Tuesday, January 31, 2012

So many things to talk about!

I've felt this way before--I've felt that I had lots of topics that I wanted to cover on my blog--and it's fizzled out in the past. I make up lists of possible topics; I pepper old posts with promises that the next post will cover topic X; and then... nothing.

But this time I mean it! Upcoming post topics include
  • something on Florida probably;
  • a recap of January's blogging, along with a secret or not-so-secret pact;
  • a penultimate comment on what I learned turning sketches on paper into sketches in the real world (hopefully with accompanying video)...;
  • to be followed much later by a final comment on the show and future writing-related plans;
  • a recap of my trip to Chicago;
  • and possibly more! Or less! Let's not commit ourselves too early.
I would cover one of those topics, but I'm a little tired and achy from my trip back from Chi. See, I was supposed to get in last night, but I missed my flight, so they sent me this early morning. And all my lack of sleep and water has finally caught up with me.

But tomorrow we'll get back to real blogging. Or ersatz blogging. We'll see.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Post-Mortem on "Unicorns, The Middle Class, And Other Mythical Creatures"

I've seen my show twice: on opening night, thanks to a friend's Facetime-enabled iPhone; and on closing night, from the booth, with the rest of the writers laughing at our own material (still!) and with the director providing free commentary on what hit and what missed.

From my minor experience on stage--you know, in high school--I feel like there's a 50/50 chance with closing night: it's either a finely-tuned machine; or it's the show where the cast brings out their personal, untested tweaks because they're bored or where the cast just stumbles over lines because they're thinking about their next shows.

 I will have more to say about this show after our official post-mortem with the director and the other writers; but from what I heard from the other writers, it sounds like closing night was messier than some other nights. For instance, in one of my sketches, there's a series of jokes about bad scripts, and the actors jumped to the final, longest joke. But it all still worked, I thought. (Friends were there and they seemed to like it. And, heck, we all laughed.) So even if this closing night was a little messy, it was still a lot of fun.

Especially because I got to go up after the performance and take a bow. We got diplomas and nice writing pads; and friends told me that my uncomfortable smile didn't look forced at all. So, all in all, teleconferencing in from Texas was hard; and I might be more interested in some of the other writing classes (for instance, there's a class that seems more professionally useful, like writing a tv spec); but the transition from writing sketches to putting them on was very educational. So what did I learn? More on that after I think about it.

Friday, January 27, 2012

You're getting Chicago and you're getting Chicago, everyone's getting Chicago

I've been trying to post every other day at least, but I've recently fallen off the wagon because of my trip to Chicago. It's not that Chicago is inherently distracting; but coming back has been a strange mix of shocking and boring. (It's not that Chicago is boring--it's that I'm boring. Remember your Buckaroo Banzai: Every where you go, there you are.)

Wednesday was mostly travel, flying from San Angelo, through Dallas, to O'Hare. I'm staying with busy friends, so we mostly ate and hung around. Luckily, besides my self-medication (2 games of insane-level Sudoku), I also have a giant book to read for a Kirkus review. So I have plenty to keep me busy.

Until today, that is, when I have the closing show of my cowritten sketch revue. As you may know, I've been flogging the hell out of that show on Facebook. ("Flogging the hell out of" = posting twice a week. I just don't like self-promotion, so it feels like hell.) And I had no compunction about telling people to come.

Until I realized that some of my best friends in Chicago are going to come tonight--they bought tickets and everything. (Note: I don't get any of that money. Damn.) So now I've got friends coming to see the show and I care about their opinions. So now I'm nervous and can feel my heart fluttering.

Alternately, I could have an elevated heart rate because of the coffee that I'm drinking.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Blue sky (or, Just taking up space)

I always forget to bring my phone or camera with me when I go out on walks with my dog, so I miss the chance to take pictures of anthropological interest--the bumper sticker "Jesus Didn't Tap," the pile of garbage bags full of Bud Light cans, etc. (Curious about "Jesus Didn't Tap"? I'll tell you more about that soon.)

But every once in a while, I do have my phone with me--though never my camera. (Let's be honest, for a certain portion of the population, separate "cameras" don't exist anymore. This obviously doesn't include people who attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies or paparazzi; but for people who used to use point-and-shoot cameras, the phone camera has pretty well replaced that. True or false?)

Anyway, in case you were more interested in natural rather than built or anthropological environment, here is a tree, denuded of much of its leaves, in front of a blue-blue-blue sky, which is mostly what we have here.

How does this make you feel?

It makes me thirsty. (But, to be honest, I'm posting this because a) I want to try out Picasa's blogging function and b) I'm getting ready for my trip to Chicago.)

Posted by Picasa

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Nice Whig!; or, Are you ready to (have a new) party (system)?

It's really hard to look around us and realize that we live in a contingent world--we take for granted many things that might easily have been different. And so, for a presentist, it's hard to remember that things were once different and things might once again be different in a future.

So, when you look around at the Republican and Democratic Parties, it's sometimes hard to remember that these weren't always the major parties in America.

Political historians break down American history into several big chunks, which roughly look like:

  1. First Party System
    1. When: 1792 - 1824
    2. Who: The Federalist Party vs. the Republican/Democratic-Republican Party
    3. ...or: Hamilton vs. Jefferson
    4. Why: Federal power vs. State power; Industrial power vs. Agrarian power; British ties vs. French ties
    5. How did it end?: Hamilton had some success with the federal bank, but the next generation arose with new issues
  2. Second Party System
    1. When: 1828 - 1854
    2. Who: The Democratic Party vs. the Whig Party
    3. ...or: Jackson vs. Henry Clay
    4. Why: New South/West vs. Old Northeast power; Jackson's anti-central bank issues vs. Whig's modernizing/industrializing interest; the Mob vs. the Rich
    5. How did it end?: Whig ideas on modernization become mainstream but the Whig party falls apart due to slavery.
  3. Third Party System
    1. When: 1854 - 1890s
    2. Who:  The Republican Party vs. the Democratic Party
    3. ... or: Carpetbaggers and Scalawags vs. Southern Redeemers, Lutherans vs. Catholics, etc.
    4. Why: Civil War, Reconstruction, even more Manifest Destiny.
    5. How did it end?: Once again, new issues bring about a political realignment (rise of labor unions, series of bad recessions), including the rise of third party Populist movements.
  4. Fourth Party System
    1. When: 1890s - 1932
    2. Who:  The Republican Party vs. the Democratic Party
    3. ... or: Calvin Coolidge triumphant! 
    4. Why: Trust-busting and big business, government inspection of meat production
    5. How did it end?: Prohibition put strains on certain political alliances, but the Great Depression does it in. The Democratic Party begins to lose the Southern Redeemer stink. Blacks and college graduates start voting Democratic.
  5. Fifth Party System
    1. When: 1933 - ? (1960, end of New Deal Coalition; 1980, formation of the Moral Majority)
    2. Who:  The Republican Party vs. the Democratic Party
    3. ... or: FDR vs. Reagan
    4. Why: Social security
    5. How did it end?: Civil Rights Era drives final wedge between Democratic Party and white Southerners, including rise of Dixiecrat segregationist third party (1948); post-war baby and jobs boom ends up with spoiled Reaganites crashing the party in the 1980s.
When you look at a rough history like that, you probably see some big consistencies--conservative, agrarian, anti-bank tendencies vs. modernizing, industrialization, pro-bank tendencies. But we should also see the differences. (A good gauge for this is probably your first thoughts: in the First Party System, I'm Hamiltonian--I like a strong banking system; in the Fifth Party System, I'm all for bank regulation. I guess the difference is I like a strong central bank, but I don't like cocaine-fueled bankers. It's a subtle distinction.)

So here's really why I'm bringing all this up: with the Republican party pulled in three ways--Romney, the technocrat financier from the East; Gingrich, the angry populist from the Southeast (born PA, served GA); and Paul, the libertarian philosopher from Texas--do you think we're going to see a party breakdown and realignment ushering in a new party system?

Probably not, right: all the other party realignments coincided with/were spurred on by new issues emerging from the background. Slavery was always an issue for some people, but it became more of a dividing issue in the 1850s and 1860s with the admittance of more states into the union--and that's what led to the breakdown of the party system. 

But today, all the issues that are coming up are pretty much the same as in 2008--social security, culture war, future panic. In 2008, the Republican party, in some disarray, tried to energize the base through a mixed ticket: old line pragmatist McCain and firebrand Palin. (I mean, that's the way they were packaged; these days, it's hard to look back at McCain as anything other than a doddering senile tumor full of rage.)

The fractures this year seem worse--c.f. Gingrinch's attack on Bain, which has to sound like socialism to some people. But I'm expecting some amicable patch-up this year that leaves more people unsatisfied both with the selection and with losing. (Which I think they will, baring some terrible Euro breakdown.)

But once more and more people get unsatisfied? Maybe we're do for a realignment--not so much a third party, but for a sloughing off of some voters into the other party.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Science Friday's Callers: A Study in Derailing Conversation

OK, maybe I'm being a little hyperbolic in describing Science Friday's callers as derailing conversation; but it seems clear to me that these callers do not add value to the show.

If you're unfamiliar with Science Friday, it's a two-hour NPR show about lots of science-related issues, from new studies (how yogurt helps); to new discoveries (kraken kill dinosaurs and arrange their bones?); to ongoing arguments (is Dissociative Identity Disorder real?); to the origins of scientific words (who was Bunsen and why did he want to burn things?); to science-in-culture discussions (how realistic was Contagion?).

So, that sounds pretty interesting, right? As the cherry on top, Science Friday is hosted by Ira Flatow (thanks, Wikipedia!), who was the host of Newton's Apple, which is one of the guideposts of my childhood (and the reason why I love Rube Goldberg machines).

But Science Friday includes times to call-in and discuss these complex scientific issues or ask clarifying questions of the experts--and these calls really lower the value of the show for me.

Often, someone will call in to ask a clarifying question on something that the scientist said which seemed pretty clear the first time--but then, if one person is confused, it's likely that others are confused as well. So, these question-askers take time, but you can't resent them too much.

More aggravating are those callers who call in to grind their ax--anti-vaccine activists, global warming deniers, other members of the public who want to comment on science that they don't understand. I once heard a guy call in to ask Ira and guest if the internal structure of crystals proved that the whole universe vibrated in harmony--and the show was only tangentially on geology.

And what's worst is that Flatow cannot or will not cut people off or hang up on them for the longest time. He just lets people go on about how cavemen hunted dinosaurs and blah blah blah.

Maybe we should chip in a few bucks to Science Friday so that they can hire an extra producer to screen these calls. Or get some lessons for Flatow on how to be more assertive.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Wikipedia goes dark for 24 hours--great protest or best protest ever?

In a few hours (oh god, is it Eastern, Central, or Pacific?), Wikipedia will go dark for 24 hours to protest SOPA/PIPA, bills before Congress that everyone who likes communication dislikes. The only people who like those bills are IP-owning corporations (which, sure, they're people, right?).

Over the past few weeks, SOPA/PIPA have been altered a bit to make them less onerous on people, but they're still bad bills and potentially disruptive to the Enlightenment project that Wikipedia is engaged in (i.e., spreading information, preferably correct information, but let's remember that Diderot's Encyclopedie wasn't 100% accurate. The important thing is the corrigibility of the information: the project is the accumulation itself--this is science that we're engaged in, not theology).

I don't want to get deep into SOPA/PIPA, I just want to give some props to Wikipedia for coming up with a protest that's gotten attention and will continue to get attention. And what a great protest it is: it's a direct inquiry to users of Wikipedia, asking if this is the sort of world they want to live in. Do you want to live in a world without Wikipedia? Sure, we all joke about how annoying it is that some students use Wikipedia as a single-stop plagiarism store; or how they think it's the alpha and omega of research.

But all joking aside, Wikipedia is a huge resource that I use all the time. (Note to self: donate more to Wikipedia.) It won't be fun tomorrow, to go through 24 hours without Wikipedia, but I'd rather go without Wikipedia for a day to ensure that it survives the ever-oncoming copyright-holders onslaught.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Super Short Review: Midnight in Paris (2011)

There's so much rich, deep tv on (Netflix) right now: Sarah and I are making our way through

  • Friday Night Lights (2006-11)
  • Sons of Anarchy (2008-present)
  • Downton Abbey (2010-present)
  • Peep Show (2003-present)
  • Portlandia (2011-present)
  • The Cosby Show (1984-1992)
  • Frasier (1993-2004)
  • 3rd Rock from the Sun (1996-2001)
But we still decided to rent a movie from our local Hastings last night. Sarah chose Woody Allen's recent Midnight in Paris, which surprised me, since she's not Jewish and not from New York.

OK, sure, that's a stereotype--there are probably people on the West Coast who also enjoy Woody Allen movies.

The movie was certainly entertaining; but does it improve on Allen's humor piece, "A Twenties Memory"? Eh, bof. Which is French for "meh."

The plot and characters of the movie are thin and uninteresting, rarely requiring more than two adjectives and a noun: the borish, conservative father-in-law(-to-be); snappish WASP fiancee; milquetoast dreamer screenwriter; the pedantic professor; etc.

There's drips and dabs from other Allen works here in the setup (the dreamer who'd rather live in another time might be named "Kugelmas"); but the heart of this movie is really in the conceit of a man who gets to travel to his Golden Age (the lost generation in the twenties) and has to figure out what that really means to him.

But for us, who aren't so engaged in the character because he's not very interesting, most of the enjoyment comes from seeing those 20s characters acting just like we knew they would: Hemingway's dialogue is flat and somehow both droning and pointed; Dali is surreal; Picasso is fiery; etc. (Which is half the pleasure of "A Twenties Memory." The other half is how Allen plays with language and expectation: "I was then working on what I felt was a major American novel but the print was too small and I couldn't get through it.")

So watching actors pretend to be famous historical figures is fun. There's a pure joy to mimicry--we like seeing things match with things that they aren't--so it's fun to watch  Loki play F. Scott Fitzgerald. But that's all it is--fun.

(And you probably need to be well read to get all the jokes, which means the movie gives us one of the worst forms of pleasure imaginable: self-satisfaction at getting the jokes.)

There's something more promising, I think, in the failure of people to live up to our expectations: so when our time traveler hero gives Bunuel the plot of The Exterminating Angel, it's funny to see Bunuel object to the nonsensical premise--"Why can't they leave?"

Summation: Light Woody, retreading some of the classic prose humor; fun to see for the in-jokes, but don't get so self-satisfied with those jokes that you take the political asides as settled.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Let's write a sequel! Or a re-imagining! Or a parallel novel!

Some thoughts and definitions:

Let's take a book we all know--Frankenstein.

Let's write a sequel: maybe the monster survives and gets involved in someone else's family; or returns to finish off the Frankenstein family; or Victor leaves the experiment notes to Walton, who, his hopes blasted by a failed arctic expedition, decides to become a pioneering biologist. We all know what sequels are.

Of course, we could write a less direct sequel--take a hundred years or more off and see where the story is then. (In a way, Young Frankenstein takes this route.)

But why would we write a sequel? Is there some part of the story that needs concluding? Is there some theme that we want to explore?

Eh, sequels are boring--let's write a re-imagining: we'll pretend that the Frankenstein story didn't take place and we'll move the basics of the story to another time or setting. During World War I, a crazed surgeon decides to solve the problem of war with a super-soldier. During the 1990s, a hacker creates an AI that gets out of control. Etc.

Or let's play with re-imagining the story for a different genre: mix Frankenstein with Cinderella for a fairy tale of making a true love; mix in some slapstick comedy for Young Frankenstein; mix in some Western material and you have a monster running amok or destroying the railroad or fighting off US cavalry. Etc.

(Of course Frankenstein's monster would fight for the Native Americans--he's obsessed with them in the original.)

But do we really need another re-imagining? Let's write a parallel novel: let's re-tell the original story from a different POV. Some examples: John Gardner rewrites Beowulf as Grendel; Gregory Maguire rewrites Oz as Wicked; Alice Randall rewrites Gone with the Wind as The Wind Done Gone.

So let's tell the Frankenstein story from Elizabeth's POV--how'd she feel when her beloved brother/husband goes off to play with dead things? Or what about William or Ernest, the little Frankenstein brothers? Or Clerval, Frankenstein's put-upon friend? Or maybe Robert Walton's crew has something to say about this crazy dude they picked up off the ice?

But do we really need that?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Tomahawk Man

I haven't had too much success looking for a steady job recently (which doesn't seem so bad as long as I listen to the new Muppets' song "Life's a Happy Song" on repeat). With my background, I've been looking at freelance writing gigs, preferably in lit (my background) or politics (my obsession).

But I am currently freelancing for Kirkus, writing reviews for Kirkus Indie, the self-published, pay-for-review section. And by "currently freelancing," I mean I just read my first book and wrote my first review. I won't talk about the book in any specifics yet (or maybe ever--I need to reread my contract). But here's the general situation: it was a fine try, but not a great book.

When I started to read the book, the music in the back of my head was mostly the sound of razors sharpening. Oh, how I'd flay this bool, how I'd expose it's faults, how the misfit skeleton would be embalmed in my review to teach others what not to do.

But it's hard to keep up the joy of filleting someone else's hard work and dream. Could I be writing the review that will crush this person's dream? Could I ever avoid imagining this person's eyes losing their hopeful light?

(Maybe this is a time for a reality check: this person self-published a book, so their dream has been stepped on and manhandled already. A little more abuse probably won't kill the dream.)

All of this makes me wonder about my literary idol--the deceiving, lying, mischievous, vicious, acid-tongued Edgar Allan Poe. Poe made some money from his stories and poems, but his main job was as a reviewer. And he became somewhat famous for his hatchet jobs.

They called him the Tomahawk Man.

(Picture yanked from the excellent E. A. Poe Society.)

Did he ever hesitate while formulating his venom? Did his acid ever drip on his hands as he wrote? Or did he see himself as a doctor, caustically burning away the dangerous growths of bad literature? Was that how he got through the day, by seeing his violence against others as ultimately recuperative, healthful?

That's it! I'm not a butcher of dreams--I'm a surgeon... of dreams.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

How'd that sketch get away? (Writing a sketch revue, part 4)

"C.R.E.A.M" was one of my favorite early sketches and it always worked for the in-class readings--so why didn't it make it into the show?

1) Well, first, when I say that it always worked during readings, I should be clear that not every joke worked; and the sketch definitely had some evolution from Writing 2 to Writing 5 (when it was clear that it wasn't going to work for the show).

For instance, the first version was messier because I was still learning about heightening. That is, you can't start with a joke about stalkers and then move on to a joke about "lipstick classic" because the stalker idea is so much worse. What you should do is start off small and "heighten" by moving on to more outrageous aspects. (My first version hit the Betty White/funeral joke really soon.)

So, let's be honest: not every joke is a laugh-getter. That's one reason why this sketch didn't move on.

2) My ultimate POV in this sketch was captured by the last line--corporations will do anything for profit. (That's part of the reason why the characters in this sketch are so flat and also named after people on popular bills/money: I didn't want to pick on any particular businesspeople, but on business more generally.)

But the jokes throughout are about how corporations will do anything to make money off of women. So my director asked me to partner up with some of the women in our class and see if we could revise towards that angle.

And... well, not all collaborations are successful. I didn't want to let go of my point (corporations, grrrr!); but I tried to slant some of the terrible comments toward women, which just meant that the ending got too dark too quick: it ended with a joke about murdering women for profit, rather than murdering people for profit. (Violence against people: funny. Violence against women: less funny.)

So we had a collaborative block: I liked my POV, my director liked my premise. That's reason no. 2 why "C.R.E.A.M." isn't in the show.

3) The usual cast for a Second City show is three men and three women. Men and women do play the opposite gender in sketches, but when you can, it's probably better not to ask the audience to do extra imaginative work. (Or only to cast cross-gender for a reason.)

One version of "C.R.E.A.M." took that into account, and changed one of the businessmen to a businesswoman. (As my director pointed out, that solution would let us get away with more murder: the most misogynistic lines would sound better coming from the businesswoman.)

But our cast of Unicorns turned out to be four women and two men. (Why? Because, in the audition process, that's whom we really liked/thought we could write for.)

Conclusion: So now I had a sketch with some funny jokes in it; a strong POV (corporations, grrr!) with a strong but not identical premise (let's get money from women!); and with a mismatched gender cast. And so this sketch didn't make it into the show.

But here's another way to look at it: this sketch was killed by collaboration.

A) If my director had the same vision as I did for the sketch, we could've honed it down to where the POV and the premise matched. (And this is not uncommon: I saw lots of sketches where the writer had funny ideas, but no coherent POV--but the sketch gained a coherent POV through writer-director collaboration.)

B) And if my fellow writers and director wanted to cast the show so as to preserve this one sketch, we could have. (To be clear, we did cast the show with sketches in mind--X would be perfect for my lawyer sketch, Y would be great for your doctor sketch; but the idea of casting the whole show for one single sketch is crazy.)

So what do we learn about sketch collaboration? It's like the reed and the willow analogy people always use to discuss compromise: bend your sketch or lose it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The sketch that got away (On writing a sketch revue, part 3?)

I seriously have other interests--I'm still obsessed with politics and still feel a mix of rage and empathy towards the contemporary right wing. But, yes, today it's another post about writing sketch comedy.

Let's recap what I've said so far, because I've forgotten it:

  • Part 1: an overview of the writing program at Second City; it's impossible to know if you're being funny without an audience.
  • Part 2: writing for an audience is a form of collaboration. (Which I guess means that only someone like Henry Darger or Austin Tappan Wright isn't collaborating, since they're just stuffing their desks and drawers full of stuff without showing them to anyone.)

I'm definitely going to have to revisit and clarify Part 2 (there's different forms of audience-collaboration, from sucking up to an audience (see: GOP debates) to imagining an audience that doesn't yet exist). But let's put off more collaboration-talk and look at a sketch that didn't make it into the show. Here's the sketch, with a short discussion after:


Ver. 4 / 9-3-2011
GEORGE, businessman
ABE, businessman
ANDREW, businessman
BEN, businessman
(Businessmen sitting at a table in an office, center stage; AD A and AD B in the dark, stage right)
Gentlemen, we have a serious problem: If we don’t boost our profits next quarter, Mayb-oreal Corporation will not survive the year. Abe?

We need to boost profits from our core product--lipstick. And we need to do it fast. Andrew?

Or else we’ll all lose our jobs. Ben?

I can’t lose this job. I don’t have any other skills. George?

Don’t panic, gentlemen. This is the same question we always face: How do we boost our corporate profits?

We could market to women’s nostalgia for a simpler time.

Like Coke Classic and Reebok Classic--Lipstick Classic.

We’d offer a limited range of colors, just like mom had.

For the commercial, I see a modern woman.
               (Lights up on AD A)
She works hard and she plays hard.
               (AD A switches from typing to tennis, or so)
But why should she have to think hard about her lipstick?

                               AD A
               (Trying to decide between lipsticks)
Mom didn’t need all these colors to be confident and elegant. She just needed her red lipstick and her valium.
               (Lights out on AD A)

But our profits would crash if women only bought one color.

We need to expand consumer options.

A color for every occasion. How does the serious professional woman say she’s a serious professional woman? Lipstick.

               (Lights up on AD B, applying lipstick, ad-sexy)
                               AD B
Congressional Confirmation for a Federal Judgeship Coral. I’m ready for your questions, senator.
               (Lights out on AD B)

Of course multiple colors is key to maintaining profits. But let’s think outside the box.

R&D is doing work on integrating computers into our lipstick.

We’re researching a GPS-tracking lipstick that should be a hit with the overprotective mom, jealous husband, and conscientious pimp demographics. We’re working out the kinks still.

               (Lights up on AD A, applying lipstick)
                               AD A
Well, I like the color, but should my lips be tingling? And they kind of feel like they’re burning? And--oh God--I'm blind!

That’s good, but we need something to boost our profits now. Or I won’t be able to pay for my boat.

How can we get women to buy more lipstick?

Apply it to different body parts. Andrew?

               (Lights up on AD A and B)
Ear lipstick, to add that splash of color. Ben?
               (AD A applies ear lipstick)

Body lipstick, to cover up blemishes. George?
               (AD B applies body lipstick)
Vagina lipstick, to increase confidence.
               (AD A gives GEORGE the finger, lights out on ADs)

It’s interesting, but are women insecure enough about their vaginas for us to make a profit off them?

The Vagina Monologues may have ruined this profit base for us.

If this doesn’t work, I’ll have to move back home with my mom. Wait, what if we concentrated on lips, but got consumers to continue buying lipstick later in life.

We could ramp up our brand-vertising targeting the key demographic of women over 65.

Their husbands are dead--we could roll out a widow line for senior dating.

Cross-promote with Viagra.

Get a celebrity endorser that speaks to that demographic.

               (Lights up on AD A and B)
                               AD A
I’m Judi Dench--

Too mannish.
I’m Helen Mirren--

Sounds expensive.

                               AD A
I’m Betty White--

And maybe get senior women to buy lipstick for a new event.

                               AD A
I’m Betty White, and like you, I worry about what lipstick I’ll be wearing at my funeral.
               (Lights out on ADs)

Fine. But we should concentrate on getting repeat customers. George?

Instead of creating a market, we should tap into a market that already exists. Abe?

What if we got men to buy lipstick? Andrew?

How could we get men to buy lipstick?

               (Lights up on ADs)
                               AD A
Check out the flame details on my car, bra. And it won’t smear!

                               AD B
Ayuh, foh bass fishing, I prefeh All Day Cherry. But foh trout, I get mohre fish with Rose Serenity.

                               AD A
This lipstick on my collar? No, I haven’t been cheating on you--that’s my color, dear.

                               AD B
I used to have a lot of trouble leaving notes for women on their bathroom mirrors while they took showers. But now--
               (Writing on a mirror/wall, reading out loud)
You can’t get away from me, you bitch.
               (Considering it)
Now with Mayb-oreal Lipstick for Stalkers, I’m stalking in style.
               (Lights out on ADs)

We’ve got a lot of good ideas for boosting lipstick profits.

But maybe we should branch out into new products. What’s the next big thing? Abe?

We could turn a healthy profit on alternative meat if we could overcome the taboo on cannibalism. Andrew?

I still think we’d net a greater profit on weddings if we made incest marriage acceptable. Ben?

There’s a lot of demand out there for torturing people. George?

Why stop at torture? Murder is where the real money is. People would pay a lot to kill strangers.

And even more to kill their co-workers.
                     (All businessmen laugh)
Seriously, though, I’d kill you all for a profit.


This sketch started in Writing 2, and has three seeds:
  1. a funny (to me) scenario: I've seen lots of thrillers where male stalkers use lipstick to leave messages to their targets, so what would a stalker focus group for lipstick look like?
  2. a theme/point/POV: our teacher in that class believed that every scene should have a point--it's not just a collection of funny jokes, but a collection of funny jokes unified by a single POV. So my POV here was almost directly stated at the end: businessmen will do anything for a profit.
  3. a format: I wrote this after I saw a real Second City sketch that featured "break-outs"--where characters will jump up and do a mini-scene to illustrate something from the main sketch. In my original draft, I had the four businessmen do the break-outs, but a) break-outs take time; and b) the standard cast is six people, so writing a six-person scene gives everyone stage-time.

(Sidenote: "CREAM" is an acronym from a Wu-Tang Clan song for "Cash Rules Everything Around Me." This scene has no reference to that song, but the feeling seemed apt--and if someone ever found our list of scenes, this title would give nothing away.)

You've read enough for today, so tomorrow I'll get into how this sketch changed along the way and why it doesn't appear in the show.

Oh, but: how does it read to you? Did you smile, chuckle, or laugh?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Sketch as collaboration (On writing a sketch revue, part 2)

This Friday was the opening night for the sketch show that I've been working on, Unicorns, The Middle Class, And Other Mythical Creatures. (And that's our preferred capitalization, for some reason. Maybe just because I like the way it looks and I'm on the PR committee.)

In my last post on the sketch revue, I sketched out the basics of the Writing Program (1 through 4, writing; 5 and 6, putting on a show); and I acted confused about whether or not something was funny.

Today I'm going to talk about collaboration, because putting on a sketch show is all about collaboration (unless it's a one-man show you're directing and starring in after writing).

At the Second City, Writing 1 through 4 are pretty permeable in terms of people joining and leaving certain classes. For instance, I stayed in my time slot (Saturday, 1-4pm) for all four classes; but by the time I got to 4, only one other person had been with me the whole time. The other participants either switched to different times or opted not to take the next class.

This permeability is a mixed bag: although you have to relearn every new person's idea of funny, by the end, you know a lot of people (even if you don't know them too well). The same could be said of the teachers: you get a new teacher for each class. (And I know there are jokes that would've killed one teacher that fell flat with another.)

Now, let's be honest: writing with other people in mind as an audience is itself a form of collaboration (if a twisted and uncertain form). I knew one kid who seemed to think of himself as pushing the envelope in terms of gross-out humor, but even he was keeping his audience in mind in order to gross us out. And when you write a joke and it doesn't get a laugh, you can tell yourself that people just don't get your sense of humor, but it still stings and should leave a mark. (At the very least, it might leave a scar that's less sensitive.)

This sense of collaboration goes into hyperdrive when you're actually turning these sketches into a show, which will be the topic of tomorrow's short post. (Yay short posts, am I right?)

P.S. I might in these posts say things like "writing with other people in mind as an audience is itself a form of collaboration," which you might vehemently disagree with in your own writing practice. I think you're wrong; but maybe I'm really only describing my own experience. Feel free to tell me so.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Andrew Sullivan's favorite novels (are a good measure of his political failures)

I'm taking a break from thinking about comedy right now because, thousands of miles away, my sketch comedy revue is going on. So, let's talk about Andrew Sullivan's favorite novels. And let's take this bird by bird:

Bird A) I talk about Andrew Sullivan a lot because he's a model blogger at times--he talks about a lot of different issues, he continues conversations, he likes dogs; but I also talk about him a lot because I find him so infuriating.

Bird B) For instance, I think art and popular culture are important for political life. (Which is why maybe my real favorite blogging beat is Alyssa Rosenberg over at ThinkProgress.) However, Sullivan doesn't really seem to put a lot of work into culture blogging outside of his particular narrow interests (like pot).

If you're interested, here's Sullivan talking about his favorite novel. And here we have a mix of why I like Sullivan--he's pretty clear about his failings (he doesn't much care for novels, his favorites are pretty nakedly didactic)--and why I don't like him--he's got some failings that he isn't aware of (he doesn't understand the relation between the particular and the general).

I can't help but feel that Sullivan would be a better political commenter if he learned how to empathize with individuals through reading about characters in novels.

Bird C) Along those lines, I can't say that I'm surprised that Sullivan recently watched Ken Burns's Civil War. I wonder if Sullivan ever watched The Wire?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Is that funny? (On writing a sketch revue, part 1)

Tomorrow is opening night for the sketch revue that I have been working on for the past... well, either four months or year, depending on how you want to count.

Quickly: the basic Writing Program at the Second City is four terms long (Writing 1->Writing 4) and each term is about 8 weeks. So I started last January. However, when I say "basic" I mean colors-shapes-farm animal sounds basic. We learn about character and sketch structure and a few specific formats--the blackout, the clothesline, the townhall--but it's all abstract. The writers perform (or sometimes just read) the sketches in class, with no previous read-through.

Until, that is, Writing 5 and 6, which are all about casting, rehearsing, revising, and putting on your actual show.

So, before Sarah and I moved to San Angelo, eight writers (including me) and one director spent eight weeks working on some sketches--including older sketches from our previous Writing classes. (Which is one reason why you can consider this process to be a year long.) Then we sat through an awesome day of auditions. (Seriously, there's so much talent out there, it's ridiculous that it's all free.) And then once we cast the show, we had to adjust or throw out some of our sketches, since the sketches no longer fit the cast.

Some other day I will talk about the heartbreak and heart attack of turning funny-on-paper sketches into funny-on-stage sketches; but right now, I want to talk about the difficulty of knowing whether what you're writing is funny in the first place.

You can't.

I don't mean this in the cliche of "different people have different ideas of funny" (or as I prefer to think of it, the "fart vs. Holocaust problem": sometimes farts are funny, sometimes Nazis are--and if you combine them...). We could argue about that if you want some other day, along the lines of:

Pro: There are certain comedic moves--reversals, running gags, double-entendres--that are always funny to all people throughout time.
Con: Hey, my sister was killed by a reversal!

I mean that, existentially speaking, without some audience, you cannot know whether your writing will perform as expected. This gets to one reason why I really liked the Writing Program: I smiled while writing a lot of my sketches, but I was always surprised by what got a laugh and what didn't.

I'm not sure that's what I really want to say, though. After all, after a few passes through a sketch, there were some jokes or structures that I could re-use and have some educated guess as to whether it would get a laugh.

Argh, this is going to be a series of posts! Damn.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The water outage on New Year's Day

Apparently, in '06, a water main in San Angelo broke, and the water for most of the town was out for a whole week. It was Christmas.

This year, the 42" water main that broke on New Year's Day only knocked out the water for 70% of the town and only for a few hours. Maybe 12 hours. A day at most for some people.

After that we were told there was a 24-hour boil notice; so for the next 24 hours, we boiled all the water that we were going to use for cooking, ice-making, and cleaning dishes. (The last part was my addition to the paranoia.)

Sarah was actually at the grocery store when the water outage happened, and the place apparently went a little crazy--people who had lived through the '06 outage were grabbing gallons of water off the shelf as if, well, as if they lived in a drought zone with a massive infrastructure failure. I picture it like the cockroach episode of The X-Files. ("War of the Coprophages"--and yes, I knew that without looking it up.)

This all had a relatively painless resolution: sure, the water felt a little weird for the next day or so, but no serious harm was done. (I skipped a shower because the water felt more oily than usual--usually the water here has a hard, salt-metallic edge. I imagine, when the reserve is used up, we'll find a lot of pennies buried under there.)

But it does raise the specter of waterlessness that may be the future of this region of Texas--or at least, it does for those apocalyptically inclined like me. (And how can you watch the Iowa Republican Caucus without being a little apocalyptic?) Will we soon be shipping all of our water in? Boiling and reclaiming the water from organic sludge? I heard of a rancher that had to sell his livestock because of the drought around here. There was a burn ban in effect this summer and the barbeque sets around here are still wrapped up in plastic. What else will change here as things get drier and drier? Ugh, this is depressing. Is there any good environmental news for Texas?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Ron Paul and racism: did the Civil Rights Act make race relations worse?

Ugh, no, the Civil Rights Act did not make race relations worse. But it's not as ridiculously vile a question as it might at first appear.

I don't want to defend libertarianism, which I think is an internally inconsistent philosophy that sociopaths use to dress up their sickness for formal occasions. But there's something interesting to me about Ron Paul's claim that Civil Rights legislation worsens race relations.

It's not Paul's argument itself--which ridiculously goes like this: no one can know who is racist, so the only way to protect minorities is through quotas, and quotas cause racial tension. But I'm still interested in the idea that law is an ineffective means of dealing with racial prejudice.

The "they just know how to hide it better. Or something." argument
In Ghost World, Steve Buscemi's Seymour has an interesting line about how prejudices remain as deep structure, even when the external manifestations change. So, the Coon Chicken Inn, with its cartoony, racist logo of a grinnin' black man, transforms into the less racially-charged Cook's Chicken. So that's a victory, since we may not accept blatant racism--but it's not a total victory, since racism still exists:
Enid: So, I don't really get it... Are you saying that things were better back then, even though there was stuff like this?
Seymour: I suppose things are better now, but... I don't know, it's complicated. People still hate each other but they just know how to hide it better. Or something. 
Is it possible that laws merely force racism to take on different forms? For instance, as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, where the antebellum South loved itself some slavery talk, post-war it became all about States' rights--but the issue still was how to keep the blacks in their place. So it's conceivable that a Civil Rights Act or two might outlaw (or make unfashionable) certain expressions of racism and leave the racism alone to mutate.

The "we boys never stoned another kitten!" argument
This is almost the same argument, but Harriet Beecher Stowe makes it so subtly in Uncle Tom's Cabin that I've got to cite her. In Chapter Nine, we meet Senator and Mrs. Bird; and while the Senator voted for something like the Fugitive Slave Act, the Mrs. knows her Christian duty. (In case you were wondering, there are no Jews or Muslims in Stowe's America. And no Native Americans either.) And she's a stern teacher of morals:
Generally the most indulgent and easy to be entreated of all mothers, still her boys had a very reverent remembrance of a most vehement chastisement she once bestowed on them, because she found them leagued with several graceless boys of the neighborhood, stoning a defenceless kitten.
"I'll tell you what," Master Bill used to say, "I was scared that time. Mother came at me so that I thought she was crazy, and I was whipped and tumbled off to bed, without any supper, before I could get over wondering what had come about; and, after that, I heard mother crying outside the door, which made me feel worse than all the rest. I'll tell you what," he'd say, "we boys never stoned another kitten!"

Man, I love me some Stowe. I love that the mother's power is (a) material (beating, sending them off without supper) and (b) emotional (making the kids feel bad for making her feel bad)--and still so limited. Those children have learned one lesson from this--"we boys never stoned another kitten"--and a narrow lesson at that.

This is a perfect example of a law having a very narrow scope and not really changing the culture of "graceless boys." So we've got to change the culture.

But law is culture
Ursula K. Le Guin's Lathe of Heaven is a perfect example of her anti-utopian humanism: when a man can change the world through his (lucid) dreams, a therapist tries to direct that change to create a better world. In the competent PBS adaptation, the therapist does away with racism by making everyone gray; but the lucid dreamer has a different method of getting rid of racism: not being racist.

This may be where Seymour, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Ursula K. Le Guin meet up, with the notion that we need to change our feelings, not just our (top-down) laws.

But even if I agree with Seymour and with Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ursula K. Le Guin that feelings may remain untouched by laws, I have to say that laws are still pretty good at getting people to act a certain way. If I'm racist, but I live in an anti-racist society, then my expressions of racism are going to be curtailed and that's materially going to affect the lives of those minorities that live around me.

And I'm not sure that I totally agree with Seymour/Stowe/Le Guin in the long run: a law that may feel unnatural and repressive one day (forcing racism to squeeze through the cracks and take on new forms) may soon feel natural and lead to different feelings on the part of the next generations.

Or to put it succinctly, law is a part of culture, and I don't think we should disregard the effects of culture in all its forms.

So what about Paul?
So even if Paul was making the smart version of his argument (the version that Seymour/Stowe/Le Guin sort of make), he'd be wrong.