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.

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. 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!")

Full entry

shaun-meta-david.jpg
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.

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.

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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.

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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?"
Full entry

WTF with Marc Maron
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.

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.) 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?)

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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.

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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.

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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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