- In an effort to combat censorship, the British filmmaker Charlie Lyne (such a British filmmaker name, no?) has launched a campaign to produce the single most banal film in the history of the medium: Paint Drying. “The film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the [censorship] board are obliged to watch it.” If all goes according to plan, and assuming the censors aren’t fans of Andy Warhol or Modern Times Forever, the movie will send them into a spiral of despair and boredom of a sort not seen since Must Love Dogs, ten years ago.
- While we’re on film: Prince’s Purple Rain has been remade in Niger, which is a great way to spread the Purple gospel, except that no one in Niger knows who Prince is, and they don’t have a word for the color purple. “The fact there is no Tuareg word for purple means the film is saddled with the title Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai, which translates as Rain the Color of Blue With a Little Red in It … Swapping smoky Minneapolis for dusty Agadez, the largest city in the country’s central region, the new film follows Mdou Moctar—a popular self-taught Niger musician in real life—as he rides his purple motorbike from performance to performance, struggling to make a name for himself.”
- The verb to dream never used to stand in for to aspire. Dreaming used to be a matter of sleep—a matter of deluding yourself in slumber. For the shift, “you can blame the Americans. Our collective embrace of the so-called ‘American dream’ was the cornerstone of this particular twentieth-century shift in usage … In 1931, American historian James Truslow Adams coined the phrase ‘The American Dream,’ in his book The Epic of America … Adams used the ‘dream’ as a structuring conceit for his gloss of American history, describing this dream as one of material prosperity, but also of what we might now call self-actualization.”
- For the journalist Jeff Sharlet, in Paris, the events of November 13 began with a kind of nervous laughter: “The point is—something about the jokes we tell not just as frightened people, but as a certain kind of frightened people. Citizens of empire or of a very rich and stylish former empire that still has an aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle … these jokes, now, are different. These are not the jokes of the oppressed, they’re the jokes of those of us who suddenly—suddenly, so many words demand quote marks after terror—find ourselves seen as the oppressors … These are the jokes we tell to hold at bay the knowledge that this isn’t the first time or the last, the knowledge that they don’t hate us because of our cafés but they will attack our cafés, the knowledge that we’re fucked as soon as we find ourselves saying they, and then, worse, the knowledge that we were fucked before we began, because we’ve never had any other word than they.”
- After 9/11, “Susan Sontag seemed tactless to many in speaking of the ‘sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric” of “confidence-building and grief management’ that resembled the ‘unanimously applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress.’ She was attacked for insisting, ‘Let’s by all means grieve together, but let’s not be stupid together.’ ” Fourteen years later, we’ve not exactly excelled at this not-being-stupid-together business, as Pankaj Mishra points out: “Not surprisingly, the pampered and intellectually neutered industry of expertise and commentary today betrays cluelessness before the spectacle of worldwide mayhem … Only God knows how much we need some real argument and fresh thinking—the tradition of self-criticism that did indeed once distinguish and enlighten the West. For as long as avid conformists and careerists reign over an impoverished public sphere, endless war will remain the default option. And the recourse to Westernism’s self-congratulatory bromides after every new calamity will ensure that we continue to grieve together and grow stupid together.”
- “We’d all like to believe in untranslatable words. It’s such a romantic thought: that there exist out there, like undiscovered desert islands, ideas we have never even conceived of…” Alas, it isn’t so. Ostensibly untranslatable terms like hyggelig (Danish) or saudade (Portuguese) have plenty of serviceable equivalents.
- Today in the sad obsolescence of print (or, depending on whom you ask, the ineluctable march of progress): a new library with no books. At a center of higher education, no less.
- And today in seemingly unobjectionable advice that’s actually terrible, vacuous, entitled, meaningless advice: “Do What You Love” is “the unofficial work mantra of our time … [a] secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment.”
- On the literature of Alzheimer’s: “Because the full, internal experience of Alzheimer’s is an account that fiction alone can deliver, it’s no surprise that the go-to book for caretakers and early-stage sufferers is a novel.”
- “For me, there’s a sure sign I’ll be able to muster the maturity to it takes to make art out of my life: When I’m finally able to laugh at a younger version of myself.”
“He knew everything there was to know about literature, except how to enjoy it.” —Catch-22
Can a reader and a character be simultaneously amused? I’m sure plenty of really smart people have written about this—and maybe even answered it authoritatively—but I can’t find any such answer myself. I suppose the question also holds true for movies and TV—although arguably the blooper reel changes the entire conversation—but I’m chiefly interested in the question as it pertains to writing. I really want to know!
So far as I can tell, accounts of people being amused are never amusing. (In my opinion, this also holds true for most stories involving drug-induced antics—a scourge of modern storytelling—but I’m willing to admit this might be one of my “things.”) When a character “laughs,” “jokes,” “kids around,” “cracks up,” et cetera, it is not funny, even in an otherwise funny piece of writing. (Although, I think you’ll find in the funniest, characters don’t go around guffawing much.)
I’m not saying a character can’t laugh within something funny, but, rather, that their amusement is wholly divorced from the reader’s. It’s not just that human beings are sadists who, famously, enjoy watching the misfortunes of others; we all like to see beloved protagonists find love, get redeemed, generally achieve happy endings. Emotion is communicable. Laughter, maybe, isn’t. Or at any rate, the necessary distance imposed by narration makes the communication tricky.
Nothing is deadlier than writing about the workings of humor, so I’ll keep this short. If you can think of an exception to this, won’t you let me know? Am I just reading the wrong books? Has some author cracked this code? Or is this, maybe, just one of my “things?” Inquiring minds want to know.
Last night, I was part of a panel on the late novelist Dame Muriel Spark, in concert with the publication of The Informed Air, a collection of her essays. In no way am I an expert, but I am a devoted fan—more and more as I get older—and I was glad to take part in the celebration of a writer who should be more widely read.
As anyone on the East Coast knows, yesterday was characterized by lashing rains and driving winds—a fact that sort of explains why I was dressed like an old salt in a fisherman’s sweater, wellies, and slicker. (Emphasis on sort of. I put on some red lipstick to make it look as though the whole thing was dashing and deliberate, but I don’t think anyone was fooled—or cared.) In spite or maybe because of the monsoon-like conditions, it was a lot of fun, and I came away with a new appreciation for an author whose work is as notable for its guarded compassion as what John Updike termed its “sweet sting.”
Everyone agreed that Spark is frequently hilarious. At least, we thought so. In the course of the conversation, my friend Emily and I discovered that in recent months both of us had attempted to read particularly amusing passages aloud to respective boyfriends, and the men in question were completely unmoved. She wondered if it was a British-American thing; I wondered if it was a male-female thing. Whatever it was, it was awkward. Read More
Last summer, Writers Digest Press published And Here’s the Kicker a book of interviews I conducted with twenty-one humor writers, including Buck Henry, Bob Odenkirk, Dick Cavett, Harold Ramis, David Sedaris, and Marshall Brickman. Although he’s not a writer, I interviewed Ben Glenn II, a TV historian and expert in the history of canned laughter for the book. As I was talking to all of these people whose work produces laughter, it seemed appropriate to include at least one expert in producing fake laughter.
How did canned laughter come about?
The concept actually goes back at least five hundred years. History tells us that there were audience “plants” in the crowds at Shakespearean performances in the 16th century. They spurred on audience reactions, including laughter and cheering—as well as jeers.
How about more recently?
Canned laughter was used to a certain degree in radio, but its first TV appearance was in 1950, on a rather obscure NBC situation comedy, The Hank McCune Show. Remarkably, there are a couple of clips from the show on YouTube. Shortly after the show’s debut, there was an article in Variety noting that the show’s canned laughter was a new innovation, and that its potential for providing a wide-range of reactions was great. Of course, that eventually came true.
How odd did the laugh track sound to those early TV audiences?
I can only imagine that it seemed odd to viewers, but using a laugh track held many advantages for television producers. The most important was that it made it possible to film exteriors and on location. It gave producers freedom. For example, scenes from Leave It to Beaver were shot outdoors on RKO’s—and later Universal’s—back lot. With the laugh track, a studio audience was no longer absolutely necessary.
Who invented the canned-laughter machine? Read More
I’m looking for good books about New York to give as host/hostess gifts. What would you recommend? —Elizabeth P., New York City
There is always E. B. White’s little classic Here Is New York. The old edition is the one to buy for its beautiful jacket. Ten years ago I gave a copy to my friend Matteo Pericoli, a native Italian in love with the plain style in American prose. Matteo then turned around and created an even more beautiful book: Manhattan Unfurled. This unique object, which unfolds like an accordion, consists of two thirty-seven-foot pen-and-ink drawings. One portrays the western shore of Manhattan, the other the east. Matteo also made a children’s version, See the City, with pencilled annotations, e.g. “This is a power plant”; “United Nations (I drew more than 3000 little lines!)”; “This is a not-so-famous building, but I like it.” I don’t know which version I prefer, loving them both as I do. If your hosts lives downtown, you may also want to give them Luc Sante’s Low Life, with its haunting history of the tenement city New York used to be. Then, if your hosts are unemployed, you can always give them Gotham. Once, as a house-sitter in Greenwich Village, I spent the better part of a week in a gigantic Adirondack chair reading Gotham from cover to cover. I mention the chair because you need a big sturdy comfortable one, or a book stand. There is no question of reading the book in bed.