Getting Jokes: Coming up with Comedy

Growing up watching late night television, I missed most of Johnny Carson’s jokes. David Letterman was always my favorite. He was giddy and goofy, and I got it. His was also the first show I ever saw break form. From people hiding under his desk (an explanation of desk noise in response to a Viewer-Mail letter) to him barging into the next studio to ask someone a stupid question, Letterman was the first TV personality I saw feign spontaneity to create chaos. He was funny to me just making dumb faces and running stupid jokes into the ground. I loved it.

David Letterman

Neil Scovell wrote in 2012,

Today, viewers may regard Dave as a curmudgeon, reading a never-ending Top 10 List and rarely venturing from behind the desk. But back in the 80s, he was a master of remotes, audience interactions, and zany stunts. Head writer Merrill Markoe recently wrote me, ‘We set it up that we could use every part of the world if we could figure out how to get Dave to say yes to it. So the show took place in the studio, and in the hall outside, and in the rest of the building as needed, and the streets around the building and the rest of NYC as needed and even at home.’ It was controlled chaos as Dave would don a Velcro suit and trampoline onto a Velcro wall. Monkeys and Chris Elliot were allowed to roam all over the set.

The 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live and Letterman’s retirement have me thinking about coming up with comedy. Like any other form, it’s one you have to learn how to enjoy, what William Gibson (2012) calls a “steep yet almost instantaneous learning curve” (Distrust That Particular Flavor, pp. 58-59). What I find funny was largely defined by my growing up watching SNL and David Letterman.

Years ago, in a post-class discussion about progress, one of my classmates asked if things had gotten funnier. You know, things get stronger, faster, better, etc., he mused, so have jokes gotten funnier? The question stuck with me. I think my answer at the time was that it’s gotten more complicated to be funny. Not that jokes have gotten funnier, but that the funny ones have gotten more complex. My favorite jokes are the ones that cram entire worlds into epigrammatic phrases (e.g., Junior Stopka: “So, my niece is cheating on me…”). A quick comparison of say, a Bill Hicks bit with a Doug Stanhope bit, and you’ll see the difference I was talking about.

Getting the JokeI’ve been rethinking that idea lately. As weird as his material was, Mitch Hedberg‘s jokes pivoted on a simplicity that cannot be faked. The funniest bits, sketches, shows, and movies rest on simple premises (e.g., Airplane, Super Troopers, Party Down, “Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger,” “Debbie Downer,” etc.). Farts and throwing up are always funny to me. Dave’s dumb face still makes me laugh.

As my dear friend Alysia Wood says, “Funny is funny.”

If you think explaining jokes ruins them, then Oliver Double’s Getting the Joke (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015) might not be for you. If you’re not into the craft of comedy, the “mechanics and mysteries” as Double puts it, this book also might not be for you. Not since Richard Belzer laid it all out in his 1988 book How to Be a Stand-Up Comic (Villard) has there been a more complete investigation (over 500-pages’ worth) of what’s funny and what makes it so.

I’ve discussed the sense and science of comedy with many comedians. Most don’t like to talk about the craft, so I’m glad when I find someone who does. Lucas Molandes and I have been comparing notes for years and can always pick up wherever we left off last. I’ve spent entire nights talking about it with Alysia Wood and Drake Witham. Others have stopped talking to me altogether as soon as the topic comes up. Learning how the engine works doesn’t make you a better driver.

David Letterman said this week that Johnny Carson’s last show was historic but that he didn’t think his own would be.

Speak for yourself, Dave… Speak for yourself.

Views and Interviews from a Few New Zines

When I started doing zines as a teenager, interviews were an easy way to get something no one else had. I could get in touch with a band, ask them questions, and write up an original piece of content. It was fun and it lead me to magazine writing. When I moved the operation online, my first site (frontwheeldrive.com) was almost all interviews.

Bend #24: QuestionsAndy Jenkins and I have had a similar relationship with interviews. We both started off doing them for journalistic purposes, then moved away from them for various reasons. “Interviewing folks meant that I was drawing a line between myself and the interviewee,” he writes in the introduction. “So, instead of being a peer, I was sort of an outsider” (p. 3). For Bend #24: Questions (Bend Press, 2015), Andy returned to the interview format to check in with a bunch of people who’ve inspired him over the years: He asked 27 people the same 24 questions. Interview subjects include Johnny Knoxville, Megan Baltimore, and O; skateboarders Jerry Hsu, Ed Templeton, Tod Swank, and Marc Johnson; artists Lori Damiano, Ferris Plock, Kevin Wilkins, Thomas Campbell, and Evan Hecox; and one of my favorite character actors, Bob Stephenson; as well as many other creative folks. Questions is inspiring, entertaining, and funny. Andy’s introduction says he did these interviews “not feeling the line” because he knows all of these people in one way or another. His art and designs have always been inspiring to me, but this time it’s the minds he’s assembled that make me want to go do stuff.

Life from a window
I’m just taking in the view
Life from a window
Observing everything around you
— The Jam, “Life From a Window”

Life From a WindowI met Tobin Yelland twice: once while I worked at SLAP Skateboard Magazine in San Francisco and once while I worked at Skateboard.com in San Diego. He’s a super-nice guy with a keen eye through the camera lens. Life From a Window (Deadbeat Club, 2014) is Clint Woodside and Tobin’s travel log from Asia, including pictures from Shanghai, Seoul, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou. Candid expressions, odd artifacts, and haunting cityscapes adorn its 40, full-color pages. It also comes with two 4×6″ prints, one from each photographer.

Bogus Rendition #9

I picked up a copy of Bogus Rendition #9 from the merch table at a the Watain/Mayhem Black Metal Warfare tour stop at the Bottom Lounge in Chicago earlier this year. Split between hopping trains and black metal, Justin Curtsinger tells great stories and does solid interviews. He’s traversed the US by train several times and toured with Watain and many other black metal acts, so his stories and  interviews (with members of Watain, The Devil’s Blood, Soulgrinder, et al.) come from a far more personal place. The lengthy transcribed talks in BR #9 are as meandering as they are interesting. These are not promo-copy fodder. They’re just regular chats with the guys behind the set and sound. It’s a welcome change from magazine interviews. Reflecting on Watain’s 2013 tour for The Wild Hunt, Curtsinger writes, “I’ve found it harder and harder as time has gone on to write about other people who happen to be friends as if they are ‘characters’ in a story.” Though he admits that he’s not the biggest Watain fan, he acknowledges their importance, writing, “The reminder that life is whatever the fuck we want to make it and that following one’s heart on whatever obscure path one wants to take is not a pipe dream.” The 108 pages of Bogus Rendition #9 document parts of Curtsinger’s obscure path(s), and the world is better off for the glimpses it provides.

We Want Something MoreA member of both the black metal band, Light Bearer, and the hardcore band, Momentum (two of my recent favorites), Gerfried Ambrosch is also a prolific writer. Not surprisingly, his writing is ideologically in-line with his music. Among his zines are Atheist Morality: Why We Don’t Need Religion to Be Moral (Active Distribution, 2013) and Vindication of a Vegan Diet (Active Distribution, 2013). We Want Something More: The Poetry of Punk Rock (Active Distribution, n.d.) is a 100-page pamphlet-style zine that could easily double as a master’s thesis. It’s also informed by interviews — with some of the most important people in punk rock. Its back copy reads,

We Want Something More is an extended essay about punk lyrics. It features exclusive interviews with well-known punk rock and hardcore artists such as Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi), Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys), Henry Rollins (Black Flag), Ray Cappo (Youth of Today, Shelter), Greg Bennick (Trial), Brian D. (Catharsis), Dan Yemin (Kid Dynamite, Paint It Black), Chris Hannah (Propagandhi), and others. The essay investigates the connections between song lyrics, poetry, visual and acoustic aesthetics, musical conventions, the D.I.Y. ethos, and radical politics in the context of punk and hardcore. Its goals are to demonstrate that punk rock and hardcore song lyrics are a fascinating literary art form and to give punks and hardcore ‘kids’ an understanding of lyric analysis and close reading by reference to some of the songs that have changed their lives. Moreover, the essay discusses the particularities of punk culture and the things that set it apart from other subcultures. Given its focus on radical politics, is punk a serious counterculture, or at least part of a wider countercultural movement? This essay attempts to answer such questions by looking at song lyrics and how they have both reflected and affected the political discourse of punk and hardcore. If you have a passion for punk culture and/or the written word, there is a good chance that you will find We Want Something More to be a very interesting read.

I don’t do as many interviews as I used to, but I’m still biased toward them and read them regularly. I mean, I do teach a class on interviews now, and my first book is a collection of them. Interviews can be weird and indulgent, but they can provide keys to someone’s work you admire. They also let that someone know that you admire them. In Bend #24, Andy Jenkins asks, “Do you like answering questions?” Ed Templeton sums it up, saying, “Yeah. It means someone is asking.”

Zine pile

Sonified Solipsism: Digital Economies of Sound

One of the many lessons of chaos theory was that the limits of numerous traditional scientific and mathematical approaches had been reached. The elements filtered out by the methods in use kept edging in, refusing to be ignored. Information theorists, physicists, and mathematicians were all grappling with similar, persistent problems: noise in phone-lines, measurements that varied wildly at different scales, fluctuations in computer-generated weather, the onset of turbulence in vastly different dynamical systems. New lenses were needed to see a more finely grained world. New tools were needed to measure it.

As a discipline, media studies has been struggling with a similar filter bubble (Parser, 2011). Its sister subdiscipline, sound studies, has been vying to help fix it (Sterne, 2012). Music journalist Alex Ross (2015) writes,

Shortly before his death, in 1992, John Cage said: “We live in a time I think not of mainstream, but of many streams, or even, if you insist, upon a river of time, that we have come to delta, maybe even beyond delta to an ocean which is going back to the skies.” Stream, delta, border, boundary: we keep reaching for geographical metaphors as we speak of genres and we sense that the real landscape of musical activity ultimately has little to do with our tidy delineations, or indeed with the dismantling of them. Fluid and shifting, music is spread out like populations around urban centres, and certain communities could plausibly be assigned to one city’s suburbs or to another’s. Genre may be a kind of gerrymandering practised by musical politicians. Indeed, composers routinely complain when they are described as busters of genre or crossers of boundaries; they tend to view themselves simply as artists working with various kinds of material.

Ross is writing about Björk and musical genres, but thinking outside of the usual boundaries, the usual filters, is exactly what makes sound studies at large so compelling.

The Tones of Our TimesIn The Tone of Our Times: Sound, Sense, Economy, and Ecology (MIT Press, 2014), Frances Dyson writes, “It is really only in the last half century that, à la Cage, we have created an environment from our inner workings, that we have sonified a form of solipsism… Mobile media might move us out of the house and into the world, but the world is now domed by a data cloud” (p. 119). The borders, the boundaries, the bounds may blur, but we still try to draw discrete lines between sound, music, and noise. We still try to control what enters our ears. Earbuds. Noise-cancelling Bose. Beats by Dre.

Félix Guattari wrote in 1989,

Contemporary human beings have been fundamentally deterritorialized. Their original existential territories — bodies, domestic spaces, clans, cults — are no longer secured by a fixed ground; but henceforth they are indexed to a world of precarious representations and in perpetual motion. Young people are walking around the streets with Walkmans glued to their ears, and are habituated by refrains produced far, very far, from their homelands (2015, p. 97).

Chaos MediaAs Stephen Kennedy points out in Chaos Media: A Sonic Economy of Digital Space (Bloomsbury, 2015), these theoretical viewpoints “periodically cohere to form a ‘refrain'” (p. 130): “The refrain calms the chaos — settles things down — resolves anxiety…” (p. 130). Kennedy uses Foucault, Bergson, Bachelard, and Latour’s Actor Network Theory to draw his lines. He writes, “This is a book about space, digital space. As such, it is concerned with boundaries, thresholds, and borders” (p. viii). Music went from strictly live performances to portable recordings. Playback went from ephemeral events to the home hi-fi to the pocket player (see Bartmanski & Woodward, 2015; Bull, 2005; Frith, 2013; Levy, 2006; Zagorski-Thomas, 2014). Lines may be drawn, but they are not so easily maintained.

Ross (2015) continues, “…it becomes clear that for all of her career Björk has created a body of work in which the landscape around her, she herself and the landscape inside of her – her blood, her organs, the sounds made by her and perceived by her – are all one universe of objects and subjects, subjects and objects, robots and humans, plants and animals, stone and volcanoes and oceans at the same time.” With nothing filtered out, we are the tone of our times.

References:

Bartmanski, Dominik & Woodward, Ian. (2015). Vinyl: The Analogue Record in the Digital Age. New York: Bloomsbury.

Bull, Michael. (2005). No Dead Air! The iPod and the Culture of Mobile Listening. Leisure Studies, 24(4), pp. 343-55.

Dyson, Frances (2014). The Tone of Our Times: Sound, Sense, Economy, and Ecology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Frith, Simon. (2013). The Industrialization of Popular Music–Part II. In S. T. Horsfall, J-M. Meij, & M. D. Probstfield (Eds.), Music Sociology: Examining the Role of Music in Social Life. Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 223-231.

Guattari, Félix. (2015). Ecosophical Practices and the Restoration of the “Subjective City.” In G. Genosko & J. Hetrick (Eds.), Machinic Eros: Writings on Japan. Minneapolis, MN: Univocal, pp. 97-115.

Kennedy, Stephen. (2015). Chaos Media: A Sonic Economy of Digital Space. New York: Bloomsbury.

Levy, Steven. (2006). The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Parser, Eli. (2011). The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You. New York: Penguin.

Ross, Alex. (2015, February). How Björk Broke the Sound Barrier. The Guardian.

Sterne, Jonathan. (2012). Sonic Imaginations. In Sterne, J. (Ed.), The Sound Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, pp. 1-17.

Zagorski-Thomas, Simon. (2014). The Musicology of Record Production. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blank Solitude: The Alien Gaze of Under the Skin

Somehow over the past decade or so, Scarlett Johansson has emerged in film as the ultimate human. She shook Bob Harris (Bill Murray) out of a late-life lull in Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003). She repeated Logan’s Run in The Island (2005). She’s the voice of the artificially intelligent operating system in Spike Jonze’s her (2013). She transcends her own brain and body in the woefully disappointing Lucy (2014). And she is rumored to be starring in the live-action version of Ghost in the Shell, which is currently in production. In short, when we think of machine-aided human perfection, Johansson is what we picture.

Scarlett Johansson: Under the Skin

The photographic lens makes you immediately indifferent to yourself — you inwardly play dead. In the same way, the presence of television cameras makes what you are saying seem alien or a matter of indifference  — Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories IV

Johansson begins an interview with Tim Noakes at Dazed & Confused magazine reading from Jean Baudrillard‘s America, his collection about feeling an alien in a foreign land. It’s a famous quotation about smiling from page 34. Further down that same page, Baudrillard (1988) writes,

The skateboarder with his walkman, the intellectual working on his wordprocessor, the Bronx breakdancer whirling frantically in the Roxy, the jogger and the body-builder: everywhere, whether in regard to the body or the mental faculties, you find the same blank solitude, the same narcissistic refraction (p. 34).

Under the SkinJohansson plays a man-eating alien visitor in Jonathan Glazer’s stunning 2014 film, Under the Skin (A24), what Lucy Bolton describes as “a viewing experience that is mediated by the emotional, moral and corporeal alien eye” (p. 1). While Glazer’s adaptation is an intriguing interpretation, Faber’s original novel (Harcourt, 2000) is versatile, lending itself to many others. Taken in tandem though, they inform each other. “[The Book] was a jumping-off point,” Glazer tells Chris Alexander at Fangoria. (p. 43). “Under the Skin is trying to represent something kind of unimaginable—this infinite and alien entity,” he says. “It’s not something for words, really. It shouldn’t be explained away. Our intention was to protect its alienness” (p. 45).

Johansson often feels an alienness herself. “When I finish work,” she tells Dazed, “I just want to get as far away from it as possible. It’s like, ‘Okay, we’re done, let me try to regain my sense of self!’… I’ve certainly had roles which have become all-encompassing, when I’ve been like, ‘Whoa, where’s my life?’, and felt like the floor had been swept from underneath me. But the more experience you have, the less carried away you get.” (p. 128X). As one review parenthetically notes, “The film is nothing if not a knowing, subversive use of Johansson’s celebrity and screen persona.”

Glazer says of her performance, “When she saw the film she said to me that she didn’t recognise what she was doing in it… she said she had no idea what was going on in her mind at any point” (p. 130). In a film so focused on alienation, it’s interesting that Johansson felt it as the actor, as the alien, and as the viewer of this film. Through the lens, the narcissistic refraction: The alien gaze turned in upon itself.

Baudrillard (2003) continues, “When some future scientist expresses the idea that the generations of clones and artificial beings that succeed us are descended from man [sic], it will be as terrible a shock as when Darwin announced that man was descended from the apes” (p. 107).

References:

Alexander, Chris. (2014, May). The Skin He’s In. Fangoria Magazine, #322, pp. 42-46.

Baudrillard, Jean. (1988). America. New York: Verso.

Baudrillard, Jean. (2003). Cool Memories IV: 1995-2000. New York: Verso.

Bolton, Lucy. (2014, January). Under the Skin and the Affective Alien Body. In Film-Philosophy Conference 2014: A World of Cinemas.

Noakes, Tim. (2014, Spring). Under the Skin of Scarlett Johansson. Dazed & Confused, p. pp. 118-131.

Gaming the Change: Cyborgs and Representation

At the onset of network culture, the online dream of the 1990s was a world without gender, a cyber-sidestepping of patriarchy’s reign on the body, Foucault’s biopower re-imagined through integrated circuits. Though this vision was only tangentially related to gaming, one look at the multiple controversies involved in Gamergate is enough to declare the dream of the 1990s long dead. In A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway (1991) writes, “Some differences are playful; some are poles of world historical systems of domination” (p. 161). Parsing the layers of these embedded systems is a start.

Inky

As Ian Bogost puts it,

Videogames are an expressive medium. They represent how real and imagined systems work. They invite players to interact with those systems and form judgments about them. As part of the ongoing process of understanding this medium and pushing it further as players, developers, and critics, we must strive to understand how to construct and critique the representations of our world in videogame form (p. vii).

Videogames employ what Bogost calls procedural rhetoric, “The art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions rather than the spoken word, writing, images, or moving pictures” (p. ix). Distinguishing videogames from other media, he adds, “In some sense, videogames both are and aren’t other media. They do what other media do—and some things they do not—but they do them differently.”

Gaming at the EdgeIn Gaming at the Edge (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), Adrienne Shaw writes that “the discourse about representation (from industry and academic points of view) is what needs to be transformed, not just the representation of particular groups in game texts” (p. 15). Quoting Stuart Hall, Shaw sees representation of marginalized groups as a discursive device, “which represents difference as unity or identity” (p. 16). How identification in videogames differs from identification in other media an entire chapter in Shaw’s book, as is one on when and why representation matters to players. As one interviewee puts it regarding a player character, “He could be a bunny rabbit for all I care!” (the subject of Chapter 3). In addition to these many important questions and issues, she also spends a chapter investigating if anyone actually identifies with Tomb Raider‘s normative Lara Croft.

Gaming at the Edge is about out how marginalized gamers engage with game content, identify with players and characters, and see themselves within these systems. It’s about using new models where the old ones have failed.

Uncertainty in GamesWhere we need to reduce theoretical uncertainty in one aspect, Greg Costikyan argues in Uncertainty in Games (The MIT Press, 2015) that games need uncertainty to hold gamers’ interest. “In a sense,” Costikyan writes, “‘game’ is merely the term we apply to a particular kind of play: play that has gone beyong the simple, and has been complexified and refined by human culture” (p. 7).

Though there’s nothing in here about representation as discussed above, Costikyan’s book is not entirely apolitical because it is written for procedural rhetors (game designers). This fun, little book is a guide to using uncertainty to engage players. It’s a smart, serious look at current game design.

“Some things have gotten better,” Shaw writes in her conclusion to Gaming at the Edge, “but others will not get better unless researchers, activists, and designers change the way they think about why and how representation matters” (pp. 201-202). In order to revive the cyborg dream, we need not just to represent more marginalized groups but also to reexamine the details of our default settings, to interrogate the systems themselves. Haraway (1991) ends her Cyborg Manifesto, writing, “It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories. Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess” (p. 181).

References:

Bogost, Ian. (2007). Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Costikyan, Greg. (2015). Uncertainty in Games. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Haraway, Donna J. (1991). Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Shaw, Adrienne. (2015). Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.