Posts Tagged ‘comedy’
June 15, 2016 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Borges, who died thirty years ago this month, led a life as tangled in riddles as his fiction is. One burning question: How did he pay the bills? “Borges was blessed with the most privileged, ideal life for a burgeoning literary genius. Educated in Europe, raised by his father to become a serious writer, Borges devoted his entire life to literature. He did not take a full-time job for nearly forty years … [But] we see that young Georgie Borges did not actually write his great fictions until after his family lost their money. For anyone who has struggled to make writing pay, Borges’s financial story is a perplexing—yet utterly hopeful—case to consider.”
- Watching the gay-pride celebrations and vigils for Orlando at the Stonewall, Huw Lemmey tries to parse the movement’s vexed relationship with political power structures: “Early Prides saw placards railing against fascism and police harassment, and calling for the liberation of gay people; at today’s Pride you’re just as likely to see police officers and soldiers marching in uniform, representatives of the arms industry in corporate T-shirts and, for the first time this year, a flyover of military jets. Radicals see this as a violent and exclusionary takeover of a liberation struggle by capital’s most reactionary institutions; liberals see it as a mark of society’s progress, with LGBT people now enjoying many of the rights and protections once denied us. For one group, Pride is a celebration of an anti-cop riot, representing the fundamental disconnect between LGBT people and heterosexual society. For another, Pride is the world’s biggest party, representing a spirit of judgment-free inclusiveness, if only for a day. Both are right.”
- In Moscow, meanwhile, constructivist landmarks are suddenly slated for demolition as Russians struggle to decide which parts of their past are worth preserving: “ ‘They operate by ticking boxes, but you cannot judge a building in this way,’ says Marina Khrustaleva, an expert on constructivism … ‘By the 1930s, [constructivist buildings] were already rejected for being insufficiently decorative and too western,’ says Khrustaleva. During perestroika, she adds, the architecture was associated with the worst of the Soviet past … Russians’ bad memories of the 1920s, [Alexandra] Selivanova suggests, keep them from appreciating early Soviet architecture. ‘People associate this period with hunger and social experiments,’ she says. Stalinist architecture is more popular: ‘It’s festive and reminds people of the propaganda films of the 1930s and 1950s, which still make an impact today.’ ”
- In a mad race to professionalize any remaining art forms still given to creativity and informality, Emerson College has decided to offer a B.F.A. in comedic arts, the nation’s first comedy major: “Formalizing the study of comedy into an academic degree may seem like, well, a joke. But Emerson has made strides to pre-empt criticism. The curriculum is heavy on theory and craft, with practical classes like Comedy Writing for Television, Great Screenwriters: Wilder, Allen, Kaufman and Comedy Writing for Late Night, balanced out by headier electives like Why Did the Chicken?—Fundamentals of Comedic Storytelling.”
- And while we’re on comedy: “Punching up and punching down are relatively new pop-political terms … So it should come as no surprise that they have become entangled with our current national panic over political correctness, which, apparently, not only has created a ‘humor crisis,’ but also is why we can’t properly fight terrorism, control immigration, or make unruly college students read Alison Bechdel and eat faux bánh mì. Western democracy itself hangs in the balance, depending on who happens to be lecturing you at the moment … The question it raises—Who has the moral authority to punch down?—is a messy one, and one rarely asked of those who appear to punch up.”
May 24, 2016 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Today in fancy Russian plagiarism scandals: upward of a thousand prosperous Russian bureaucrat types, all with doctoral degrees, stand accused of having bought their dissertations on the black market. Leon Neyfakh reports: “The alleged fraud was exposed by members of a volunteer organization that calls itself ‘Dissernet’ … Started in early 2013 by a handful of scientists and journalists, the group has undertaken the task of identifying and publicly shaming government functionaries, academic administrators, and members of Russia’s so-called elite who allegedly hold advanced degrees they did not earn through legitimate means … Some of the intellectual theft Dissernet has identified is comic in its brazenness and absurdity. Duma member Igor Igoshin allegedly earned his economics degree by turning someone else’s paper on the Russian chocolate industry into a thesis on meat; the dissertation replaced every mention of ‘chocolate’ with ‘beef,’ ‘dark chocolate’ with ‘home-grown beef,’ and ‘white chocolate’ with ‘imported beef.’ ”
- Finally, it’s back in print: the unforgettable story of an alchemical marriage and the horny old coot who watched it happen! Johann Valentin Andreae’s 1616 story, The Chemical Wedding, “opens as a winged woman, ‘so bright and beautiful, in a sky-coloured robe,’ invites Christian Rosencreutz—the real-life founder of the philosophical secret society of Rosicrucianism—to a ‘Royal Wedding.’ ‘If God Himself decree it, Then you must to the mountain wend Where three stately temples stand. From there you’ll know Which way to go. Be wise, take care, Wash well, look fair, Or else the Wedding cannot save you,’ says a letter which sends Christian on a seven-day journey to serve the Bridegroom and the Bride, in [John] Crowley’s new version of the text … ‘When Andreae confessed late in life to writing it he called it a ludibrium—a Latin word that can mean a joke, a skit, a jeux d’esprit, or a hoax. I don’t think he was trying to disown it, but he certainly didn’t seem to want it taken with full seriousness. And it’s the fun, the outlandish incident, the surprises, and the wonderful main character—Christian Rosenkreutz, an old self-doubting, curious, kindly, horny guy—all that’s what I wanted to bring to new readers.”
- American sitcoms have a congenital, national defect: they’re too optimistic to be really funny, because life is pain. But Willa Paskin sees a turn in the road: “There’s another way to understand what has happened to American comedy in recent years: it has become more British. The hallmark of the British sitcom is a quasi-unbearable protagonist who is an Everyman, only insofar as every man can laugh at him … U.K. sitcoms tend to be darker than American ones, encouraged by a powerful public broadcasting system whose aim is to serve the varying tastes of taxpayers, not the upbeat preferences of advertisers, and by a national psyche fixated on the immutability of the class system, not on a dream of self-improvement. Americans believe that things will get better. Brits laugh at how things stay the same. To become a hit in the United States, The Office not only had to transform the tragic, grating boss into a less tragic, less grating, more well-meaning boss; it had to cast off the message, central to the British original, that work is where you go to waste your life.”
- Late last year, debate simmered about Primo Levi’s 1987 death: Was it a suicide? Now Tim Parks, firmly in the yes camp, makes a compelling argument based solely on the height of the handrail Levi may or may not have “fallen” over: the rail, “as building regulations required, was 3'2″ (96.5 cm). Present building regulations in Europe require that handrail height be between 90 and 100 cm. In the U.S., handrail height is given as between 34 and 38 inches (86 to 97 cm). Levi was a small man (5'5″), hence the rail was proportionally high for him, well over half his height. Indeed, a handrail at navel height is a high handrail. Readers wishing to experiment without anxiety can try such a rail at ground level. They will find, as I did, that one has to climb to get to the other side. It is impossible to ‘fall’ over it.”
- William Gibson brings his cyberpunk sensibility to a new comic, Archangel, which of course features a time machine with an ominous name: “Described by its author as a ‘Band of Brothers [meets] Blackwater’ sci-fi conspiracy thriller, Archangel follows two clashing groups vying for the control/survival of the future through the conquest/alteration of the past … The year is a (thankfully alternate) 2016, a world ravaged by unseen nuclear devastation, with the human race hanging on the edge of survival. Junior Henderson, the power-hungry vice president to his despotic father, has just undergone facial reconstructive surgery. He and an expedition team of private military contractors travel to 1945 via The Splitter, a quantum teleportation device capable of creating tangent alternate timelines, to stop this reality—and ultimately shape the future in his own image.”
September 8, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
When the French playwright Alfred Jarry—born on this day in 1873—was fifteen, he enjoyed lampooning his physics teacher, a plump, inept man who so amused his students that he became the subject of Jarry’s first attempt at drama, Les Polonais, staged with marionettes when he was still in short pants. Père Heb, as the physics teacher was called in it, had a prominent gut, a retractable ear, and three teeth (stone, iron, and wood). These features by themselves make him a distinctive figure in the history of French drama. But years later, Jarry revived Heb—as all responsible playwrights do with their juvenilia—making him somehow even more ridiculous, even more obese, and putting him at the center of Ubu Roi, a play so contentious that its premiere, in December 1896, was also its closing night. It lives in the annals of drama because it offended almost everyone who saw it. In this, it prefigured modernism, surrealism, Dadaism, and the theater of the absurd. Read More »
July 9, 2015 | by Jeffery Gleaves
- Admire the tenacity of lit mags yet question their utility? The poet Stephen Burt argues that a new journal simply needs a raison d’être: it should seek to fill a “gap that earlier journals failed to fill, a new form of pleasure, a new kind of writing, an alliance with a new or under-chronicled social movement, a constellation of authors for whom the future demand for work exceeds present supply, a program that will actually change some small part of some literary readers’ tastes.”
- What can the Greek tragedies tell us about the current Mediterranean refugee crises? Aeschylus’s 470 B.C. play, The Suppliants, concerns the fifty daughters of the Egyptian king Danaus, who flee Africa and seek asylum in Greece. Fitting then that a new production of the play is being reimagined in modern-day Sicily, where “African refugees beg at traffic lights,” and is being staged in the ancient Greek theater of Syracuse, in Sicily.
- What can the inmates at a Missouri prison tell us about the evolution of language? In compiling a lexicon of facility-specific slang, they found that a viking is a “prisoner with poor hygiene,” a kite is “an informal message sent by a prisoner,” and a pumpkin is, you guessed it, “a term used for new arrivals” (but not for the reason you might expect). After all, “a dictionary is not a book of rules but a description of language as it is used in real life at a particular moment in time,” says English professor Paul Lynch, who volunteers at the prison.
- Jerry Seinfeld thinks that political correctness is killing comedy; he doesn’t perform at college campuses because “they’re so PC.” it wasn’t always that way: American college humor is historically steeped in offensiveness. Take National Lampoon, an offshoot of the The Harvard Lampoon and precursor to Saturday Night Live, for example, where “getting a rise out of people was precisely the goal, and the magazine was steadfast in its dedication to what it saw as a decidedly non-partisan approach to humor.”
- This week in the perils of the modern age: the Russian government released a public-awareness campaign highlighting the dangers of taking a selfie. With a little help from Google Translate, we learn that “when a person is trying to take a picture of himself—he scattered attention, he lost his balance, he does not look around and did not feel in danger.” Have fun this summer. Practice safe selfies.
June 11, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Alice, of Wonderland fame, has osmosed right on into the culture and found a life of her own; we no longer need to read Lewis Carroll’s books to feel that we know her. But we should read Carroll—there’s a certain amount of drift between his Wonderland and the one we think we understand. “Conversations about what is real, what is possible, and how rubbery the rules that govern such distinctions turn out to be abound in the tales of Alice. Yet they are sold as children’s books, and rightly so. A philosopher will ask how the identity of the self can be preserved amid the ceaseless flux of experience, but a child—especially a child who is growing so fast that she suddenly fills an entire room—will ask more urgently, as Alice does, ‘Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different.’ Children, viewed from one angle, are philosophy in motion.”
- This Saturday marks Yeats’s sesquicentennial, an occasion celebrated easily enough by reading his poems—but why not read his plays, which are always given short shrift among his work? In a way, they anticipated Beckett: “What happens in a Yeats play can be startling. Purgatory, for example, verges on the lurid. Its material is the rough red wine of sex and violence: a woman’s lust for her groom and their son’s murderous determination to extirpate her sin in blood. Yeats’s genius is to distill that red wine into a fine but heady spirit, a short, incredibly potent theatrical essence that goes straight to both the head and the guts.”
- Since Jerry Seinfeld declared, earlier this week, that he no longer plays college campuses because they’re “too P.C.”—such a taboo-buster, that Seinfeld, with his wry observations!—many have asked if comedy is in jeopardy. They often lean on the same tired rhetoric about laughter’s potential as a “unifying force”; why? “Comedy isn’t supposed to be anything, except what the comedian tries to make it—harmless, mean, political, dirty, dumb. You wouldn’t say that music or fiction are ‘supposed’ to be anything; so why do we saddle all comedy with a curative democratic mission? Too often we view comedy as a craft, a service brought to us by cheerful comfort-workers, more than the work of serious artists. Thus, when they don’t comfort us, we want to complain to the manager.”
- “I can remember in the Fifties when Goatman would come by, up near Arab, Ala. The first time I ever saw him we were picking cotton in the fields near Arab and he was coming down the road. You could hear him coming a mile away with all the bells and all the pots and pans rattling. People would come by and say, ‘Goatman’s coming! Goatman’s coming!’ We’d all rush to the end of the cotton row to watch Goatman go by.” That’s Ansel Elkins, quoting her father in a new interview about her poems and the South.
- Chinese publishers routinely censor their translations of Western books—and the West just as routinely greets this news with a small shrug. “As the anecdotal evidence started to accumulate, it became clear that though cuts tended to be surgically precise, they were also extremely common. Only rarely was there outrage. Many were fatigued by the idea of having to police all their overseas editions. With international publishing, they argued, something is always going to get lost in translation. Many had simply decided to not worry about it.”
March 3, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- After Faulkner won the Nobel Prize, he was a hot commodity abroad—he traveled to many foreign lands to bang the drum for the U. S. of A., which would’ve been fine, had he not been such a lush. The State Department circulated a memo called “Guidelines for Handling Mr. William Faulkner on His Trips Abroad,” designed to help agents curb Faulkner’s drinking. Their advice ranged from the obvious (monitor his liquor cabinet) to the subtle: “Keep several pretty young girls in the front two rows of any public appearance to keep his attention up.”
- Twenty-five years late, a novelist has at last completed and delivered her tenth-grade term paper on Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Her (perhaps convenient) conclusion: it’s about shame. “Like Tess, I spent a lot of time waiting to be found out: I worried that my adolescent failures would be exposed and that people would lose respect for me. Or love me less … Shame depends on an audience, and those who are ashamed become overly self-conscious. I’m aware, even now, of compensating for past mistakes.”
- Why are there so many more aspiring writers than aspiring readers? “I try to take a philosophical, and I hope empathetic, view of it all. I mean, we’re all going to die, and we have a short time here on earth, and we all want to achieve distinction of some sort while we’re here. Meanwhile, we all have Microsoft Word installed on our desktops. We all already spend a lot of time typing. One way to leave one’s mark would be to, say, write a great symphony, but most people don’t know how to read music. Whereas more or less everyone does have the means to put down words on a page and save them and share them. That’s a great thing—I’m all for technology eliminating barriers to communication and expression—but it can lead to delusions. Just because you’ve written it doesn’t make it worth reading. And it’s depressing when people forget that you can’t be a good writer without first being a good reader.”
- Paul Beatty has an enviable gift: he “can turn a sacred cow into hamburger with just one sentence.” His new novel The Sellout takes on race in America, sparing “no person or piety”: “The only tangible benefit to come out of the civil rights movement,” he writes, “is that black people aren’t as afraid of dogs as they used to be.”
- René Magritte, comedian: “It’s noticeable that many of the techniques Magritte uses for creating his mysterious images are to be found in comedy writing. His pictures are frequently structured like jokes … relying upon a simple (almost mathematical) function, like reversal or negation.”