Metaphor generators: TV research

Peanuts inspires a research writing assignment


Choose a historical person or event that you already know something about. Spend an evening (at least three hours) flipping channels and watching programs. Try to watch several different kind of programs (sit-com, drama, documentary, news, educational, food, music). Assume that each program is implicitly about your subject. Take careful notes about what you see and learn. Using evidence from your television viewing, build a website that explains, connects, expands, and/or meditates on your event and its relationship to culture.

Inside Jokes

Jenny and I have been catching up on our Smallvilles lately. I’ve enjoyed this show from the beginning, but the hemming and hawing around the lame-o Kent/Lana love stuff pesters me like a gadfly. Anyhow, on to my witty observations.

Smallville photoOf course, the premise of Smallville depends on inside jokes. The show works well because we know that Lex and Clark will become the most bitter of enemies, we know that Lois will end up being a reporter and that Clark will end up as Superman. All this outside knowledge layers the show in ways deeper than the glamorous press photos would suggest were likely. In doing so, the show helps illustrate Steven Johnson’s notion that more recent tv and games work by encouraging a wider net of textual knowledge. Smallville rewards viewers for knowledge of the Superman universe.

Grand media theories aside, the show’s writers seem to enjoy building elaborate ways to make inside jokes about the future of Superman. Two prominent examples from earlier episodes are the S for Smallville written on Clark’s chest when the school bullies tied him up in the cornfield and the pentagon-shape of the letters in the kryptonian language. Here are some jokes I noticed from this season.

  1. One episode this season revolved around Aquaman’s visit to a Kansas farm town. Toward the end of the episode, Aquaman remarks that he and Clark should team up and form the “Junior Lifeguards Association.” Clark responds that he’s not ready for The JLA just yet. Ha Ha!
  2. The show also features James Marsters as “Dr. Fine,” a history prof with a hard-to-get-used-to American accent (I know, I know, he’s American, not British). In an episode involving a strain of rabies that gives people vampire-like powers, he and Clark discuss the evil sorority full of vampires. He says “There are no such things as vampires, Clark.” Ha Ha!

    Bonus meta-humor: the sorority president’s name is Buffy Sanders. (At one point, the show implies that Chloe selected the name as an alias for a newspaper story she was writing, in which case we have a notion that Chloe watched Buffy and chose an amusing pseudonym intentionally.)

  3. One of the most recent episodes featured a guest appearance by Tom Wopat, formerly of Dukes of Hazzard. The other Duke brother, of course, was played by Jon Schneider, now employed as Jonathan Kent. Among the panoply of inside jokes in the episode were: 1. Wopat’s character drives a 1969 Dodge Charger (blue, not orange) and 2. zooms around skidding to a stop and throwing gravel everywhere. 3. The passenger door is stuck so he (not kidding here) jumps in through the window. 4. At one point the car flies over the camera in classic DoH style.Bonus: as we watched, Jenny commented that Tom Wopat looked a lot older than when he appeared on Jane Doe. I insisted it was still him, but was also a bit confused about the difference. Turns out the man I thought was Tom Wopat was actually Joe Penny. I ask you, dear readers: was I crazy to see the similarity?

Tom Wopat 1980s Joe Penny today Tom Wopat today
Tom Wopat
Joe Penny
Tom Wopat

Rejected names for the kid

Im-possible names, offered jokingly and rejected sternly, for the impending Riley:

  • Smileton—it could go by “Smiley Riley”; gender-neutral.
  • Envy—sounds cool but was rejected for being one of the seven deadly sins.
  • Friendly—embodies values we’d like the lil shaver to have, but was rejected anyhow.
  • Hamish—Scottish detectives do not namesakes make. Bonus: a future dog, like a corgi or a collie or a scottie, can have this name.
  • Pubert.
  • Bernard, Henry, Cletus, Leo, Crysanthia—all of my grandfather’s syblings’ names were tossed in one fell swoop.
  • Pants—dismissed along with most other nouns.

Saturday Morning: 4 Thoughts and a Question

1. There are nine William Gibsons with entries in Wikipedia. The author of “The Miracle Worker” (a play about Hellen Keller) and the author of Neuromancer (one of the premiere cyberpunk novels) are both named William Gibson.

Seems to me that MUST be significant.

2. Leo Kottke has a song called “Pamela Brown” that catches my attention every time it plays on my iTunes shuffle. It’s interesting because the singer is thanking a woman for not loving him, because if she had he’d have married her and he’d never become the rambling musician he did. Catchy and weird.

3. I enjoy pharyngula more and more each day. The term bozo isn’t as easy to use as we think it might be. And who knew Scott Adams (of Dilbert) was a creationist?

4. The five hundred bucks I gave the heating guy yesterday was worth it–our room and the soon-to-be-baby’s room are toasty now. Mmmm, working radiators.

5. Quick, what’s the one food you musn’t go without on Thanksgiving? Mine’s mashed potatoes.

The First Mailbag of the Year

For others, it might be Thanksgiving parades or musak at the mall, but for me the first sign of the impending holidays comes when I watch (or more accurately, my insistence leads Jenny to let me watch) Miracle on 34th Street for the first time. Here are a few things I noticed this time around:

  • Last year I remarked that it was lame that Cleo had to work on Thanksgiving. Jenny reminded me that Doris had to work too. Good point. I countered by noticing that Cleo is the only black person in the film.
  • When Fred, the nice single man across the hall asks to have Susan come to his house, the housekeeper explains to Doris that “He’s so very fond of Susan, when he asked I thought you wouldn’t mind.” Today that would verge on child endangerment.
  • Alfred is the most accepting person ever. He accepts that Kris knows his name instantly. Then takes it without blinking when Kris says “Why do you like impersonating me?”
  • “What if he’s only a little crazy, like painters or composers or some of those men in Washington?”
  • When Fred’s getting ready for bed, he brushes his teeth and then finishes his cigarette.
  • Santa Claus is an evolutionist: “You’re the greatest lawyer since Darrow.”

Get out the Funny

Some musings on my recent TV intake:

  • The Colbert Report is funny. My favorite thing he does: “I’m putting you on notice.” Oh yeah, and it’s got David Cross on it!
  • Mr. Show on DVD. (Jonathan Frome showed me a single episode years ago, so I added it to my Netflix queue when we subscribed.) I love the pythonesque links between sketches, and the regular return to the beginning of the episode. (My favorite recognition moment so far: the “expert room” featuring a young Jack Black.) At the end of that same episode, the show featured Cross and Odenkirk watching a TV depicting themselves watching TV, and being murdered. They thought it was funny.

  • There was a bit of self referentiality on Law & Order: Criminal Intent last week — Eames revealed that when she first met Goren (D’Onofrio’s character), she didn’t like his odd tics or unconventional style. After spending time with him, though, she’s come to realize that he’s a good detective. Tee hee! That’s how we all felt, Eames!
  • Sherlock Holmes. I bought a 5 DVD set at Target for $10 last weekend–a full run of an American SH TV series from the 1954. It’s great! Watson plays like a buffoon and Holmes is kindly toward him. Each episode is only about 25 minutes, so they haven’t got time for anything too deep. We just watched one episode and I’m hooked. It taps into the same part of my psyche that used to like watching Dragnet on Nick-at-Nite.

Spelling error inspiration

Have you ever made a spelling error or typo and had it inspire you? I’m not planning to pursue the following line of inquiry, but I’m inpired by the post-it error on my desk right now.

I made a note about one of my classes, but ended up scrawling Writing for New Medea. It occurs to me that a course about Writing for New Medea could think about the Jerry Springer syndrome and modern television, in which the morality tale mixes with the public shame ritual. The course could also explore the effect of New Media on parenting in the new medea age—murdering mothers being a central node in the conversation.

When have you flown off on a fancy after discovering a typo or spelling error?

DRM and Steam

NOTE: To prepare for my Video Game Culture course in the Spring, I’m starting to model posts for the collaborative blog we’re going to do–Game Culture Watch. Lest my loyal DS readers feel left out, I’ll be cross-posting for a while (once the class starts, I won’t post over there much).

Chris Canfield’s article “In support of Steam” over at Joystick 101 argues that Steam has potential to thoroughly re-write the distribution system for games (what’s Steam?). He suggests that for Steam to really work, Valve should pursue a more aggressive marketing plan (like putting a game and Steam on computers to be sold in stores).

But Canfield ignores the issues (covered nicely over at kuro5hin) about the extremely scary DRM embedded in Steam. While Steam does allow for quick download and easy, instant updates, it also holds the games you’ve purchased under lock and key, and only allows you to play them when you’re online. But this isn’t really any different than the licenses we already buy when we play games, is it? Steam merely plays out a path we’ve been following for some time: allowing publishers to enforce tighter and tighter restrictions on their texts.

Read more at GCW

Katamari as Database Logic

Jenny and I have been playing Katamari Damancy quite a bit recently. For those of you who haven’t played it, the general idea is that you roll a sticky ball around and pick up stuff that you roll over. As you roll, the ball gets bigger and can pick up bigger stuff. The general goal is that you, the prince (bottom right corner) must repopulate the sky because your father, the king of all cosmos, has destroyed all the stars. (He’s a weirdo, that king.) It’s fun and pretty addictive.


I was thinking about this game in the context of a couple things:

  1. New interfaces. One thing about new media that fascinates me is the invention of new interface metaphors. I’ve written about this before, and each semester I have my students in my Writing for New Media course experiment with interface metaphors as they work their way through Manovich.
  2. Database Logic. The conundrum of writing the database has always been a noodle-scratcher for me. I love the notion of writing Benjamin-Arcades style, but the organization throws me for the loop. Ulmer once characterized one trait of new media as moving the burden of conclusion from the writer to the reader. Working in a rhizomatic way seems to necessitate that. As you write, you may or may not want to organize your bits and pieces into a single line of progression. If you don’t want to do that, though, how do you give your reader the information? I usually open this discussion by having students read The Doll Games and talk about how it presents its info.

Those ideas said, perhaps Katamari Damancy gives us a new interface. What about producing a digital project laid out like a Katamari town. The different ideas are scattered around in a semi-reasonable fashion, but the reader can roll from one to the next following her interests. The screen would have a two part layout–the left would be the katamari ball and town, the right would be a scrolling/scrollable frame with the chunks of text attached to those objects that have been rolled:


As the user rolled around the town, the text chunks would appear in the right menu. Clever programmers could produce some sort of active linking system that would build links between the chunks that relate or hook up especially well, so that as the page went along links appeared between chunks.

The reader could stop rolling at any time and scroll the right window up and down to read what he/she has collected. There could also be an ‘export’ function that allows the reader to save a clear .html version of the katamari they rolled.


What if Bush knew he’d take flak for nominating another white man to the supreme court so he offered up a nomination that a) showed he was considering folks who aren’t white men but b) didn’t have a chance in hell of getting confirmed? Then, when that nominee was shot down, he’d be able to nominate the person he wanted to nominate without worrying about being called hegemonic.