Silver Screen Fiend

Silver Screen Fiend
Silver Screen Fiend

Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film
by Patton Oswalt

Patton Oswalt is a really good memoirist.  He has the deft touch of a seasoned comedian, a keen eye for metaphor and the important detail, and a strong sense of storytelling.  Silver Screen Fiend imbues his early standup years with a strong narrative arc, one of artistic stagnation and malaise, a lesson he learned and a cautionary tale for us.  It’s also damn funny.  A few thoughts:

  • I couldn’t help but recall Steve Martin’s amazing Born Standing Up in light of this book. Martin spends much more time on his thoughts about technique, whereas Oswalt does so mostly in service of the larger questions about artistic endeavor generally.
  • I love Oswalt’s metaphor of the Night Cafe.  He relates the story of Picasso’s first venture into work from memory rather than from sight, and how painting that vibrant red room made him into a different artist.  Oswalt calls these moments (or rooms or experiences) “night cafes,” and explores how his own such experiences shaped his life as an artist.  It recalls Gregory Ulmer’s assertion of the guiding image, an idea that shapes who we are and how we work as a creative or intellectual person (see Internet Invention).
  • I love the inside-baseball stuff about the comedy scene in LA in the late 90s.  One of the overwhelming impressions I have of L.A. is that people circulate in their own bubble there, and we have no sense of how it works.  The tales about how the one particular comedy club insulated and ruined comics were a great sense of how Oswalt maintained his sense of perspective.
  • The one negative thing I have to say is that Oswalt occasionally gets a little too elaborate with his comedic metaphors.  They overflow the first half of the book like a clogged toilet in a punk bar.

The audiobook is especially good because, as a performer, Oswalt knows the nuance and flow of the work, and knows how to make the beats land well.

See also: Zombie Spaceship Wasteland

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

What If?
What If?

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
by Randall Munroe; narrated by Wil Wheaton

If you don’t read XKCD or Munroe’s weekly “What If?” column over at, you’re really missing out.  This book collects some of the best What If columns, plus adds a bunch of new ones.  It’s a simple premise: people ask Munroe questions like “Can dropping a steak through the atmosphere cook it by means of the re-entry burn?” or “What’s the highest a person can throw something?” or “How long could I swim in a cooling pool storing nuclear waste before I died?” And he answers the questions in very funny ways.

The best part of the book is the repeating feature “Disturbing Questions from the What If? Inbox,” in which people ask things like the best way to chop up a body or how many nuclear bombs it would take to wipe out the US.  I imagine they think these are innocent questions (and they probably are) but Munroe rightly recognizes the problems with them, and pokes fun.

There’s not a lot else to say about the book.  It’s great, very entertaining.  And Wil Wheaton’s narration is great, though it’s pretty “Wil Wheaton-y,” so I imagine that if you didn’t like Wheaton or his performative style (as seen on, say, Tabletop), you probably wouldn’t like his narration.  The other down-side to the audio book is that you don’t get to see Munroe’s great pictures, of which there are many in the physical book.

Highly recommended.


Pigs Have Wings

Pigs Have WingsPigs Have Wings by P.G. Wodehouse

Two gentlemen with big manors face off in a legendary fat pig growing contest, and right in the middle is the brother of one of the men, Gally Threepwood.  Of course, there’s some confusion with mis-matched lovers, a farce involving an uptight butler and stolen pigs, and an awful lot of bally great language.  A few thoughts:

  • I don’t like these quite as much as the Jeeves and Wooster novels.  Gally Threepwood isn’t quite as goofy or dopey as Bertie Wooster, and Beach is no Wooster.  Of course, I should probably read more before I pronounce judgment, but there it is.
  • Vocab: pre-phylloxera – wine from before the great French wine blight.  “Beach helped himself to a third glass of port.  It was pre-phylloxera, and should have had him dancing about the room, strewing roses from his hat, but it not so much as bring a glow to his eye.” (194)  Apparently wine made after the plague was less heady or something.
  • Favorite phrase from the book: “Penny seemed listless… It may have been merely maiden meditation but it looked to Gally more like the pip.”  I love the phrase “the pip,” which means “to be angry, or depressed.”

There are perhaps some class issues to write about with regard to these books, but really, Wodehouse books are just darn fun.

On modern humor


A few observations without a conclusion.

1. “College Kids Can’t Take A Joke” by Clarence Page, Chicago Tribune (link)
Clarence Page writes about how Chris Rock doesn’t perform for college audiences any more because they’re too sensitive. Page writes:

I marvel at comedians as varied as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Dick Gregory, Freddie Prinze and Joan Rivers who manage to make us laugh about race, gender, religion, ethnicity and politics while dancing on the edges of our touchiness.

But Rock detects a new uptightness in today’s campus audiences. He blames a social culture that has taken hypersensitivity overboard as we try to protect kids from insults and other painful realities of life — like race relations.

This reminds me of some essay I read a few days ago and can’t find in which a comedian explains how he doesn’t resent having to be more careful about what audiences will tolerate, as often the intolerance comes at the expense of lazy humor aimed at othering people.  I suspect it’s a bit of both.  But I think at the heart of his disdain for ‘over-sensitivity’ is the failure to recognize that sensitivity is a good thing — it’s often tied to empathy.  There’s a difference, of course, between being sensitive to how people feel and being unwilling to discuss difficult things.  I hope it’s the latter Rock is discussing.

2. Clarence Page part 2 – Bill Maher protests

There’s another part of Page’s essay that drives me crazy.  Page connects Rock’s lament about over-sensitive college students to this:

…the issue came up when Rock was asked about a protest that tried to cancel HBO host Bill Maher’s December commencement speech at the University of California at Berkeley.

More than 4,000 people signed an online petition to cancel as a protest against his views on Islam, which, among other indignities, he has called “the only religion that acts like the mafia that will (expletive) kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.”

I strongly disagree with Maher’s smearing of an entire religion for the crimes of its radical fringes. But I also disagree with those who think silencing him would be a sensible response.

As Maher put it, “Whoever told you you only had to hear what didn’t upset you?”

Page calls this censorship, to which I say “Bullshit.”  The proper response to speech we don’t like is more speech.  Among that speech can be “Hey Institution I Like, please don’t pay someone saying odious things to come say them to my face at an event celebrating me.”   One of the results of saying controversial things is that some people will tell you to fuck off, as these 4,000 protesters did.  They aren’t saying “Bill Maher should not be allowed to write or be on tv anymore,” they’re just saying they don’t want to be there when he does it.

As to the snarky reply about hearing things that don’t upset you — they clearly already heard those things, have assessed their value in the give and take of conversation, and told Maher to shove off.

3. Leslie Hall (link)

I like Leslie Hall a lot, particularly for her powerful comedic and musical performances that both revel in and define stereotypes about her body.  I mentioned yesterday liking the song “Tight Pants / Body Rolls,” which is both a powerful claiming of herself as a musician and a self-depreciating look at her own imperfections.  Clearly much of the humor comes from Hall’s stage persona, a cuddly 80s-quaffed power diva, but her self-assured song style (as in “This is How We Go Out”) elevates her act far beyond a gimmick, even as she lovingly infuses many songs with nerdcore aptitudes (as with “Craft Talk”).

4. Jokes about Race

As the issue about Rock brought up, one of the touchiest spaces in modern comedy is in thinking about race.  The “post race” moment we find ourselves in results in an odd experience — the comedic angle that “we’re not racist so we can all laugh together at this racist joke, right?”  It’s this attitude that pushed me away from tosh.0 and makes it less fun than I’d like to play Cards Against Humanity.  I always end up with a hand full of cards playing on race stereotypes because I don’t think they’re funny.

I wonder if Chris Rock would lump me in with those over-sensitive college students he doesn’t want to perform for anymore.


Unholy Night

Unholy Night

Unholy Night
by Seth Grahame-Smith

What if the Three Wise Men of the nativity story weren’t, in fact, scholars, but were rather disguised thieves on the run from Herod?  And what if they happened upon a young woman and her husband and the baby they said was destined for great things?  And what if there were a bunch of swordplay and adventure?  Seth Grahame-Smith answers all these questions.

A few thoughts:

  • As with his past outings (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), Grahame-Smith’s expertise lies in crafting stories that live in the gaps of other famous stories.  Unholy Night could fit entirely within the Biblical nativity story, using the gaps (such as “where did the wise men come from”) as opportunities for creativity and excitement.  He shows a lot of reverence toward his source material, even as he turns it from a religious tale into an adventure story.
  • Balthazaar, the protagonist through whom we see the tale unfold, is a deep character, with well-founded motivation and a believable backstory.  Very entertaining.
  • The story walks a fine balance, too, in its evocation of the supernatural.  The Biblical God is certainly present in the tale as the unseen actor, but it isn’t too heavy-handed.

As with Grahame-Smith’s other books, well worth the read, though not likely to warrant multiple reads.



written and narrated by Tina Fey

Fey’s memoir is a nice balance between stories about her career, essays on life as informed by her own experience, and a few cogent and telling discussions of the modern state of comedy (particularly of women in comedy).  Fey shows herself to be a thoughtful, funny writer–this is not surprising–with sharp rejoinders both hilarious and crass.  A few thoughts:

  • Her twisting route to SNL is inspiring, I’m sure, for young writers and performers.  But the underlying message — just do your art — is crucial.  She went out and got what she wanted.
  • Fey’s attitude toward parenting is great — a sensible balance of concern over following ‘best practices’ and awareness that each person is different and finding the right for you is the key.  I also liked her round scorn for judgmental breastfeeding advocates whom she calls “Teat Nazis.”
  • The section on how 30 Rock came to be is great — I love the discussion of the show as an entity with its own attitude that couldn’t be controlled, and the jokey sadness in which she admits that they weren’t trying to make a critical darling, they were trying to make a popular show.
  • Equally good is Fey’s discussion of her brief run as the SNL go-to actor to play Sarah Palin.  In particular, her discussion of the way both she and Sarah Palin were treated differently because they were women is solid and interesting.
  • This book once again confirms my thought that comedians make very good memoirists. (See also: Dad is Fat, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, You’re Not Doing It Right)

Fey’s narration is excellent, both warm and easy to follow.  All in all, a great read.

The Stair Method…

Classes are done.  Now it’s just grading.

and grading.

and did I mention grading?

The only time I dislike using all electronic project and paper submission is that it doesn’t give me this way out:

Stair Method of Grading
Photo cc-licensed by Sage Ross

See the Stair Method for more on this precise and detailed grading model.


Who Put the Roo in the Stew?

Who put the roo in the stew?

“As a fact of life it’s known now,
and we all know that it’s true:
the Colonel put the lickin’ in the chicken,
but who put the roo in the stew?”

The tale of a shady meat dealer, apparently.


Sir Apropos of Nothing

Sir Apropos of NothingSir Apropos of Nothing
by Peter David

From its title and slightly goofy premise, I thought perhaps this book would be silly like a Terry Pratchett book — it’s not quite.  But neither is it as serious as a straight-up fantasy novel like A Game of Thrones.  Instead, it occupies this weird spot where it’s both goofy and serious, which is a good place to be because its protagonist is of an equally-divided mind.  Apropos comes from humble, terrible beginnings, has a cynical outlook on the world, and is really darn clever.  He has adventures, acts both nobly and savagely, and narrates it all humorously.

A few thoughts:

  • It took me a long time to get into this book.  I nearly quit about the page 100 mark, but decided to give it one more reading session and became intrigued enough to away from that cliff.  But I never got so involved in the story that it was driving me or extremely intriguing to me.
  • This book walks just on the edge of pure zaniness, but David edges that line masterfully.  The book never feels ridiculous, even as characters around the hero chuckle about his name.
  • That said, it’s hard to get on board with a character so at odds with himself.  I love a good villain, someone like Frank Underwood (from House of Cards), who schemes and plots, who shows different faces to the world and manipulates everybody.  And at times, Apropos wants to be that villain, but he’s just too good at his core to do it.  This would have been a different book if he’d been that way, but I think I would have liked to read that book.
  • At the same time, he does do some absolutely awful things as well.  And while Apropos feels bad about them, he also laughs them off and the book seems to expect that you would too.  It reminds me a bit of the callous murders of humans that are supposed to be ‘funny’ in Juan of the Dead.
  • I really liked the land this book takes place in.  It’s full of diverse characters and a bit of odd magic that gives it a fantasy bent.  There are unicorns and phoenixes and all harpies and all sorts of great stuff.

Sir Apropos of Nothing is a well-written book with strongly developed characters and a lot of wit.  But for some reason (which I hope I’ve articulated a bit above), it just doesn’t fire on all cylinders.  Maybe other readers will find this untrue, but it wasn’t my favorite.

Sappy vs. Humor/horror – Simon Birch and Frankenweenie

Simon Birch Frankenweenie

Simon Birch and Frankenweenie

Every now and again, I page through the upcoming movies on the channels we get to see what might be worth recording for a casual future viewing.  This net caught both films reviewed here today. Frankenweenie expands Tim Burton’s famous early film (which Disney did not like, at the time) about a boy who brings his dog back from the dead.  It’s a low dramatic arc with high drama and a good story. It’s also full of truly funny animation. Simon Birch is a famously maligned tear-jerker from the late 90s that adapts one of my favorite novels (A Prayer for Owen Meany) by cutting it in half and distilling out the complexity with sap.

A few thoughts on these tales:

  • We have, in these two films, a clash of worldviews.  Neither stories want us to accept death as a random shitty fact of life, but rather to understand it in the larger context as either something God wants or science will help us overcome.
  • Both tales cut significant lessons from their source texts. Frankenweenie dodges the problem of scientific ethics by infusing love as one of the ingredients.  Victor’s experiment worked because he loved his dog, whereas the monsters created by the other experimenters were not loved in the same way.  Shelley’s horror at the dangers of science go missing from the tale. Simon Birch dodges the complexity of its title character by making him a saintly martyr, confident in his life because God has a plan for him.  Irving’s novel gives its title character much more complexity, makes him a regular person with all sorts of faults.Both films stand on a scaffold of old tropes, as well.
  • Simon Birch uses so many tear-jerker cliches, you’ll want your bingo card out.  We have the heroic disadvantaged person, a romantic/ expressionist world where God shines His love down via swirling leaves (hence making October the holiest month), stereotypical bullies, tweenage boy resentful of his mother’s suitor, lingering by gravestones, and the dramatic sacrifice that Makes It All Worth It. Frankenweenie uses old tropes in a winking way, rewarding fans of old Universal horror films with character names, set pieces, plot points, and other references.  My favorite, a dramatic chase that leads to a flaming windmill.
  • I love the casts of both films. Frankenweenie employs to great effect the voices of Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, and Winona Ryder.  Meanwhile, Simon Birch surrounds the eponymous protagonist with Joseph Mazello (the boy from Jurassic Park), Ashley Judd, Oliver Platt, Jan Hooks, David Strathairn, and Dana Ivey as grand mother (a character actress you’d recognize as “offended upper-class lady” from all sorts of movies).

Frankenweenie is worth a watch, a cute evocation of old movies that has both cleverness and heart.  Simon Birch has solid Oliver Platt time, which is always a good thing, but is otherwise just the schmaltzy tale you probably thought it was.  Go read A Prayer for Owen Meany instead.  It’s probably more schmaltzy than I remember, but it’s also certainly better than the film.

Get the F*ck out of London, You Goddamn Zombies! (Cockneys vs. Zombies)

Cockneys vs. ZombiesCockneys vs. Zombies is a solidly enjoyable zombie comedy, which great production values, a funny scenario, and a bit of pathos.  The film follows two storylines during a zombie outbreak in East London — a group of old-age pensioners trying to survive as their caregivers and the people in streets around them all succumb to the zombie outbreak and a pair of misfit bank robbers who happen to rob a bank at the exact moment the zombie outbreak begins.  It’s a silly movie in the vein of Shaun of the Dead, but without quite as much pathos.  In fact, it would be easy to imagine this as part of the same world — except that the zombie outbreak comes from a sealed plague pit rather than from outer space.

A few thoughts:

  • As far as the genre goes, the film doesn’t add much to it.  The undead in this film come from the comedy zombie well — hilariously slow, only kinda dangerous when it fits the narrative that they need to be.  The outbreak progresses far too fast given their ineptness, but otherwise this is exactly what you’d expect from a zombie comedy.
  • But the film itself does a few things really well.  First, it offers a bunch of nice set-pieces, places for the characters to go and quarrel and for the story to evolve.  And following two sets of survivors gives the variety that some zombie films fail to provide.  Second, the filmmakers use Family Guy style flashbacks, showing us moments from the characters’ back stories as cut-away scenes.  Very funny and well done.
  • The film makes great use of its environment as well.  The East End is a famously working-class area of the city, always under pressure from gentrification and class issues.  The underlying storyline is pretty sad, if you think about it.  The two main characters take up bank robbery so they’d have enough money to save their grand-dad’s old-folks home from developers.
  • The soundtrack is pretty great, with a closing credits song that’s an instant earworm (or really annoying, depending on your taste).
  • Cockneys vs. Zombies plays on the inherently funny cinematic vision of elderly people doing things we normally reserve for younger folk.  Particularly satisfying is the sequence with character actor Richard Briers shooting an Uzi from his walker, and every sequence involving Alan Ford (“Brick Top” from Snatch).  That said, both RED and Kung-Fu Hustle tell this joke better.

The film does have several great conceits, which I’ll detail below the picture, so if you don’t want to read them, you can stop now.  It’s a fine B movie, and worth a watch if you’re a zombie fan.

Ashley Thomas as the crazy robber
Ashley Thomas as Mental Mickey, the crazy guy with a bunch of guns.

Moments to watch for (Spoilers):

  • We see some football hooligan zombies who haven’t lost their taste for a rumble.
  • Richard Briers shows up as Hamish, a walker-bound pensioner who sleeps through the first round of the zombie attack, and then has a tense race with some zombies.
  • Another of the great characters is Eric, a pensioner whose rhyming slang has gotten way out of control, with five or six or more steps to transform his phrases into common English.  It’s funny as long as you don’t recognize it as a sign of dementia.
  • Perhaps the best zombie moment is when the bank robbers try to kill the now-zombified crazy thug — played with great joie de vivre by Ashley Thomas — only to remember that he has a metal plate in his head from his military service.

* Thanks to Scott Kenemore, author of several great zombie books for recommending this. (See also: Zombie, Ohio; Zombie, Illinois; Zombie, Indiana)

Thanks for your restraint, Stan Lee

Dr Strange hides his spell

I love this panel.  Stan Lee had to hold off from revealing the words of Dr. Strange’s invocation so that his readers wouldn’t use this spell to wreak havoc across the nation.  One wonders if this was already a problem.  Kids were standing up to bullies by waving their hands and calling on the “hoary hordes of Hoggoth!”

The Spoils of Babylon

The Spoils of Babylon

What a weird show.  The Spoils of Babylon is a modern version of a 1970s television miniseries, an epic story of family, jealousy, love, and bitterness.  It’s also weird as all getout.  Most of the gags depend on the epic scene chewing and the over-wrought narrative, combined with lots of sight gags and a ridiculous plot.  As a bookend to each episode, we see Will Farrell as Eric Jonrosh, the author of the novel who also directed the Heaven’s Gate-like film set, which resulted in scandal and ignomy, apparently.  It’s enjoyable and crazy, though after the novelty wears off (by the end of the second episode, probably), it loses some of its verve.  A few thoughts:

  • The early hook is the cast of the show — it’s fun to see these actors, many of whom have serious chops, lampooning along with this high octane ridiculousness.  Each episode features a 1970s-era Tobey Maguire speaking into a tape recorder, telling his future audience that his story “is an epic one.”
  • The creators of the show did a good job balancing original silliness with high-concept parody.  Thus, even viewers who haven’t watched any 1970s epic dramas will have something to find here.
  • My favorite moments are the stylistic homages in which the ambiance of a 1970s film gets replicated most strongly.  For example, there’s a scene in episode 5 when Kristen Wiig and Haley Joel Osment argue about the future of their family.  Between each line of dialogue the shots switch so that one of them is close to the camera, in profile, while the other sits on a chair looking toward the camera; then the next shot changes to the other, but perhaps still looking at the camera.  It’s crazy and awesome.

This isn’t a show for everyone, but if the first two episodes capture you with their craziness, the rest probably will as well.  Enjoy.

Stand Up! Stand Up!

I first started watching stand up on television in tenth grade, when I would watch Stand Up! Stand Up! during the lunch break at my janitor job.  Marc Maron was the host (it’s been fun listening to his podcast now, I had no awareness of his career between the two projects), and it’s the first place I saw people like Laura Kitelinger and Todd Barry.

Since then, I’ve had a soft spot for stand ups and will occasionally go through bouts of comedy watching.  I am just coming off a round of such viewing, so I thought I’d give you, my dear readers, a few thoughts about specials I’ve watched lately:

  • Aziz Ansari: Buried Alive – A very funny comedian with a good heart.  I like his crowd work, and he uses his eyes to great effect.
  • Brian Posehn: The Fartist – Very profane, but hilariously so.  His bit about being a comic who hates comics who talk about their kids and then doing bits about his kids was fantastic.  And will continue to be until someone punches his baby.
  • Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special – the gag of doing the special in her house was funny, and the interactions with her parents (like giving them a pizza) were silly.  But I suspect this would have been more enjoyable with a large audience to accompany us in laughing.  Stand up is a crowd event so it’s hard to watch a special that doesn’t have a crowd.
  • Dave Foley: Relatively Well – As much as I like both Kids in the Hall and News Radio, I couldn’t endure more than ten minutes of this special.  Too many sex jokes can ruin a good act for me.
  • Dana Gould: Let Me Put My Thoughts In You – By contrast, Dana Gould does just the right balance of sex and other jokes, such that I stayed with it even through a horrifying bit in which Gould imagines himself taking up sex work to antagonize his father.
  • The Sklar Brothers: What Are We Talking About – Aside from having too many sports references, the Sklars do a great show.  I love their back-and-forth routines and the timing they’ve developed.  Their callback for previous jokes is also better than almost anyone else in this list.
  • American: The Bill Hicks Story – This was a documentary rather than a special, but it was a good one to watch as I didn’t know much about him, and the mix of comedy and life story was compelling.

I’ve got a bunch more on my netflix queue, so you’ll see another post about these soon, I imagine.