Wednesday, December 30, 2009
They Might Be Giants and their list of meaningless phrases.
Yeah, that one can go too.
Now that we're entering a new decade, I'd like to lead the charge in eliminating the following list of irritating words, phrases, and expressions from the vocabulary.
Please let me know if I've missed any, and yeah, feel feel free to mock me by including "iPhone," "Kindle," "blog," "new media," "New York Times," and "tweet" in your nominations.
That said...oh yeah, that one's banned too.
The lazy copywriter loves "unique," because it eliminates the need to say what, specifically, is unique or special about something.
Ask an ad copywriter who's used the word "unique" the question, "What is actually unique about this product?" and the answer is almost always, "Nothing, so I used the word unique."
As John Candy says in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles:
2. "That said/that being said"
Larry David blew the lid off of this one in the most-recent season of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Here's how it works: You say something, like "Larsen sure is a genius!" And follow it with, "That being said, he's a real jerk."
The phrase has no function in the English language other than to take back what you've just said. Why not just cut to the chase and just call me a jerk in the first place? That being said, don't.
3. "Think outside the box"
Although this one has been widely ridiculed since Michael Douglas said it in the movie Traffic, it's a stubborn one that's having trouble going away; I probably heard it uttered 20 or more times this year alone, and not ironically.
To truly show that you think outside the box, please prove it by coming up with another way to say "think outside the box." Any suggestions?
I remember the first time I heard this little number; I was having lunch with one of my friends, and out the blue, she blurted out, "I heard you've been working 24/7."
I instantly got what it meant and hated it with a passion. Over the course of the lunch, she said it another 30 or 40 times, and it was then that I knew I'd be hearing it a lot in the months ahead from lots of other people, 24/7.
The old joke is that "LOL should be replaced with LYHMSF: "leave your house and make some friends." I agree; yet a quick Twitter search of "LOL" shows that it's been used a zillion times in the last day alone, most recently 10 seconds ago.
Please, everyone, stop laughing out loud when you're in front of your computer and, if you are, just keep it between you and your God.
6. "Make no mistake"
Make no mistake: we're going to catch those scumbag terrorists!
Introduced by George W. Bush, and also used liberally by Barack Obama, it means, "I really believe what I'm saying!" If we always believe what we're saying and don't lie, we never need to say, "Make no mistake."
"Make a mistake: we're going to catch bin Laden" is much more accurate anyway.
Actual quote from an ex-girlfriend: "We were walking down this random beach and met these random guys, and it was really random because they worked at this random restaurant where we used to randomly hang out with random friends, and..."
Use of this word makes it especially hard to teach "random sampling" when we discuss research in public relations class, so I hereby offer up the alternatives: arbitrary, miscellaneous, chance, or - my favorite - slapdash!
8. "It is what it is"
Perhaps what bugs me the most about this terrible phrase, other than that it adds absolutely nothing to any conversation, is that it's really just a thin translation of the old Popeye catchphrase, "I yam what I yam," and implies that the person who says it is completely helpless to do anything about the situation in question:
Mom: "You got an F on your report card!"
Child: "It is what it is."
Uh, no, actually, in this case, it is what it isn't.
9. "My bad"
The most flippant apology out there, insidious for allowing someone to apologize without actually apologizing.
By implying that there's a range of suspects, the person who says, "My bad," inevitably acts like he or she doing the honorable thing by "clearing up the confusion."
"George Washington, did you cut down this cherry tree?"
Doesn't quite have the conviction of "I cannot tell a lie - it was I!"
This word has been out there for a long, long time.
A variation of scumbag, it's only been in the past year that I've noticed people falling over with laughter at its very utterance, even when it's not being used in a funny story or context. What gives?
There are very few words that are funny in and of themselves, except for maybe "jaws of life" and "panties."
So, don't laugh just because someone says douchebag - make them earn your laughter by using it as punctuation to a story that's already hilarious. Plus, everyone knows that "mofo" is much funnier.
11. "Two thousand and..."
Welcome to twenty-ten, baby!
"I'm just not creative." Wah, wah, wah!
I can't tell you how many times a year I hear the above line uttered in advertising class (minus the wah, wah, wah, because I've been banned from saying it around the office).
The reality is that anyone and everyone can be creative. All good writing - creative, comedy, advertising, blog posts, whatever - just comes down to paying attention, writing things down, and not criticizing your ideas for being "bad, wrong, or stupid" before they've even had a chance to breathe.
Often, the only difference between someone we think of as "creative" and someone we think of as "non-creative" is that the creative person has a notebook, carries it around everywhere, and writes down every idea he or she thinks of, bad or not - like the joke journal I get every comedy writing student to keep over the course of one semester.
Great ideas rarely come to us fully formed, so the great thing is that you can write down anything that crosses your mind: ideas, dreams, jokes, stories, or whatever.
It's simply a numbers game: the more ideas you write down, the more good stuff you'll have to choose from later on.
And, in advertising, when your client shoots down all of your ideas, you save them up in a book, so you can use them for other campaigns later on; as NBC once said in its promos, "If you haven't seen this rerun, then it's new to you!"
My first duotang of ideas
I was considering this the other day when I was rifling through my mother's desk, looking for cash, blank cheques, and other negotiable instruments, and came across my journal (above photo), which must've been from when I was six or so.
The great thing about the book is that it's full of illustrations (see photo, below), poems ("The Old Owl with a Cowl"), parodies ("The Wrong Brothers"), and stories ("Atomic Man!") I wrote at the time, and most of them are - in fact - really terrible.
However, the book is also a really funny look into the things that a kid thinks about, and something that I could easily pull out for "a dramatic reading" the next time I do stand up. Say, now there's a great idea!
Fears of a clown
Case in point: "A funny clown," a story I wrote to work out my bad experience at the circus, where I had the heebie-jeebies scared out of me by what we called at the time, "a lady clown."
Although the story would be somewhat scary for a kid to think about, I think I called it "A funny clown" to remind myself that even if clowns scare the hell out of you, they're really not as scary as they seem. Right? Right? Who's with me?
The story, bad punctuation and spelling included:
A funny clown
"One day I went to the circus there was a funny clown. He had ten toes. They had a rodeo. The clown rode a wild horse. Then he went flying off the horse. Everyone heard siren of the ambulance. E-r-r-r-r-r-r-r He was rushed to the hospital.
"The doctor happened to be a veterinarian. He gave him medicine turned into a dog. The doctor said: well, better then ever! but he was a mea dog. He gulped up all the medicine.
"By that time he elephant's nose, a dinasour tail and a kangaroo's pouch. All the nurses were scream's (page cut off). They were hiding there faces. The turned back into a clown and walked away."
And all was right in the world.
Start your creative writing notebook today!
Monday, December 28, 2009
Edison: inventor of light bulbs, electrocutor of elephants.
2. If you're interested in the ever-eroding broadcast business, read Bill Carter's Desperate Networks, also now available in paperback.
3. If you're interested in journalism, read Norman Mailer's the Executioner's Song - a reminder of what well-researched journalism and great storytelling look like, lest we forget.
6. If you're interested in PR, read Leonard Saffir's Power Public Relations.
Saturday, December 26, 2009
A shot to the head would've done it.
I realized this recently when I was having a "spirited debate" with a friend and realized at how good I am at singling out my opponent's weakness and exploiting it for maximum humiliation - the faster the better, to keep him wobbly and unable to strike back.
Putting the jerk in knee-jerk
I learned this skill as a kid, which is what scrawny, book-loving, otherwise defenseless people have to do to survive in the wild, and I honed it as a stand-up comic; it's really a blur, but I do recall telling an audience member that his sideburns made his face look like the Death-Star trench ("Biggs, Wedge, let's close it up; we're goin' in, we're goin' in full throttle!").
Though richly rewarding in a comedy club, the downside is that sometimes this knee-jerk reaction spills over into real life, where it's not so funny.
I'd originally put some examples of some of these real-life scenarios here, but I ultimately took them out, because I feel so bad about the "jokes" now that I thought at the time were so hilarious, I can't bear to relive the magical moments here. But if you buy me a coffee, that might get me talkin'!
About a year ago, after a full decade of doing stand up, I instituted a self-imposed exile from stand-up comedy for this and some other key reasons:
- I'm at the age where stand-up comedy feels really undignified. A grown man (a teacher no less!) hurling insults at 18-year-old kids in the dark at a club = I could be watching TV instead.
- I honestly believe that your best, most honest joke writing happens in the first year you perform stand-up. That's why the comedy-writing class kills year after year at the King's Head.
- It's a lot of work for a piddly $3,000 a year. Why, I make that every time I blink!
- The human attention span has never been worse. My jokes just can't compete with porn being downloaded onto mobile devices. Sorry.
- I also believe that every comedian is funnier after taking a break. Telling the same jokes over and over to an audience is sad, desperate, and demeaning. Anyone willing to put up with it for longer than a year makes it worse for every other comedian - just like amateurs who charge $2 to do something that costs $500 for professionals to do. Like brain surgery, for example.
Objections aside, I'll be hitting the comedy stage in the weeks and months ahead for the proverbial "offers I can't refuse" from friends and family, including some special events requiring customized jokes and laughter.
I'm honored to be asked to do these shows, but when loved ones are involved, there's always the chance that the jokes won't work and - oh no! - that insult reflex will kick in and, like the opposite of Hey, Jude, I'll take a sad song and make it worse.
So, in an effort to concentrate on the good, not the bad, I've been remembering everything that brought me to stand-up comedy in the first place.
Here's what I've come up with: when I really think about it, stand-up comedy is really the thing that most helped my work in advertising and public relations, get the job teaching at Red River College, and summon the courage and gall to think that I could face 25 people in a classroom everyday with excitement rather than horror.
As the title of this blog says, it could be that everything I believe to be true about learning, work, interpersonal dynamics, and maybe even life, starts with stand-up comedy.
1. It's about the audience, not you
I recently saw a presentation where the speaker actually said, "At the end of my presentation, I want you to tell me how this is not relevant to what you do." Uh, I've got a better idea: learn about your audience and tell us why this information is relevant to what we do.
2. Don't blame the people who show up for those who don't
So, you show up to do stand-up comedy, and there's three people in the bar. These three people are your friends, so don't insult them. It's the people who aren't there who you should hate, but they're not present, so you might as well just have love in your heart for those who are.
Similarly, I've seen teachers get angry at a class for the people who are skipping and aren't in the room. No point: the day to get angry is the day those people come back, not the day they're missing.
3. Sometimes it's not you, it's the room
A comedian needs a working mic, a stage, a spotlight, and the audience to be able to see him or her. With any one of these things missing, the odds increase that you're going to suck.
So, if you're doing stand-up at the Selkirk bar, standing on the dancefloor without a spotlight, with the audience split, sitting on either side of you - sorry, it's probably not going to be a good night.
When you're at work, the same things apply. Can I see my students and can they see me? Do the computers work? Is there noise coming from another room?
4. Sometimes you need to admit you've screwed up, other times, leave it alone and it will go away
This is a tricky one. In comedy, when you're bombing, sometimes the audience doesn't know you're bombing, so you just keep plugging along like you're doing great and everything works out. Then again, sometimes it makes you look detached from reality.
It all comes down to rule number one: know your audience.
(However, it's probably a good lesson for life to not admit defeat until you've really been defeated.)
5. Present your best point, then leave the room a.s.a.p.
I remember moving to New York, kissing my girlfriend at the airport, and walking through security in a wave of emotion and anguish, sure that this was the girl for me!
Then, I couldn't clear customs right away, missed my flight, and had to hang around with her for the rest of the day. When I cleared security, I couldn't wait to get on the plane, convinced that I never wanted to see her again as long as I lived, and I'm sure she felt the same way!
In a meeting, it's better to present your best idea rather than to provide a big, confusing list. Similarly, if you complain about one thing, you're smart. If you complain about a million things, you're a complainer.
It's for this same reason that the best ads are about one thing and one thing only.
6. If you're working with people or performing for them, it's personal
Whenever someone at work says, "Nothing personal, but..." you know you're going to get kicked in the arse really hard, just like when a lawyer says, "My learned friend here..." you know it's going to be followed with "...is a real jack-ass!"
Every business is a people business. If you know how people work, then you know how the workplace works: there's no honor in being the little, black cloud that no one likes just because you're "keeping it real." Do that, and pretty soon your boss will be "keeping it real" by firing you.
Just like you do in stand-up comedy, make a personal connection with your colleagues by saying what you mean, and meaning what you say. And remember that likeability is king. A jerk with a good idea will have a harder time getting people to listen than a nice person with a terrible idea.
7. There will always be people who don't like you - deal with it
In stand-up, there is always a chance that you're going to be heckled, but you just have to deal with it by being larger than the insult - or by having a better one.
This can be a fine line to walk, but you need to have complete and utter faith in what you're doing, but also be based in reality and willing to admit when you've made a mistake. If negative feedback gets back to you, don't set out for revenge: consider the person's motivations and deal with the issue directly with the person, or ignore it and don't let it keep you up at night.
My general rule is that if lots of people say you screwed up, you probably did. If it's always one person says you screwed up, who cares? By the way, that rule doesn't apply if the one person is the boss.
8. Engage your audience
No one wants to sit there listening to a person drone on and on, they want to participate.
One of the reasons the Internet is better than all media that's come before is that it not only imparts information, but invites us to participate, and be heard ourselves; in other words: it's not just a portal for one-way information, it's a communication device for having discussions.
A worthy lesson to anyone - especially the traditional model of a university education, where a professor stands up at the front of the room, blabs a lot, doesn't take questions, and expects students to passively listen, take notes, or not. Whatever.
9. Have a consistent delivery and perspective
For a comedian to endear himself or herself to an audience, there needs to be a consistent point of view and character. In the workplace, it's the same thing: if someone is consistent - even consistently awful - you know where you stand.
So, you can't keep them guessing: be true to your personality and consistent in your temperament, keeping in mind the rule about likeability (number six, above).
I can now reveal that this is the thing I'm worst at, in stand-up and at work; one, lousy piece of bad news or conflict at the beginning of my day can destroy my powers of concentration and enjoyment of the rest of my day.
I'm working on this problem by trying to only threaten to quit once a year, down from my usual repertoire of five or six. With hard work, I think I can do it.
10. Use humor for good, never for evil
If it bends, it's good funny, if it breaks, it's evil funny.
One of my favorite clips from Mr. Show, the Marshall of sketch-comedy shows.
Feel a little guilty going purchase-crazy on Boxing Day? Well, what if I told you that the meek could inherit something a whole lot better than the Earth!?
'Tis the day to remember the overlooked 13th apostle, Marshall - the apostle of hustle, and top pitchman in Galilee, as he's seen here on the second episode of Mr. Show, one of the best and equally overlooked sketch-comedy shows of all time.
How could I have forgotten Elvis Costello's great tribute to Boxing Day? TKO!
Thanks to Kevin to reminding me with this post.
Friday, December 25, 2009
For starters, a lot of the movies that were nominated for last year's Oscars actually didn't come out in Canada until 2009 - so are they 2008 or 2009 films? Most Canadian critics play both sides of the fence, including "whatever films they like" in their lists.
I don't mind it when that happens, but it seems weird to see something that cleaned up at the previous year's Oscars suddenly showing up in a list almost a year later. "And the best film of 2009 is...Titanic!"
Complicating matters, I'm a huge fan of foreign films - I always say that the best movies of the year are actually the nominees for the Oscar in the "Best Foreign Film" category.
(By the way, if you don't see a film because it has subtitles or it's in black and white, I'm sorry, but you're depriving yourself of broad sweep of film and life, and I can't be your friend anymore. Please give me back my Jar Jar Binks action figure. So, there.)
My favorite film of the last decade is easily the Lives of Others, which came out in Germany in 2006, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2007 (against Water and Pan's Labyrinth!), and I didn't see until 2008. So, what year did it make my list? No year, because I didn't know where the hell to put it. So, here's to the best film of the decade: watch it today!
Disclaimer: I haven't yet seen Precious, Avatar, Moon, or the Hurt Locker. Everyone loves them, though, so go see them. I will too.
With that in mind, here are my top five films of 2009, all listed here because they took my jaded heart and actually made it feel something - and, I'm happy to point out, no movie starring "Mudflaps" or "Skids" made the list:
1. District 9
I know that some people hated this film, but it constantly surprised and delighted me; I had no idea that I was really, really needing the British edition of the Office (which I loved), Independence Day (which I hated), and a critique of apartheid (which, we can all agree, sucks) to come together in one, great movie that made me laugh and cry at the same time.
Yeah, the fight at the end was somewhat anti-climactic, but I forgive it for the very last shot of the film, which gave us closure and left us hanging at the same time. No sequel, please - it would never live up to what I imagine happens next...
2. The Class
Here's what I said when I first reviewed this film:
Every teacher is in charge on the first day of school.A must-see for thoughtful teachers and students everywhere:
But, as every teacher knows, if you truly give your students the education they deserve, at some point they will reject your authority as part of their blossoming confidence and independence; it's normal, just like when a child reject's her parents' authority the first time she stays out past her curfew.
The key, though, is that the rejection has to come at the right time: on the last day of school is better than, say, the second week of the semester.
This is what the great French movie, the Class (Entre les murs), is about: the subtle and not-so-subtle power struggle that happens between teacher and students in any classroom.
In another "who would've thunk it?," one of my favorite films of the year was a Russian remake of the classic 1957 film, 12 Angry Men.
Twelve Russians locked in a high school gym consider the fate of a boy accused of murdering his stepfather. Through monologues and flashbacks punctuated by symbolism (I still don't know what "the dog" means), racially charged outbursts, and votes that swing from guilty to not guilty and back, we get a gripping meditation on the universality of justice and prejudice, which becomes all the more powerful when considered alongside the classic American film.
If you haven't seen either one, I envy you; rent both and make a day of it. Afterward, Norm Larsen will stop by your house and read his book out loud.
4. Star Trek
Yes, there is room on my list for this, the most exciting Star Trek in ages and the best prequel of all time: perfect action, casting, and writing, but for one misstep: couldn't William Shatner have at least recited the famous Star Trek mission statement at the end of the film? Throw the guy a friggin' bone already...
5. Summer Hours
Grandma dies, and the kids and grandchildren are left behind to figure out what to do with "her stuff."
From this simple premise, we get a film that ponders the meaning of life, art, beauty, value, and worth - monetary, sentimental, and otherwise.
So, what do you do? Sell the house? Sell the stuff? Keep it? Take Indiana Jones' advice and "put it in a museum? " But which of the stuff is "art" and which of the stuff is "memories of grandma?" Which is more valuable and why?
The Damned United
Tell No One
I've Loved You So Long
I Love You Man
Thursday, December 24, 2009
So, I had this idea that for Christmas I would hit the Trans-Canada Highway in search of fame, fortune, and glory.
As I drove toward Brandon (about two hours ago), I discovered that this is what they mean when they say, "Some slippery patches with reduced visibility:"
Translation: "You can't see squat, you can skate the entire way to Vancouver, stay home."
I need a drink.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
For their major PR project next semester, first-year CreComm students at Red River College will be working on publicity campaigns for Winnipeg director Sean Garrity's controversial new film, Zooey & Adam.
Garrity will visit Red River College on Thursday, Jan. 7 to discuss and show clips from the film, which has played at the Atlantic, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Calgary Film Festivals.
In the weeks following his visit, students will put their publicity and writing know-how to the test, putting together PR proposals designed to generate publicity, notoriety, momentum, and word of mouth for the film.
Garrity has been awarded the Special Jury Prize by the Don Haig jury at Toronto's Hot Docs Film Festival and his second film, Lucid, was named best Western Canadian Feature at the 2005 Vancouver International Film Festival, was an Audience Award pick at Cinefest and an official selection of the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival.
His first feature film, INerTia, was awarded Best First Feature at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival, and he was named Best Director at the 2001 FilmCan Festival. In 2002, he was named one of three "Canadian Filmmakers to Watch" by the Globe & Mail.Zooey & Adam opens in Winnipeg at Cinematheque on Friday, Jan. 29.
Love movies, hate movie theatres.
My love/hate affair with the cinema has been well documented on this blog, most recently last July when I named my five ways to improve movie theatres.
Among my recommendations to theatre owners:
- Putting ushers back into the theatres;
- Checking the projection quality and fixing it if it sucks;
- Banning cell phones/blocking signals/punishing scofflaws;
- Ending the promo reel that runs loudly before the lights go down;
- Remembering that the product you're selling is "movies."
As I said in my original blog, I'm hard pressed to think of any other service-oriented industry that treats its patrons with more disrespect and contempt, other than airlines and cell phone providers. But for sheer, "F*** you, patrons!" movie theatres win the grand prize.
Screw you, cheap theatre!
For your consideration, I give you Cinema City McGillivray, where I went to see Zombieland yesterday. The film wasn't my choice, but I enjoyed it until the film's big cameo died and it became other tedious horror movie that ends in nonsensical action and violence at a theme park.
Movie aside, a host of humiliations and disappointments I did find at Cinema City McGillivray, including:
1. Low admission, low expectations
I knew that something was up when I generously treated my friend to the movie, and our two tickets came to a grand total of $3. They don't call me Moneybags Larsen for nothing!
So, the air was not thick with expectation or excitement as we walked through the lobby, and noted that there was no ticket taker to be found anywhere in the building, which means we could've just walked in off the street for free - $3 be damned! - like everyone else seemed to be doing.
As well, my least-favorite theatre innovation was operating in full force - the one that makes the multiplex an "amusement destination" and turns the movie theatre lobby into an arcade.
But instead of the irritating air-hockey game at Silver City, which is clearly audible inside the theatres - great planning! - I got the even-more-irritating dance-a-thon 2000 video game being danced upon by two guys, who had clearly played the game about 1,000 times before and came to the theatre wearing gym shorts under their pants for their big night out.
I don't want to begrudge our dancers for doing what they love, but the effect reminded me a lot of what it feels like to be in a New York City restaurant when a subway train hurls down the tunnel underneath it, sending everyone and everything flying across the room.
Two hours later, when I left the theatre, they were still dancing. Really, isn't that what the Nintendo Wii is for?
2. Loud ads double your displeasure
When I walked into the theatre about half an hour before the movie started, there were already loud ads blaring from the screen; to make matters worse, we in the captive audience were subjected to the same Stella Artois ad twice in a row - the one where "the cool guy" sends the paper boat across the fountain to "the babe" on the other side, and "the cooler guy" sends another boat to sink the first one.
It wasn't funny the first time.
3. I see red, I see red, I see red
So, you're in the movie business, which - let's say for the sake of argument - means that you're in the business of showing films on a screen.
The worst thing you could do as a purveyor of onscreen entertainment, then, would be something that would hurt the consumption of the product, right? Right!
For some reason, the good folks at Cinema City McGillivray installed the flashing, red Exit sign so close to the screen, the bottom, right quarter lit up with an eerie, red, flashing glow for the duration of the film (see above photo). Nice.
4. No ushers mean no respect
Yes, it's true that I took the above photograph with the iPhone in the theatre, which is bad. An usher should have stopped me.
I justify it on the grounds that 1) there was no flash, 2) I was in the back row, 3) I was exposing a greater evil than my own, 4) I took it during the ads/previews portion of the evening.
Not more than two seconds after I took the picture, a guy sitting nearby got a call on his cell phone - ring! ring! - and he actually answered it. Completely oblivious to my angry glares and catcalls, he merrily continued the conversation.
Throughout the rest of the movie, this same idiot constantly checked his cell phone for messages, and - even after realizing that he was pissing people off - kept his ringer on and, when another call came in, took it again.
I was the only guy who said something ("Shut up, Peppy!") and he didn't even react or look my way. Maybe because his name isn't "Peppy."
So I took the advice of my earlier blog, took out a piece, and wasted him. Lesson learned at the movies: one less zombie is always a good thing.
As luck would have it, I was reading the book The Age of Persuasion on the bus this morning, and found kindred spirits in authors Terry O'Reilly and Mike Tennant who, like me, are advertising guys who hate movie theatres and the ads they show.
When I knock ads in movie theatres - which I routinely do - people always call me on it for being an advertising hypocrite. "How can you knock ads when you teach advertising?
"The moviegoer has been demoted from welcome guest to mere chattel. Free (but ad-laden) magazines in the lobby promote upcoming films, ads appear in pre-movie slideshows projected onto the big screen, movie times are adjusted to include cinema ads among the "Coming Attractions" trailers, and all manner of product placements might be tucked within the feature film.Less and less all the time.
"It isn't the advertising itself that causes movie theatres to violate the contract. It's the erosion of the moviegoing experience, from an evening focused on giving the audience a hilarious, pleasurable, or cathartic time to a litany of non-entertaining sales devices designed to exploit a captive audience.
"And for this you pay them."
Sunday, December 20, 2009
This is the review to It's Garry Shandling's Show. How do you like it so far?
There are lots of great things about feeling sick and miserable, but one of the best is the embarrassment of time that allows you to watch the entire 16-disc, 72-episode series of a TV series, guilt free.
So, it was with great delight that I've felt bad for the past few weeks, so I could dig into the entire series of It's Garry Shandling's Show, the most inventive, funny, weird, and post-modern sitcom of all time.
The show stars Shandling as himself, a neurotic, hair-obsessed stand-up comic, whose life is a sitcom he inherits when he buys a new condo.
In the first episode, Shandling moves into the space that, we're told, used to belong to Vanna White. It comes fully furnished with sets and cameras, allowing Shandling to wander between sets, look in on other scenes, and talk to the studio audience - just like Oprah and Phil!
This was 1986, so that would be "Phil Donahue," not "Dr. Phil."
The Jerry/Garry comparison
Shandling deserves a lot of credit for predicting the demise of the standard sitcom format over 20 years ago, and aiming to destroy all of the hack sitcom conventions that, years later, were and are still being embraced by Friends and Two and a Half Men.
Even more startling is the degree to which Shandling's show begat Seinfeld. Simply put, Seinfeld owes the success of his own post-modern sitcom and its whole "show within a show" conceit to Garry Shandling:
- Seinfeld's Newman = Shandling's Leonard Smith;
- Seinfeld's on-screen mother bears an uncanny resemblance - in terms of look and character - to Shandling's on-screen mom;
- Seinfeld's platonic friend Elaine = Shandling's platonic friend Nancy;
- Seinfeld's opening monologue in a club = Shandling's opening monologue in his living room.
- Seinfeld was a show that said it was about nothing = Shandling's show really was about nothing.
The funniest, catchiest, post-modernist theme song ever
Among the recurring gags is Shandling's introduction of the insanely catchy (and equally post-modern) theme song sung by Bill Lynch, and what Shandling does during the 41 seconds the song plays.
In some episodes, Shandling sits uncomfortably and looks at the camera, in others he brings in guest stars to sing the theme (the Turtles! A Japanese lounge singer! Tom Petty and Doc Severinson!), and in this one, he shows off his great taste in literature, which includes a book by Gavin McLeod, which I have to find as soon as possible:
At its best, Shandling's show works on multiple levels, drawing us into the storyline and cracking us up with its inventive solutions to the characters' sitcom-inspired problems.
In one episode, Garry's young friend, Grant, gets beat up at school. Grant gets blamed by the principal for causing the fracas until an elderly It's Garry Shandling's Show audience member walks out of the audience and onto the set and tells the principal that she's seen everything, because she's been watching the show.
At its worst, the show sometimes gets away from itself by changing its own rules as it goes along and pushing the boundaries of funny into outright odd.
In one closing scene, for instance, castmember "lookalikes" parade through Shandling's living room and meet off camera in his bathroom, where we hear them say hello to each other. It plays like a scene from Luis Bunuel's the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie or David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, coming off as more "bizarre" than "funny."
(There are smart people who say the show is about "the sacrificial role of the performer in society" and a throwback to Beckett, Sartre, and Buddhism; probably true, though probably not the funniest way to promote the show.)
The show does wear thin toward the end of the third season and within the fourth, when it introduces a recurring girlfriend, features too many "to be continued" episodes - something that was parodied in an earlier season - and brings back Red Buttons to do the same stand-up act that we've seen him perform on an earlier episode.
Reruns within a new show: now that's post-modernism that a network exec can believe in!
But really, these are minor complaints given the strength of the early seasons and the overall generosity of the DVD box set, which comes out to less than $2 an episode, and even less when you consider the 36-page booklet, hilarious episode commentaries, and interviews with former cast members (including Shandling himself).
For anyone interested in TV, its history and future, the show is worth watching as an historical document alone, and for the many moments in which Shandling predicts the advent of reality TV and the Internet with these innovations:
- Audience interaction and voting;
- A live episode (in which he incorrectly calls the presidential race for Bush Sr.'s opponent, just like Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings would do with Bush Jr.'s opponent years later);
- An abundance of guest stars (including Gilda Radner's last TV appearance);
- An episode about TV product placements (Garry's mother keeps appearing in his living room to pitch her pet store until Shandling gets her to stop...by buying her paid ad time);
- A recurring, self-conscious, and continuing critique of the show as it goes along ("This episode really sucks..."). An old-school version of Twitter if I ever saw one.
Friday, December 18, 2009
- They say, "Wow, that's cool."
- They say, "There's no such thing as a professional blog!"
"A columnist can be touch, acerbic, playful, joyful, angry, chagrined, outraged or anything else - within the general bounds of decency that are embodied in the values of the Times."
"In spite of the rain, which poured down from dark overcast skies - as though even nature lamented the folly and stupidity of man - gangs of workmen dug into the smooth lawns of the public parks and mutilated the gardens bordering the Champs-Elysees, hastily constructing emergency trenches to shelter pedestrians against air attack."
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
"It was Christmas Eve, babe. In the drunk tank..."
It may have been the soaring strings, it may have been, "Merry Christmas, your arse, I pray God it's our last!," but something in the song resonated with me, and I've loved it ever since, in a miserable, feeling-sorry-for-myself kinda way.
The reality is that you can't be an adult human and not have experienced some degree of sadness at holiday time, whatever holiday it is you celebrate at whatever time of year. It's life.
"But the holidays are tough when you're depressed. Imagine having to pretend even harder that things are "okay", not just okay but "awesome" for a whole month? It was always tough for me to do. I wondered why the Christmas "magic" didn't hit me the same way it hit me when I was a kid."
Update: Martin Short reminds us to not kill ourselves on the holidays. It's a terrible cliche!
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
In my last post about "how to make money off of music," I neglected to mention the best way of all: by reading Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty's great book, "The Manual: How to have a number one the easy way."
"The complete price of the manual if you are unable to achieve a number one single in the official UK charts within three months of purchase of this manual and on the condition that you have fulfilled our instructions to the letter."
Among the duo's great advice:
5. The ability to sing is NOT a requirement, and it will actually hurt your chance at your song's success. Voice quality and attractiveness only come into play if you want a "career," but you're only after a hit single, right?
So what are you waiting for? What will your number one hit on the UK charts be?
Monday, December 14, 2009
"How do you make money from free?"