentiment is already running at such a fever pitch?

I think the answer to this question is no. If this were an anti-Muslim film, then I might give a different answer. But the comedy, the bumbling antics, as discomfiting as they may be, use familiar types and tropes to draw us into an unfamiliar milieu. And when things start to go pear-shaped for the conspirators, we realize we've come to sympathize with these characters, and that we're emotionally invested in their fates. Despite the death and mayhem (and make no mistake, this is a black comedy, one in which Western law enforcement is just as confused, jumpy, and mistake-prone as the terrorists), that may be the most subversive aspect of the movie—sympathy for the devils. If this movie is anti-anything, it's anti-stupidity, and sadly there's plenty of that commodity to go around.

So does it work as a movie. Yes. I found the humor a little uneven, especially toward the beginning, before I'd assimilated the rhythm of the movie and its dialects. (Yes, the accents in Four Lions take some getting used to, and even later I had to strain to understand them at times. But don't let that scare you off.) Bottom line, this is a movie that only seems to treat a serious subject cavalierly. As a comedy, side-splitting and jaw-dropping as hell, it allows you to hope that everything might turn out well in the end. But as a story of would-be martyrs, you have to ask yourself, "Turns out well for whom?"

It's a measure of the power of Four Lions that it ultimately can't be slotted easily into either set of expectations.

[Four Lions, already playing in a few cities, opens tomorrow in San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, Katy, Duluth, Asheville, and Somerville. Go see it. You'll have a great time, insha'Allah. And boy, will you ever have something to talk to your date about afterwards.]


Early last week, Laura and I were lucky enough to win an invitation to a preview screening of the new comedy The Hangover, which opens today. Having been seeing the commercials for weeks already, I was looking forward to the screening. From the little I'd seen, the film looked right up my alley. Laura was more cautious going in, especially when our host Capone (of aintitcool.com) gleefully warned us we were about to see some disturbing images.

I won't beat around the bush. The Hangover may be the funniest movie I've seen in my life. Okay, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but both Laura and I—and the rest of the audience—laughed so hard and loud that there was some dialogue we couldn't even hear. We hurt when we left the theater. I haven't laughed that hard at a movie since the first time I saw South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.

The film is very cleverly written and structured. It follows a group of three men (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis) who have taken their soon-to-be-married friend (Justin Bartha) to Las Vegas for an extended bachelor party. The three men wake up in the morning in a trashed hotel suite rife with clues that something big happened the night before, but with no memory of what that was. Oh, yes, and the groom is missing.

The main thrust of the plot details the friends' attempt to reconstruct the night's events and figure out where they lost track of the groom. Along the way, they meet not just a bevy of colorful characters and assorted weirdness, but also a good deal of violence. I'm tempted to drop hints about my favorite scenes—like the taser bit that just keeps getting funnier and funnier and funnier, even when the trailers have spoiled the final punchline—but I will resist the temptation. Given the media blitz that's been going on for weeks, you already know some of those bits, but that's only scratching the surface. You should go in with as clean a slate as possible.

As cunning as the screenplay is, it's Cooper, Helms, and Galifianakis that really make the film work. They are more than just funny. They've been allowed to create characters that are, in many ways, unlikeable. Cooper's character is that friend we all have who is charming and smarmy but always manages to make you feel like a pussy. Helms's character is henpecked and packs a really deep streak of ugly anger. And Galifianakis—let's just say that it takes some time to see that at the heart of his fearlessly offputting performance is a very sweet, innocent guy. But despite their frequent bickering, they still hang together and act relentlessly, even with heartbreaking bravery, to track down their missing friend. By the end of the movie, we feel a startling love for all these flawed, determined men.

Oh, and did I mention how fucking funny they are? And how fucking wrong this movie is? (Any movie that can get away with slamming a baby into a car door is okay in my book.)

I will admit that the laughter is not non-stop. A few short stretches of The Hangover do lag, but that's more than made up for by the intensity of the best sequences. (And by best I also mean most of the sequences.) The female characters in the film get short shrift also. The three important female characters essentially fit the archetypes of Virgin, Bitch, and Whore, and as winsomely enthusiastic as Heather Graham's performance is as the Whore, she is woefully underused. Mike Tyson's extended cameo is funny also, but seems more like a stunt than an integrated part of the movie. And the Asian stereotype wears a little thin.

But those are minor quibbles. The script plays very fair with the premise, piling complication on complication, and even providing an answer to the question of why no one can remember the previous night. I can't imagine seeing a funnier movie this year, or having a better time. Go see The Hangover. See it this weekend, with a big, enthusiastic crowd. Stay for the closing credits. And then go see it again so you can catch the lines people were laughing too hard to hear.


Some video links:

The real Caesar's Palace

Tiger in the bathroom

Stu's song


I busted a gut watching Marc Shaiman's short revue "Prop 8: The Musical." Among the many celebrity cameos herein, my favorite is Jack Black's, who may be my favorite Jesus since Graham Chapman didn't play him.

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