Sunday, November 29, 2009

An Adendum

It has been pointed out to me that the reference in The Adams Family to Medea may well have been a reference, and, in fact, now that it's been pointed out, I believe it is quite likely that it was a reference, to the Medea of Greek literature, who killed her children. This makes the joke significantly funnier in that respect. Having said that, the rest of the dissection still stands.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Anatomy of a Failed Joke

This article may be a bit esoteric. But it's my blog. So deal.

Last night, my parents and I attended a showing of "The Adams Family," a new musical adaptation of the New Yorker strips/television shows/movies, currently in its Pre-Broadway run here in Chicago. The cast, featuring Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth, Krysta Rodriguez, and a spectacularly under-utilized Terence Mann, was the obvious highlight, and the show was enjoyable enough. It was by no means spectacular, but I was rarely less than entertained. It's still early in the run, so as the show continues to tighten up, it can only get better; I like to give faith to such things. But I'm not here to write a review of the show. I'll leave that to the pros.

I'm here to give you a spectacular example of how a joke can fail, on every possible level, and yet still draw a massive laugh from the audience.

Over the course of the show, I counted three jokes which relied on current events as a reference. Two were easy, and none felt like they belonged in the show. Yet all three drew massive laughs from the audience. In fact, they were probably the biggest laughs of the night.

1. Gomez is told that a boy Wednesday has a crush on will be taken back to Ohio by his parents, and Gomez replies, "Ohio! A swing state! Monstrous!" I, admittedly, giggled here.

2. A character comments that love is something "we all need, and that there isn't enough of." Morticia replies, "Like healthcare." This drew a huge laugh from, seemingly, everyone but me.

3. The grandmother is telling Pugsly about a potion which "takes the lid off the Id." She says that "One sip of this stuff'll turn Mary Poppins into Madea." Pugsley, and I do give the writers credit here, replies, "I don't understand your references." The grandmother replies, "Well, if you kids'd stop all the damn texting and pick up a book..." The rest of the line was lost in the uproar of laughter and, I'll add, a stunning amount of applause.

This third one is the one I'd like to focus on. It is the best example I've ever seen of a joke failing on every level, as far as a writer's concerned, and I'd like to take the opportunity to analyze it. Also, what afflicts the first two jokes is evident here, and so it would be redundant to review all three.

First and foremost, and here is where all three jokes err, the joke shows complete disregard for the characters involved. This is a play about The Adams Family. Their biggest, basest factor is that, as far as the world goes, they are completely aloof. Gomez wouldn't know what a swing state is. Morticia would not know about healthcare. Grandma Adams certainly wouldn't know who Mary Poppins is, let alone Madea. Pugsly doesn't have any friends except his sister, so he wouldn't be texting anyone. We never once see any of the Adams using anything electronic. It fails on truth to the characters, the most important factor in comedy.

Second, the joke relies on Grandma Adams admonishing Pugsly for not knowing who Mary Poppins and Madea are, which is fine, except none of the audience knew who Madea was either. So... right. If the joke had stopped at "I don't understand your references," this actually would have been a decent joke, as there is a running gag in the play that suggests Grandma Adams isn't a part of the family at all, which would explain how she knows who Mary Poppins and Madea are, and it would have been true to the family, with Pugsly's admitting that he doesn't know what she's talking about. It also would have been a sly wink to the audience that the authors figured most of them wouldn't know who Madea is. But it didn't stop there, so never mind.

Finally, Grandma Adams references two movies, only to admonish Pugsly for texting too much and not reading enough. Yes, I know Mary Poppins is also a book, but we all know it from the movie, and don't pretend you don't. So she references a classic Disney film and a certifiably non-classic, modern comedy film, and then chastises Pugsly for not reading enough... the connection does not exist between the two points, and the comedy shouldn't work. It doesn't, actually. If you're paying attention. Clearly I was the only one who was.

Yet, this drew the single largest laugh of the night. It drew the longest howls of approval. It drew rampant applause and cat calls. It was the worst joke in the play. It was out of character and out of situation. It was as broad as comedy gets. Somehow, our attention spans have gotten to the point where no one heard anything prior to "Well, if you kids'd stop..," and decided they approved.

This is why soundbites work.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

American Saturday Night

Fact of the matter is, most of us write off country. This is not entirely our fault, collectively; There are two kinds of country, and one of them really, really sucks. The kind that sucks, "country," is the sort that tends to dominate the airwaves today. It's bland pop with a twang and lyrics that not only aim, but pander directly to, as much as I hate to bring politics into this, "Real America." The music is boring, and the lyrics are "folksy" in that patronizing sort of way. But I've been told I just don't understand the concept of easy entertainment, so maybe this is my shortfall.

At any rate, the good kind of Country, "Country" (with a capital "C," as opposed to the lower-case), is Johnny Cash, Willy Nelson, and Hank Williams. I refer to this, with the wonderful sense of superiority you can only get from a condescending maxim, as "Real Country." What separates Country from country? Well, there are a lot of things. There's a genuine element in Country which is sorely missing in country. And country sounds like someone took a belt sander to Country, removing all the interesting bits that gave it a feeling all its own. They, and by "They" I suppose I mean "The Country Man" or some equally ambiguous, omnipotent bastard, made it really boring.

The future of "Country" is looking pretty bleak, really. Which brings me to an exception to the rule.

My parents listen to country. They don't enjoy Country, though both will lie to you and say they do. The point is I spent a lot of time in the car with them during high school, and most of the music was less than enjoyable. I started grabbing onto certain songs I could find a thrill in. This was during my musical awakening, of course, and anything I could grasp, to make the ride less torturous, was appreciated. There was "Friends in Low Places," which is just a great song, no matter your tastes. There was a nice cover of "Here Comes My Baby" by, uh... that band... yeah. But there was also "I'm Gonna Miss Her." It started simply enough, and, being fair, it started with a roll of my eyes. It opens slow, a man discussing his proclivity for fishing, and his wife's disapproval of said fishing. She meets him at the door, and gives him an ultimatum; you go fishing today, and I'm leaving. I listened to all of this with the withdrawn disdain only high schoolers seem capable of mustering (the rest of us have learned it's really not worth all the effort). But then the song did something unexpected.

The tempo picked up, and Brad Paisley, as that was his name, declared, "Well... I'm gonna miss her." It's such an inspired moment, so well-realised, so without artifice, that you smile. I smiled. Yes, I broke my condescension, my ever-important sense of superiority, and smiled. I even enjoyed it. So "I'm Gonna Miss Her" joined my list of exceptions to the rule, those country songs which I could enjoy. (For the record, I consider "Friends in Low Places" to be Country)

I started keeping an ear out for more Brad Paisley. Over the ensuing months, I started noticing not just that his songs were funny and had a personality, but that his guitar was on fire, seemingly as a regular condition. This is a man I would rank in the Top 100 guitar players going today, with a strong, strong eye on my Top 20 faves, all time. He's that good. And that subtle, too. These are country songs, after all. So there are solos, but they are short. It's his lead work during the verses that really impresses. Limber without being showy.

This year, Brad Paisley released his seventh album, American Saturday Night. The reviews for it were splendid, and so I decided to venture forth and acquire a copy of a country album. This is new territory for all of us, I'm sure. Before I continue, I should note, that this album is brilliant, and you should buy it. Now.

One of the things Nashville albums are known for, to the extent that it has to be accounted for when reviewing a country album, is filler. A typical Nashville record has four or five singles, and the rest is detritus, used to fill the space. This album doesn't have any of that. Every track here, and I never say this, could be a single in the right context. A few are too slow, too subtle for that to happen, but they could be.

The songs here manage to be clever and heartfelt. They're original while staying familiar, which is a high compliment for country. Remember, this is meant to be enjoyed. It's not Animal Collective; you aren't supposed to work at it. It is simply meant to be. And it is. The melodies will stick in your head, and so will the lyrics. Is it schmaltzy? Of course, but in just the right dosing. "Anything Like Me" is about Paisley's first son, saying "It's safe to say that,/ I'll get my payback,/ if he's anything like me." At the moment, it's my favourite song on the album. Paisley's greatest strength is his honesty; "The years are gonna fly by./ I already dread the day,/ he's gonna hug his momma, he's gonna shake my hand, he's gonna act like he can't wait to leave./ But as he drives out,/ he'll cry his eyes out,/ if he's anything like me." Say what you want, but not only is it enjoyable, it's affecting; it made me feel fuzzy inside. The only other album to do that this year? Merriweather Post Pavillion, by Animal Collective. I just blew your mind.

So here we have an album that's hits, and only hits; this could have been released as a best-of, and I'd have believed it. And here we have a formidable songwriter operating at what I can only assume is the peaks of his powers. And here we have a backing band in peak shape, sounding like their having fun! Weird!

Brad Paisley makes country. He does. I can't pretend he doesn't. Yet, yet, his music, it's clever, it's original, it's genuine, it's touching, it's fun, for fuck's sake! And it has a bit of a honky tonk, swingin' personality to it, which makes it musically interesting. So maybe it's Country after all, and maybe the future isn't looking so bad as far as that goes.

Friday, November 20, 2009

This American Life

"This American Life" is a program hosted by Ira Glass. Some of you will be familiar with it. Most will know it from National Public Radio, where it has been broadcasting for the last (almost) fifteen years now. I've listened to the program once or twice, though I can't claim to be a regular contributor to the ratings.

For two seasons, one in 2007 and one in 2008, This American Life was a television program on Showtime. Each season consists of six episodes, all but one of which are just shy of thirty minutes long. Each consists of anywhere from one to four stories, all revolving around a loosely observed theme for the evening. I'll not that these themes were very, very loosely observed.

It is, I should warn you, a quiet program. There's no flash to any of the stories, as they are all, get this, real. They are all true-to-life things which could happen to any of us at any time. The narrators are subdued, and the stories are refreshingly bereft of an angle. It's all honest reporting, or very natural story telling. This is not to say This American Life doesn't have a sense of humor; the second episode of the first season closes with five minutes of a woman reading her (real) eighth grade diary to a crowded room, and it is hilarious from start to finish.

Whether laughs are had or not, the real magic in This American Life is its honesty. The people under the watchful eyes of the cameras don't hide anything. They don't attempt to, either, which is just as important. The stories are varied, taking in retirement home residents who decide to make a movie, a pair of boxers fighting for their low-level careers, a thirteen-year-old who has vowed never to be in love... the most stunning episodes are also the most unexpected. There is an episode which started as a film about the filmmaker's favorite people, but ended up capturing the implosion of a marriage. Another, possibly the most touching episode, was started as an attempt by the filmmaker to illustrate how terrible a person his stepfather was, only to end up restoring some of the balance and honesty to his entire family. It was incredible.

This is a show that revels in the small, the seemingly insignificant things. The last episode is masterful, a story following the lives of seven separate John Smiths, each at a different age between 11 weeks and eighty. It serves as a wonderful epitaph for the program, and, because of the amount of footage taken of each individual, features some of the most honest moments. There is a beauty in a seventy-year-old John Smith watching footage of his children, taken in the 1960's, commenting on his daughter, and then noting his son. I want to bring your attention to how he describes his son's story: "He, well, he fell into a lifestyle I don't understand, and... he got sick from it." To watch this line spoken is to have your heart broken. He isn't judgmental of his son, he isn't upset that his son was gay; he is simply honest about it. He doesn't understand the lifestyle, but the boy was still his son, and he loved him. John and his wife visit the grave frequently, and when the son asked if he could come die at home, his parents didn't even give it a second though. Of course he could, he was their son.

The diary reading I mentioned is one of the funniest things I've seen in some time, and the final episode is one of the truest. In between, you'll find every aspect of American life shown in unexpected and delightful ways. It's a shame the production schedule was such that Ira Glass asked it to be removed from Showtime for the future, but rest assured I will be contributing to those ratings soon enough.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Up and Coming

So, listen, I'm not reliable. I know. And as my schedule gets busier, it gets worse. But, here's the deal; I just finished reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, and I'm going to give it one hell of a review. It may take me a month or two to write it, though. So bear with me. Because it should be worth it.